An old-fashioned picaro - On The Adventures of Roderick Random and Tobias Smollet
One upon a time, and a very good time it was in many ways, people with a broad education in the humanities would routinely encounter novels like Roderick Random.1 All round the world, students taking courses on Brit Lit had little chance of avoiding Tobias Smollett, unless they managed to track down some alternative option that allowed them to go off piste into a subject like Old Norse. He figured among the early masters of English fiction (women didn’t get a look in, prior to Fanny Burney and Jane Austen). But today the syllabus of a literature program may well include film noir, graphic novels, rap or vampire videos—in most schools it would be easier to get specialist instruction on fans’ responses to Buffy the Vampire Slayer than on the work of, say, George Meredith. This is particularly bad luck for Smollett, who was in fact more popular among lit majors (or so it was reported) than any of the other founding fathers of the novel. But he has few liberal credentials, and he has been expelled from the canon along with some greater writers. Of all those dead white males who once arrogated eighteenth-century literature to themselves, he is now close to the deadest, since he was always the most obviously “male” in his outlook and approach to writing.
Why did he rank so highly with those coming to the period for the first time? One reason lies in the very circumstance that has ensured his swift dislodgment from the historical pantheon: he wasn’t much of a technical innovator. Unlike Richardson, he did not divert the focus of his works to the inner life of characters, especially women. Unlike Fielding, he did not engineer meticulously organized plots, or set up elaborate mock-heroic allusions to the classics. Unlike Sterne, he did not subvert conventional expectations of narrative, twisting the time sequence and proceeding through rapid shifts in mood and linguistic register. Rather, Smollett stuck to traditional patterns of storytelling, with an uncomplicated first-person narrator in the case of early books like Roderick Random, and a healthy dose of sex and violence. This made him an easier read for absolute beginners. It used to be said that teenagers demanded three things of a movie: nudity, damage to property, and flouting of authority—all supplied by Random, together with toilet humor. That list of requirements may have applied more to boys than girls, but then Smollett never ran any risk of being coopted into chick lit. Sometimes, indeed, he is regarded as a misogynistic writer—but we shall come back to that.
All these attributes of a book by Smollett can be sampled in his first novel. Roderick Random (1748) appears as the latest volume in the excellent Georgia edition of his works, which has manfully kept going since the 1980s—a fine achievement for this relatively small press in an epoch when academic publishers have had to face an unparalleled stress test. Random was the work of a young man—no more than twenty-six, though he had already seen plenty of the world, including warfare in the Caribbean region after medical training in Glasgow and a fruitless spell trying to enter the London literary world. His life took a restless course, and energy is the first quality most readers notice in the novel—a proliferation of action and a remarkable verbal exuberance. The tale may not qualify as picaresque in the strictest definition, but for practical purposes that’s what it is. And the narrative resembles the nature of the picaro at its heart (Roderick is the only character half-way developed): it is wild, undisciplined, excessive, wandering, inconsistent, full of itself. Since picaresque generally tells the story of a juvenile delinquent, the narrative is laced with various modes of criminality on the hero’s part and, unlike Tom Jones for instance, he is never troubled by scruples.
He also undergoes almost every form of chastisement imaginable, as the victim of several assaults—getting mugged in the street more than once. Beyond this he is pressganged into the navy, seized by smugglers, cheated at cards, cast adrift on shore when his ship runs aground, fondled by a homosexual lord, accused of being a spy, sent to the debtor’s prison, and a lot more. He catches yellow fever, that recurring scourge of the tropics during this period, and he is forced to fight two duels. A third is narrowly averted, after which Roderick thrusts his opponent’s sword into “something (it was not a tansy) that lay smoaking on the plain,” this time a Smollettian circumlocution for cow-dung that he would not always choose to employ. Any stray pisspot is liable to be emptied on his person. When he wishes to turn playwright, he is harshly rebuffed by the manager Marmozet, a name that conceals the identity of the great David Garrick—one of many celebrities whom the quarrelsome Smollett contrived to antagonize in real life.
Almost all of Roderick’s dealings with women turn out disastrously until near the very end. He is tricked by a woman of the town, finds his fiancée in bed with a man, is taken up by a sluttish bluestocking, meets a gold-digger at a politician’s levee, and embarks on an affair with a young beauty who is then revealed as “a wretched hag turned of seventy,” who “ogled [him] with her dim eyes, quenched in rheum.” A notorious bawd has him arrested along with his companions for retaliating after her girls rob one of the johns. At the theater he meets an apparently “very handsome creature, genteelly dressed,” in reality a gin-sodden courtesan who screams at him to pay her coach-fare when he decamps. Another one-time flame relays scandalous aspersions about him to his current love. On the way to Bath he takes up with an heiress who suffers from severe bodily deformation. This is turned into a kind of joke, as usual: “I perceived that Miss had got more twists from nature than I had before observed, for she was bent sideways into the figure of an S; so that her progression very much resembled that of a crab.” All the same, he is momentarily tempted by the size of her fortune. In the end he wins the hand of the virtuous Narcissa, thanks to the help of her servant Miss Williams, a fallen woman on whom he had had designs when she presented herself as a fine lady. This represents just a sample of the scrapes into which Roderick is led in pursuit less of sexual pleasure than of financial security and social advancement. Hard to find a feminist message there.