Launcelot and Juridical Exceptionalism
To this point we have seen that the exceptionalism of quixotes aided writers from Swift to Tenney in interrogating exceptionalist politics at various levels, from the international order to the community to the household. In each of the case studies considered thus far, quixotes have served as engines of commentary on politics generally understood: the ideas people hold about their relationships to others, the governance systems in which they participate or fail to participate, their national identities, and the relationships between nations. Conspicuously missing from the picture of quixotic exceptionalism thus far is the relationship between quixotism and the law. Particularly as Britain and the early US both anchor conceptions of freedom and rights in exceptionalist myths of equality before the law, it is important to understand how quixotism intervened in issues of justice and juridical practice in the eighteenth century.
In particular, what separates the eponymous quixote in Tobias Smollett’s Launcelot Greaves (1760–62) from other quixotes is his striking success within the legal system, and the extent to which Smollett vindicates Launcelot’s quixotism. Launcelot certainly appears ridiculous, dressed in full armor, upon his first encounter with a group of modern Britons engaged in conversation at the tidy and comfortable Black Lion inn. However, Launcelot soon demonstrates a remarkable ability to justify his quixotic behavior, to avoid much of the martial violence typical of Don Quixote amid his travels and conflicts, and to deliver justice successfully for those he aims to assist (as well as those villains who stand in his way). Launcelot is a rare quixote who seems to get almost everything right, and who thereby challenges the framework of quixotism in particular for explaining or illuminating what looks otherwise like plain heroism.
Central to our understanding of Launcelot Greaves is Launcelot’s relationship to justice. This includes his relative madness or sanity before the institution of the law (an institution that privileges rational argument and functions, at least theoretically, with minimal prejudice), and the ways Smollett romanticizes each of these dynamics in the novel as a critique of corruption in midcentury British legal systems. Launcelot’s quixotic exceptionalism—his desire to place himself at once above and behind the law—is a function of his rather exceptional standing among quixotes as a viable romantic hero, or a thoroughly romanticized version of the quixotic mock-hero.
Mid-eighteenth-century British readers and critics began to understand Don Quixote (and the quixotic mode) as an increasingly romantic narrative, a trend especially relevant for the study of Launcelot Greaves. For Ronald Paulson, “the turn toward the side of Don Quixote that supports romance, imagination, and defeat at the hands of the crass world coincides with the Forty-Five, the possibility of sympathy for Scotland, its chivalric clans fallen in battle and outlawed in their own countryside.”1 Though this plausible attribution is intriguing when considered alongside a discussion of the Scottish author Smollett’s heroic quixote, one need not locate the “romantic turn” in quixote criticism specifically in the Forty-Five to acknowledge its presence by the midcentury. As Anthony Close argues, though the German Romantics played perhaps the strongest role in constructing Romantic approaches to Cervantes’s knight, and though the Romantic view of Don Quixote was still a “minority opinion” in early eighteenth-century Britain, it was “an increasingly weighty minority from the mid-century on.” “By the beginning of the nineteenth century,” Close writes, “English Quixote criticism began to register in an insistent way the Romantic cult of imagination, genius, passion, and sensibility as faculties opposed or superior to reason.”2 This understanding of Don Quixote registers in book 5 of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, in which “Wordsworth’s friend, while reading Cervantes’ novel, muses on ‘Poetry and geometric Truth’ and in a dream finds himself among desert sands: ‘To his great joy a Man was at his side/Upon a dromedary, mounted high / . . . / A Lance he bore, and underneath one arm/A Stone; and in the opposite hand, a Shell.’ ”3
