This is a beta version of NNDB
Search: for

Tobias Smollett

Tobias SmollettAKA Tobias George Smollett

Born: 19-Mar-1721
Birthplace: Cardross, Dumbartonshire, Scotland
Died: 17-Sep-1771
Location of death: Livorno, Tuscany, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, English Cemetery, Livorno, Tuscany, Italy

Gender: Male
Religion: Presbyterian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Novelist

Nationality: Scotland
Executive summary: The Adventures of Roderick Random

Military service: Royal Navy (1740-41)

British novelist, born in the old grange of Dalquhurn, near Bonhill, in the vale of Leven, parish of Cardross, Dumbartonshire, and was christened on the 19th of March 1721. His father Archibald (youngest son of Sir James, the laird of Bonhill, a zealous Whig judge and promoter of the Union of 1707) had made what was deemed in the family an improvident marriage. Archibald died in 1723, and Sir James did what he could for the widow and her family during his lifetime. The elder son James was sent into the army. Tobias was sent to Dumbarton school, then in excellent repute under the grammarian John Love. When the grandfather died in 1732 there was no further provision, and after qualifying for a learned profession at Glasgow University, Tobias was apprenticed in 1736 for five years to a well-known surgeon in that city. This early "deception" conspired to make him angry, resentful and suspicious of motive; but he was neither vindictive nor ungenerous. If his tendency to satire and caricature made him enemies, his enthusiasm for Scottish history made him friends, and, in spite of peccadilloes, the "bubbly-nosed callant with a stane in his pouch", as Dr. Gordon called him, seems as an apprentice to have won his master's regard. The lad's ambition would not allow him to remain in Glasgow. The example of Thomson and Mallet was contagious, and at the age of eighteen Smollett crossed the border in set form to conquer England with a tragedy, The Regicide, based on Buchanan's description of the death of James I.

The story of the journey is told with infinite spirit in the early chapters of Roderick Random. The failure of the play, his darling composition and certainly the worst thing he ever wrote, became the stock grievance of Smollett's life. For some months no one could be induced to read it, and the unrequited author would have been reduced to starvation had not a friend of the family procured him the position as surgeon's mate on H.M.S. "Cumberland." The fleet was ordered to attack Cartagena, the great stronghold of Spanish America, and the siege, which occupied most of the year 1741, proved the Walcheren expedition of the 18th century. Smollett as an eyewitness has left us a memorable picture of the miseries endured by soldiers and sailors, which historians have been content to accept as a first-hand authority in spite of the fact that it is embedded in the pages of a licentious novel. When the enterprise was abandoned the fleet returned to Jamaica. There Smollett fell in love with the daughter of a planter, Nancy Lascelles, whom he married on returning to England. Before this, having removed his name from the navy books (May 1744), he had set up as a surgeon in Downing Street; but he attracted attention more as a wit than as a leech. "Jupiter" Carlyle testifies to his brilliant accomplishments, and to the popularity he attained by his indignant verses "The Tears of Scotland", resenting Culloden. In the same year (July 1746) his name appeared upon the title page of a political satire entitled Advice, followed characteristically in 1747 by Reproof, both of them "imitations from Juvenal" in the manner of Alexander Pope. He revenges himself in his satires on the should-have-been patrons of his play.

