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  • Fathoming Intelligence:The "Impartial" Novelist and the Passion for News in Tobias Smollett's Ferdinand Count Fathom
  • Lee F. Kahan (bio)

Tobias Smollett's Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) occupies a place in the history of the novel chiefly because of the extended definition of the genre that the author provides in his preface to the work: "A Novel is a large diffused picture, comprehending the characters of life, disposed in different groups, and exhibited in various attitudes, for the purposes of an uniform plan ... to which every individual figure is subservient. But this plan cannot be executed with propriety, probability or success, without a principle personage to attract the attention, unite the incidents, unwind the clue of the labyrinth, and at last close the scene by virtue of his own importance."1 As John Barrell has astutely demonstrated, this definition is consistent with Smollett's narrative practice in novels such as Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, where characters' unrestrained mobility enables them to map the "differentiated, fragmented society" through which they circulate, thereby illustrating how that "society can be grasped in terms of relation, and not simply of difference."2 However, critics have found the definition harder to apply to the novel in which it appears, partly because [End Page 229] Ferdinand Count Fathom, despite its title, lacks the sustained single "principle personage" that Smollett identifies as the key to a novel's unity. While the first two-thirds of the book focus on the villainous Fathom, he virtually disappears in the final third, where the virtuous Renaldo replaces him as the novel's central character. This is one reason, of the several that I will address in the course of this article, why many Smollett critics find the novel merely diffuse, devoid of any "uniform plan" that could render coherent its variety of incidents. Such is the opinion of Paul-Gabriel Boucé, who describes the work as a disconnected series of events "without any transition brought about by the unfolding of the story."3 The few critics who have attempted to redeem Ferdinand Count Fathom from Boucé's labelling it as the worst of Smollett's fictions have often sought the novel's "principle of order" in the very discontinuity that appears to disrupt it. Jerry Beasley, for example, takes Smollett at his word when the latter defines the novel as a "large diffused picture." Instead of bemoaning the lack of narrative progression in the novel, which Beasley admits is "superficially linear" at best, he argues that we should examine it as we would a series of "canvasses," the collective meaning of which lies not in the pictures themselves but in their "juxtaposition."4 Such attempts, however, must confront the fact that Smollett himself associates these canvasses with disorder, unless they ultimately contribute to the portrait of a single character. Alas, we appear to be back where we started.

Perhaps, then, we should start somewhere else. The explicitness of the prefatory definition ("A Novel is ...") has arguably led critics to ignore how Smollett immediately supplements it with a second, though more oblique, definition of the genre, one that refashions the identity of his "principle personage" and his role in the novel. While the definition in the preface indicates that the main character has the ability to elucidate the meaning of the [End Page 230] narrative, Smollett begins the Adventures proper by questioning that very authority, which he uses as a foil to defend his own authorial position. Playing devil's advocate, Smollett starts by asking a question that might be on the mind of his audience: would not Fathom be able to provide the reader with a more complete and accurate account of his adventures than the novelist, since they are, after all, his adventures? Such would be the conclusion of Cardinal de Retz, whose theory of history writing Smollett summarizes in the novel's opening sentences. De Retz argues that the character's proximity to events and knowledge of his own motives make him a more accurate reporter than historians like Smollett. The latter "must of necessity, be subject to mistakes ... unless they derive their intelligence from the candid confession of the person whose character they...


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pp. 229-257
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