'Realism', a much abused word, has at least four current meanings, but when applied to novels it normally means photographic imitation of everyday life. A ‘realistic’ novel is one in which the dialogue is colloquial and physical objects are described in such a way that you visualize them. In this sense almost all modern novels are more ‘realistic’ than those of the past, because the describing of everyday scenes and the construction of natural-sounding dialogue are largely a matter of technical tricks which are passed on from one generation to another, gradually improving in the process. But there is another sense in which the stilted, artificial novelists of the eighteenth century are more ‘realistic’ than almost any of their successors, and that is in their attitude towards human motives. They may be weak at describing scenery, but they are extra-ordinarily good at describing scoundrelism. This is true even of Fielding, who in Tom Jones and Amelia already shows the moralizing tendency which was to mark English novels for a hundred and fifty years. But it is much truer of Smollett, whose outstanding intellectual honesty may have been connected with the fact that he was not an Englishman.
Smollett is a picaresque novelist, a writer of long, formless tales full of farcical and improbable adventures. He derives to some extent from Cervantes whom he translated into English and whom he also plagiarized in Sir Lancelot Greaves. Inevitably a great deal that he wrote is no longer worth reading, even including, perhaps, his most-praised book, Humphrey Clinker, which is written in the form of letters and was considered comparatively respectable in the nineteenth century, because most of its obscenities are hidden under puns. But Smollett's real masterpieces are Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, which are frankly pornographic in a harmless way and which contain some of the best passages of sheer farce in the English language.
Dickens, in David Copperfield, names these two books among his childhood favourites, but the resemblance sometimes claimed as existing between Smollett and Dickens is very superficial. In Pickwick Papers, and in several others of Dickens's early books, you have the picaresque form, the endless travelling to and fro, the fantastic adventures, the willingness to sacrifice no matter what amount of probability for the sake of a joke; but the moral atmosphere has greatly altered. Between Smollett's day and Dickens's there had happened not only the French Revolution, but the rise of a new industrial middle class, Low Church in its theology and puritanical in its outlook. Smollett writes of the middle class, but the mercantile and professional middle class, the kind of people who are cousins to a landowner and take their manners from the aristocracy.
Duelling, gambling and fornication seen almost morally neutral to him. It so happens that in private life he was a better man than the majority of writers. He was a faithful husband who shortened his life by overworking for the sake of his family, a sturdy republican who hated France as the country of the Grand Monarchy, and a patriotic Scotsman at a time when — the 1745 rebellion being a fairly recent memory — it was far from fashionable to be a Scotsman. But he has very little sense of sin. His heroes do things, and do them on almost every page, which in any nineteenth-century English novel would instantly call forth vengeance from the skies. He accepts as a law of nature the viciousness, the nepotism and the disorder of eighteenth-century society, and therein lies his charm. Many of his best passages would be ruined by an intrusion of the moral sense.
Both Peregrine Pickle and Roderick Random follow roughly the same course. Both heroes go through great vicissitudes of fortune, travel widely, seduce numerous women, suffer imprisonment for debt, and end up prosperous and happily married. Of the two, Peregrine is somewhat the greater blackguard, because he has no profession — Roderick is a naval surgeon, as Smollett himself had been for a while — and can consequently devote more time to seductions and practical jokes. But neither is ever shown acting from an unselfish motive, nor is it admitted that such things as religious belief, political conviction or even ordinary honesty are serious factors in human affairs.
In the world of Smollett's novels there are only three virtues. One is feudal loyalty (Roderick and Peregrine each have a retainer who is faithful through thick and thin), another is masculine ‘honour’, i.e. willingness to fight on any provocation, and another is female ‘chastity’, which is inextricably mixed up with the idea of capturing a husband. Otherwise anything goes. It is nothing out of the way to cheat at cards, for instance. It seems quite natural to Roderick, when he has got hold of £1,000 from somewhere, to buy himself a smart outfit of clothes and go to Bath posing as a rich man, in hopes of entrapping an heiress. When he is in France and out of a job, he decides to join the army, and as the French army happens to be the nearest one, he joins that, and fights against the British at the battle of Dettinggen: he is nevertheless ready soon afterwards to fight a duel with a Frenchman who has insulted Britain.
Peregrine devotes himself for months at a time to the elaborate and horribly cruel practical jokes in which the eighteenth century delighted. When, for instance, an unfortunate English painter is thrown into the Bastille for some trifling offence and is about to be released, Peregrine and his friends, playing on his ignorance of the language, let him think that he has been sentenced to be broken on a wheel. A little later they tell him that this punishment has been commuted to castration, and then extract a last bit of fun out of his terrors by letting him think that he is escaping in disguise when he is merely being released from the prison in the normal way.
Why are these petty rogueries worth reading about? In the first place because they are funny. In the continental writers from whom Smottett derived there may be better things than the description of Peregrine Pickle's adventures on the Grand Tour, but there is nothing better of that particular kind in English. Secondly, by simply ruling out ‘good’ motives and showing no respect whatever for human dignity, Smottett often attains a truthfulness that more serious novelists have missed. He is willing to mention things which do happen in real life but are almost invariably kept out of fiction. Roderick Randon, for instance, at one stage of his career, catches a venereal disease — the only English novel hero, I believe, to whom this has happened. And the fact that Smollett, in spite of this fairly enlightened view, takes patronage, official jobbery and general corruption for granted gives great historical interest to certain passages in his books.
Smollett had been for a while in the navy, and in Roderick Random we are given not only an unvarnished account of the Cartagena expedition, but an extraordinarily vivid and disgusting description of the inside of a warship, in those days a sort of floating compendium of disease, discomfort, tyranny and incompetence. The command of Roderick's ship is for a while given to a young man of family, a scented homosexual fop who has hardly seen a ship in his life, and who spends the whole voyage in his cabin to avoid contact with the vulgar sailormen, almost fainting when he smells tobacco. The scenes in the debtors' prison are even better. In the prisons of those days, a debtor who had no resources might actually starve to death unless he could keep alive by begging from more fortunate prisoners. One of Roderick's fellow prisoners is so reduced that he has no clothes at all and preserves decency as best he can by wearing a very long beard. Some of the prisoners, needless to say, are poets, and the book includes a self-contained story, ‘Mr Melopoyn's Tragedy’, which should make anyone who thinks aristocratic patronage a good basis for literature think twice.
Smollett's influence on subsequent English writers has not been as great as that of his contemporay, Fielding. Fielding deals in the same kind of boisterous adventure, but his sense of sin never quite leaves him. It is interesting, in Joseph Andrews, to watch Fielding start out with the intention of writing a pure farce, and then, in spite of himself as it were, begin punishing vice and rewarding virtue in the way that was to be customary in English novels until almost yesterday. Tom Jones would fit into a novel by Meredith, or for that matter by Ian Hay, whereas Peregrine Pickle seems to belong to a more European background. The writers nearest to Smollett are perhaps Surtees and Marryat, but when sexual frankness ceased to be possible, picaresque literature was robbed of perhaps half of its subject-matter. The eighteenth-century inn where it was almost abnormal to go into the right bedroom was a lost dominion.
In our own day various English writers — Evelyn Waugh, for instance, and Aldous Huxley in his early novels — drawing on other sources, have tried to revive the picaresque tradition. One has only to watch their eager efforts to be shocking, and their readiness to be shocked themselves — whereas Smollett was merely trying to be funny in what seemed to him the natural way — to see what an accumulation of pity, decency and public spirit lies between that age and ours.