The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 25. Travels through France and Italy
By 1763, Smollett’s health was broken by incessant overwork, disappointment in his hopes of aid from Bute, and the excesses of his own systema nervosum maxime irritabile. And, in April of that year, the violent, affectionate man suffered the heaviest of blows in the loss of his only child, Elizabeth, at the age of fifteen. For the sake of his own health and his wife’s spirits, he left England in the month of June, and travelled across France to Nice. In the autumn of 1764, he visited Genoa, Rome, Florence and other towns of Italy; for the winter, he returned to Nice, and, by June, 1765, he was back in London. In the following year, he published an account of his Travels through France and Italy, one of the most entertaining books of travel extant, and a mine of information, on the whole remarkably accurate, concerning the natural phenomena, history, social life, economics, diet and morals of the places described. Smollett had a lively and pertinacious curiosity, and, as his novels prove, a very quick eye. He foresaw the merits of Cannes, then a small village, as a health-resort, and the possibilities of the Corniche road. The chief interest of the book, however, for the general reader, lies in its unsparing revelation of the author’s character. In place of the bravery, serenity and sweetness of the dying Fielding, we have here little but spleen, acerbity and quarrelsomeness. Smollett’s fierce engagements with innkeepers, postillions and fellow-travellers; his profound contempt for foreigners, now fortified by first-hand observation; his scorn of the Roman catholic faith and ceremonies, of duelling, of such domestic arrangements as the cicisbeo, of petty and proud nobility, of a hundred other French institutions and ways; and the shrewd sense and the keen eye (keener than Carlyle’s) for shams which fortify all his violent prejudices, combine to make the book a masterpiece in description and ironic criticism of men and manners. Not that he was wilfully blind to merit or beauty; he has good words, now and then, even for a foreign doctor. But he was determined to see everything with his own eyes; and, being a sick man and splenetic, he saw everything, from politics to statues and pictures, with an eye more or less jaundiced. Sterne, who met Smollett in Italy, hit off the truth, with his usual pungency, in the portrait of Smelfungus in A Sentimental Journey.
Smollett was better, but far from well, when he returned home. In 1766, he travelled in Scotland, revisited the scenes of his childhood, and was made much of by learned Edinburgh. Here, and in Bath, whither he now went as a patient, he gathered material, and possibly laid plans, for his last novel. Before Humphrey Clinker appeared, however, Smollett was to show himself in his most rancorous and pseudo-Rabelaisian mood in The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769). In this work, the Atom relates, to one Nathaniel Peacock, his experiences while in the body of a Japanese. Since Japan stands for England, and the names in the story (many of them formed on the principle afterwards adopted by Samuel Butler in Erewhon) each represented a wellknown figure in British public life, the work is merely a brutal satire on British public affairs from the year 1754 to the date of publication—and the Travels of Lemuel Gulliver are fragrant beside it.