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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a constantly complaining grumbler

tobias smollett Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne

So. The other day, we tweeted this:

It’s another one of those “seriously?” words:

HH make something up? The very idea of it. Well, there was that one time, but that was entirely different. No—seriously, this is true. And not only that, but there’s a brilliant story behind it.

Smellfungus dates back to 1768. For once, we can be absolutely positive about the date of a word, because we know precisely who invented it, when, and why. So no need to play etymological Cluedo here—it was Laurence Sterne, in the Sentimental Journey, aided and abetted (albeit indirectly) by Tobias Smollett.

Smollett was born in Dunbartonshire in Scotland in 1721. A prolific and well-respected writer, perhaps best known for his comic novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), Smollett’s output covered almost every literary genre and influenced many later literary giants, including Dickens, George Eliot, and William Thackeray. Even the normally unforthcoming George Orwell wrote a glowing essay calling him “Scotland’s Best Novelist”.

Wait—what?! Had Orwell not read any Sherlock Holmes?! Disgraceful. But, I digress.

In all, Smollett’s vast back catalogue includes plays, a non-fiction History of England, several volumes of poetry, half a dozen novels, and even English translations of the likes of Voltaire and Cervantes. But in 1766, he added one more genre to his literary checklist when he published his Travels Through France And Italy, an account of a two-year journey he and his wife embarked on from spring 1763 to summer 1765. Stopping off in the likes of Paris, Nice, Cannes, Pisa, Sienna and Rome, to many it would have been the trip of a lifetime—but Smollett, by and large, remained unimpressed.

Of Florence’s magnificent San Lorenzo chapel, for instance, he wrote that it “will, in my opinion, remain a monument of ill taste and extravagance”. The Pantheon left him “much disappointed”, because “after all that has been said of it, [it] looks like a huge cockpit.” He dismissed Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, painted behind the alter in the Sistine Chapel, as “a mere mob, without subordination, keeping or repose”, and likened it to “a number of people talking all at once”. Even the Vatican itself didn’t escape unscathed:

[Its] relicks of pretended saints, ill-proportioned spires and bellfreys, and the nauseous repetition of the figure of the cross (which is in itself a very mean and disagreeable object, only fit for the prisons of condemned criminals) have contributed to introduce a vicious taste into the external architecture, as well as in the internal ornaments of our temples.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1536-41)

Unsurprisingly, when Smollett’s Travels were published, his fairly tactless and hypercritical attitude, as well as the disdainful way in which he wrote about many of the people he encountered (“At Brignolles … I was obliged to quarrel with the landlady and threaten to leave her house before she would indulge us with any sort of flesh-meat”), outraged his contemporaries. But his apparent arrogance and peevishness also made him a prime target for satire—which brings us to Laurence Sterne.

Sterne was born in Ireland in 1713, but spent much of his childhood in England. After graduating from Cambridge, he became the Anglican priest of a small church in rural Yorkshire where he remained for more than twenty years, dabbling in freelance writing in his spare time. In 1759, he self-published his first major work—two volumes of a vast satirical novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman—and within months was one of the most famous authors in the country.

Flushed with success, Sterne quit the church and moved to London in 1760. But in the dank and dreary capital his already precarious health quickly deteriorated, so he and his wife left on a rejuvenating trip to the Mediterranean. They arrived in Montpellier in 1763—where, the following November, they were joined by Tobias Smollett.

It’s unclear exactly how much time Smollett and Sterne spent together, but a number of meetings and engagements are recorded in the letters they sent back home to England, before Smollett decided Montpellier’s cool mountain climate wasn’t for him and he continued on to Nice in early 1764. It’s also largely unclear how well the two men got along, but given what happened next, we can presume the pair hadn’t always seen eye to eye.

In 1768, in response to Smollett’s Travels, Sterne published his own Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Again, Sterne’s Journey was based around his own tour of the continent, but unlike Smollett his travelogue was also a part-fictionalized follow-up to his earlier novel, Tristram Shandy.

Narrated by a genial English reverend named Mr Yorick (Sterne’s literary alter ego), the aptly-titled Sentimental Journey comprises a light-hearted series of comic episodes and romantic encounters, as Yorick travels down through France from Calais and on into Italy. Along the way, he meets a whole host of unusual and whimsical characters—including a glum, overcritical zoilist known only as “Smelfungus”:

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 pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.

Smelfungus—spelled with only one L by Sterne—is clearly a fairly unsubtle and unflattering caricature of Smollett, right down to his acerbic views on the architecture of Rome:

I met Smelfungus in the grand portico of the Pantheon—he was just coming out of it. ’Tis nothing but a huge cockpit, said he.

Unfortunately for Smollett the Sentimental Journey was an enormous success, even surpassing Tristram Shandy both critically and commercially. Nowadays it’s seen as having helped to establish travel writing as a respected literary genre in its own right—while Sterne’s acerbic lampoon of Smollett as “Smelfungus” gave the English language a whole new word for a carping, unhappy critic.

Sadly, however, Sterne didn’t live to see any of the influence his novel would eventually have: he died just twenty days after its publication. And as for Smollett, well, his reputation as a glum, unimpressed tourist—“the most embittered and cantankerous Englishman that ever travelled abroad”, according to one account—might now be permanently installed in the language, but more recent commentators on his work have been considerably more understanding. They quite rightly point out that his Travels were written at a particularly difficult time in his life: both he and Sterne were suffering from the aftereffects of tuberculosis, and he and his wife were still reeling from the death of their only child, their 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth, the previous year.

Not only that, but modern readers who are aware of Smollett’s nit-picking are often surprised to discover how much admiration and positivity his Travels contain alongside the famously tactless criticisms. Indeed despite Smollett’s reputation, the Continent must have held some kind of attraction to him—having retired to Italy in his late 40s, he died in Livorno in 1771, and is buried in the Old English Cemetery in Tuscany.

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