23 AUGUST 2003, Page 29

One forgotten masterpiece

Philip Hensher

TOBIAS SMOLLETT by Jeremy Lewis Cape, ,f25, pp. 360, ISBN 0224061518 personally, I have a soft spot for Smollett, but from most rational points of view he is completely unforgivable. For a start, in almost everything he wrote a personality of incredible repulsiveness shines out: someone touchy to the point of insanity, fantasising about the cruel and triumphant revenge he could, in an ideal world, inflict on his enemies. He wrote about three times as much as anyone could be expected to read: more people have read Gertrude Stein's collected works than Smollett's. Worst of all, there is no denying the fact that he is overwhelmingly unfunny. Of course, as everyone knows, almost nothing written before 1800 or so is anything but unfunny, apart from (in my view) Ben Jonson. Even next to Love's Labours Lost, The Wife of Bath's Tale and Skelton, monuments of the unfunny every one, Smollett stands out,

The classic novelists of the 18th century are, or used to be, Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett and Sterne. There are other isolated classics, like Gulliver's Travels, Vathek, The Castle of Otranto, Elizabeth Inchbald's exquisite A Simple Story and the increasingly popular novels of Fanny Burney, but the standard account rested on those five novelists. These days, however, the odd one out among the five looks like Smollett. He is almost completely unread, whether by specialists or by the general public; probably 100 readers tackle even a book like Clarissa for every one who gets through Peregrine Pickle. He has pretty well gone, trailing a solid reputation as a deeply unfunny, coarse and brutal writer, and it is a great shame.

It's true that none of his books has the organic unity of a book like Tom Jones or Amelia; though he often writes at considerable length, there is nothing in him to compare to the cumulative power of Richardson; he operates almost entirely on the surface, and doesn't aspire to the architectural or psychological sophistication of Sterne. Though his wit is more varied and ingenious than his reputation suggests, it is certainly true that he finds the spectacle of someone having their teeth knocked out rather funnier than we probably do, All the same, it can't be denied that long after his death many writers were passionately fond of him; early Dickens and Thackeray and even George Eliot are steeped in Smollett (Becky Sharp gets the Crawley daughters to read Humplity Clinker, and he is recommended, rather surprisingly, to Dorothea after her marriage in Middlemarch). Some of the knock about passages in Jane Austen surely owe something to him — Admiral Croft in Persuasion or Fanny Price's father in Mansfield Park are straight out of Humpluy Clinker. They were probably right to acknowledge the debt: there is something rather terrific there.

Perhaps the problem is that he was devoted to the picaresque, that loose form which consists of nothing more than a young man wandering about and having one encounter after another with a series of grotesques. Don Quixote, which Smollett translated, has rather a lot to answer for, all in all. His first novels, Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, were very popular at the time, but are hard going now. Despite their considerable energy and ingenuity in coming up with one ludicrous situation after another, they suffer from a fundamental problem with the picaresque: there is no reason whatever why any of this should ever come to an end, or — the reader starts to think — why any of it should ever have begun. Very few picaresque novels seem like a convincing organic whole, and, despite the raucous energy of Smollett's comedy, the reader is exhausted long before the end. Even by the casual standards of picaresque, Peregrine Pickle seems like a mess: in the middle, for no reason whatever other than to increase sales, it suddenly lapses into a gigantic and irrelevant digression in the form of the Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, a sensational narrative, almost certainly not by Smollett at all.

The interest of Smollett really starts after that. He is interesting, I think, as an exponent of something Wordsworth, much later, was to call the 'composite order': the way, in literature of the 1750s and 1760s, different and apparently incompatible genres are violently mixed together, the tone changing rapidly from sentence to sentence. That sort of thing is occasionally apparent as early as Peregrine Pickle, with the frank pathos of Trunnion's death scene — a scene much admired by V. S. Pritchett, among others — intruding on the prevailing farce. But in the very underrated middle novels, Ferdinand Count Fathom and Launcelot Greaves, a sort of consistent inconsistency takes hold, and the result is bewildering, probably not ultimately successful, but richly fecund.

That's a minority view, but there is no doubt about the excellence of Smollett's last two books. Travels through France and Italy turns Smollett's grumpy personality into a persona, and reaps rich comedy from his inability to see anything worth visiting in either country. And Humph!), Clinker is simply a masterpiece, one of the best novels of the century, with its mix of raw farce, romantic comedy and burgeoning rapture at the picturesque landscape. Smollett here, I think, was the first writer to exploit two possibilities latent in the epistolary novel: he gives each of his narrators a vividly distinct voice, and he ruth

lessly exploits the possibility of telling the same incident from different points of view, producing some deathless comic effects. Most of his other work is now of specialist interest, but Humphty Clinker is a magnificent comic novel.

Jeremy Lewis openly admits that he hasn't done a great deal of original research, and indeed hasn't read everything Smollett wrote — perhaps not as culpable in Smollett's biographer as might be thought, since an enormous amount of what Smollett wrote is unenlightening, and some of it, such as the translation of Don Quixote, is substantially plagiarised from other writers. Instead, he has tried to write a book which sets Smollett in his time and place, and to write something enthusiastic which will reintroduce Smollett to the general reader.

The aim is admirable, but I don't know whether it can be done. Although it is certainly interesting to hear a little about the navy in which Smollett served as a surgeon — both seafaring and medicine loom large in his novels subsequently — he doesn't strike me as a writer deeply embedded in his society, or whose associates were interesting in themselves. Very often, he placed himself on the wrong side of the argument. For instance, his political paper The Briton was started to promote the cause of a unified Great Britain after the Jacobite rebellions — something of great political controversy at the time. High-minded though this was, most people in London at the time saw yet another Scotsman on the make, and the paper was an abject failure — it is almost impossible now to find a copy, since it was never reprinted and not even the copyright libraries in this country seem to have acquired it. I certainly haven't read it, and from the way Lewis passes over it, I wonder whether he has either. The only reason it is remembered at all, apart from Smollett's authorship, is that it inspired John Wilkes to start a paper called The North Briton, which began as a parody but soon became a focus of political radicalism of an extreme variety. Smollett's enterprises, by his grumpiness and wrongheadedness, were very often condemned to the fate of irrelevancy, and he is not at the centre of debate in the way that Johnson's circle, or even Charles Churchill's, was. Nevertheless, Lewis's book shouldn't be complained too much of, since it is the work of an enthusiast — one, too, who is prepared to groan over some of his subject's behaviour and writing as well as descanting on his triumphs; he isn't as keen on Ferdinand Count Fathom as I am, and likes Roderick Random a good deal more, but that is very much the majority view. It's surprising that the author of so dazzling a book as Humphry Clinker has disappeared so thoroughly; anything that helps to return that, at least, to circulation must be welcomed.