The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 21. Roderick Random and the Picaresque Novel
Smollett admitted that he modelled his story on the plan of Le Sage’s Gil Blas. In the country of Defoe, the Picaresque novel—the realistic novel of travel and adventure—was not absolutely new; nor was the device of stringing the episodes of the story together along the thread of a single character. What Smollett achieved in Roderick Random and, later, in Peregrine Pickle, was to show how much could still be done with this form, to introduce new life and new types, and to present them with unequalled brilliance and energy. The new type for which he is most famous is not the hungry and adventurous Scot, like Roderick Random himself or Strap, his faithful attendant, but the British sailor. The expedition to Cartagena had given great opportunities for knowledge of the navy to a man who had great skill in expressing that knowledge. So vivid a picture of a certain kind of life peopled with such clear-cut types as Morgan, the Welsh surgeon, Bowling, Oakum, Mackshane, Jack Rattlin, had never been presented before and has not been surpassed since. The British tar was all but new to English literature, and, in this direction alone, Smollett’s influence has been as important as his achievement. Though he sees men and women chiefly from the outside, he sees them with extraordinary clarity, and has a way of hitting them off in the first few words which keeps the attention arrested all through the rambling, ill-constructed book. Smollett was not a moralist; he was even without a view of life and conduct such as might have lent unity to his several works. Dickens, in boyhood, found Roderick “a modest and engaging hero”; to the adult reader, he is one of the most shameless young scoundrels in fiction. In his preface to the work, Smollett writes of Roderick’s “modest merit,” and he may have been sincere. The truth is that he did not care. He aimed almost exclusively at what he abundantly secured—movement and variety; and his taste for farce, horseplay and violence was inexhaustible. It should be added that Smollett’s study of medicine had doubtless inured him to the contemplation of certain physical facts, and that he revels in contemplating them.
The publication of Roderick Random brought Smollett immediately into fame. The first advantage he took of it was to publish his unfortunate tragedy The Regicide, with a preface full of railing at the blindness, the jealousy and so forth, of those who would not see its merits. He made—or revised and corrected—an English translation of Gil Blas, which was published in 1749. Yet, just as Fielding tried to live by the law, Smollett seems to have gone on hoping to make a living by medicine. In 1750, he took the degree of doctor of medicine in Marischal college, Aberdeen. In the autumn of that year, however, he set out for Paris with Dr. John Moore, the author of Zeluco, in order to collect material for another novel. The result of the tour was The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, published in 1751. In some respects, this is the most remarkable of Smollett’s novels; it is, also, the longest, and it maintains its vivacity and vigour throughout. In morality, the treatment of the main theme (if such a book can be said to have a main theme) shows scarcely any advance on Roderick Random. Peregrine is a scoundrel with a very moderate sense of shame; he is also, in his elegant and rather witty way, a bully of the most refined cruelty, who is not content to feast on others’ folly, but likes to pay for the feast with all kinds of insult and annoyance. It would be easier to insist on the fact that morality and good taste have nothing to do with the effect that Smollett wished to produce, were it not that the same novel contains the finest character he ever drew. In a work of this kind, coherence is of little moment; and, that Smollett clearly changed his mind as he went on, not only about Pickle’s mother, and his aunt Grizzle, but about his aunt Grizzle’s husband, commodore Trunnion, does not lessen the beauty of the commodore’s character in its final form. A modern reader, by reason of a satiety that must have been almost unknown in Smollett’s day, wishes that Trunnion could open his lips just once or twice without using a nautical metaphor; but metaphor was never more finely used than in the famous death-scene of that simple, wise, lovable old sea-dog. This character alone (supposing that there had been no Matthew Bramble or Lismahago to follow) would prove that Smollett had it in him to be a humourist of a high order, if his savageness and brutality had not stifled the humourist’s qualities. In Peregrine Pickle, much of the characterisation is on the highest level ever reached by Smollett. The household at “The Garrison,” where Hawser Trunnion lived, included that “great joker,” lieutenant Hatchway, and Tom Pipes, the silent and faithful, who is more attractive, if not better fun, than Strap. Though Mrs. Pickle is an impossible person, her husband Gamaliel lives from the first line of the story; and the adventures of the painter and the doctor, the banquet in the manner of the ancients and the “escape” from the Bastille, offer a concurrent development of farcical incident and oddity of character hardly to be paralleled for vivacity and inventiveness. In Roderick Random, many of the characters were taken from life; so it was with Peregrine Pickle; and, in the first edition, Smollett attacked several of those whom he considered his enemies—Lyttelton (under the name Sir Gosling Scrag), Garrick, Rich and Cibber, his rancour against whom, on account of the rejection of The Regicide, was continuous, besides Akenside and Fielding. At this date, he cannot have had any cause of complaint against Fielding, unless it were the belief that Partridge in Tom Jones was imitated from Strap in Roderick Random; and, in the main, the secret of his dislikes seems to have been jealousy. Fielding’s retorts, in two numbers of The Convent-Garden Journal, drew from Smollett one of his most savage and indecent performances: A Faithful Narrative of the Base and Inhuman Acts that were lately practised upon the Brain of Habbakuk Hilding, Justice, Dealer and Chapman … (1752). In the second edition of Peregrine Pickle, however, which was issued before the end of 1751, the attacks on Fielding were withdrawn. It remains to add that the form of the book is still the picaresque novel; but even this loose construction is disturbed by the interpolation of the immoral but vivacious Memoirs of a Lady of Quality.