Disappointed alike in the drama, his profession and his wife's dowry, Smollett devoted his attention in a happy hour to fictitious adventure. Samuel Richardson had published the first part of Pamela in 1741, and Henry Fielding his Joseph Andrews in 1742. But Smollett owed less to these models than to his studies in Cervantes, Swift, Defoe and above all Alain René Lesage. His hero, who gives his first novel its capital name, Roderick Random, recounts like Gil Blas a life of varied adventure in the company of a servant, in which he enters the service of a physician and meets with old schoolfellows, thieves, notes of the bank of engraving, prison, semi-starvation and in the end an unexpected fortune. The author draws on his adventures on the English highway and in the cockpit of a king's ship. Virtually he revealed the seaman to the reading world -- divined his character, sketched his outlines, formulated his lingo, discovered his possibilities to such purpose that, as Sir Walter Scott says, every one who has written about the navy since seems to have copied more from Smollett than from nature. Pungent observation allied to a vigorous prose, emancipated to a rare degree from provincialism or archaism, were perhaps the first of Smollett's qualifications as a novelist. Such coherence as his novels have owes more to accidental accumulation than to constructive design. The wealth of amusing incident, the rapidly moving crowd of amusing and eccentric figures, atones for a good many defects. Smollett's peculiar coarseness and ferocity were gradually eliminated from English fiction, but from Tom Jones right down to Great Expectations his work was regularly ransacked for humor. There was no author's name on the title of the two small volumes of Random; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu thought a work so delightful could only be by Fielding, in whose name it was actually translated into French. But Smollett made no secret of the authorship, went to Paris to ratify his fame, and published his derelict play as "by the author of Roderick Random", hoping thus, as he said, to intimidate his discarded patrons. The incident well reveals the novelist's "systema nervosum maxime irritabile", of which his medical advisers spoke.

Smollett now became a central figure among the group of able doctors who hailed from north of the Tweed, such as Clephane, Macaulay, Hunter, Armstrong, Pitcairne and William Smellie, in the revision of whose system of Midwifery the novelist bore a part. He must have still designed to combine medicine with authorship, for in June 1750 he obtained the degree of M.D. from Marischal College, Aberdeen. But in the autumn of this year he already had another novel in prospect, and went over to Paris with a new acquaintance, Dr. Moore (author of Zeluco), who soon became his intimate and was destined to become his biographer. The influence of this visit is marked in Smollett's second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (4 vols., 1751). Like its predecessor, a loosely constructed string of episodes and adventures in which a still greater scope is afforded to the author for eccentric display, Pickle proved from the first a resounding success, both in England and France. The chief centers of attraction are the grotesque misanthrope of Bath, Cadwallader Crabtree, the burlesque scenes afforded by the physician (a caricature of Akenside) and Pallet the painter in Paris, and the so-called "garrison", with its inhabitants, Hatchway and Pipes and the inimitable Trunnion -- whose death scene fully exhibits Smollett's powers for the first time -- the prototype of so many character portraits from Uncle Toby to Cap'n Cuttle. Trunnion's grotesque ride to church reappears in John Gilpin; the misanthrope, practicing satire under cover of feigned deafness, reappears in the Mungo Malagrowther of Scott, who frankly admits further debts to Smollett in the preface to the Legend of Montrose. The "garrison" unquestionably suggested the "castle" of Tristram Shandy and the "fortress" of Mr. Wemmick. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that the tideway of subsequent fiction is strewn on every hand with the disjecta membra of Smollett's happy phrases and farcical inventions. Pickle himself is if possible a bigger ruffian than Random; in this respect at any rate Smollett clings to the cynical tradition of the old romances of roguery. The novel is marred to an even greater extent by interpolations and personal attacks than its predecessor; the autobiographical element is slighter and the literary quality in some respects inferior.

Smollett's third novel, Ferdinand Count Fathom, appeared in 1753, by which time the author, after a final trial at Bath, had definitively abandoned medicine for letters, and had settled down at Monmouth House, Chelsea, a married man, a father and a professional writer, not for patronage, but for the trade. In this capacity he was among the first to achieve a difficult independence. In Fathom Smollett endeavors unquestionably to organize a novel upon a plan elevated somewhat above mere agglomeration. It looks as if he had deliberately set himself to show that he too, as well as the author of Tom Jones, could make a plot. The squalor and irony of the piece repel the reader, but it is Smollett's greatest feat of invention, and the descriptive power, especially in the first half, reveals the latent imaginative power of the author. Few novels have been more systematically plundered, for Fathom was the studio model of all the mystery and terror school of fiction commencing with Radcliffe and Lewis. With Fathom the first jet of Smollett's original invention was spent. The novel was not particularly remunerative, and his expenses seem always to have been profuse. He was a great frequenter of taverns, entertained largely, and every Sunday threw open his house and garden to unfortunate "brothers of the quill", whom he regaled with beef, pudding and potatoes, port, punch and "Calvert's entire butt-beer."

