The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom HTML version

The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, Smollett's third novel, was given to
the world in 1753. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing to her daughter, the
Countess of Bute, over a year later [January 1st, 1755], remarked that "my friend
Smollett . . . has certainly a talent for invention, though I think it flags a little in his
last work." Lady Mary was both right and wrong. The inventive power which we
commonly think of as Smollett's was the ability to work over his own experience
into realistic fiction. Of this, Ferdinand Count Fathom shows comparatively little.
It shows relatively little, too, of Smollett's vigorous personality, which in his earlier
works was present to give life and interest to almost every chapter, were it to
describe a street brawl, a ludicrous situation, a whimsical character, or with
venomous prejudice to gibbet some enemy. This individuality--the peculiar spirit
of the author which can be felt rather than described--is present in the dedication
of Fathom to Doctor ------, who is no other than Smollett himself, and a candid
revelation of his character, by the way, this dedication contains. It is present, too,
in the opening chapters, which show, likewise, in the picture of Fathom's mother,
something of the author's peculiar "talent for invention." Subsequently, however,
there is no denying that the Smollett invention and the Smollett spirit both flag.
And yet, in a way, Fathom displays more invention than any of the author's
novels; it is based far less than any other on personal experience. Unfortunately
such thorough-going invention was not suited to Smollett's genius. The result is,
that while uninteresting as a novel of contemporary manners, Fathom has an
interest of its own in that it reveals a new side of its author. We think of Smollett,
generally, as a rambling storyteller, a rational, unromantic man of the world, who
fills his pages with his own oddly-metamorphosed acquaintances and
experiences. The Smollett of Count Fathom, on the contrary, is rather a
forerunner of the romantic school, who has created a tolerably organic tale of
adventure out of his own brain. Though this is notably less readable than the
author's earlier works, still the wonder is that when the man is so far "off his
beat," he should yet know so well how to meet the strange conditions which
confront him. To one whose idea of Smollett's genius is formed entirely by
Random and Pickle and Humphry Clinker, Ferdinand Count Fathom will offer
many surprises.
The first of these is the comparative lifelessness of the book. True, here again
are action and incident galore, but generally unaccompanied by that rough
Georgian hurly-burly, common in Smollett, which is so interesting to contemplate
from a comfortable distance, and which goes so far towards making his fiction
seem real. Nor are the characters, for the most part, life-like enough to be
interesting. There is an apparent exception, to be sure, in the hero's mother,
already mentioned, the hardened camp-follower, whom we confidently expect to
become vitalised after the savage fashion of Smollett's characters. But, alas! we
have no chance to learn the lady's style of conversation, for the few words that
come from her lips are but partially characteristic; we have only too little chance
to learn her manners and customs. In the fourth chapter, while she is making
sure with her dagger that all those on the field of battle whom she wishes to rifle