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Smollett’s Dedication to Ferdinand Count Fathom
82 TOBIAS SMOLLETT
memoirs, may learn to avoid the manifold snares with which they are continually
surrounded in the paths of life; while those who hesitate on the brink of iniquity, may be
terrified from plunging into that irremeable gulph, the surveying the deplorable fate of
FERDINAND Count FATHOM.
That the mind might not be fatigued, nor the imagination disgusted by a succession of
vitious objects, I have endeavoured to refresh the attention with occasional incidents of
a different nature; and raised up a virtuous character, in opposition to the adventurer, with
a view to amuse the fancy, engage the affection, and form a striking contrast which
might heighten the expression, and give a Relief to the moral of the whole.
If I have not succeeded in my endeavours to unfold the mysteries of fraud, to
instruct the ignorant, and entertain the vacant; if I have failed in my attempts to subject
folly to ridicule, and vice to indignation; to rouse the spirit of mirth, wake the soul of
compassion, and touch the secret springs that move the heart; I have at least, adorned
virtue with honour and applause; branded iniquity with reproach and scheme, and
carefully avoided every hint or expression which could give umbrage to the most
delicate reader: circumstances which (whatever may be my fate with the public) will
with you always operate in favour of
Your very affectionate
friend and servant,
1 The references are to Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Maskwell in Congreve’s The
Double Dealer, Bevil in Steele’s The Conscious Lovers, and probably Edward the Black Prince in
Shirley’s play of that name acted at Drury Lane in 1750.
Unsigned review of Ferdinand Count Fathom
From The Monthly Review, March 1753, viii, 203–14. Though unsigned, the
reviewer is Ralph Griffiths, the editor.
As the public is already very well acquainted with the genius and talents of this writer,
for works of imagination, there is little occasion for our saying much of his present
He seems to have sat down to this work with a fund of ideas gleaned from Gil Blas,
Guzman de Alfarache, Lazarillo de Tormes, the English rogue, &c. His Ferdinand Fathom is a
compound of all that is detestable in the heroes of these ludicrous romances, with a
larger portion of wickedness, and without any tincture of their comic humour; an
article which our author has more sparingly used in this than in his former works of
The character of Fathom is in truth that of the most execrable hypocrite (we will not
say, that ever existed in real life, but) that the most inventive power of an author could
possibly create, or the most fertile pen describe. His adventures are a series of such acts
of treachery, fraud, ingratitude, and the most unparallel’d wickedness, that the recital
becomes quite intolerable to the humane reader. The merit of other works of this kind
has been, that the incidents they afforded gave the higher pleasure in the perusal, from
the supposition of their reality; but here, we imagine, the reader’s greatest satisfaction
must spring from his continually bearing in mind the improbability that such a monster
ever lived, or that such unnatural cruelties and and villanies were ever perpetrated.
That rogues of Ferdinand’s cast may indeed have but too often appeared amongst
mankind, cannot be denied; for every one that knows even but little of the world, must
be convinced there are such: but tho’ hypocrisy and ingratitude are perhaps the growth
of every clime, yet we are persuaded, that it is not in nature to produce such a masterpiece of diabolism as Ferdinand count Fathom.
The character of this hero, is that of an agreeable, soft, sober, specious, smiling
hypocrite; who, under the mask of the most amiable deportment, and by the help of a
very engaging person, passes for a miracle of goodness. Possessed of every exterior
accomplishment, and wanting nothing but an honest heart, he imposes himself upon all
his acquaintance, as the mirror of disinterested friendship, humanity, and benevolence;
84 TOBIAS SMOLLETT
while these outward professions only serve to conceal the vilest schemes that an
abandoned heart could possibly conceive: and all this from innate principles of
wickedness; for Ferdinand was neither tutored in any school of vice, nor seduced by the
contagion of evil example.
In the recital of such a wretch’s exploits, can the reader be greatly interested? Or can
any emotions be excited in his mind, but those of horror and disgust? And therefore of
what use, it may be demanded, can such a recital prove? What tendency can it have
towards the reader’s instruction or advantage in any respect? —A point which writers
in this way should ever keep in view, as well as meer amusement—Let our author
answer for himself: hear his apology.
[quotes from Fathom: ‘Almost all the heroes of this kind…the deplorable fate of
Ferdinand Count Fathom’, vol. I, p. 4, from the Dedication]
Whether this apology will effectually plead our author’s excuse with his readers, we
leave them to determine;—But he has still something farther to offer in his own behalf,
by way of compensation for having introduced us into such unedifying company, and
which we believe will have more weight than what he has already urged.
[quotes ‘That the mind…to the moral of the whole’, vol. I, p. 5, from the
This part of our author’s work is indeed, in our estimation, the most valuable, the most
striking, and the most worthy his abilities. The story of Melville and Monimia affords as
fine a lesson as we remember to have ever met with, against that criminal credulity by
which the peace of many families hath been destroyed, and the ruin of many innocent
and unsuspecting persons effected.
The episode of the Spaniard’s history is well introduced, and executed in manner that
warmly interests the reader in the fate of Don Diego de Zelos; whose character is a
national one, admirably drawn, and sustained with great vigor and spirit throughout.
And tho’ we are not greatly satisfied with following the infamous Fathom thro’ the
successful part of his villainous adventures, it must be acknowledged that the author
makes us some recompence when he brings this hero to repentance. When
accumulated vengeance bursts upon the guilty head of this wretch, his self-accusation,
and retrospective view of his past conduct, is very pathetic, and adapted to answer the
moral end which the author professes, as above, to have had in view.