That Launcelot’s heroism is highly romanticized is solid retort to the critical accusation that Launcelot is a “pale imitation” of Quixote. While Cervantes’s Don Quixote presents itself initially as a satire of the chivalric romance, featuring a burlesqued hero who wages war against imagined giants and drummed-up injustices, Launcelot Greaves features a quixote who sets out to battle real-life injustices.4 As Paul-Gabriel Boucé observes: “The great difference between Greaves and Don Quixote is emphasized by Smollett from the very beginning of the novel. Greaves’ appearance and behaviour may be eccentric, but the evils he intends to fight against are extremely real.”5 And as Oscar Mandel documents, of the different types of real-life “foes” Quixote takes on of his own volition (that is, when he is not tricked into battle by practical jokers), the vast majority are innocent and undeserving of Quixote’s lance.6 Launcelot simultaneously pays homage to the quixotic madness “so admirably displayed” in Don Quixote, as well as the “inimitable” Cervantes, and distances himself from Don Quixote by arguing, self-reflexively, for his own sanity. “I reason without prejudice,” Launcelot declares, “can endure contradiction, and, as the company perceives, even bear impertinent censure without passion or resentment” (15). Smollett modifies Launcelot as a uniquely celebrated and successful quixotic hero in an effort to create, as Boucé argues, “a redresser of very real wrongs and abuses rampant about the middle of the eighteenth century.”7 Angus Easson adds, whereas Don Quixote is a man approaching fifty years of age and past his biological prime, Launcelot Greaves is “a young man, handsome, in love not with some imaginary Dulcinea, but with a girl of flesh and blood, whose supposed rejection of him has turned his wits.”8
As we can see from the outset, then, Launcelot Greaves was constructed as a highly romanticized quixote during a period in British literary history in which the quixotic hero or heroine was becoming increasingly romanticized. By “romanticized” I mean both associated with Romantic ideals and celebrated as an exception. As the events of Smollett’s novel suggest, Launcelot is indeed an especially successful quixote, lending credence to the midcentury desire to see quixotes in a favorable light.
One of the most important components of Launcelot’s ability to achieve his aims as a quixote in pursuit of justice, where other quixotes fail, is, of course, his wealth. Launcelot has so much money that he can reliably use the law as a means of redressing wrongs, restoring order, and pursuing justice. While he is notably “drained of pretty large sums of money” in his various lawsuits waged on behalf of the oppressed, misjudged, or downtrodden—an indication that, though Launcelot possesses great wealth, such expenditures are not insignificant and do not draw on perpetual financial reserves—Launcelot’s wealth enables one of the novel’s central features, a series of effective legal proceedings (40).
In light of Smollett’s portrayal of lawyers and magistrates as both central and corrupt figures in Launcelot Greaves, much has been made of Smollett’s own run-ins with the law as an active and at times caustic literary personality in midcentury Britain. After Smollett questioned the honor, bravery, and leadership of Admiral Charles Knowles in the Critical Review in May 1758—in a negative review of a pamphlet Knowles released in defense of his actions in the Raid on Rochefort—Knowles successfully sued Smollett for libel, resulting in Smollett’s imprisonment for three months, an experience he drew on in writing Launcelot Greaves.9 What Smollett scholars term the “Knowles affair” is, however, not the first of Smollett’s troubles with the law. He previously consulted lawyers over “unfortunate loans” in 1754 and 1756, including having an action brought against him for physically attacking Peter Gordon and Gordon’s landlord, Edward Groom, over Gordon’s unpaid debt.10 Smollett’s frustrations with what he perceived as his own ill treatment before the law were compounded by his belief that, as Alice Parker documents, “the aristocrat should have a legal status above that of the plebian.” In A Continuation of the Complete History of England (1760), Smollett “advocates that different penalties for the same crime be imposed upon the upper and lower classes.”11
Smollett’s difficulties with the law find their way into Launcelot Greaves, particularly in the rendition of the extraordinarily corrupt Justice Gobble, who victimizes Launcelot before Launcelot turns the tables and avenges Gobble’s ill treatment of the poor and disadvantaged.12 Smollett’s exceptionalist view of the law as simultaneously a mechanism for the noble ranks to protect the lower ranks, and a mechanism that favors the noble ranks, is reflected in Launcelot’s treatment of Justice Gobble. Understandably, then, much of Launcelot’s quixotic idealism is oriented toward the legal system and the roles of lawyers and magistrates in upholding justice and eschewing the sorts of institutional barriers and conflicts of interest that Swift satirizes in Gulliver’s Travels.
