View of eighteenth century society in the the novels of Tobias Smollett
The five novels of Tobias Smollett are the greatest achievement of a man whose literary output, like that of many of his contemporaries, was prodigious both in quantity and variety. Despite an improvement in recent years (most remarkably in P-C Douce's Les Romans de Smollett : 1971), Smollett's fiction remains comparatively neglected by students of English literature. Whilst literary historians perpetuate old errors and misconceptions of the nature of Smollett's work, other critics create new myths, both social and literary - of Radical Dr. Smollett or Smollett the Picaresque Novelist, for example. The picaresque nature of Smollett's fiction has long been a stumbling block for critics who either regard the term as meaning no more than episodic and roguish, or who, correctly rejecting such a facile and.misleading approach, decide that we cannot under any circumstances describe Smollett's novels as "picaresque". By examining Spanish picaresque fiction both as a literary form and as a social document, we find that its particularly successful fusion of form and content lead to a powerful and important vision of a society during a period of fundamental social change. Turning again to Smollett's work we see that the author adopts the literary structure of the Spanish "novelas picarescas" not (as some critics appear to believe) because he was unable to think of anything better, but in the belief that the picaresque novel form was uniquely appropriate as a means of translating his pessimistic vision of eighteenth century society into fictional terms.Writing during a period which saw the traditional social, economic and political influence of the landed gentry decline as the commercial interests of the bourgeoisie gained in importance, Smollett was personally in a perplexing social position. Though concerned to uphold his status as a "gentleman", which separated him from his social inferiors, he was also - as a younger son - obliged to earn his own living away from the privileged atmosphere of the country estate. It is both from his personal experience and from his distaste for a society which placed money above morality, that Smollett's advocacy of the values of the landed gentry, and his distaste for those of the newly rich middle classes derive. Though he could not remain unaffected by his years of historical, social and political writing, Smollett's defence of an (idealized) traditional, land-based society remains paramount throughout his fiction. Though he abandoned the picaresque novel form after Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, his work reflects an attempt to find a new fictional form for his conservative vision which - after partially unsuccessful attempts in Ferdinand Count Fathom and Sir Launcelot Greaves - he finally achieved in his last, best and most humane novel Humphry Clinker. It is both Smollett's literary achievement and the nature of his social vision which are discussed here.