Monday, August 19, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE ADVENTURES OF SIR LAUNCELOT GREAVES” by Tobias Smollett (first published 1762)
There are some adventures in reading which you undertake for no particular reason, other than that you want to undertake them.

Some years ago, when I finished reading Don Quixote for the second time, I decided to investigate some of the many books that were imitations of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Imitations of Cervantes were quite common in England and France before the twentieth century. I bought a few of them and duly placed them on my shelves. There was Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, published in 1742, with its Quixotic hero the Reverend Abraham Adams. [Look up Joseph Andrews on the index at right]. There was Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), which, I regret to say, is still sitting unread on my shelf. Tipped off by a critical article, I discovered that Thackeray’s fourth-best-known novel The Newcomes (1854-55) has, in Colonel Newcome, a major character who models himself on the values of Don Quixote, even if the novel is a Victorian novel with a coherent (if baggy) plot, rather than a loose picaresque novel. I read it with great pleasure.

And then there was a work by Tobias Smollett (1721-71).

Let me admit at once my very mixed feelings about the dyspeptic and grumpy Scottish doctor who turned to literature, via copious hackwork, after doctoring in the Royal Navy. I think Smollett is one of those novelists who lives a half-life. He appears on any Eng.Lit. course about the development of the English novel in the eighteenth century, along with Defoe, Fielding and Richardson. But my impression is that he would be largely forgotten if he did not appear on such courses. Defoe was a garrulous liar who made up his stories as he went along, but he has enough verve to keep you reading. [Look up Colonel Jack on the index at right]. Fielding and even the pompous, prolix Richardson have their devotees outside Academe. [Look up Pamela on the index at right].

But Smollett?

The boy Charles Dickens read Smollett’s violent knockabout and was influenced by it. Most people have at least heard of his three best-known novels Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Humphrey Clinker. But are they actually read (outside university courses)? It’s not just that Smollett’s novels are all picaresque and loose in structure; but there is the author’s particular lack of sympathy for his own characters. Humphrey Clinker is a pleasantly gossipy epistolary novel about a holiday in Bath. But generally Smollett follows Le Sage’s Gil Blas in preferring real rogues to sympathetic characters, as in his Ferdinand, Count Fathom. And, as a doctor, he loves laying on the gross physical details.

And yet Smollett was one of the people who most publicised Cervantes’ work to an English audience.

This at last brings me to The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves.

Apparently Smollett wrote it shortly after having produced his own translation of Don Quixote. Apparently, too, he wrote it for serial publication and in great haste – and it shows! Picaresque is one thing, but picaresque with an extremely inconsistent central figure is a random affair at best and often sorry stuff. Anyway, for your edification, here is what happens:

Sir Launcelot Greaves has gone crazy (or has he?) because of his thwarted love for Aurelia Darnel, and he ventures forth as a knight errant, in eighteenth century England, on his steed Bronzomarte, accompanied by his squire Timothy Crabshaw who rides his own horse Gilbert.

Certainly Sir Launcelot sets out to right wrongs and is on the side of justice – but so often does Smollett make him the voice of common sense in his denunciations and social criticisms that even Smollett seems unsure whether he can sustain the idea that Sir Launcelot has gone crazy for love. Therefore Smollett arbitrarily creates Captain Crowe who, followed by his legal clerk Tom Clarke, aspires to emulate Sir Launcelot by becoming a knight errant too! So we have not one, but two, knights errant trotting around the countryside, and it is often Captain Crowe who does the crazier Quixotic stuff.

Let’s be clear about this. Much of The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves is crude, tiresome slapstick – pranksters daubing themselves with liquid phosphorous to frighten Captain Crowe with “ghosts” when he is keeping vigil in a village church; Launcelot Greaves frightening the unjust magistrate Gobble into justice by confronting him with the “ghost” of a man he thought dead; a mistakes-of-the-night scene at an inn etc. Not to mention the clanking machinery of romantic plot as Captain Crowe wins the estate out of which he has been cheated, Sir Launcelot wins Aurelia, Tom Clarke wins Dorothy Cowslip etc. I can imagine the boy Charles Dickens lapping it up and having his imagination fired. But I can’t really imagine anyone older than boyhood getting much joy out of it.

Yet having said all these dismissive things, I am bound to report that much of this slapdash effort still entertains.

Chapter 13 presents the merry little anecdote of two red-coated soldiers bullying villagers. When they are confronted by Sir Launcelot, they admit that they are merely tailors’ apprentices who have donned the uniforms they were supposed to be delivering, as they wished to gain some respect as they travelled. This could almost be The Captain from Kopenick.

Some strong comic characters are introduced and then dumped after a few scenes – the surgeon Fillet (a typical Smollett-ian name) and the misanthrope Ferret, although the latter returns as a charlatan fortune-teller in the last chapters.

On the whole the prose style is strong, muscular and straightforward. I was surprised at how few (eighteenth century) archaisms there were in the text – and this was a great advantage in such complicated action scenes as the four-way fight between Sir Launcelot, the rascally squire Sycamore, Captain Crowe, and Sycamore’s insinuating henchman Dawdle. Smollett’s prose is far less stilted than that of Sir Walter Scott, who was writing half a century later.

There are definite precursors of the young Dickens – the catch-phrases and tics of comic characters in particular – the way Captain Crowe uses nautical slang in every circumstance (like Captain Cuttle in Dombey and Son) and the way the lachrymose Tom Clarke keeps bursting into tears on the least provocation (like the “lone, lorn creature” in David Copperfield). One of the best chapters, Chapter 9, is a rough-and-tumble country election with Whig and Tory both equally satirised. It seems a direct ancestor of the Eatanswill election in Dicken’s own most picaresque (but much more humane) novel The Pickwick Papers and immediately brings to mind Hogarth’s series of paintings about a rigged country election.  The prison scenes (Chapters 20 and 21) are much harsher and more unsentimental than they would be in a Victorian novel, as is Chapter 23 where Sir Launcelot is confined to a madhouse.

This madhouse scene also exposes the novel’s inconsistency, for as Sir Launcelot discovers he is surrounded by lunatics, he reflects on his actions rationally and “he heartily repented of his knight errantry, as a frolic which might have very serious consequences, with respect to his future life and fortune”. A “frolic”, being cheerful and conscious practical joking, is neither the Quixotic delusion nor the madness-for-love from which we were told Sir Launcelot was suffering. Smollett is rumbled by his own vocabulary.

Interestingly, in this same madhouse chapter, Sir Launcelot further reflects that English lunacy laws are worse, because they are more inconsistent than, either the Bastille or the Inquisition, which are at least run by real justices and aimed at real criminals. Not all eighteenth century Britons saw foreigners as irredeemable inferiors.

It is also interesting to have the evil Ferret, in the novel’s last chapter, justifying his villainies with these words:

I look upon mankind to be in a state of nature; a truth which Hobbes has stumbled upon by accident. I think every man has a right to avail himself of his talents, even at the expense of his fellow creatures.”

Even in the eighteenth century, some people had hit upon the guiding principle of liberal market capitalism.

Having said all this, though, I do not urge you to rush out and buy a copy of The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. It is interesting in revealing the times in which it was written, it has some amusing moments, but it really is the work of a hack novelist dashing it off at speed to fulfil a contract. Maybe the right place for it is the bedside, where random dippings into it might turn up the palatable stuff. Or not.

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