« PreviousContinue »
mance of 'Tom Jones,' that exquisite picture of human manners, will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the Imperial Eagle of Austria.”
Smollett, his brother novelist, was a Scotsman, also of good family, but poor. He was born in 1721, educated at Dumbarton School and Glasgow, came to London as a surgeon, served on board ship as surgeon's mate at Carthagena, 1741, left the servicethen a bad and tyrannical one-lived for some time in Jamaica, and returned to London in 1746. In 1748 he produced his successful and most admired novel, “Roderick Random,” avowedly written in imitation of Lesage's "Gil Blas." In 1751 he published “Perigrine Pickle;" in 1753, “Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom;" in 1755, a version of “Don Quixote;" in 1756 he began the “Critical Review;" in 1758 published his “History of England;" in 1763-6 his “Travels;" and in 1769 “ Adventures of an Atom." In 1771 he died at Leghorn, in the fifty-first year of his age, worn out with work. We have not here spoken of his poems or his tragedies, since they may well be forgotten.
What is worthy in Smollett is his fun, drollery, knowledge of human nature, and his pictures of life of the time, and especially his portraits, drawn from the life of the sailors of that day. “He went up to London to fight his way," says a writer, "armed with courage, hunger, and keen wits. Yet you see somehow that he is a gentleman through all his battling and struggling, his poverty, his hard-fought successes, and his defeats.” But he is a gentleman of not a very delicate calibre : his heroes are rakes, and Scotch rakes, too, some of them with hardly an iota of goodness, except
jollity, merriment, and bold, brave hearts. His novels are relations of events many of which probably happened to the author, told straight on, without art, and without much skill in construction. Yet the fertility of invention is such that the reader is never tired; and the fun and drollery, the positive hearty laughter and humour, in them, are more plentiful than was ever seen before, or perhaps since. In “The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker” (published after his death, in three volumes, 1771) there is great invention of character: indeed one of his novels will tell the reader more of the manners and people of the day than a dozen histories. Yet no one would advise ladies to read these novels. Men may read them; but the coarseness of Smollett's language is occasionally revolting to a sensitive mind.
Of a very different calibre as an artist was Laurence Sterne; an author who holds a place in English literature which is quite unique, in the proper sense of that unpleasant and misused word. Sterne, as every body knows, was a clergyman, the “Reverend" Laurence Sterne. There is no one else at all like him ; no one can boast of precisely the same genius, humour, fancy, delicacy of touch, invention, and imagination. It says much for "blood” that these three great humorists, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, should all be men of old families. It says much also for the divine necessity which poverty induces that all were poor. Perhaps Sterne's father was the poorest. The captain of a marching regiment, he was the scion of an old Suffolk family, the crest of which was the famous starling. He dragged poor Mrs. Sterne and his family after him; and his celebrated son was born when the
regiment was at Clonmel, in Ireland, in 1713, and for the first ten years of his life followed his father in the baggage waggons of the regiment. Here we may dismiss Sterne père—an irascible, brave little man, kindhearted, and perchance like Uncle Toby. He was run through the body at Gibraltar, his son has told us, by a brother officer; the cause of the duel being appropriately a goose!
It was perhaps as well for Laurence that his father made his exit at the time he did. Richard Sterne had been Archbishop of York in James the Second's time, and lived at Elvington; and Sterne's cousin, the squire of that place, sent him to Jesus College, Cambridge, whence he took orders, and got the living of Sutton, and the prebendary of York. His wife married him for love, she having, as she told him when about (as she thought) to die, left him every shilling of her fortune; but Sterne's love did not last as did that of Fielding. Wife and husband got heartily tired of each other. Our author, when he became celebrated, fell in love with another woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Draper, the “Eliza” of his letters. He published his celebrated “Tristram Shandy,” his “Sermons,” his “Sentimental Journey." He became the rage of the town, danced attendance on the great, travelled abroad, and died in Bond Street, with only an old woman by him, who robbed his body of the gold sleeve-links of his shirt. When he died he left behind him the reputation of a first-rate and most original genius, second to none in his peculiar walk; and he was considered a man with a sentimental humour, but a bad heart. Perhaps some day Sterne's character will be successfully white-washed. As it is, we cannot resist the conviction forced on us that certain
geniuses are very unpleasant people, full, perhaps necessarily so, of thoughts only regarding themselves, careless and often cruel to others, sensitive to a fault themselves, forgetful of the feelings of their friends, and that great talents are a snare, that wit has a corrupting influence, which only true piety, combined with moral courage and humility can negative and throw off. In the succeeding chapter somewhat will be said about Sterne's works.