Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Sir Launcelot in the Madhouse
By Tobias Smollett (1721–1771)
From Sir Launcelot Greaves

SO saying he retired, and our adventurer could not but think it was very hard that one man should not dare to ask the most ordinary question without being reputed mad, while another should talk nonsense by the hour, and yet be esteemed as an oracle.
  The master of the house finding Sir Launcelot so tame and tractable, indulged him after dinner with a walk in a little private garden, under the eye of a servant who followed him at a distance. He was saluted by a brother prisoner, a man seemingly turned of thirty, tall and thin, with staring eyes, a hook nose, and a face covered with pimples.  2
  The usual compliments having passed, the stranger, without further ceremony, asked him if he would oblige him with a chew of tobacco, or could spare him a mouthful of any sort of cordial, declaring he had not tasted brandy since he came to the house. The knight assured him it was not in his power to comply with his request, and began to ask some questions relating to the character of their landlord, which the stranger represented in very unfavourable colours. He described him as a ruffian, capable of undertaking the darkest scenes of villany. He said his house was a repository of the most flagrant iniquities. That it contained fathers kidnapped by their children, wives confined by their husbands, gentlemen of fortune sequestered by their relations, and innocent persons immured by the malice of their adversaries. He affirmed this was his own case; and asked if our hero had never heard of Dick Distich, the poet and satirist. “Ben Bullock and I,” said he, “were confident against the world in arms—did you never see his ode to me beginning with ‘Fair blooming youth’? We were sworn brothers, admired and praised, and quoted each other, sir. We denounced war against all the world, actors, authors, and critics; and having drawn the sword, threw away the scabbard—we pushed through thick and thin, hacked and hewed helter-skelter, and became as formidable to the writers of the age as the Bœotian band of Thebes. My friend Bullock, indeed, was once rolled in the kennel; but soon
        He vig’rous rose, and from th’ effluvia strong
Imbib’d new life, and scour’d and stunk along.
Here is a satire which I wrote in an ale-house when I was drunk—I can prove it by the evidence of the landlord and his wife; I fancy you’ll own I have some right to say with my friend Horace:
        Qui me commôrit, (melius non tangere clamo,)
Flebit, et insignis totâ cantabitur urbe.” 1
  The knight, having perused the papers, declared his opinion that the verses were tolerably good; but at the same time observed that the author had reviled as ignorant dunces several persons who had writ with reputation, and were generally allowed to have genius. A circumstance which would detract more from his candour than could be allowed to his capacity.  4
  “D—— their genius!” cried the satirist; “a pack of impertinent rascals. I tell you, sir, Ben Bullock and I had determined to crush all that were not of our own party. Besides, I said before, this piece was written in drink.”—“Was you drunk too when it was printed and published?”—“Yes, the printer shall make affidavit that I was never otherwise than drunk or maudlin, till my enemies, on pretence that my brain was turned, conveyed me to this infernal mansion——”  5
  “They seem to have been your best friends,” said the knight, “and have put the most tender interpretation on your conduct; for, waiving the plea of insanity, your character must stand as that of a man who hath some small share of genius, without an atom of integrity. Of all those whom Pope lashed in his Dunciad there was not one who did not richly deserve the imputation of dulness, and every one of them had provoked the satirist by a personal attack. In this respect the English poet was much more honest than his French pattern Boileau, who stigmatised several men of acknowledged genius, such as Quinault, Perrault, and the celebrated Lulli; for which reason every man of a liberal turn must, in spite of all his poetical merit, despise him as a rancorous knave. If this disingenuous conduct cannot be forgiven in a writer of his superior genius, who will pardon it in you whose name is not half-emerged from obscurity?”  6
  “Hark ye, my friend,” replied the bard, “keep your pardon and your counsel for those who ask it; or if you will force them upon people, take one piece of advice in return. If you don’t like your present situation, apply for a committee without delay. They’ll find you too much of a fool to have the least tincture of madness, and you’ll be released without further scruple. In that case I shall rejoice in your deliverance, and you will be freed from confinement, and I shall be happily deprived of your conversation.”  7