[quotes ‘To what purpose…to save me from the terrible abyss’, vol. II, ch. 56, pp.
On the whole, the history of count Fathom is a work of a mixed character,
compounded of various and unequal parts. It abounds on the one hand with affecting
incidents, with animated descriptions, and alternate scenes of melting grief, tenderness
and joy; diversified with some few exhibitions of a humorous kind. On the other hand,
(exclusive of the objections we have hinted at, with respect to the character of the
principal personage) there are some extravagant excursions of the author’s fancy, with
certain improbable stories, (from which, indeed, none of the novels we have ever read
are free) marvelous adventures, and little incongruities; all which seem to be
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indications of the performance being hastily, nay and carelessly composed. Yet, with
whatever crudities it may be chargeable, —with all its imperfections, we may venture
to pronounce that the work has still merit enough to compensate with the discerning
reader for its defects: it carries with it strong marks of genius in the author, and
demonstrations of his great proficiency in the study of mankind.
There is an admirable scene of humour in the first volume of this work, which, we
doubt not, will very well entertain our readers.
Count Fathom, in the earlier part of his adventures, being at Paris, and a stranger in
that city, unwarily contracts an intimacy with a set of gamesters, with whom the reader
is made acquainted under the characters of a French abbé, a Dutch officer, a Westphalian
count, and an English knight; whose designs upon him do not however immediately
succeed; for being an adept in the same Mysteries, he foils them at their own weapons.
While he is exulting in his success, a very extraordinary personage falls in with the
society, the consequence of whose arrival is related as follows.
[quotes ‘He one day chanced…he would give him his revenge’, vol. I, ch. 24, pp.
Our author afterwards lets his readers into the mystery of this adventure; which was
no other than a scheme laid by the party, to entrap, and revenge themselves on, the
unsuspecting count Fathom.
Mary Granville Delany, letters
Extracts from three letters to Mrs Dewes, in The Autobiography and
Correspondence of Mary Granville: Mrs Delany, ed. Lady Llanover, 1861, Vol.
III, pp. 216, 220 and 223.
24 March 1753:
We are reading Count Fathom, a very indifferent affair, as far as we have gone: they say
it mends in the second volume, and so it had need.
7 April 1753:
Have you read Count Fathom? Though a great deal bad, there are some things very
interesting, and the whole well intended.
21 April 1753:
I think Count Fathom (though a bad, affected style) written with a better intention,
and Melvin’s character a good one, but then none of them are to be named in a day
with our good friend Richardson.
A French bookseller’s view of Peregrine Pickle
From the Avertissement du Libraire to Histoire et Avantures de Sir Williams
Pickle, Amsterdam and Leipzig, 1753, pp. i–iv. Given here as a
tendentious expression of French response to Smollett’s novel in the mideighteenth century. An inaccurate translation in which the novel is
mistitled Sir Williams Pickle.
As I do not know English, I addressed myself to someone who did, to engage him to
translate the novel of Williams Pickle: and when it had been translated I found in it some
singularly original portraits, very finely sustained; and some paintings from nature
many of which, following English custom, had as subject-matter adventures in inns,
public places and highways; many fights involving fists, feet and sticks, which our
French people would find undignified because these blows do not kill so elegantly as
sword-strokes. I feared at first that this would not suit the taste here but I reflected in
the end that these pictures were not without merit; that they would at least serve to
instruct us in English morals. Now it has everything that we ask for in Novels from
London: because these characteristics are applicable to all nations, and to ours who
paint man in general, or our morals in particular, we find them ingeniously sketched in
many of our own novels, the best of which the English cannot yet approach; which is
said without wishing to offend them, in as much as this is not an area of emulation on which
they can pride themselves.
It has seemed to me in comparing the two texts that the translator has taken it upon
himself to make curtailments, transpositions, and perhaps some changes; yet he was
obliged to retain the essentials; for the work still has an English flavour, if one excludes
the style, which seems to me as smooth as if it were the original; however I would not
wish to maintain that there are not here and there several anglicisms. With the best will
in the world, such things can escape one. When sifting the work, one does well to
remove such things, but one does not perceive the things that remain; and it is for that
very reason that they do remain.
If the English author should find his work a little disfigured as perhaps it is, I trust he
will not be displeased; doubtless he knows that taste is a local thing and that such
characteristics as could make his book’s fortune in London would only discredit it in
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Paris. It remains to absolve the work from reproach. I divine that people will complain
that there is not sufficient interest. But how in a novel such as this where the persons in
themselves are already not sufficiently interesting, can one ask for a thing whose
verisimilitude we could scarcely be interested in if it were there? At least I am
permitted to offer my advice, which is no doubt that of many others, it matters little, it
seems to me, that Sir Pickle or Miss Emily are vexed in their plans and in their love by a
thousand complicated contingencies, and that subsequently by means of miraculous
happenings the bobbin is unwound and they achieve their desires. It is not such doings
as this, although they constitute the major interest, which remain in the mind and
furnish food for the spirit; it is the paintings of detail. Here is the quintessence of a
work, here is what nourishes that soul, even after one has forgotten it; as meat feeds
the body a long time after digestion. I should certainly like to know what is the interest
in Don Quixote, that Phoenix of novels: its entire merit is in its details. But your details,
you will say to me, or those of your author, what are they worth? You can see for
yourselves: I am involved in selling books and not in judging them, but I have always
shown that one can produce a good novel without interest.