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Oliver Pritchett, Tobias Smollett - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

A Nightmare on Wheels

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I have a horror of scenes. I hate rows about money and I’m in misery when an Englishman abroad goes on about bloody foreigners and turns into a bully. So there is no reason for me to love Tobias Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy; I see Smollett as the man in Reception at the holiday hotel, puffing himself up and demanding to speak to the manager. Yet the cantankerous old blighter somehow always manages to win me over.

You get some of the flavour of the book from his vocabulary. His favourite nouns are ruffian, coxcomb and perfidy; his adjectives of choice are insolent, saucy, frowzy, rapacious, peevish and knavish. Towns or inns are usually paltry and when he is forced to part with money it is a scandalous imposition. He has gone just a few miles in his journey through France when he announces ‘I abominate garlick.’

Smollett set out on his travels in June 1763, aged 42, and was away for two years, basing himself eventually in Nice and making expeditions to Florence and Rome. He went for the good of his health – he was suffering from asthma and probably consumption – and in the hope of earning much-needed cash from the book of his travels. The poor chap was exhausted by overwork and quarrels in Grub Street.

There were five in his party. Smollett was accompanied by his wife, two young ladies she was chaperoning, and his manservant. These people scarcely get a mention; I picture the women cowering as he launches into another tirade against the natives. ‘I was obliged to quarrel with the landlady,’ he writes, and I think of them clutching their hankies and cringing in the background. ‘I had a warm dispute with the landlord,’ he says, and I picture myself there studying the horizon, pretending not to notice. There quickly follows a dispute with postilions. ‘I threatened them with manual chastisement,’ he declares, a

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I have a horror of scenes. I hate rows about money and I’m in misery when an Englishman abroad goes on about bloody foreigners and turns into a bully. So there is no reason for me to love Tobias Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy; I see Smollett as the man in Reception at the holiday hotel, puffing himself up and demanding to speak to the manager. Yet the cantankerous old blighter somehow always manages to win me over.

