Frontispieces to Smollett’s fiction
The eighteenth century witnessed an explosion in the number, range, and appearance of printed books. With the emergence of more, and more varied types of novel, booksellers sought new ways to market fresh publications and to make them appeal to readers. They deployed increasingly lavish and ornate decorative features, often using pocket-sized volumes that readers could carry with them. Book illustration featured heavily in the bid to enhance the aesthetic appeal of popular fiction. Tobias Smollett’s works were among the most prolifically illustrated.
This virtual exhibition explores some of those illustrations, but also traces a narrative of interpretation revealed by the type and style of these diverse images.
What do illustrations reveal about how Smollett’s work was read and interpreted?
Many of Smollett’s earliest readers found it hard to place his works within clear generic categories: the blend of picaresque adventure, grotesque humour, sentimental affect, and a questioning exploration of ‘romance’ within a context of the revival (and part-derision) of interest in the chivalric romance – all these features seemed to blend in Smollett’s diverse output, which itself reflect the hybridity of the novel form. And, in turn, many of Smollett’s illustrators reflect this diversity in their designs for his publications – and reveal the dynamic working relationship that authors often enjoyed with those involved in the production of their work.
Smollett and his Illustrators
Smollett had a relatively long-going personal and working relationship with successful painter and engraver Francis Hayman (1708-1776). He himself contracted him to illustrate his Complete History of England, the translation of Don Quixote and the fourth edition of Roderick Random. Smollett supported the Society of Artists, to which Hayman belonged, as well as applauding his artistry in the Critical Review.
Chivalry, ‘Romance’, and Smollett’s Translations
‘The spirit of Chivalry, was a fire which soon spent itself; But that of Romance, which was kindled at it, burnt long, and continued its light and heat even to the politer ages’, wrote Richard Hurd in Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762). ‘Romance’ and ‘novel’ were often used as interchangeable, contested labels for prose fiction during the eighteenth century, but both terms were held in some suspicion. Romance was associated with the fantastical flights of fancy that could lead impressionable, younger readers astray. Its connection with the chivalric romance affectionately mocked by Cervantes in Don Quixote, however, suggests a more complicated generic identity for the mode.
Smollett turned to translating continental comic chivalric romances – Le Sage’s Gil Blas in 1748 and Don Quixote in 1755 – and invested his work with the part-sceptical, part-admiring fascination that chivalric ideals inspired in these works and in his own writing, from Roderick Random onwards. The illustrations to both of these translations show a move in how to read and interpret Smollett – and the works he translated – against a backdrop of shifting attitudes towards romance itself.
This frontispiece to the first volume of Smollett’s translation of Le Sage’s Gil Blas shows the hero first setting out on his adventures, when he is assailed by a decayed soldier who demands charity by levelling a firearm at Gil Blas. The hero gives him a small amount of money before hastily moving on. The episode sees a mixture of comedy and compromised compassion, with the hero’s mule adding comic effect. The illustrated scene is partly static, aiming towards naturalistic depiction of the characters, but with some effort towards dynamically capturing the combination of danger and comedy present in the text. As Gil Blas reflects, ‘I did not look upon this adventure as a very favourable omen for my journey’.
Hayman’s frontispiece to Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote, ‘The Decay of Chivalry’, shows an important shift from more naturalistic types of illustration, or their comically grotesque counterparts, to reveal an interest in allegorical images popularised by illlustrators earlier in the century. Here, we see the female figure of Comedy, a dramatic mask at her waistband, sword in hand, approaching the decaying Gothic structure guarded by a fierce dragon representing the romances of knight errantry. Behind her in the background, Athena – representing classical knowledge and wisdom – repels two grotesque figures who cower into the background. The obscure and ‘barbaric’ origins of Gothic romance are overpowered by the reason of Enlightenment. But rather than simply replacing ‘chivalry’, its rational belligerence instead suggests a remoulding of what quest and adventure might involve.
First Illustrated Serial Novel in English
Tobias Smollett was the author of the first illustrated serial novel The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. It was published in a new monthly periodical the British Magazine, or Monthly Repository for Gentlemen and Ladies between January 1760 and December 1761, and illustrated with a pair of drawings by Anthony Walker (1726-1765), for number 2 (February 1760) and number 9 (August 1760).
The second illustration for Launcelot Greaves, Sr. L. Greaves and his Squire T. Crabshaw at a Country Election, by Anthony Walker.
Title Pages of Tobias Smollett’s Novels
Epigraphs on the Title Pages
The use of epigraphs on title pages was widespread in the eighteenth-century print culture. They were used in periodicals as well as other literary projects, such as Johnson’s Dictionary, but they appeared on the novel’s title pages more frequently only in the middle of the century. The aim of the epigraphs was to establish the relation between the novel and classical literature. The fashion was most probably started by Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748). The epigraph on its title page comes from Horace’s satire 2.5 and means “And yet birth and worth, without substance, are more paltry than seaweed”
On the title page of The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) (below) there is an epigraph from Horace’s Ars Poetica 317-318 which means “I would advise one who has learned the imitative art to look to life and matters for a model and draw from thence the living words” (translation from Loeb edition).
Titles of Tobias Smollett’s Novels
The titles placed on the title pages of Tobias Smollet’s novels exemplify an important stage in the development of the conventions of the genre. They are, in comparison to the titles of early novels which included included a summary of the plot, much shorter. The comparison of the titles of Smollett’s and Defoe’s novels makes the nature of the change evident.
The summaries of the novels became unnecessary when, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, periodicals, such as the Monthly Review, began to publish reviews of newly published novels, which very often contained the descriptions of events, characters or the ending. The evolution of the titles towards greater berevity was also enforced by the growth of the available novels on the market – the main function of the title was to stand out in the growing number of publications, to attract the readers’ attention and to be easily remembered.
Another interesting aspect of Tobias Smollett’s use of titles is his return to the genre indicators frequently used in the the titles of the early eighteenth century novels but avoided in the 1740s, when it became more common to omit them or to use the word ‘history’ in the title. Tobias Smollett uses then the word ‘adventures’ in The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and in The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), as well as in his translations The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane (1748), The Adventures of Telemachus, the Son of Ulysses (1776). The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762) and The History and Adventures of An Atom (1769) include the additional words ‘life’ and ‘history.’ The word ‘history’ also features in Smollett’s translation The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote (1755). The reappearance of the genre names in the titles of mid-century novels evident in Smollett’s fiction is believed to be a part of self-conscious experimentation of fiction written in the period.
The Name of the Author and the Title Pages
The first edition of The Adventures of Roderick Random was published anonymously by John Osborn in a considerable number of 2000 copies. The novel was advertised in London newspapers, such as General Evening Post, to ensure its success and it sold very well. By 1770, it went through eight editions. The title pages of the following novels contained the phrase “by the Author of Roderick Random.”
Title Pages, Ornaments and Author Portraits
The title page of The Adventures of an Atom, printed for Robinson and Roberts in 1769, plays with the convention of author portrait. Author portraits were included in Defoe’s novels, in Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), or Roxana (1724). Robinson Crusoe, for instance, includes a frontispiece with the author-narrator, the titular Robinson.
The Adventures of an Atom, as an example of ‘it-narrative’ or ‘object-narrative,’ that is a kind of narrative told by a non-human narrator, is narrated by an atom which/who dictates its adventures to a London haberdasher in whose brain it is lodged. The author portrait takes the form of a printer’s ornament resembling an atom.