If Gulliver’s is a quixotism of travel, then Launcelot’s could be described as a quixotism of law. When Launcelot first appears in the narrative, entering the Black Lion and engaging in conversation with a group of travelers who have already met acquaintances, Launcelot’s stated impetus for donning a century-old suit of armor and pursuing a life of knight-errantry is to “honour and assert the efforts of virtue; to combat vice in all her forms, redress injuries, chastise oppression, protect the helpless and forlorn, relieve the indigent, exert my best endeavors in the cause of innocence and beauty, and dedicate my talents, such as they are, to the service of my country” (15). In other words, Launcelot has set out by means of armed knighthood to right a set of perceived wrongs that the law has failed to redress. Rather than becoming a lawyer like his compatriot Tom Clarke, Launcelot takes up the lance of vigilantism, at least ostensibly. Yet, paradoxically, Launcelot also proceeds with an idealistic belief in the potency of the law to redress the very wrongs that he would seem to want to war against extrajuridically. As Aileen Douglas writes: “Greaves is dominated by the discourse in which social relationships are most explicitly and confidently recorded and promulgated: the law. The novel may begin with a comic parody of legalese, but as it advances, the law becomes not only a mechanism by which elements of the plot are resolved but also a matter for serious debate.”13 Launcelot primarily avails himself not of his lance and armor, but of the law (and the socioeconomic position that grants him a facility with it and its institutions) as a means of battling injustice. His quixotic belief in the law is expressly connected with a quixotic belief in the premises of the law more generally, and of the English constitution more specifically, as institutions that can spare no injustice, and let no honest, law-abiding citizen fall by the wayside. As Douglas suggests, “despite his appearance,” Launcelot’s “rhetoric is that of citizenship, not chivalry. His social code is clearly that of an eighteenth-century English gentleman who believes that the law provides adequate safeguards and protection for those who live under it.”14 We can thus understand Launcelot’s quixotism of law as both an idealistic belief in the power of the law to address adequately a range of social injustices (disproved by the very fact that Launcelot’s intervention is frequently required to correct for legal corruption) and an idealistic belief in his ability to right wrongs wrought by the law (and its officers) when it fails to measure up to Launcelot’s quixotic expectations.
As we learn early in Smollett’s novel, the symptoms of Launcelot’s quixotic “folly” are manifested in his generosity, his commitment to justice, and consequently his tendency to make use of his resources and intervene over and above the law on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. Scorning oppressors and going to excesses to right wrongs, Launcelot, as his attorney companion Tom Clarke intimates, “acted as the general redresser of grievances”: “he involved himself in several law-suits, that drained him of pretty large sums of money. He seemed particularly incensed at the least appearance of oppression; and supported divers poor tenants against the extortion of the landlords. Nay, he has been known to travel two hundred miles as a volunteer, to offer his assistance in the cause of a person, who he heard was by chicanery and oppression wronged of a considerable estate” (40–41). On numerous occasions Smollett’s quixote can be found vigorously righting wrongs by coming to the financial aid of farmers and curates, freeing the falsely imprisoned, and standing against ignorant and corrupt magistrates. Yet Launcelot’s adventures differ radically from those of other quixotes because of the unquestionably favorable results they produce, as well as the verifiable soundness of the knight’s rationale.
