Monday, November 18, 2019

Tobias Smollett: Peregrine Pickle (1751)

1769 Print by Charles Grignion after Henry Fuseli

[Image source: . The scene is from Chapter II. The one-eyed Commodore Trunnion attacks Lieutenant Hatchway with his crutch after one sarcastic crack too many. Hatchway fends him off with his elevated wooden leg. On the left, Tom Pipes looks on undisturbed. The only person to whom this nightly performance is new is the phlegmatic figure on the right: Gamaliel Pickle, future father of the hero. The person in the doorway ought to be the landlord feigning astonishment, but I can't explain the flamboyant headgear.]

I've been racking my brains about how to encapsulate The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle for others and for my own later self. Because, let's face it,  in the internet era the occasions when we actually read through an 800 page novel are all too rare. In the end I've decided to just paste one of its 114 chapters (a short one).

Peregrine takes leave of his Aunt and Sister, sets out from the Garison, parts with his Uncle and Hatchway on the Road, and with his Governor arrives in safety at DoverThis, however, was the last effort of invention which they practised upon him; and everything being now prepared for the departure of his godson, that hopeful youth in two days took leave of all his friends in the neighbourhood, was closeted two whole hours with his aunt, who inriched him with many pious advices, recapitulated all the benefits which, through her means, had been conferred upon him since his infancy, cautioned him against the temptations of lewd women, who bring many a man to a morsel of bread, laid strict injunctions upon him to live in the fear of the Lord and the true Protestant faith, to eschew quarrels and contention, to treat Mr. Jolter with reverence and regard, and above all things to abstain from the beastly sin of drunkenness, which exposeth a man to the scorn and contempt of his fellow-creatures, and, by divesting him of reason and reflection, renders him fit for all manner of vice and debauchery. She recommended to him oeconomy, and the care of his health, bad him remember the honour of his family, and in all the circumstances of his behaviour, assured him, that he might always depend upon the friendship and generosity of the commodore; and finally, presenting him with her own picture set in gold, and an hundred guineas from her privy purse, embraced him affectionately, and wished him all manner of happiness and prosperity.
     Being thus kindly dismissed by Mrs. Trunnion, he locked himself up with his sister Julia, whom he admonished to cultivate her aunt with the most complaisant and respectful attention, without stooping to any circumstance of submission that she should judge unworthy of her practice; he protested, that his chief study should be to make her amends for the privilege she had forfeited by her affection for him; intreated her to enter into no engagement without his knowledge and approbation, put into her hand the purse which he had received from his aunt, to defray her pocket expenses in his absence, and parted from her, not without tears, after she had for some minutes hung about his neck, kissing him and weeping in the most pathetic silence.
    Having performed these duties of affection and consanguinity overnight, he went to bed, and was by his own direction, called at four o'clock in the morning, when he found the post-chaise, coach and riding-horses ready at the gate, his friends Gauntlet and Hatchway on foot, the commodore himself almost dressed, and every servant in the garrison assembled in the yard, to wish him a good journey. Our hero shook each of these humble friends by the hand, tipping them at the same time with marks of his bounty; and was very much surprized when he could not perceive his old attendant Pipes among the number. When he expressed his wonder at this disrespectful omission of Tom, some of those present ran to his chamber, in order to give him a call, but his hammock and room were both deserted, and they soon returned with an account of his having eloped. Peregrine was disturbed at this information, believing that the fellow had taken some desperate course, in consequence of his being dismissed from his service, and began to wish that he had indulged his inclination, by retaining him still about his person. However, as there was now no other remedy, he recommended him strenuously to the particular favour and distinction of his uncle and Hatchway, in case he should appear again; and as he went out of the gate, was saluted with three chears by all the domestics in the family.
The commodore, Gauntlet, lieutenant, Peregrine, and Jolter went into the coach together, that they might enjoy each other's conversation as much as possible, resolving to breakfast at an inn upon the road, where Trunnion and Hatchway intended to bid our adventurer farewel; the valet de chambre got into the post-chaise, the French lacquey rode one horse and led another, one of the valets of the garison mounted at the back of the coach; and thus the cavalcade set out on the road to Dover.
As the commodore could not bear the fatigue of jolting, they travelled at an easy pace during the first stage; so that the old gentleman had an opportunity of communicating his exhortations to his godson, with regard to his conduct abroad: he advised him, now that he was going into foreign parts, to be upon his guard against the fair weather of the French politesse, which was no more to be trusted than a whirlpool at sea. He observed that many young men had gone to Paris with good cargoes of sense, and returned with a great deal of canvas, and no ballast at all, whereby they became crank all the days of their lives, and sometimes carried their keels above water. He desired Mr. Jolter to keep his pupil out of the clutches of those sharking priests who lie in wait to make converts of all young strangers, and in a particular manner cautioned the youth against carnal conversation with the Parisian dames, who, he understood, were no better than gaudy fire-ships ready primed with death and destruction.
    Peregrine listened with great respect, thanking him for his kind admonitions, which he faithfully promised to observe. They halted and breakfasted at the end of the stage, where Jolter provided himself with a horse, and the commodore settled the method of corresponding with his nephew; and the minute of parting being arrived, the old commander wrung his godson by the hand, saying, 'I wish thee a prosperous voyage and good cheer, my lad; my timbers are now a little crazy, d'ye see; and God knows if I shall keep afloat till such time as I see thee again; but, howsomever, hap what will, thou wilt find thyself in a condition to keep in the line with the best of thy fellows.' He then reminded Gauntlet of his promise to call at the garison in his return from Dover, and imparted something in a whisper to the governor, while Jack Hatchway unable to speak, pulled his hat over his eyes, and squeezing Peregrine by the hand, gave him an iron pistol of curious workmanship, as a memorial of his friendship. Our youth, who was not unmoved on this occasion, received the pledge, which he acknowledged with the present of a silver tobacco-box, that he had bought for this purpose; and the two lads of the castle getting into the coach, were driven homewards, in a state of silent dejection.
    Godfrey and Peregrine seated themselves in the post-chaise, and Jolter, the valet de chambre and lacquey bestriding their beasts, they proceeded for the place of their destination, at which they arrived in safety that same night, and bespoke a passage in the pacquet-boat which was to sail next day.

