With Smollett in Harrogate

By Felsenstein, Frank | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

With Smollett in Harrogate


Felsenstein, Frank, Philological Quarterly


Smollett scholars have so far neglected to pay attention to The Diary of a Yorkshire Gentleman: John Courtney of Beverley, 1759-1768, which was transcribed and edited by Susan and David Neave from a manuscript in the archive collections of the University of Hull (DPX/60/1-4). (1) Its author, John Courtney (1734-1806), was a wealthy young Yorkshireman of leisure, and the diary is most memorable for its earnest record of his endeavors through nearly a decade to try to find himself a fitting partner in marriage. Courtney's socializing and his protracted though ultimately successful quest for a spouse took him across England on numerous occasions. On one such trip, when traveling in the company of his mother in the early summer of 1766, he was to find himself residing at the same accommodation as Tobias Smollett in the West Riding spa town of Harrogate.

The indefatigable research of Smollett's main twentieth-century biographer, the late Lewis M. Knapp, affords us the opportunity to piece together, though without any significant detail, this part of the novelist's career. (2) Smollett had returned to England from the south of France at the end of June of 1765. During the months following his return, he made final preparation of his Travels through France and Italy, which was published in London to considerable acclaim during the first days of May 1766. Although his two-year sojourn in France and Italy between 1763 and 1765 had done much to improve his precarious health, Smollett confided in a personal letter to his friend and fellow doctor, John Moore, that "I have always found myself better for about a month after any change of air, and then I relapse into my former state of Invalidity." Arduous travel and physical exercise, he maintained, often provided a better therapy than medicinal treatment. "If I were a Galley slave and kept to hard Labour for two or three years," he sanguinely informs Moore, "I believe I would recover my Health intirely." (3) The therapeutic effect of a frequent change of air and the company of friends may have been among the main inducements to travel to Bath and the Hot Wells at Bristol, where he was to spend the autumn and winter of 1765-66. Smollett's abiding skepticism concerning the true efficacy of the treatments being offered at these two famous spas is wonderfully captured in his last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), published after his return to Italy where he was to die a short while after its first appearance. Modern diagnosis leads one to believe that he died of complications stemming from the long-term effects of pulmonary tuberculosis (or slow consumption as it was then called), which before the discovery of antibiotics was usually incurable.

The desire to visit his native Scotland, prompted in no small part by the wish to call on his elderly mother who lived in Edinburgh, persuaded Smollett to travel north from Bath in the late spring of 1766. The sole factual information on this journey that we have had from the time itself is a brief news item that appeared in The London Evening Post (Tuesday, 13 May 1766, no. 6013) and several other newspapers: "Dr. Smollet, who for some time past has been dangerously ill, is so well recovered, that he is preparing to set out for Harrogate, from whence he proposes to go to Scotland to reside." (4) Journeying from Beverley via York, John Courtney arrived in Harrogate on Tuesday, 27 May, and found rooms at the "Marquis Granbys Head" He reports the arrival of "Dr Smollett (the famous historian) with his sister nephew with his lady and his sister" and their taking accommodation at the same lodgings four days later on the evening of Saturday, 31 May. "The doctor," he adds, "is very ill," the severity of which obliged Smollett to be "confined to his room" for much of his stay) Despite that, several subsequent diary entries show that within a week, the gregarious Courtney felt himself "pretty well acquainted" with both Smollett and his family. …

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