When Don Quixote frees a group of galley slaves he believes have been locked up unjustly, we find that he has only set free an ungrateful lot of criminals who swiftly hurl stones at their valiant emancipator when he demands they flee to Toboso and present themselves to Dulcinea as grateful beneficiaries of Quixote’s generous heroism (1.22.184–85). Yet when Launcelot forces the corrupt Justice Gobble to retire as magistrate and let free those whom he had schemed into wrongful imprisonment, the knight indeed sets free the wrongfully imprisoned, even turning the magistrate whom he deposed into a remorseful admirer of his character (92, 98). Where Henry Fielding’s austere and bookish Parson Adams struggles to connect with passersby during his travels, Launcelot draws the esteem of virtually everyone but the so-labeled misanthropic writer, Ferret. And where Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Captain Farrago finds himself continually shouted down and chased off by boisterous mobs, Launcelot manages to win favor with a mob of, among other types, stockjobbers and weavers (both frequent representatives of mob ignorance in Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry) with a high-minded and rationally articulated harangue (at least until he mentions the idea of “moderation,” a jibe that Smollett evidently could not resist) (75). Additionally, it is Launcelot’s bravery and generosity that attract his beloved Aurelia, and not without her dying mother’s blessing. Smollett’s knight finds his quixotism appreciated at every turn, leaving readers to question why and how such quixotic madness could be so ingratiating, or why and how such ingratiating behavior should be quixotic.
Smollett contrasts Launcelot’s successful quixotism with the pseudo-quixotism of Captain Crowe, who, witnessing Launcelot’s success, resolves to become a knight-errant himself. Launcelot characterizes Crowe’s bumbling imitation of knight-errantry as madness but acknowledges a tempered madness of his own.15 When Crowe attempts to steal Launcelot’s armor, “ambitious to follow his example,” and Clarke defends him as an honest man, Launcelot replies that “madness and honesty are not incompatible—indeed I feel it by experience” (59). Putting aside momentarily that Launcelot’s madness is clearly to be differentiated from Crowe’s, the comparison is one of a number of ways in which Smollett’s novel meticulously supports the acceptability—even the virtue—of Launcelot’s madness.
Remarking on Crowe, Launcelot affirms that the idea of madness can accommodate honesty. After Ferret has him imprisoned for knight-errantry (a charge for which the knight would be legally exculpated), Launcelot becomes “more and more persuaded that a knight-errant’s profession might be exercised, even in England, to the advantage of the community,” though Clarke, thinking of Crowe, persists in the view that “knight-errantry and madness [are] synonymous terms” (100). Later on, Launcelot contrives to “think himself some hero of romance mounted upon a winged steed,” though “inspired with reason” and “directed by some humane inchanter, who pitied virtue in distress” (119). In each of these examples, perhaps most boldly illustrated by way of the burlesqued imitator Crowe, Launcelot’s madness is defined circularly by the knight’s own experience, effects, and esteem as a kind of heightened and humane rationality. Furthermore, however much such a definition would appear to verge on the kind of quixotic solipsism or delusion we might expect, Launcelot’s actions and their results provide external validation for his own theory of “humane madness.”