You get some of the flavour of the book from his vocabulary. His favourite nouns are ruffian, coxcomb and perfidy; his adjectives of choice are insolent, saucy, frowzy, rapacious, peevish and knavish. Towns or inns are usually paltry and when he is forced to part with money it is a scandalous imposition. He has gone just a few miles in his journey through France when he announces ‘I abominate garlick.’ Smollett set out on his travels in June 1763, aged 42, and was away for two years, basing himself eventually in Nice and making expeditions to Florence and Rome. He went for the good of his health – he was suffering from asthma and probably consumption – and in the hope of earning much-needed cash from the book of his travels. The poor chap was exhausted by overwork and quarrels in Grub Street. There were five in his party. Smollett was accompanied by his wife, two young ladies she was chaperoning, and his manservant. These people scarcely get a mention; I picture the women cowering as he launches into another tirade against the natives. ‘I was obliged to quarrel with the landlady,’ he writes, and I think of them clutching their hankies and cringing in the background. ‘I had a warm dispute with the landlord,’ he says, and I picture myself there studying the horizon, pretending not to notice. There quickly follows a dispute with postilions. ‘I threatened them with manual chastisement,’ he declares, and by now the ladies and I are wishing the ground would swallow us up. As he made his way, venting his spleen on landlords, coachmen and rascally valets, he sent letters to friends in Britain reporting on his experiences and delivering his observations and, on his return, these were published as a book. As a former ship’s surgeon he has a good eye for both naval defences and public health and he gives his friends regular (unsparing) updates on the state of his own health. From Boulogne, he writes: ‘I had a great discharge by expectoration, and such a dejection of spirits as I never felt before.’ From Nice, he tells of a scorbutical eruption on his hand, swollen gums and violent pains in his knees. Travels through France and Italy was published in 1766 and was mocked as the work of an embittered man, particularly by Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey presents a playful account of travels in France, narrated by the courtly and incurably amorous Parson Yorick (from Tristram Shandy) and he can’t resist a swipe at poor old Smollett, whom he calls Smelfungus. ‘The learned Smelfungus’, he writes, ‘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 pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.’ How have I come to develop such affection for the difficult and embarrassing Dr Smollett with his incessant complaints? I first met him when I was selecting pieces of my father’s work for a book called The Pritchett Century and I was so impressed by the exuberance of his critical essay on Smollett, entitled ‘The Unhappy Traveller’, that I decided I had to include the piece in the collection and I determined to read the Travels. You can’t help admiring Smollett for his prolific output. He scribbled away at his novels, histories and journalism while his creditors fidgeted at the door, and the ship bringing the latest payment from his wife’s estates in Jamaica was always delayed. I warm to him as a hard-pressed freelance. His constant complaints about scandalous impositions were probably not a sign of Scottish meanness in the Dumbarton-born Smollett. He couldn’t afford to travel in style and, like any conscientious newspaper travel writer, he gave his readers a detailed run-down of the cost of things along the way. He simply hated the thought of anyone making a fool of him, insisting he would rather give away a crown than be cheated of a farthing. I like his curiosity. He has a great eye for detail, observing the minutiae of French and Italian customs and also explaining the taxes and finances of whole regions. He delivers an essay on the cultivation of silkworms in Nice and another on the patois of the area, and he’s fascinating on ‘the absurd and pernicious custom of duelling’. It’s not just the landlords and coachmen who are victims of his scorn. He is scathing about the table manners of the better-off, dismissive of the men, whom he calls ‘petits maîtres’, and insulting about the women and their make-up – ‘the rouge which is daubed on their faces, from the chin up to the eyes, without the least art or dexterity, not only destroys all distinction of features, but renders the aspect really frightful.’ Sometimes on this bumpy journey with Smollett, I began to suspect that he was mellowing as we headed south together to a better climate. I was taken aback when he suddenly observed: ‘The inhabitants of Montpellier are sociable, gay and good-tempered.’ Was the old boy going soft? Then, just as suddenly, he was his old self again, berating some landlord or ostler. His health improves in Nice and he is enthusiastic about the climate and the fruit and vegetables, but he is on top form when he writes about the nobility of the town. Most of them, he points out, are descended from the bourgeoisie who have made a bit of money: ‘I am told there is actually a count at Villefranche, whose father sold macaroni in the streets,’ he sniffs. In Pisa, he concedes, there are ‘even a few men of taste and learning’. They try to tell him that the leaning tower leans on purpose, but he is having none of it. One man he does warm to is Joseph, hired to drive the covered wagon, drawn by mules, taking Smollett and his party from Lyons towards Nice. Although the doctor detects some knavery in Joseph, he enjoys his conversation and finds him ‘very arch and very communicative’. And he also contributes to some fine farce. When they set out on this leg of the journey, Smollett orders his servant to load his blunderbuss with eight balls. The weapon is an object of great admiration along the way. Then one day Smollett spots some flowers in a meadow beside the road and orders his servant to go and pick one so he can identify it. ‘He delivered the musquetoon to Joseph, who began to tamper with it, and off it went with a prodigious report, augmented by the mountains that skirted the road.’ The mules panic and set off at a gallop. Joseph doesn’t worry that he may have accidentally shot his passengers; his first thought is for his animals. When he finally brings the wagon under control, he jumps down, examines the heads of the three mules and kisses them in turn. Later in the Travels, when Smollett is journeying by mule across the mountains from Nice to Turin, he sees figures in the distance and, thinking they must be ‘contrabandiers, a set of smuggling peasants, very bold and desperate’, he fires a warning shot from one of his pistols. It turns out there is no desperado, just an old acquaintance from Nice, a marquis, indeed. They continue the journey together and the only trouble they have is with the marquis’s mud-caked boots when they stop for the night. ‘He could neither drag them after him as he walked, nor disencumber his legs from them, without such violence as seemed almost sufficient to tear him limb from limb.’ Smollett presents a wonderful scene as they tie a rope to the marquis’s heel, then all the occupants of the inn drag the poor man from one end of the room to the other. My lasting memory of the hilarious and exasperating expedition with Tobias Smollett comes from a passage towards the end of the book when he is on the last leg of the journey back to Florence. It is a wild, wet, dark night, there has just been another exchange of unpleasantries with an innkeeper and Smollett decides that he and his wife will walk the last five miles to get to the gates of the city before they close. He persuades a man to carry a couple of their cases and they set off. Smollett is wrapped in a heavy greatcoat and pouring with sweat, wading knee-deep in mud and trying to support his poor wife, who is silently weeping, ‘half dead with terror and fatigue’. The man keeps getting too far ahead of them and Smollett worries that he will run off with their cases. ‘All I could do on these occasions’, he writes, ‘was to hollow as loud as I could, and swear horribly that I would blow his brains out.’ That is how I see him; stumbling along through the mud and rain, brandishing his stick and roaring into the night. He’s a great comic figure, he’s never daunted and I can’t help loving him.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Oliver Pritchett 2010


About the contributor

Oliver Pritchett still writes for the Sunday Telegraph. He recently returned from a holiday in Spain where he was polite to everybody.

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