Friday, May 18, 2012

The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett

Source of book: An e-book read on three different devices over the last two years. (Palm PDA, Kindle, and Android tablet.) This has been my “read while waiting in court” book.

Eighteenth Century pulp fiction? That might be one way to describe this book. Technically, it is a “Picaresque Novel”. The term comes from a Spanish genre about a picaro, a rogue or rascal. Originally, such a book would be about a low-born person who survives by his wit. Tom Jones would be an English example of the form. Smollett chose to use a higher-born protagonist, and turned his talents toward the satire of society.

Peregrine “Perry” Pickle is rejected by his rather nutty mother, ignored by his weak and diffident father, and is raised by his father’s friend, Hawser Trunnion, a retired naval commodore. Pickle grows up, is educated at Oxford, travels to France, squanders his fortune in debauchery and financial missteps, but is finally redeemed by his suffering and his marriage to the lovely Emilia.

As noted above, this has been a long term project. Since I first purchased a PDA back when they were actually popular, I have kept an e-book or two available for those inevitable times spent waiting in court. This book is pretty long, so it has taken me a while.

There were some strong and some weak points to this book. As I noted in my review of Tristram Shandy, a book which was written around the same time, it was popular to have extended stories within the stories. Unfortunately, these stories are often uninteresting compared to the main work. (In Tristram, the Slawkenbergius tale, which is apparently about church corruption in that time. In Pickle, The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, which is tedious and repetitive at best.) In general, Smollett tends to have a repetitive quality, wherein the same basic themes and events recur, with only minor variations.

There are some great characters (or at least caricatures) in this book, however. Trunnion and his former shipmates Hatchway and Pipes are amusing. I had no idea how many nautical metaphors were possible, but these characters do their best to use them all.

The misanthrope Cadwallader has his moments as well, being the more “modern” voice in the novel, after a fashion.

As a picaro, Pickle must of course indulge in practical jokes. Some of these are better than others. The scenes where he has Cadwallader pretend to be a fortune teller are amusing, and as applicable to twenty-first century credulity as to that of earlier times. Some of the other jokes seem more cruel than amusing. 

 Cadwallader Assumes the Character of a Fortune Teller, c.1805
Thomas Rowlandson

Also part of the genre is the travelogue. As in Tristram, the protagonist travels to France, in the manner of young gentlemen of that era. While Sterne elevates this convention to a poignant metaphor for the brevity of life, Smollett focuses instead on Pickle’s unsuccessful attempts to get laid. He is prevented by an ever increasing absurdity of circumstance. This is funny, for the first few times, but it eventually seems repetitive.

Although this book is historically interesting, it is not the best of its kind. Tristram Shandy is much better, both in its characterization and in its depth of writing.

A word of warning to those who are scandalized by bawdy writing: The Victorian Era was a reaction to the previous century, which contained sexual humor, loose morals, and a certain ribald use of language. There are even fart jokes, although they are told by the Belgians. This is not to say that there are graphic descriptions. In our modern times, we have become more explicit, and as a result, far less amusing.

In all, an alternately interesting and tedious book, with just enough good to keep me reading on through the mediocre.


  1. Thanks, Timothy! That was interesting and made me really want to pick up a good old Victorian era novel! :)

  2. I hadn't heard of this before. But your description left me snickering there at the end. I think you are right in saying that we are far more explicit these days and thus far less amusing.