- Travels through France and Italy by Tobias Smollett
Now mainly known for his novels, particularly The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), Tobias Smollett was also a doctor, a historian, a compiler of encyclopaedic works, the founding editor of the important journal the Critical Review, and a great travel writer. His Travels through France and Italy (1766) is one of the best travel narratives of the eighteenth century and merits a high place in the British travelwriting tradition. Many readers, however, only know Smollett the travel writer as “Smelfungus,” the name he was branded with by Laurence Sterne in A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). As Frank Felsenstein explains in the Broadview edition of Smollett’s book, Sterne’s jibe stands as one of the great literary put-downs of all time, which was so effective that it “ruined the reputation of Travels through France and Italy” (437), sending it into relative obscurity until the twentieth century. To this day, Sterne continues to cast a shadow over Smollett’s achievement.
Felsenstein has done much in his career to give Smollett’s Travels its proper due, most notably with his 1979 Clarendon edition of the book and its paperback version in the Oxford World’s Classics series, which for many years provided readers with an inexpensive, but expertly annotated edition of the text. Given that the World’s Classics edition is no longer in print, the appearance of the Broadview edition (also in paperback), which is based on the World’s Classics edition, is a welcome event. Along with being superbly annotated and providing a fine introduction, a chronology of Smollett’s life, and useful bibliographies and [End Page 798] indexes, it offers ten helpful appendices containing selections from Smollett’s correspondence, relevant passages from his rivals’ travel narratives, reactions to Travels (both English and French) from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and information about the Grand Tour, art criticism, and other related topics. Together these materials allow students and general readers to gain a broader and deeper understanding of Smollett’s achievement than was possible with prior editions.
Felsenstein’s edition is especially useful in helping readers make sense of the controversial narrator, whose distinctive personality is stamped on every page. Smollett recounts in epistolary form a two-year journey he embarked upon at a low point in his life, when he was in poor health, grieving over his only child’s death, and shaken by the failure of the Briton (a journal he edited in support of Lord Bute’s ministry). As narrator, Smollett speaks often of his ailments and can come across as an illtempered individual who is quick to vent his ire when confronted with dirty lodgings, inflated prices, or impertinent functionaries. Whatever one thinks of the narrator as a human being, there is no question that he is entertaining: many of the book’s delights come from seeing in action the figure of the indignant traveller who refuses to be abused. And as Felsenstein points out, Smollett’s skills as a novelists are at work throughout his Travels as mundane experiences are transformed into amusing stories (10), everyday scenes become material for “satirical” sketches (18), and “spleen” is “turned to literary advantage” to become the substance of art (12).
Of course, this figure of the splenetic traveller is what Sterne ridiculed. He not only lampooned Smollett, but also claimed that Smollett’s “spleen and jaundice” had caused him to render reality as a reflection of “his miserable feelings” (438–39). This charge—that Travels presents a warped vision of the world because its author is warped—did significant and long-lasting harm to Smollett’s credibility. Felsenstein does much to disprove it, arguing that of the two travel writers, Smollett is the more credible guide. In Appendix D, for example, he produces some of Sterne’s letters written while travelling in France, in which Sterne voices complaints that are remarkably similar in tone and substance to those Smollett expressed in his Travels. In composing A...