To come to surer ground, it is a fact worth noting that each of the four great prose masters of the third quarter of the eighteenth century tried his hand at a personal record of travel. Fielding came first in 1754 with his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. Twelve years later was published Smollett's Travels through France and Italy. Then, in 1768, Sterne's Sentimental Journey; followed in 1775 by Johnson's Journey to the Hebrides. Each of the four - in which beneath the apparel of the man of letters we can discern respectively the characteristics of police magistrate, surgeon, confessor, and moralist - enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in its day. Fielding's Journal had perhaps the least immediate success of the four. Sterne's Journey unquestionably had the most. The tenant of "Shandy Hall," as was customary in the first heyday of "Anglomania," went to Paris to ratify his successes, and the resounding triumph of his naughtiness there, by a reflex action, secured the vote of London. Posterity has fully sanctioned this particular "judicium Paridis." The Sentimental Journey is a book sui generis, and in the reliable kind of popularity, which takes concrete form in successive reprints, it has far eclipsed its eighteenth-century rivals. The fine literary aroma which pervades every line of this small masterpiece is not the predominant characteristic of the Great Cham's Journey. Nevertheless, and in spite of the malignity of the "Ossianite" press, it fully justified the assumption of the booksellers that it would prove a "sound" book. It is full of sensible observations, and is written in Johnson's most scholarly, balanced, and dignified style. Few can read it without a sense of being repaid, if only by the portentous sentence in which the author celebrates his arrival at the shores of Loch Ness, where he reposes upon "a bank such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign," and reflects that a "uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to the traveller; that it is easy to sit at home and conceive rocks and heath and waterfalls; and that these journeys are useless labours, which neither impregnate the imagination nor enlarge the understanding." Fielding's contribution to geography has far less solidity and importance, but it discovers to not a few readers an unfeigned charm that is not to be found in the pages of either Sterne or Johnson. A thoughtless fragment suffices to show the writer in his true colours as one of the most delightful fellows in our literature, and to convey just unmistakably to all good men and true the rare and priceless sense of human fellowship.
There remain the Travels through France and Italy, by T. Smollett, M.D., and though these may not exhibit the marmoreal glamour of Johnson, or the intimate fascination of Fielding, or the essential literary quality which permeates the subtle dialogue and artful vignette of Sterne, yet I shall endeavour to show, not without some hope of success among the fair-minded, that the Travels before us are fully deserving of a place, and that not the least significant, in the quartette.
The temporary eclipse of their fame I attribute, first to the studious depreciation of Sterne and Walpole, and secondly to a refinement of snobbishness on the part of the travelling crowd, who have an uneasy consciousness that to listen to common sense, such as Smollett's, in matters of connoisseurship, is tantamount to confessing oneself a Galilean of the outermost court. In this connection, too, the itinerant divine gave the travelling doctor a very nasty fall. Meeting the latter at Turin, just as Smollett was about to turn his face homewards, in March 1765, Sterne wrote of him, in the famous Journey of 1768, thus:
"The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris, from Paris to Rome, and so on, but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he passed by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but 'twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings." "I met Smelfungus," he wrote later on, "in the grand portico of the Pantheon - he was just coming out of it. ''Tis nothing but a huge cockpit,' said he - 'I wish you had said nothing worse of the Venus de Medici,' replied I - for in passing through Florence, I had heard he had fallen foul upon the goddess, and used her worse than a common strumpet, without the least provocation in nature. I popp'd upon Smelfungus again at Turin, in his return home, and a sad tale of sorrowful adventures had he to tell, 'wherein he spoke of moving accidents by flood and field, and of the cannibals which each other eat, the Anthropophagi'; he had been flayed alive, and bedevil'd, and used worse than St. Bartholomew, at every stage he had come at. 'I'll tell it,' cried Smelfungus, 'to the world.' 'You had better tell it,' said I, 'to your physician.'"
To counteract the ill effects of "spleen and jaundice" and exhibit the spirit of genteel humour and universal benevolence in which a man of sensibility encountered the discomforts of the road, the incorrigible parson Laurence brought out his own Sentimental Journey. Another effect of Smollett's book was to whet his own appetite for recording the adventures of the open road. So that but for Travels through France and Italy we might have had neither a Sentimental Journey nor a Humphry Clinker. If all the admirers of these two books would but bestir themselves and look into the matter, I am sure that Sterne's only too clever assault would be relegated to its proper place and assessed at its right value as a mere boutade. The borrowed contempt of Horace Walpole and the coterie of superficial dilettanti, from which Smollett's book has somehow never wholly recovered, could then easily be outflanked and the Travels might well be in reasonable expectation of coming by their own again.