by Iain Bamforth

In Smollett’s Footsteps

August 14, 2015 | by Iain Bamforth

THIS cannot be the south of France, (said I to myself) it must be the Highlands of Scotland!’ In Letter XII of his occasionally grumpy but entertaining Travels through France and Italy, written in Nice on December 6, 1763, Tobias Smollett, M.D., surgeon, translator of Don Quixote and author of various picaresque adventures dedicated to the doings of Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Ferdinand Count Fathom (among others), recounts the time spent at Fréjus, ‘the Forum Julianum of the antients’. He also dwells on the day he climbed on the back of a mule and hiked up to the mountains behind the city in order to inspect the famous aqueducts left by the Roman water engineers. Smollett and his Jamaican wife Anne had left London with a couple of servants a few months beforehand. They were fleeing two calamities: the death of their only child Elizabeth and the failure of the newspaper The Briton, which Smollett had edited in support of the government of the Earl of Bute, negotiator of terms with the French after British victory in what was essentially the first global conflict, the Seven Years War (1756-1763). They were hoping to find a climate that might restore them to health.

A few years ago I climbed these mountains to see the aqueduct for myself. Part of it runs close to the fortified village of Mons, high up in the hills behind Fayence and Grasse – respectively famous for pottery and perfumes – and offers a panoramic view of the distant Bay of Cannes and, weather conditions permitting, the island of Corsica crouched against the horizon. The aqueduct lunges out of a rocky spur of the gorge cut by the Siagnole river, a little below the village, which still uses part of the old waterway for its own supply, and is at least forty kilometres from the former Roman city with its harbour on the Mediterranean. Pick and chisel strokes gouged by the workmen on the limestone cliffs two thousand years ago are plainly visible on the dry walls of the rock (‘roche taillée’): this was probably an interception channel, to gather and hold water from the surrounding hills before it was channelled south. It is one thing to read about Roman accomplishments, but here was actual evidence of their prowess in civil engineering. I was viewing the works of an advanced civilisation, made before it had ever dreamed it was mortal.

In the neighbouring hills of the Estérel (‘Esterelles’), with its extinct volcano stumps and scattered arbours of parasol pines, cypresses, cork oaks and olives, Smollett made halt in the post-house, and dined in a room in the shade of the mountains that was so cold he began to shiver. Even to remember it, he told his readers, caused his teeth to chatter. He was travelling in his postilion in December, and a fierce north-westerly Mistral had been blowing, so cold and biting that even flannels could not keep him ‘tolerably warm’. But after dinner he went into another, south-facing room of the house and, on throwing open the window, was astounded to find himself facing – ‘within a yard of my hand’ – a citrus tree loaded with oranges, many of them ripe. ‘You may judge what my astonishment was to find Winter in all his rigour reigning on one side of the house, and Summer in all her glory on the other.’

The weather ran through the mountain. The post-house stood on the boundary, not just of winter and summer but also France and Scotland. Smollett, who delighted in the vistas of the Mediterranean framed by the window of his coach and is generally an attentive observer (as befits his medical training) of natural matters, had just anticipated another boundary – that of the handedness of nature. His delight about the orange tree stayed with him, as the coach rolled down towards the sea through a natural plantation ‘of the most agreeable ever-greens, pines, firs, laurel, cypress, sweet myrtle, tamarisc, box, and juniper, interspersed with sweet marjoram, lavender, thyme, wild thyme, and sage’.

It was during his trip to France and Italy that Smollett acquired the soubriquet ‘Smelfungus’ from Laurence Sterne, who was also travelling around Europe at the same time, publishing his A Sentimental Journey a couple of years after Smollett’s book, and to considerably greater success. Although Smollett gave as good as he got (famously referring to Dr Johnson as ‘that great Cham of literature’, which archaic term suggested the Good Doctor ruled over letters like an oriental despot), his reputation never entirely recovered from that moniker. (He had also been dubbed ‘Smallwit’ in The Briton’s rival publication.) It is true that Smollett can be a grouch with a tendency to expatiate about lavatorial conditions (John Ruskin called his books ‘open filth’), although it can be safely assumed that some of the inns he had to stay in were indeed as dirty and bug-ridden as he says they were, and the aubergistes little better than mean thieves, or worse still, cutthroats. Provence was still the lair of brigands in the eighteenth-century. While there is a decided element of hyperbole and theatricality about his complaining (‘One finds nothing but dirt and imposition’), he could never be accused of wanting to ingratiate himself with his readers, which is what the much more genteel Sterne does all the time.