(Peregrine Pickle Chapter XXXVII (1st edition, 1751) -- corresponds to Chapter XXXIII in the 1758 revision)

It may justly be complained that my sample chapter fails to represent the book's hard-boiled character. That is true. Be assured that the advice of his guardians has no apparent influence on young Peregrine's conduct.

But still, there's a warm-hearted side to Peregrine Pickle too.

Here, anyway, is the hero within the affectionate "family" that's adopted him.  (Tom Pipes, you won't be surprised to learn, has set his heart on accompanying Peregrine, and turns up during a storm in mid-Channel.)

Peregrine's biological parents have rejected him. Smollett doesn't trouble to think up a complicated explanation; his mother just loathes him. It's stark and credible.

But he's been indulgently brought up by the immortal Commodore, who married his aunt -- though that hardly tells the story. (Aunt Grizzel's fondness for Peregrine, admittedly, is mainly motivated by the thought of spiting her sister-in-law.) Peregrine is a strapping lad, hot-headed, satirical, mischievous and handsome. He makes a lot of trouble. His attachment to that nautical trio the Commodore, Hatchway and Pipes is prominent among his rather few redeeming features. Peregrine's relations with women (including his beloved Emilia) aren't likely to win much approval. An unfriendly description of Peregrine could make him sound like a grossly over-privileged Bullingdon-style rake, who ceaselessly persecutes those less fortunate than himself.