For example, Sycamore, Launcelot’s mimetic rival in the courtship of Aurelia, who becomes “infected” by “Sir Launcelot’s extravagance” and challenges to “eclipse his rival even in his own lunatic sphere,” finds himself initially without a challenger when Launcelot turns down his request for combat (139). Reminiscent of Captain Farrago in Modern Chivalry, who refuses to duel despite that quixotes are supposed to relish a duel, Launcelot, “even in his maddest hours,” “never adopted those maxims of knight-errantry which related to challenges.”16 Launcelot had “always perceived the folly and wickedness of defying a man to mortal fight, because he did not like the colour of his beard, or the complexion of his mistress,” believing that “chivalry was an useful institution while confined to its original purposes of protecting the innocent, assisting the friendless, and bringing the guilty to condign punishment: but he could not conceive how these laws should be answered by violating every suggestion of reason, and every precept of humanity” (141). By refusing to escalate the mimetic rivalry spurred by yet another imitator to the point of destruction, Launcelot displays poise and reason while adhering to his particular code of chivalry, and his particular quixotism. He shows comparable measure when he brings down the corrupt magistrate Gobble on legal grounds. He does likewise when applying to the law to shut down an unscrupulously run madhouse in which he was himself wrongfully imprisoned (a wonderful plot development for a quixote), and again by exacting upon those who deceived and tormented Aurelia “a much more easy, certain, and effectual method of revenge, by instituting a process against them, which . . . subjected them both to outlawry” (190). As Douglas argues, “The events of Greaves, at least in part, and the fact that various resolutions in the novel are facilitated by legal action, validate its hero’s rhetoric and his faith in the law.”17
Each time Launcelot is wronged or imprisoned, he is vindicated both by law and the esteem of others, though his imitators—the well-meaning Crowe and the villain Sycamore—are frequent objects of unredeemed scorn and humiliation. In this way, Smollett’s quixote actually lies outside the conventional model for quixotes and their conventionally blighted track records. Smollett consciously demonstrates that quixotism is not flatly synonymous with madness. Though the idea of Launcelot’s madness occupies center stage in the novel, Smollett’s text is rather definitive about the auspiciousness of Launcelot’s condition, however we characterize it. We can understand why Gulliver undergoes quixotic conversion, however unsuccessful it is in rectifying Gulliver’s exceptionalist outlook, but Launcelot’s conversion is perplexing.
For a quixote whose madness is already complicated by his many successful acts of heroism, and the measured and rational means by which he carries out these acts, Launcelot’s quixotic conversion is a perplexing factor more than an interpretive indication or resolution. As I have suggested, what separates Launcelot from other quixotes is not his good nature and goodwill toward others, especially those he perceives to be under duress—this is, as Easson rightly acknowledges, “a highly developed Quixotic characteristic”—but his ability to perceive real injustices with accuracy, and address them not (usually) with vigilantism or violence but instead through the application of the law and of good sense.18 Though Launcelot is certainly a comic figure at his own expense (and at the expense of quixotism more generally), Smollett’s romanticized rewriting of the quixote story presents Launcelot as a far more sane and effectual character than British quixotic contemporaries like Lennox’s Arabella, Fielding’s Parson Adams, or Swift’s Gulliver. Launcelot’s relative sanity and success in quixotism—his complication of the notion of quixotism itself—raise the questions, From what, and to what, does Launcelot convert?
Further complicating Launcelot’s conversion scene is that it functions in no way as a resolution to Smollett’s novel, in the strictest sense, because Launcelot’s conversion takes place little more than midway through the narrative. The series of events leading up to the conversion moment, and immediately following it, provide essential context for what is otherwise a very brief and subtle quixotic conversion. After having been separated from his beloved Aurelia, and operating under the false impression (conveyed by a fraudulent letter) that Aurelia did not love him back, Launcelot has a chance meeting with her and learns then that she indeed loves and esteems him and that “that fatal sentence . . . which drove [him] out an exile for ever from the paradise of [her] affection” was actually a forgery (116). Upon this meeting with Aurelia we get a brief indication that, in her presence and with the realization of her as an attainable object of desire, Launcelot begins the process of quixotic conversion, hinting at some recognition of his quixotism as a form of madness. “Cut off . . . from the possession of what my soul held most dear,” explains Launcelot, “I wished for death, and was visited by distraction.—I have been abandoned by my reason—my youth is for ever blasted” (115–16).
At the same time, however, his heart begins “to palpitate with all the violence of emotion,” indicating that he is also in the process of taking on a highly romanticized madness of a different sort: a violently impassioned desire for Aurelia, his lost lover returned (117). Having learned, further, that Aurelia’s guardian is embroiled in a plot to portray her as a madwoman and have her locked up in an asylum, Launcelot continues to emote more drastically than he has to this point in the novel: Launcelot “bit his nether lip” and “rolled his eyes around” (118). By this point, Launcelot has not undergone quixotic conversion, but he has begun moving toward it after seeing Aurelia, and learning that her initial rejection of him—the catalyst for his quixotism—was actually a scheme hatched by her guardian, Anthony Darnel, against the two young lovers.