The American cultural historian and eighteenth-century specialist George Rousseau says Smollett is the Scottish writer with the greatest sense of style: it certainly comes through in his fault-finding, and his inimitable blend of sesquipedalianism and slang. He could be critical of colleagues too. He certainly wasn’t much taken with the celebrated Dr Fizès whom he consulted about his phthitic lungs in that distinguished southern city, Montpellier. His own medical knowledge must have told him he knew as much as this distinguished old medicus whose eyes ‘sparkled at the sight of the fee’. Dr Fizès prescribed bouillons, opiates and goats’ milk; but no exercise. Smollett was indignant. Sceptical about the fashionable virtue of taking the waters in Bath, Smollett made the empirical discovery that a brisk swim in seawater might actually be remedial for some kinds of medical conditions, his skin problems included. He certainly felt the better for half-an-hour’s disporting in the Mediterranean in sight of Nice.

Smollett had a good eye: he recognised the appeal of the little village of Cannes, and the corniche road to Nice, which then belonged to the House of Savoy. He informs even as he inveighs. In his fond biography, Jeremy Lewis draws out the parallel between Smollett’s time and ours: ‘we live in a time of luxury and ostentatious expenditure, when, more than ever, people are judged by what they own and wear and look like; and those of us who look on, with a mixture of envy and disdain, are torn between a Smollettian loathing for the vulgarity and crassness of a materialistic age, and a Johnsonian suspicion that this is, in part, how society renews itself, and keeps atrophy at bay’. It was those loathed qualities, Smollett thought, that had done for the Roman Empire. And they might well be the ruin of London, the ‘dropsical head’ that was already threatening to get too big for its body.

But that unexpected anecdote about the sharp initiation of the orange tree goes a long way to redeem Smollett from the dank backshop of literary history. Rasp or grate an unpeeled orange and the outermost skin – the zest or exocarp – gives off the sharp volatile aromatic smell of its essential oils. One of them, d-limonene, a chemical of the terpene family, is the isomer – exactly the same molecule but its mirror-opposite – of l-limonene, which can be extracted from pine needles. It suggests another dimension to the literary concept of doubleness which has long been associated with Scotland, and which Karl Miller explored in depth in his book Doubles (and in which Smollett gets only the most glancing mention). Even the sense of smell is up for stereo effects.

Nature is in two minds. Handedness is its tendency to produce everything in mirror image, and to compel its creatures to prefer one side of an image to the other: it was thought until recently that only humans displayed handedness (90 percent of us have the right-handedness that goes with a dominant left brain) but this partiality has been discovered in many living animal species, and palaeontologists have also begun to find traces of ‘preferential laterality’ in extinct animals. Handedness was around long before hands, as it were. And whether it bears any relation to this phenotypical handedness, asymmetry is found at the molecule level too, as in the smell of orange/pine.

A kind of bistability animates Smollett’s writings (in a sentimental age he took a mordant pleasure in being a blunt and sometimes cruel writer), and although he would have known plenty, at least at an unspoken level, about cultural handedness he and his contemporaries could hardly have suspected that nature came rigged in what are called ‘chiral’ forms as well: a little too much emphasis on the ‘Winter rigour’ (Scotland and the north and conifers) moves him over the mountains to the secondary stable position of ‘Summer glory’ (France and the sun and citruses), and back again. That was what it took to be a homo duplex.

I like to think of Smollett trundling through what was not quite modern France on his way back to his hackwork in the mud and rain of jaded literary London. Perhaps somewhere in his bags there was a dried orange wrapped in manuscript paper made by the southern firm of Montgolfier and smelling of a place called Esterelles.

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