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ferdinand count fathom

14 january 2022

About forty years ago, in a class succinctly entitled "The Eighteenth Century – Second Half," I read Tobias Smollett's late-life masterpiece Expedition of Humphry Clinker. All I remember of it now is author and title. Smollett's first three, much earlier novels were all "Adventures of," and they all have alliterative heroes: Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, and Ferdinand (Count) Fathom.

Recently I learned that the Guardian had at some point compiled a list called 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. I don't know how many I have read, but I started with "A" and began to tick off the ones I hadn't. Smollett's picaresque "Adventures" appear early in the Guardian's list of the thousand essential novels, and I decided to read The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) because I had never even heard of it.

Ferdinand Count Fathom was apparently the least successful of Smollett's novels, and one can see why. In addition to the usual desultory plotline, the incidents in Fathom are sketched out in perfunctory fashion. The interest of the book thus lies in Smollett's arch narrative style, so if you get tired of that, things will start to drag.

It's possible to get tired even of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, the best of all these 18th-century picaresques, so all the more so with Ferdinand Count Fathom. Tom Jones is an innocent who exuberantly enjoys flouting conventions. Fathom by contrast is a cynical predator. Smollett frames his anti-hero's attitude in an oddly negative way:

He was not at all dead to the instigations of the flesh, though he had philosophy enough to resist them, when he thought they interfered with his interest. (Location 673)
Since Fathom doesn't seem to have fun in any of his depredations, it's hard for readers to get that frisson of naughty pleasure that sometimes endears an anti-hero to us. Instead we get a mechanical catalogue of reprehensibilities.

The typical pattern is that Fathom, pretending to be a nobleman, pretending to be a doctor, actually being a musician while also pretending to have any training or experience in the field, etc., insinuates himself into the household of people richer and better-born. (Fathom himself is the penniless son of a camp follower and any of the dozens of men she kept company with.) Fathom systematically bilks and cheats the family while setting its members at odds with one another and laying siege to the virtue of all its nubile women.

Sometimes this can be farcical fun, as when Fathom keeps having to vary his hiding place in a bourgeois house so that the mother won't suspect he's having an affair with the daughter and vice versa. Some can just be drab, because, as I said, it's only described in outline.

Smollett saves his most savage satire for the medical profession, no doubt because he was a trained surgeon and had seen the pretenses and idiocies of the medical world at first hand. Some of his remarks sound like he'd been reading COVID Twitter:

In all disputes upon physic that happen betwixt a person who really understands the art, and an illiterate pretender, the arguments of the first will seem obscure and unintelligible to those who are unacquainted with the previous systems on which they are built; while the other's theory, derived from common notions, and superficial observation, will be more agreeable, because better adapted to the comprehension of the hearers. (Location 3113)
The "illiterate pretender" here is Fathom himself, who has very little idea how to cure patients, but likes to swoop in as they are getting better and take credit for their recovery.

The litany of Fathom's crimes eventually must have become tiresome even to Smollett, so about four-fifths of the way through the novel, he drops Fathom from view and recenters the story on Renaldo, the closest thing to a best friend that Fathom has. Naturally Fathom has alienated Renaldo's fiancée Monimia, after convincing each of the betrothed that the other is a cheater; only her untimely death prevents Fathom from debauching her. After many additional wanderings, Renaldo shows up at Monimia's grave in England and keeps a nightly vigil there, bemoaning all the ills that human nature is heir to. The purple prose of Renaldo's lamentations reaches such a pitch that even Smollett has to observe that Renaldo goes on and on in his whiny vein "not without a certain species of woful enjoyment" (Location 5801), one of the nicer descriptions ever given of why sad songs say so much.

I don't regret reading this "must-read," though I have to say that even though it's near the top of the Guardian 1000, I doubt many people have taken their advice about it. Tobias Smollett was an eloquent snarkster and offers a window, if a jaundiced one, onto 18th-century manners. Or at least he does in Ferdinand Count Fathom, which is now the sum total of my knowledge about him.

Smollett, Tobias. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom. 1753. Kindle Edition.