Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986

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The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, Tobias Smollett’s second novel, has never been as popular as his first, The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), or his last, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). He wished it to be a more polished and panoramic work, with wider appeal, but a variety of circumstances flowed together to frustrate that hope. It met with a mixed reception when it was published in 1751, a response that persists.

Smollett was the most prolific and venturesome of the eighteenth century’s novelists. After 1754, when Henry Fielding died and Samuel Richardson published his last work, he was often praised as the most talented novelist in the language. At the same time, he was one of England’s foremost political journalists, serving as defender of both prime minister and monarch and directing two major reviews. He also came to be regarded as the most influential historian after David Hume and was easily the most productive, publishing three dozen volumes within a decade. In the 1750’s and 1760’s, he wrote or edited more than seventy volumes of nonfiction. These interests and the quarrels they fostered help explain the peculiar flavor of The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle.

Controversy became Smollett’s forte, as a conservative, pugnacious Scot making his way in Whiggish London. For his fiction, he chose two forms that made contention not only possible but also inevitable. The first is a modification of the picaresque—the journey of a roguish outsider through contemporary places and manners. The second is satire—the relentless exposure of fools and knaves. In each new novel, he seeks a different mixture of exotic adventure and harsh ridicule. In The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle he creates twice as many characters—226—and covers nearly three times as many pages as he did in the earlier The Adventures of Roderick Random, and he balances exotic adventure and contemporary scandal. Peregrine Pickle passes through a three-part series of peregrinations that reveals his hot blood, his thirst for adventure, and his sympathy for the downtrodden. First comes his youth, with ribald stories of life at sea and at school; then comes the panorama of the Grand Tour; finally, there is his life as a fortune hunter in London.

What distinguishes the work, then and now, are the three long, interpolated narratives of contemporary scandal that make up a third of the novel, more than those of any earlier English novel. These insert stories may have been evoked by the growing taste for journalistic narrative. As long as a novel in itself, “Memoirs of Lady Vane”—Frances Vane, a prominent socialite with a taste for the sensual—echoes parts of Peregrine’s story, especially his jousts with the money-hungry, and follows John Cleland’s tale of Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748). The others are those of Daniel Mackercher, who assisted James Annesley in a legal battle with the Earl of Anglesey, and of the Count d’Alvarez, captured and found in bondage in Bohemia. Critics appreciate these digressions in themselves but doubt their contribution to the novel. Similarly, critics applaud the gusto and the originality of the opening part, with its theme of home, family, and surrogates and its gallery of unforgettable characters: Pipes, Grizzle, Keypstick, Hatchway, and Trunnion. This section is notable for many reasons but especially for the more than fifty pages Smollett uses to introduce the major characters other than Peregrine. Such a modernist device provides a prehistory of the title character, a foretaste of the social and emotional world into which he will grow. Historians of child rearing and education have studied it to advantage.

The second part of the novel, which takes place on the Continent, disappoints many. Neither originality nor precision is as apparent, as Smollett resorts to a lamer form of satire. He surely knew the territory, for during the summer of 1750 he traveled to Paris and the Low Countries, probably gathering material to be used in the novel. There is a Swiftian quality to the relentless exposure of stupidity in this section. However, Peregrine cannot be as successful a moral vehicle as Gulliver, for he is too proud and venal to be a proper judge. He does not long remain an amused spectator of French affectation, for example, but soon becomes an active participant.

Part three regains some of the opening vigor, however, as Peregrine endures the trial by adversity. Scalded by misfortune and despair, he then recuperates by the generosity of friends, by the love of Emilia, and by the inheritance of his father’s estate. Many readers doubt Peregrine’s deserts; he is granted such rewards rather than earning them. The novel provides more of a dazzling world to examine than a sympathetic hero to admire. Even those who admire the exuberance of that world find their admiration impeded by the length of the interpolated stories that bulk so large in this section. Although they upset the symmetry of the novel, these stories do support its theme. Long and now shorn of their original scandal, Lady Vane’s memoirs prove that the behavior of the upper classes can be brutal and immoral. All of the inset pieces reveal the fate of those who would be ruled by their passions rather than by the dictates of moral common sense.

So, too, with their creator. In this novel, Smollett is more troubled and troubling than he was in his first and last fictions. Little is known of his life while composing the novel, but one can presume a measure of disquiet never fully removed. Smollett never possessed the gift of repose, and, in this period, he seems more irascible than ever. This explains his quarrels with more than a dozen contemporary figures whom he challenged, for at least a short while, until he found other opponents. He wanted a direct and unmediated outlet for his antagonisms and soon found one in his work in political reviews.