  So saying, he flew off at a tangent, and our knight could not help smiling at the peculiar virulence of his disposition. Sir Launcelot then endeavoured to enter into conversation with his attendant, by asking how long Mr. Distich had resided in the house; but he might as well have addressed himself to a Turkish mute. The fellow either pretended ignorance, or refused an answer to every question that was proposed. He would not even disclose the name of his landlord, nor inform him whereabouts the house was situated.  8
  Finding himself agitated with impatience and indignation, he returned to his apartment, and the door being locked upon him, began to review, not without horror, the particulars of his fate. “How little reason,” said he to himself, “have we to boast of the blessings enjoyed by the British subject, if he holds them on such a precarious tenure; if a man of rank and property may be thus kidnapped even in the midst of the capital; if he may be seized by ruffians, insulted, robbed, and conveyed to such a prison as this, from which there seems to be no possibility of escape. Should I be indulged with pen, ink, and paper, and appeal to my relations, or to the magistrates of my country, my letters would be intercepted by those who superintend my confinement. Should I try to alarm the neighbourhood, my cries would be neglected as those of some unhappy lunatic under necessary correction. Should I employ the force which Heaven has lent me, I might imbrue my hands in blood, and after all find it impossible to escape through a number of successive doors, locks, bolts, and sentinels. Should I endeavour to tamper with the servant, he might discover my design, and then I should be abridged of the little comfort I enjoy. People may inveigh against the Bastile in France, and the Inquisition in Portugal; but I would ask, if either of these be in reality so dangerous or dreadful as a private madhouse in England, under the direction of a ruffian? The Bastile is a state prison, the Inquisition is a spiritual tribunal; but both are under the direction of a government. It seldom, if ever, happens that a man entirely innocent is confined in either; or, if he should, he lays his account with a legal trial before established judges. But, in England, the most innocent person upon earth is liable to be immured for life under the pretext of lunacy, sequestered from his wife, children, and friends, robbed of his fortune, deprived even of necessaries, and subjected to the most brutal treatment from a low-bred barbarian, who raises an ample fortune on the misery of his fellow-creatures, and may, during his whole life, practise this horrid oppression, without question or control.”  9
  This uncomfortable reverie was interrupted by a very unexpected sound that seemed to issue from the other side of a thick party-wall. It was a strain of vocal music, more plaintive than the widowed turtle’s moan, more sweet and ravishing than Philomel’s love-warbled song. Through his ear it instantly pierced into his heart; for at once he recognised it to be the voice of his adored Aurelia. Heavens! what the agitation of his soul, when he made this discovery! how did every nerve quiver! how did his heart throb with the most violent emotion! he ran round the room in distraction, foaming like a lion in the toil—then he placed his ear close to the partition, and listened as if his whole soul was exerted in his sense of hearing. When the sound ceased to vibrate on his ear, he threw himself on the bed; he groaned with anguish, he exclaimed in broken accents; and in all probability his heart would have burst, had not the violence of his sorrow found vent in a flood of tears.  10
  These first transports were succeeded by a fit of impatience, which had well nigh deprived him of his senses in good earnest. His surprise at finding his lost Aurelia in such a place, the seeming impossibility of relieving her, and his unspeakable eagerness to contrive some scheme for profiting by the interesting discovery he had made, concurred in brewing up a second ecstasy, during which he acted a thousand extravagancies, which it was well for him the attendants did not observe. Perhaps it was well for the servant that he did not enter while the paroxysm prevailed. Had this been the case, he might have met with the fate of Lychas, whom Hercules in his frenzy destroyed.  11
  Before the cloth was laid for supper, he was calm enough to conceal the disorder of his mind. But he complained of the headache, and desired he might be next day visited by the physician, to whom he resolved to explain himself in such a manner, as should make an impression upon him, provided he was not altogether destitute of conscience and humanity.  12
Note 1. Qui me commôrit, etc.  “But he who has provoked me (I give him warning that he had better leave me alone) will have cause to weep, and will be the theme of many a verse throughout the city’s bounds.” [back]
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