Launcelot’s meeting with Aurelia is cut short, however, when he hears the cries of a traveler being accosted by robbers on the nearby road and dashes off to aid the victim, forebodingly leaving Aurelia behind. As Smollett writes: “The supposition of such distress operated like gunpowder on the disposition of our adventurer, who, without considering the situation of Aurelia, and indeed without seeing, or being capable to think on her, or any other subject, for the time being, ran directly to the stable, and mounting the first horse which he found saddled, issued out in the twilight, having no other weapon but his sword” (118–19). As Launcelot rides in search of the distressed traveler, incapable in the moment of thinking of Aurelia, his initial movement toward quixotic conversion begins to recede. He thinks of himself, curiously and counterintuitively, as “some hero of romance mounted upon a winged steed, inspired with reason, directed by some humane enchanter, who pitied virtue in distress” (119). Finding that the distressed traveler was none other than his squire, Timothy Crabshaw, who has been roughed up by the assailants, Launcelot summons a doctor to make sure the squire’s health is in good order, finally precipitating the quixotic conversion scene. Fittingly, Launcelot has his conversion after seeing a doctor, though, in Smollett’s ironic twist, the doctor’s patient is not the quixote, but the Sancho.
Launcelot’s actual quixotic conversion comes shortly after this interlude with Aurelia and occupies no more than a few lines of the text. In fact, as it occurs among a catalogue of quotidian concerns in the life of a quixote and endures for only a few paragraphs of the narrative, readers might easily pass over the conversion moment altogether. After seeing to Timothy Crabshaw’s health and engaging in pleasant conversation with the “witty,” learned, and agreeable doctor (whose first impression of Launcelot is that he is mad, though the doctor quickly changes his mind), Launcelot settles his bills, then undergoes quixotic conversion: “Next day, Crabshaw being to all appearance perfectly recovered, our adventurer reckoned with the apothecary, payed the landlord, and set out on his return for the London-road, resolving to lay aside his armour at some distance from the metropolis: for, ever since his interview with Aurelia, his fondness for chivalry had been gradually abating” (128). In this moment, we find Launcelot casting aside his traditional or superficial characteristics of quixotism—his anachronistic donning of armor, his knight-errantry, and his preoccupation with the ideals of chivalry—in a midnovel transformation of the end-of-novel quixotic conversion motif.
Having abandoned this mode of quixotism, however, Launcelot instantly reverts to a different mode of quixotic behavior, or a degree of madness that arguably outdoes his prior form of quixotism. Immediately following the narration of Launcelot’s “gradually abating” fondness for chivalry, we are told that, “as the torrent of his despair had disordered the current of his sober reflection, so now, as that despair subsided, his thoughts began to flow deliberately in their antient channel. All day long he regaled his imagination with plans of connubial happiness, formed on the possession of the incomparable Aurelia” (129). Here Launcelot’s prior quixotism—the result of having thought himself spurned by Aurelia—begins to return as his imagination begins to work once more on thoughts of Aurelia. With Aurelia now firmly in his sights, Launcelot rides calmly toward London, fantasizing about “connubial happiness.” In the immediate paragraph following his conversion, Launcelot reverts to his original mode of quixotism. As he approaches a mob of “men and women, variously armed with flails, pitch-forks, poles, and muskets” cornering a lance-wielding figure on horseback, Launcelot, “not so totally abandoned by the spirit of chivalry,” takes off to rescue the cornered knight: “Without staying to put on his helmet, he ordered Crabshaw to follow him in the charge against those plebians: then couching his lance, and giving Bronzomarte the spur, he began his career with such impetuosity as overturned all that happened to be in his way; and intimidated the rabble to such a degree, that they retired before him like a flock of sheep” (129). The experience of discovering that the knight he rescued from the mob was none other than Captain Crowe, his ineffectual imitator, urges Launcelot yet more intensely back into quixotism.
