The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 27. Final comparison between the literary achievements and influence of Fielding and Smollett
One of the marks of Hazlitt’s “common-place critic” was that he preferred Smollett to Fielding. To dilate on preferences is less profitable than to enquire, first, what the two greatest of English eighteenth century novelists achieved between them. Both tried their hands in youth at the drama; and both failed almost precisely in so far as they followed the prevalent fashion of the drama. Fielding’s comedies and Smollett’s tragedy are attempts at expression through outworn media. The longenduring somnolence which overtook the English drama early in the eighteenth century had already begun. In turning from the stage to the new field of prose fiction, Fielding and Smollett together raised the novel to the chief place among contemporary forms of literary expression, and showed how much it could contain of philosophy, of incident, of humour and of fun. Of the pair, Smollett was the more learned, and, perhaps, the more inventive in finding value for the purposes of his art in modes of life hitherto untouched. Fielding’s mind went deeper.
The direct influence of Fielding is harder to estimate than that of Smollett. Episodes and characters have been borrowed from him, freely enough. The Vicar of Wakefield, Tristram Shandy, Quentin Durward, Pendennis, Barry Lyndon—each of these, among a hundred others, shows clear traces of the study of Fielding. But the very completeness and individuality of Fielding’s work prevented his founding a school. The singleness of intellectual standpoint which governs all his novels makes him difficult of imitation; and he is no less different from those who have taken him as model than he is from Cervantes, whom he professed to follow. But this it is safe to say: that Fielding, a master of the philosophical study of character, founded the novel of character and raised it to a degree of merit which is not likely to be surpassed. What his successors have done is to take advantage of changes in social life since his day, and to study, from their own point of view, character as affected by those changes. His greatest disciple is Thackeray, who had much of his genius, much of his power of seeing human nature beneath the robes of a peer or the rags of a beggar, much of his satirical power; but who lacked the large-hearted geniality of his master. The novel of character must always go to Fielding as its great exemplar.
Smollett’s novels have about them more of the quarry and less of the statue. He is richer in types than Fielding; and it needs only a mention of his naval scenes and characters to raise memories of a whole literature, which, receiving an impetus from the naval battles won a few years after Smollett’s death, has persisted even after the disappearance of wooden ships. The picaresque novel in general, which burst into activity soon after the publication of Roderick Random, was under heavy obligations to Smollett, and nowhere more so than in its first modern example, Pickwick. Dickens, indeed, who was a great reader of Smollett, was his most eminent disciple. In both, we find the observation of superficial oddities of speech and manner carried to the finest point; in both, we find these oddities and the episodes which display them more interesting than the main plot; in both, we find that, beneath those oddities, there is often a lack of real character. Dickens’s fun is purer than Smollett’s; but it is not less rich and various. Although, at the present moment, the picaresque novel has fallen a little out of fashion, Smollett will continue to be read by those who are not too squeamish or too stay-at-home to find in him complete recreation.