Way Beyond Retro: Tobias Smollett – The Adventures of Roderick Random

Welcome to another installment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Adventures of Roderick Random was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. Roderick Random will be the first of four 18th century novels in this series, as the next three books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Roderick Random (1748), Smollett’s first novel, is full of the dazzling vitality characteristic of all his work, as well as of his own life.

Roderick is the boisterous and unprincipled hero who answers life’s many misfortunes with a sledgehammer. Left penniless, he leaves his native Scotland for London and on the way meets Strap, an old schoolfellow. Together they undergo many adventures at the hands of scoundrels and rogues. Roderick qualifies as a surgeon’s mate and is pressed as a common soldier on board the man-of-war Thunder. In a tale of romance as well as adventure, Roderick also finds time to fall in love…

Smollet drew on his own experiences as a surgeon’s mate in the navy for ther memorable scenes on board ship, and the novel combines documentary realism with great good humour and panache.

The eigthteenth century saw the birth of the modern novel, from the early (actually pre-eigthteenth century) works of Aphra Behn to the later works of Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollett and many others. The novel wouldn’t become the leading form of literature until the onset of the Victorian Age, but to follow its development from its infancy to the more modern forms is fascinating.

Eighteenth century novels are an acquired taste. They have both a far more moralistic flavour and a more salacious tone than their currently more widely read, nineteenth century Romantic and Victorian counterparts. The novels can be dry (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, which bored me to tears), byzantine (Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, which I just couldn’t slog through) and humorous (Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones made me laugh despite its moralistic core), but they are all factors in the evolution of the novel as we know it. Tobias Smollett is one of the lesser known authors of the period. He was mainly an author of the picaresque novel, who acknowledged his inspiration by Le Sage and Cervantes, he even published translations of the former’s Gil Blas and Cervantes’ Don Quichote. The Adventures of Roderick Random is his first published novel. 

The Oxford World’s Classics edition I own, is edited and introduced by Paul-Gabriel Boucé. The notes Mr. Boucé provides are very helpful, especially to understand some of the nautical terms and theatrical references. The introduction y Boucé and the preface written by Smollett are a bit dry, but once the story starts and gathers pace it’s truly entertaining. The text is surprisingly readable. There is not as much old and obscure wordage as you might expect. The words that are difficult are often the nautical terms mentioned above or references to era-specific terms that have just fallen out of use today.

The main theme of the book is money: the possession of it, the want of it and the ways of obtaining it. And those ways go pretty far. Of course this is not surprising in an era where you were either (independently) rich, really hard-working on a living wage or poor; an obsession with money and the independence and security the possession of it brings, would almost seem natural. Roderick’s greatest wish is to be independently wealthy, as he would have been if he hadn’t been orphaned and disowned by his grandfather. He tries several careers, but marrying an heiress seems the easiest and surest way to attain his goals. His schemes to marry well are pretty outrageous and offensive. Consider the following passage for example, where Roderick makes a deal with one of his friends, Mr. Banter:

‘As they are both utter strangers to life, it is a thousand to one that the girl shall be picked up by some scoundrel or other at Bath, if I don’t provide for her otherwise. – You are a well-looking fellow, Random, and can behave as demurely as a quaker.- Now if you will give me an obligation for five hundred pouns, to be paid six months after your marriage, I will put you in a method of carrying her in spite of all opposition.’
      This proposal was too advantageous for me to be refused: The writing was immediately drawn and executed; … (p. 323)

And a little later in the story, after Roderick has met Miss Snapper and her mother, he makes a calculated decision to pursue the girl:

During this unsocial interval, my pride and interest maintained a severe conflict, on the subject of Miss Snapper, whom the one represented as unworthy of my notice, and the other proposed as the object of my whole attention: The advantages and disadvantages attending such a match, were opposed to one another by my imagination; and at length, my judgement gave it so much in favour of the firs,t that I resolved to prosecute my scheme, with all the address in my power. (p. 333)

Roderick, and most of his friends for that matter, is a cad, plain and simple. This is also illustrated by the way he shamelessly uses his friend Strap. Strap would share his last bread crumb with Roderick, who at one point would rather be shot of the embarrasing acquintance, until he needs someone to pay his way and he takes Strap’s devotion pretty much for granted. But for all that, Roderick is still extremely likeable. The book is told in his often humerous first person point of view and as such, his less likeable actions are softened and smoothed a bit, so that the reader doesn’t realise their true nature until she takes a step back from the text.

My favourite part of the book is the part where Roderick is at sea. Partly this is because I love old sea adventures and partly because for all his manoeuvering and intriguing for advancement, at sea it all comes down to what he can do for himself. It also leads to the somewhat Deus-Ex-Machina solution to the novel, which provides the “happily ever after”-ending for almost every character. But then these endings are part and parcel of the picaresque and prevalent in a lot of novels of the age.

My favourite line in the book made me giggle because it seemed an eigthteenth century “yo mama” joke:

She’s a thousand times more chaste than the mother who bore you; and I will assert her honour with my heart’s blood!

So is there anything speculative about The Adventures of Roderick Random? No, not at all. It’s a straight up picaresque novel, with some adventure thrown in. But it is still a book that deserves to be read. Both for its place in English literary history and for the story itself. It’s a diverting read and while not as iconic as the works of Swift and Defoe, at least as good as and far more readable than the works of Richardson and Sterne.