Tobias Smollett (1721-1771)

Fathom was born in a wagon while his mother was transiting between European battles in the early 1700’s.  She made a sort of living by selling gin and underclothes to the soldiers she followed.  The boy was named after her sixth “husband” and he was raised on brandy and camp food.  During a battle in the 1716 war against Turkey Fathom’s mom rescued a colonel from death after a bloody engagement and in gratitude he adopted her and her son and took them to live with him in Prague.

Fathom was raised as one of the family, as a sort of brother to the colonel’s real son, Renaldo.  Fathom early acquired a soft, smooth social talent which enabled him to participate gracefully in public activities, whereas Renaldo, the more intelligent of the two, was rather inept and graceless at communal functions.  They were of the same age, and, at the appropriate time, they were both sent off to university in Vienna.  Renaldo studied and succeeded as a student but Fathom, pursuing his nefarious ways, fell into the hands of card-sharps and learned how to fleece neophyte enthusiasts.  He managed to win most of Renaldo’s money in short order, but gave it back to him just in order to demonstrate his non-existent open-handedness.

Renaldo was called home to join his father in another war, and Fathom was left by himself in the city.  Running low on money, Fathom befriended a jeweler’s daughter, Wilhelmina, and used her to extort money from the parents by various ruses.  One night, he was almost caught in Wilhelmina’s boudoir by her father. He climbed into the chimney to evade detection.  When the old man left he descended into the room, covered with soot causing Wilhelmina to scream at his sudden appearance, convinced that the devil was paying her a visit.  Several episodes of the sort transpire until Fathom, having attained a dubious reputation in the neighborhood, absconded with some of the father’s jewelry and a gold necklace belonging to the daughter.  He traveled to the military camp where Renaldo and his father are preparing to fight the French in another war.  While the father and son behave heroically in the battle, Fathom pretended to be sick.  Soon he was making money with his card-sharpery, and was accidently reunited with his tutor, the reprobate who introduced him into evil ways in Vienna, and, after a siege lasting six weeks, the two, having damaged their mutual characters in the army, deserted to the French.  Unfortunately, French discipline was stricter than what they were used to so that they were actually forced into combat.

Slightly wounded, Fathom and his friend, subsequent to an armistice, journeyed toward Paris with the monies they’d bilked from French soldiers.  While staying overnight in a village, Fathom hid his valuables, mistrusting his friend’s opportunism.  He was alone the next morning but his wealth was apparently untouched.  Fathom proceeded on his way, but got lost in a forest and was benighted in a lonely hovel during a severe storm.  He was locked into an attic with a dead body and realized that had fallen into the hands of murderers and thieves.  Changing clothes with the corpse, he fooled the outlaws and made his escape with his bag of lucre but he soon discovered, upon examining his loot, that his card-sharp friend had actually stolen his acquisitions and replaced them with rusty nails.

Fathom reaches Paris at last with a small amount of money which he uses to entice several British tourists, Sir Stentor and Sir Giles, into card-playing, but he soon realizes that the two are better sharks than he is and they thoroughly fleece him.  Distraught, Fathom lands a job as a violinist (the reader learns at this point that Fathom is an expert violinist and flautist) with the opera orchestra.  One of his boarding house neighbors was Ali Beker, a famished Spaniard who tells him a tragic tale:  he was guilty of poisoning his wife and daughter because he felt dishonored by their rejection of his choice for the daughter’s husband.  He also stabbed the interloper, Orlando, and left him for dead while he fled the country.

Being tired of supporting himself through music, Fathom takes a boat to England where his ventures continue along the same sorts of lines.  Eventually he turns himself into a doctor and does quite well for a while, curing patients by basically leaving them alone (unlike medical practices at the time, which seemed devoted to killing sufferers off in the shortest time possible) and rifling their possessions and money.  Soon his iniquitous behavior begins to darken his status, however, and he’s forced into debt and spends time in King’s Bench prison.

Meanwhile, Renaldo has made his way to London with the love of his life, Monimia.  Fathom, recently released, is welcomed by the pair and is encouraged to continue his medical practice.  Fathom falls for Monimia and does everything in his power to split up the couple so he can have Monimia to himself.  He lies, cheats, steals, and finally manages to make them hate each other, but his pursuit of Monimia is fruitless, as she is rescued by a nice lady, Ms. Clement.  Renaldo has returned to Europe.  Monimia apparently dies from grief and is entombed in a local church.

At length, Renaldo becomes aware of Fathom’s perfidy and hastens back to London to throw himself on his sweetheart’s grave, but (spoiler’s ahead) finds her alive instead.  She was rescued by Ms. Clement and hidden from Fathom’s greedy clutches.  At this point Fathom is on the point of death himself, suffering total rejection by society for his evil ways.

