Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tobias Smollett

I've just discovered Tobias Smollett. This revelation will doubtless shock regular readers, who will have formed a mental picture of a highly erudite blogging hedgehog, steeped in the classics and au fait with the work of even the most minor figures represented in that great, overarching pantheon of universal literature, even the ones whose heads have, as it were, fallen off the lower shelf where they were stored behind the translators of Senegalese leopard-hunting verse epics and rolled under some dead leaves into a forgotten corner.

The image is getting a bit unwieldy so I'll leave it to collapse under its own weight.

I should have said, of course, that I have rediscovered Smollett. Faux-intellectuals and Guardian columnists always re-read any work they wish to enlighten us about. They would not dream of admitting that, only now, at the age of 29, are they reading, for the first time, well, almost anything, really. But I missed that trick, and now the world knows that Hickory's knowledge of 18thC novels is sadly incomplete. Well, so be it.

Smollett's is one of those names you keep hearing as you buzz about the flame of literary creation, but I had always assumed he was just another of those dull people who thought he could be Defoe and is only remembered because so few novels were written in England at that time anyway. I have had the pleasure of discovering I was utterly mistaken.

I picked up 'The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker' in a cheap second-hand shop and was very glad I did. It's a cracker. It is funny, perceptive, and very polished. It's not at all self-conscious, derivative or imitative and you don't have the sense (which you do a touch with Defoe, and very much so with Sterne, who write the way first-time parents look after their children- not very sure what it's for or what you are supposed to do with it) that you are present at the birth of something. Smollett knows exactly what he's doing with the characters and the plot.

Yes, it's marred by the ludicrous coincidences and enforced happy endings that damaged so much of English writing until George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and dear Emily came along and showed them how it's done, but it is full of humorous observations and asides, and, being written in the form of letters from, to and among a cast of a dozen or so, there is much that we, the reader, knows that is hidden from most, but not all, of the players. The characters are in themselves wonderful creations. A couple of them are, necessarily, little more than narrators, while others manage to turn each letter into a comic masterpiece.

The details you get about life as she was lived in different cities and villages at that time are quite fascinating, and enter and illustrate the narrative vividly and quite naturally. Smollett could not have known what would surprise or instruct the reader a century or so later, but much of what strikes his travellers is so pertinent that you can easily forget he was writing of his own time, and believe he is an unusually gifted professor of history bringing a long-gone period to life.

There's not much point picking out bits and pieces, but his disgust at the water and practices at Bath and Harrowgate is way ahead of its time, as well as being very funny, and among the quite baffling details is the fact that visitors to Bath were traditionally accompanied by groups of French-horn players to advertise their presence.

I can't link to it, for the usual reasons, but the full text is at Gutenberg and it's worth a look.

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