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...
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