Everything turns out advantageously:  Renaldo marries Monimia and they forgive the repentant Fathom;  Ali Beker turns out to be a Spaniard named Don Diego do Zelos and Renaldo is revealed as Orlando, the victim of Zelos wrath;  Monimia is his daughter;  Zelos marries Ms. Clement, and so forth…

This novel was not like the other ones Smollett wrote.  It was really more of a polemic attack on the society found in London at the time.  Smollett had been a Naval Surgeon in his earlier life and was familiar with the corruption underlying the prevalent medical practices, particularly in the larger cities.  Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and herbalists were all commonly intertwined in defrauding the ill by prolonging treatments and overcharging for services rendered.  In fact, the book was a diatribe on human behavior in general, detailing the widespread dishonesty of the upper classes, in which double-dealing, cheating, blackmail, kickbacks and every conceivable crookedness apparently flourished.  He goes into quite a bit of detail explaining exactly how diverse illegal and immoral practices were perpetrated.  It was quite enlightening and casts a clearer view of society at the time.

Smollett wrote and lived at about the same time as Henry Fielding and some of his rants were redolent of the latter’s fulminations against landowners and politicians.

I can’t say i enjoyed this book as well as some of his others;  i still like Peregrine Pickle the best, although Roderick Random is also delightful.  But it certainly revealed Smollett’s anger over the criminal nature of the urban world he lived in and, perhaps, about human nature in particular.  His diary covering the last year or so of his life was the best indicator of his crankiness, though.  He complained about inns, coaches, people who couldn’t speak English, diseases, vermin, and a host of other discomforts that tormented him in his travels.  But it must be said that he was in poor health, and suffered pain from the terrible roads and inhospitable conditions obtainable at the time.



    1. it required a bit of persistence to plow through it… there was a lot of back-of-the-hand-on-forehead sort of Victorian angst in it… and some surprisingly 21st C. humor…

      Liked by 2 people

    1. that was one of the impressions i got out of it… i don’t think Smollett lived a very happy life, but his earlier works were a lot more humor-oriented, so maybe it was just a case of old-person grouchiness, which i am very aware exists, being one myself lol…


  1. Writers taking on urban corruption have a long history. They may have actually made the world a little better by challenging the corruption.

    I have not read Smollett. I would probably start with Peregrine Pickle.

    Great review.


    1. i was pretty bemused by the whole indictment of London culture and of the medical scene. couldn’t help but draw parallels to modern times and events. Actually, i think Roderick Random might suit you better than PP: it’s more swashbuckling and piratical; but they’re both good; if i get some extra time i’ll go back and reread them…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sylvia: the comments order got mixed up…. the writing style is a little different and and the story is rather like penelope on the railroad tracks with the villain chortling in the background, but once the reader gets accustomed to it, it’s pretty easy to follow… but as i mentioned to Brian, this work might not be the best to start Smollett with…


    1. good points, RT… it’s interesting reading, tho… if nothing else, it indicates how much alike that culture and our own are…


  2. I haven’t read any of Smollett’s works yet but I was hoping to read Roderick Ransom this year. For some reason I get Smollett and Laurence Sterne mixed up. In any case, the title of both of their books make me want to laugh. I might stay away from this one though. Thanks for the warning.


    1. Sterne was a curate and Smollett was a doctor… i can’t stand Sterne: i read his short work once and i thought it was pointless and dumb… the major one i got two pages into it and was totally disgusted: not my container of favorite beverage at all…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like these soap opera stories. This one reminds me of Thackery’s Vanit Fair. Fathom seems to be the male counterpart of Thackery’s Becky. I’m surprised you didn’t like it since you wrote about it in a way that makes it sound interesting.


    1. well, i can’t say i didn’t totally mislike it, but it just wasn’t one of my all-time favorites… and Becky is a good analogy; perhaps she wasn’t quite as ruthless as Fathom, tho…


  4. Fathom turns up, a reformed character working as a village apothecary, in The Tour of Humphrey Clinker, but only for a few pages. I find Smollett thoroughly readable, but always about to be hard to bear. He reminds me of Stendhal’s assertion that the wisest man in Britain is mad for thirty hours a day, and that every Briton needs to vent his spleen often. Hard to bear: near the end of Roderick Random, the narrator complains of the hardship of his duty on a slaver taking Africans to Argentina.


    1. welcome, George… i vaguely recall the RR reference and altho i read HC, Fathom in that one doesn’t ring a bell… impressive that you can remember things like that… i think i’m envious…


  5. Fascinating review–I’d never even heard of this one. I’ve only read Random, and it sounds like I shouldn’t make this my next Smollett–I’ll stick with PP.

    Don’t give up on Tristram Shandy! It’s pretty whacked out, but after a try or two I came to love its craziness.


    1. i’ll give it another try… someday… i’d much rather read PP again, tho… i’ve been reading Strunk @ White on style and we’ll see if i can figure out the tense situation which seems to confuse me a bit haha… past preterit subjunctive and all that


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