Tag Archive | Tobias Smollett

19th March 1721. Picaresque.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14thc bawdy tales of Canterbury pilgrims is an early example of  the Picaresque in English literature. 

Picaresque (from Picaro a rogue or rascal), in the English tradition, is an anti-hero, as in Henry Fielding’s, History of Tom Jones and found in Dickens’ first six novels including The Pickwick Papers.

They are often a story of one fated to mishaps and often disaster as Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s,  20thc Decline and Fall, the innocent victim of his own naivete.


One of the greatest exponents of the genre was the Scot, Tobias Smollett born Today in 1721.

Famous for his long, formless tales of farcical, improbable adventures, it was a style derived from the works of  Cervantes whom he translated into English.

Most of Smollett’s output is little regarded today including his most praised book, the bawdy, letter- form, Humphrey Clinker considered comparatively respectable in the 19thc as most of the obscenities were hidden under puns: very Victorian!

His masterpieces were Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, pornographic in a harmless way, but containing as they do passages of sheer farce.(1)

Smollett writes of the mercantile, professional middle class, often cousins to landowners, whose manners were those of the then aristocracy-duelling, gambling and fornication.

Sensibilities by the 19thc had changed-the French Revolution had happened-and we see the rise of the industrial mercantile class with its Evangelical, Low Church, Puritanism.

So with Charles Dickens we see the ‘new’ Picaresque, Pickwick Papers and the nearest we get to risque is when the much travelling Mr. Pickwick mistakes the wrong bedroom. With its endless ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’, involving fantastic adventures, this early book employs, in true Picaresque style, a willingness to sacrifice probability for hilarious jokes.

His other early ‘itinerant’ books involving the hapless Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, for example, are more sombre.

One of the seminal books in the Picaresque genre in the 20thc, was J.B. Priestley’s (1929) Good Companions, where a hapless carpenter Jess Oakroyd, leaves his Bruddersford home to become involved with a travelling theatre group, for ‘adventures on t’road’.

TheGoodCompanions(1) Dickens’, David Copperfield names these two books among his childhood favourites.

Ref: theguardian.com. Alex Larman. 20.3.2008. Waugh and  Declaration of Comic Intent.

Ref: The Guardian: Humphrey Clinker, by Tobias Smollett. Stuart Kelly. 12.8.2013.

Ref: bl.uk/Image of Tom Jones.

Ref: wikipedia.org/good_companions/Pic Image.

Ref: orwell.ru/library/review/smollett.


28th June 1777. Strawberries minus the Cream.

Today American traveller and writer, Samuel Curwen, passed the afternoon of Saturday the 28th  June 1777, strolling with friends: ‘To a strawberry garden where we regaled ourselves with a pottle of fine strawberries and cream’, showing that tastes have changed little over the years. (1)

Strawberries once grown in great number along the banks of the Rivers Thames and Brent were transported by water to nearby markets, or from Heston, Isleworth and Hounslow and other places, by female hawkers.

SAM_1900 (2)

All it needs is the cream! (See Pic Ref. Below).

‘These women carry upon their heads baskets of strawberries and raspberries of 40-50 lbs. They do two turns a day from Isleworth… three turns from Brentford, a nine miles round trip, and four from Hammersmith of six miles. Often a conveyance was used for return journeys’.(2)


SAM_1881 (2)

Royal Sovereign Strawberries.

An account of the time records: a ‘willowly strawberry vendor with her teeming basket of fruit and her elegant dress, is a figure of pastoral bounty and graceful urbanity-balancing with the poise of a ballet-dancer and sports a loose hood in vogue of late. A tiny curl ‘passager’ peeks out at the temple with the effect of calculated untidyness’.(sic).

‘She fastens her apron with a decorative bow and binds her shoes with a great bunch of floppy ribbons of a wider gauge than other hawkers and are tied in knots matching the bow on her scarf. The shoes are a remarkable tapering shape ending in half-moon toes’.

The 18th century novelist Tobias Smollett was less poetic however, as his Matthew Bramble’s account  of some London vendors is less appetising: ‘I need not dwell upon the pallid, contaminated mash which they call strawberries; soiled and tossed by greasy paws through 20 baskets crusted with dirt and presented in the worst milk thickened with the worst flour into a bad likeness of cream…’(3)

Thomas Laxton was the last of the Victorian strawberry breeders, and responsible for the first large fruited variety we see today. It was bred in 1821 by Michael Keens of Isleworth, Middlesex and named Keens’ Seedling.

All strawberry varieties derive from Fragaria chiloensis, originally cultivated by the Chilean Indians and a popular variety Royal Sovereign from 1892 (crossed from Noble and King of the ‘Earlies’) from hundreds  at the time, remains from the latter 19th century, all others succumbing to virus.

In 1851 Thomas William Beach won prizes for the British Queen strawberry at the Chiswick Horticulteral Society and the Great Exhibition with fruit of 4 ounces (oz). It was a time when fruit growing was more profitable than traditional farming.

The article by James Cuthill in the Gardeners’ Chronicle recorded that the 22 year old Thomas [was a]: ‘John Bull ready-witted, dark and sun-burnt’ who had seen potential in the land with its two falls of ground, with soil dark,sandy and loamy. The business prospered and later expanded into jam-making at Brentford well into the 20th century.

Somerset’s, Cheddar Railway was also called the Strawberry Line from the enormous quantities grown locally. These would have been sited on the south-west facing slopes on the Cheddar side of the valley. Strawberries are still grown and sold in Cheddar, Draycott (The Strawberry Special Pub is opposite the station), Stoke Rodney and Westbury-sub-Mendip.

(1) Curwen described the fruit as similar to the American ‘wood-strawberry’.

(2) Described by  Steele and  Richard Phillips in ‘Laroon’s account (see below). Strawberries were not sold by weight but by the ‘pottle’, on which a refund was offered.

(3) P.97 Expeditions of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett.

Pic ref: Mary Berry’s ‘Complete Book of Cooking’, Dorling Kindersley, 1995, P.469.

Ref: Criers and Hawkersof London, Engravings and Drawings, Marcellus Laroon.

Ref: bhsproject.co.uk/familes-beach

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