And should the hero of a picaresque novel in the Spanish tradition be quite so wealthy, we wonder? The narrative engine of Gil Blas (Smollett had published the classic translation in 1748),  is the hero's need to make a living. Peregrine never has any thought of working, until, late in the book, he decides to go into politics; which, ironically, promptly results in the loss of what remains of his money.

But as it turns out, this gentrified variant on the picaresque works really well. To give him his due Peregrine is also loyal (in his own fashion), generous, and an enemy to all forms of oppression. He has other qualities that, if not exactly virtues, are attractive and healthy: spontaneity, warm passions, unaffected emotion, a total absence of insincerity or hypocrisy (except, of course, when executing one of his innumerable cruel pranks). And he often regrets his own misdeeds.

No man was more capable of moralizing upon Peregrine's misconduct than himself; his reflections were extremely just and sagacious, and attended with no other disadvantage, but that of occurring too late.

(Ch. XLV)

This we can relate to with some sympathy. But the paragraph then turns rather more sour. Peregrine has earnestly begged Emilia to write to him in Paris, but by the time her note arrives he's focussed on more glittering sexual triumphs, so ignores it. There's a volatility in the hero's attitudes (and in the reader's attitude to him).

If Peregrine is sometimes superhuman and sometimes subhuman, he also makes a surprisingly good Everyman. Some qualities he shares with his author (e.g. the satire, the hot temper). Peregrine on his continental travels is often quite obviously and naively standing in for Smollett himself (who travelled abroad in 1750 during the composition of Peregrine Pickle). At such times Peregrine is an unobtrusively normative and right-hearted observing eye. In Smollett's unwearying and rigorously non-self-analytical narrative, these potentially contradictory aspects of his hero make him, I think, more convincing. For example, Peregrine generally breaks free from the control of his pedantic and ineffectual governor Jolter; but every now and then, he confers with him and even accepts his advice. There's an elasticity to the relationship, as too with Pipes, Hatchway, Emilia herself and her brother (the Gauntlet of the above chapter). The relationships and attitudes change from encounter to encounter, they are not completely predictable.


Peregrine Pickle is, I suppose, in the hinterland of "English literature". It meant much to Scott, who admired its fertility of invention, its breadth and its poetry; and to Dickens, on whom it was enormously influential. (It's still a slight shock, when  Peregrine is finally cast into the Fleet for debt, to discover so many foreshadowings, not only of Pickwick's imprisonment, but of those supreme pages of Dickens in which he describes the Dorrit family's life in the Marshalsea.)

But the book is still usually described in slightly apologetic terms: it gets compared unfavourably with Tom Jones (1749), or with Smollett's own more admired (and shorter) novels Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker. Probably this perception goes back, not so much to the initially poor reviews (great books often get poor reviews), but to Smollett's revision (1758), which eliminated some of the coarser episodes and some of the attacks on public figures; it feels like an admission that Peregrine Pickle wasn't quite as it should be. Despite this doubtful start, it became much relished by the public for the next eighty years. Editions and illustrations abound.

The open quality of the novel and its hero give it, I think, a distinctive kind of appeal; though some may feel this openness goes too far when it admits the enormous digression of Lady Vane's Memoirs (as well as the briefer one about the Annesley case). They're interesting narratives, but they raise different kinds of questions than those that a fiction can resolve. Perhaps the real meaning we should place on the revision is that Smollett had stumbled on a literary form that was intrinsically open-ended.

1810 print by John Dadley after Luke Clennell

[Image source: . This is Emilia, surprised and disgusted by the contents of "Peregrine's" letter... actually a travesty cooked up by Pipes after unintentionally destroying the original (Ch XXII; revised edn Ch XIX).]

1823 illustration by George Cruikshank

[Image source: . On the ramparts of Antwerp: the duel (fomented by Peregrine) between the painter Pallet and his curiously-never-named companion the doctor (left). Peregrine is the doctor's second. Pipes, acting as Pallet's second, is preventing his retreat (Ch LXVIII; revised edition Ch LXIII.]

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