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. Portions of the work exhibit literary quality of a high order: as a whole it represents a valuable because a rather uncommon view, and as a literary record of travel it is distinguished by a very exceptional veracity.
I am not prepared to define the differentia of a really first-rate book of travel. Sympathy is important; but not indispensable, or Smollett would be ruled out of court at once. Scientific knowledge, keen observation, or intuitive power of discrimination go far. To enlist our curiosity or enthusiasm or to excite our wonder are even stronger recommendations. Charm of personal manner, power of will, anthropological interest, self-effacement in view of some great objects—all these qualities have made travel-books live. One knows pretty nearly the books that one is prepared to re-read in this department of literature. Marco Polo, Herodotus, a few sections in Hakluyt, Dampier and Defoe, the early travellers in Palestine, Commodore Byron's Travels, Curzon and Lane, Doughty's Arabia Deserta, Mungo Park, Dubois, Livingstone's Missionary Travels, something of Borrow (fact or fable), Hudson and Cunninghame Graham, Bent, Bates and Wallace, The Crossing of Greenland, Eothen, the meanderings of Modestine, The Path to Rome, and all, or almost all, of E. F. Knight. I have run through most of them at one breath, and the sum total would not bend a moderately stout bookshelf. How many high-sounding works on the other hand, are already worse than dead, or, should we say, better dead? The case of Smollett's Travels, there is good reason to hope, is only one of suspended animation.
To come to surer ground, it is a fact worth noting that each of the four great prose masters of the third quarter of the eighteenth century tried his hand at a personal record of travel. Fielding came first in 1754 with his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. Twelve years later was published Smollett's Travels through France and Italy. Then, in 1768, Sterne's Sentimental Journey; followed in 1775 by Johnson's Journey to the Hebrides. Each of the four—in which beneath the apparel of the man of letters we can discern respectively the characteristics of police magistrate, surgeon, confessor, and moralist—enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in its day. Fielding's Journal had perhaps the least immediate success of the four. Sterne's Journey unquestionably had the most. The tenant of "Shandy Hall," as was customary in the first heyday of "Anglomania," went to Paris to ratify his successes, and the resounding triumph of his naughtiness there, by a reflex action, secured the vote of London. Posterity has fully sanctioned this particular "judicium Paridis." The Sentimental Journey is a book sui generis, and in the reliable kind of popularity, which takes concrete form in successive reprints, it has far eclipsed its eighteenth-century rivals. The fine literary aroma which pervades every line of this small masterpiece is not the predominant characteristic of the Great Cham's Journey. Nevertheless, and in spite of the malignity of the "Ossianite" press, it fully justified the assumption of the booksellers that it would prove a "sound" book. It is full of sensible observations, and is written in Johnson's most scholarly, balanced, and dignified style. Few can read it without a sense of being repaid, if only by the portentous sentence in which the author celebrates his arrival at the shores of Loch Ness, where he reposes upon "a bank such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign," and reflects that a "uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to the traveller; that it is easy to sit at home and conceive rocks and heath and waterfalls; and that these journeys are useless labours, which neither impregnate the imagination nor enlarge the understanding." Fielding's contribution to geography has far less solidity and importance, but it discovers to not a few readers an unfeigned charm that is not to be found in the pages of either Sterne or Johnson. A thoughtless fragment suffices to show the writer in his true colours as one of the most delightful fellows in our literature, and to convey just unmistakably to all good men and true the rare and priceless sense of human fellowship.
There remain the Travels through France and Italy, by T. Smollett, M.D., and though these may not exhibit the marmoreal glamour of Johnson, or the intimate fascination of Fielding, or the essential literary quality which permeates the subtle dialogue and artful vignette of Sterne, yet I shall endeavour to show, not without some hope of success among the fair-minded, that the Travels before us are fully deserving of a place, and that not the least significant, in the quartette.
The temporary eclipse of their fame I attribute, first to the studious depreciation of Sterne and Walpole, and secondly to a refinement of snobbishness on the part of the travelling crowd, who have an uneasy consciousness that to listen to common sense, such as Smollett's, in matters of connoisseurship, is tantamount to confessing oneself a Galilean of the outermost court. In this connection, too, the itinerant divine gave the travelling doctor a very nasty fall. Meeting the latter at Turin, just as Smollett was about to turn his face homewards, in March 1765, Sterne wrote of him, in the famous Journey of 1768, thus:
"The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris, from Paris to Rome, and so on, but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he passed by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but 'twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings." "I met Smelfungus," he wrote later on, "in the grand portico of the Pantheon—he was just coming out of it. ''Tis nothing but a huge cockpit,' said he—'I wish you had said nothing worse of the Venus de Medici,' replied I—for in passing through Florence, I had heard he had fallen foul upon the goddess, and used her worse than a common strumpet, without the least provocation in nature. I popp'd upon Smelfungus again at Turin, in his return home, and a sad tale of sorrowful adventures had he to tell, 'wherein he spoke of moving accidents by flood and field, and of the cannibals which each other eat, the Anthropophagi'; he had been flayed alive, and bedevil'd, and used worse than St. Bartholomew, at every stage he had come at. 'I'll tell it,' cried Smelfungus, 'to the world.' 'You had better tell it,' said I, 'to your physician.'"
To counteract the ill effects of "spleen and jaundice" and exhibit the spirit of genteel humour and universal benevolence in which a man of sensibility encountered the discomforts of the road, the incorrigible parson Laurence brought out his own Sentimental Journey. Another effect of Smollett's book was to whet his own appetite for recording the adventures of the open road. So that but for Travels through France and Italy we might have had neither a Sentimental Journey nor a Humphry Clinker. If all the admirers of these two books would but bestir themselves and look into the matter, I am sure that Sterne's only too clever assault would be relegated to its proper place and assessed at its right value as a mere boutade. The borrowed contempt of Horace Walpole and the coterie of superficial dilettanti, from which Smollett's book has somehow never wholly recovered, could then easily be outflanked and the Travels might well be in reasonable expectation of coming by their own again.