Confession: I did not make it through this book. I managed about a hundred and twenty pages in two weeks of the insufferable Smollett.
Some Background: (better make this like a class presentation, since it was such a chore to read) Tobias Smollett was a Scottish-born doctor, editor, writer, man of many languages, who had settled in London with his wife (the daughter of a Jamaican plantation owner) . In 1763, after the death of their only child and in the face of Smollett’s uncontrolled asthma and other bronchial troubles, the couple and a few others of the family not really alluded to, decided to go seek a warmer climate and put a bit of distance between themselves and their grief. On his travels he wrote back lengthy descriptive letters to various people back in England.
Main argument: Smollett is a man for whom life is a main argument. All sense of sympathy the reader might have for his poor health and his terrible loss is mitigated by his constant vitriol against the world he encounters, his overwhelming sense of pomposity, his cruelty, his sexism, and xenophobia. He is a clever observer of people, but this is coloured by his hatred of – and sense of superiority over – most. The towns, the inns, the Roman ruins, the landscapes he travels through (at least up until page a hundred and twenty or so) are described in Augustan detail, but constantly disparaged as poorly designed, shabby, or over-farmed, or under-farmed. Nothing is delightful, and if it is even tolerable, he will hardly mention it.
Side points: Perhaps if he had been a character in a novel, he would be amusing. Indeed, one of the reasons he is known today is that the writer Laurence Sterne (writer of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman) based a character in his A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy on him, naming him ‘Dr Smelfungus’.
Sample Quote: (writing to a woman, about the French people)
“Woman has been defined a weaker man; but in this country the men are, in my opinion, more ridiculous and insignificant than the women. they certainly are more disagreeable to a rational enquirer, because they are more troublesome. Of all the coxcombs on the face of the earth, a French petit maitre is the most impertinent: and they are all petit maitres, from the marquis who glitters in lace and embroidery, to the garcon barbier covered with meal, who struts with his hair in a long queue. and his hat under his arm. I have already observed, that vanity is the great and universal mover among all ranks and degrees of people in this nation; and as they take no pains to conceal or control it, they are hurried by it into the most ridiculous and indeed intolerable extravagance.”
Final remarks: The ugly side-product of the Scottish Enlightenment – total belief in the individual’s rational powers of observation and deduction, in an unsympathetic body, leads to a flood of bile (though I am probably not using the 18th c. concept of ‘bile’ correctly) which washes away all tolerance (perhaps seen as a weakness, an indulgence like vanity). No, I shouldn’t blame the Enlightenment – after all, one of the chief aims of that was to improve the lot of humanity. And in any case, Smollett was down in London making his fortune when most of the big thinkers in Scotland were coming up with their radical ideas of fairness and scientific thought. What was Smollett doing, other than being a cantankerous traveler, whinging constantly about the cost of things? I suppose now he benefits the historian who wants to find out how many livres or sou it cost to go from Paris to Lyon or for five people to eat a meal.
In closing: No more of ranty people convinced of their superiority, except in fiction, thank you.