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Travels through France and Italy   By: (1721-1771)

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Travels Through France And Italy


Tobias Smollett



Thomas Seccombe


Many pens have been burnished this year of grace for the purpose of celebrating with befitting honour the second centenary of the birth of Henry Fielding; but it is more than doubtful if, when the right date occurs in March 1921, anything like the same alacrity will be shown to commemorate one who was for many years, and by such judges as Scott, Hazlitt, and Charles Dickens, considered Fielding's complement and absolute co equal (to say the least) in literary achievement. Smollett's fame, indeed, seems to have fallen upon an unprosperous curve. The coarseness of his fortunate rival is condoned, while his is condemned without appeal. Smollett's value is assessed without discrimination at that of his least worthy productions, and the historical value of his work as a prime modeller of all kinds of new literary material is overlooked. Consider for a moment as not wholly unworthy of attention his mere versatility as a man of letters. Apart from Roderick Random and its successors, which gave him a European fame, he wrote a standard history, and a standard version of Don Quixote (both of which held their ground against all comers for over a century). He created both satirical and romantic types, he wrote two fine spirited lyrics, and launched the best Review and most popular magazine of his day. He was the centre of a literary group, the founder to some extent of a school of professional writers, of which strange and novel class, after the "Great Cham of Literature," as he called Dr. Johnson, he affords one of the first satisfactory specimens upon a fairly large scale. He is, indeed, a more satisfactory, because a more independent, example of the new species than the Great Cham himself. The late Professor Beljame has shown us how the milieu was created in which, with no subvention, whether from a patron, a theatre, a political paymaster, a prosperous newspaper or a fashionable subscription list, an independent writer of the mid eighteenth century, provided that he was competent, could begin to extort something more than a bare subsistence from the reluctant coffers of the London booksellers. For the purpose of such a demonstration no better illustration could possibly be found, I think, than the career of Dr. Tobias Smollett. And yet, curiously enough, in the collection of critical monographs so well known under the generic title of "English Men of Letters" a series, by the way, which includes Nathaniel Hawthorne and Maria Edgeworth no room or place has hitherto been found for Smollett any more than for Ben Jonson, both of them, surely, considerable Men of Letters in the very strictest and most representative sense of the term. Both Jonson and Smollett were to an unusual extent centres of the literary life of their time; and if the great Ben had his tribe of imitators and adulators, Dr. Toby also had his clan of sub authors, delineated for us by a master hand in the pages of Humphry Clinker. To make Fielding the centre piece of a group reflecting the literature of his day would be an artistic impossibility. It would be perfectly easy in the case of Smollett, who was descried by critics from afar as a Colossus bestriding the summit of the contemporary Parnassus.

Whatever there may be of truth in these observations upon the eclipse of a once magical name applies with double force to that one of all Smollett's books which has sunk farthest in popular disesteem. Modern editors have gone to the length of excommunicating Smollett's Travels altogether from the fellowship of his Collective Works. Critic has followed critic in denouncing the book as that of a "splenetic" invalid. And yet it is a book for which all English readers have cause to be grateful, not only as a document on Smollett and his times, not only as being in a sense the raison d'etre of the Sentimental Journey, and the precursor in a very special sense of Humphry Clinker, but also as being intrinsically an uncommonly readable book, and even, I venture to assert, in many respects one of Smollett's best... Continue reading book >>

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