As we can see, a sign of Launcelot’s sustained madness through what appears at first like a conversion moment is his inability to resist certain stimuli without reacting violently, either with martial violence otherwise uncharacteristic of him or with violent emotions. Launcelot reacts chivalrously when he beholds someone in distress, and he experiences drastic changes of mood and outlook each time Aurelia departs from or enters into his immediate considerations. For Boucé, Smollett’s description of Launcelot’s impetuousness—that hearing the cries of distress “operated like gunpowder” on Launcelot’s state of mind—“stresses Launcelot’s blind obedience to this impulse which promptly suspends all his rational faculties” (118–19).19
If we understand quixotism merely in the mimetic sense of Launcelot behaving like a chivalric knight-errant, however, then we miss the fact that Launcelot remains quixotic, even in the interlude during which he casts off his armor in pursuit of Aurelia. As Boucé argues: “The irony of Launcelot’s decision to abandon armour and chivalry becomes immediately obvious. He renounces one form of madness only to plunge straightaway into another, to wit sweet daydreams of the happiness he will enjoy with Aurelia.”20
With respect to Launcelot’s quixotism, we can observe a progression leading up to and through his conversion moment. Though Launcelot acknowledges that having been jilted by Aurelia is what led him to be “abandoned by [his] reason,” his actions in the beginning of the novel, after having been turned “mad” by this jilting, are for the most part measured, benevolent, and rational (116). Despite the fact that he goes about on horseback and in one-hundred-year-old armor, the particularity of Launcelot’s quixotism is, as I have suggested, that he believes that “madness and honesty are not incompatible” and behaves as such, practicing a largely successful brand of quixotism that, as Easson and others have pointed out, provides the reader with “little direct experience of an insane Launcelot” (59).21 Launcelot’s mode of quixotic exceptionalism—which allows him to function simultaneously as a skeptic toward and successful manipulator of the law in his pursuit of justice—is, like that of Parson Adams or Updike Underhill, that of the honest madman, or the visionary revisionist.
Once the possibility of realizing his passion for Aurelia is renewed upon their chance meeting about halfway through the novel, the measured quixote begins to act with more emotion and impetuousness than he had previously. He quits Aurelia suddenly when he hears cries of distress, irrationally leaving Aurelia vulnerable to the kidnapping (which, in conjunction with the attack on Crabshaw, was all by design to divert Launcelot). Then, having returned to find that she had been kidnapped, Launcelot is bizarrely content. He is “on a candid scrutiny of his own heart . . . much less unhappy than he had been before his interview with Aurelia; for, instead of being as formerly tormented with the pangs of despairing love, which had actually unsettled his understanding, he was now happily convinced that he had inspired the tender breast of Aurelia with mutual affection” (125). Pleased with having been relieved of the “pangs of despairing love,” even though Aurelia has just been kidnapped, Launcelot gains satisfaction from the plot twist that turns his pursuit of Aurelia into a more traditional romance narrative: his beloved has been kidnapped, and it is now her knight’s duty to rescue her. In the very moment in which Launcelot appears to retire his interest in chivalry, he embarks on a classically chivalric mission, emboldened by the promise of Aurelia, continuing in this revised quixotic mode in a manner more mad and impetuous than before.
What this ultimately amounts to is that Smollett’s heavily ironized quixotic conversion scene depicts the shedding of the overt trappings of quixotism (conversion) alongside a stark intensification of Launcelot’s madness and impetuous behavior. Though Launcelot notably resolves to take his time on his way into London in pursuit of Aurelia, thinking it more prudent to “wait with patience, until the law should supersede the authority of her guardian,” he does so, tellingly, so as not to “hazard the interest of his passion” (129). Smollett’s language here is loaded: Launcelot aims carefully not just to “hazard” Aurelia, who is “the interest of his passion,” but also not to hazard the interest of his passion itself, which has begun to alter his entire quixotic approach.
Launcelot’s degree of madness is a function of his relationship with Aurelia, and the prospects of that relationship, while his quixotism of law remains a separate factor and is sustained even as the objects of his immediate idealism shift. Whether his present concerns are primarily upholding the law, rescuing the endangered, aiding the poor and downtrodden, or pursuing Aurelia as a love interest, Launcelot proceeds quixotically. His exceptionalist perspective on the role and application of the law cause him to esteem the law as an institution and a corrective mechanism while at the same time fighting to address its shortcomings. His impulsive need to rescue imperiled travelers and stand up for the poor is fueled by a more traditional quixotic idealism, a belief in the basic laws of chivalry. And his pursuit of Aurelia fills him with so much passion and emotional and sensory overload that it diffuses his otherwise logical and prudent apprehension of the world around him, drawing him into a similarly traditional quixotic world of abducted ladies in distress and the heroic knights who come to their rescue. The qualitative change in Launcelot’s brief, midnovel conversion moment, then, is not from quixotism to sanity—a “cured” quixote—but from Launcelot’s characteristic version of measured and effective quixotism to an impetuous quixotism focused on Aurelia, his Dulcinea, and more closely resembling earlier interpretations of quixotism as chivalric madness. It is important to emphasize that even this conversion moment is fleeting, such that Launcelot is launched back into his prior form of measured, legalistic quixotism just as impetuously as he was moved, briefly, to abandon it.
There remains one final element of Launcelot’s quixotism worth mentioning. Though Smollett gives a clear nod to the tradition of quixotic conversion in Launcelot’s midnovel conversion moment, placing what is typically an end-of-novel confession rather subtly amid the midnovel height of action, Smollett’s closing chapter also hints less explicitly at quixotic conversion. After Launcelot rescues Aurelia, finding the “leisure to unravel the conspiracy which had been executed against his person,” he chooses rather coolly to avenge the conspiracy by way of the law rather than hunting the conspirators down on horseback to vanquish them with a violent attack, as Don Quixote might have done (189). Boucé reads this aspect of the final chapter as an indication that, by painting Launcelot as a figure of measure by the novel’s end, “Smollett confirms that Launcelot is definitely cured.” However, it is also clear that a quixotic belief in the power of the law, which proves a precarious position, has been a significant part of Launcelot’s default quixotism all along, a quixotism of law that remains with him through the novel’s end. Though Launcelot Greaves comes together in the end in a tidy manner similar to the ending of Joseph Andrews, Launcelot never actually experiences an end-of-novel conversion. That is, Launcelot, like Fielding’s Parson Adams, never actually has his quixotic expectations shattered, let alone seriously challenged. Instead, he has his quixotism logically and empirically affirmed by his considerable successes.
What this suggests about quixotic conversion in Launcelot Greaves, foremost, is that Smollett’s novel, despite being typically read by both his contemporaries and ours as a somewhat slavish imitation of Don Quixote, is actually, like Gulliver’s Travels, a prime example of the eighteenth-century British departure from the hard-and-fast traditions of the quixotic narrative in its strictest, most imitative sense. Just as in Gulliver’s Travels we can observe the emergence of quixotic behavior in Gulliver that is not superficially or allusively tied with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, we can see in Launcelot Greaves an inverse narrative strategy: Launcelot appears ostensibly and unmistakably, both to Ferret and to critics, “a modern Don Quixote,” yet his quixotism is a radical departure from quixotism in the referential sense, the superficial aspects of Don Quixote’s appearance, attire, and antiquated mannerisms (15). Smollett rewrites the quixote story, providing readers with all of the salient trappings of quixotism, but twisting the effect of quixotism such that it becomes the basis not of folly, but of the successful pursuit of justice.