To sustain these expenses Smollett consented to become a literary impresario upon a hitherto unparalleled scale. His activity during the next six years was many-sided, chiefly in the direction of organizing big and saleable "standard" works for the booksellers and contracting them out to his "myrmidons." Thus we see him almost simultaneously editing Don Quixote, making a triumphant visit to Scotland, inaugurating a new literary periodical the Critical (February 1756) by way of corrective to Griffith's Monthly Review, organizing a standard library History of England in quarto and octavo, with continuations, and a seven-volume compendium of Voyages, for which he wrote a special narrative of the siege of Cartagena, supplementary to his account in Roderick Random. In 1758 he projected and partly wrote a vast Universal History, and in January 1760 he brought out the first number of a new sixpenny magazine, the British, to which he contributed a serial work of fiction, the mediocre Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. By these Herculean labors as a compiler Smollett must have amassed a considerable sum, to which the £200 received from the now forgiven "Marmozet" (David Garrick) for the sixth performance of the patriotic extravaganza, The Reprisal, or the Tars of Old England, must have come as a welcome addition. The Critical Review was already responsible for plenty of thorns in the editorial cushion when in 1762 Smollett undertook the additional task of editing the Briton. He had already been ridiculed, insulted, fined and imprisoned in the Marshalsea (this last for an attack on Admiral Sir Charles Knowles). He was now to support the North British favorite of George III in the press against all comers, not we may reasonably suppose without substantial reward. Yet after incurring all this unpopularity, at a time when the London mob was more inflamed against Scotsmen than it has ever been before or since, and having aroused the animosity of such former allies as John Wilkes and his friend Charles Churchill, Smollett was to find himself unceremoniously thrown over by his chief, Lord Bute, on the ground that his paper did more to invite attack than to repel it.

The Briton expired or was killed by the North Briton in February 1763, and for the moment Smollett allowed himself to be beckoned back by the booksellers to such tasks as a universal gazetteer and a translation of Voltaire in 38 volumes, and we hear of him prescribing work to his minions or receiving their homage and demanding their copy as of old. In April, however, his only daughter died at the age of fifteen, and, already over-wrought and almost broken down from sedentary strain, the tension proved too much and Smollett was never the same man again. His wife earnestly begged him to "convey her from a country where every object seemed only to nourish grief", and he followed her advice. The result was two years' sojourn abroad, mainly upon the Riviera, which Smollett, who may be termed the literary discoverer of Nice, turned to such excellent purpose in his Travels (2 vols., 1766), remarkable alike for their acidity and for their insight. On his arrival from Italy, where he had provided material for Laurence Sterne's portrait of the distressful "Smelfungus", Smollett seemed at first decidedly better and appeared to be getting over some of the symptoms of his pulmonic complaint. But his health was thoroughly undermined by rheumatism, and the pain arising from a neglected ulcer which had developed into a chronic sore helped to sap his strength. As soon, therefore, as the Travels were out of hand Smollett resolved on a summer journey to Scotland. The society of Edinburgh, then at the apogee of its brilliance, paid due attention to the famous Dr. Smollett. He was visited by Hume, Home, Robertson, Adam Smith, Blair, Carlyle, Cullen and the Monros. He went to Glasgow to see Dr. Moore (where he patted the head of the future hero of Coruña), and stayed with his cousin, James Smollett, in his newly built mansion of Cameron. His mother, who hardly knew his toil-worn visage until it relaxed into his old roguish smile, died in this autumn, and he was still in a precarious state of health when he proceeded to Bath, spending the Christmas of 1766 in Gay Street, where his complaint at last took a turn for the better, and where it is possible that he may have commenced a rough draft of Humphrey Clinker.

In 1768 he was again in London, and with a return of his vital energy came a recrudescence of the old savagery. The History and Adventures of an Atom is a very clever, but abominably coarse, Rabelaisian satire upon the whole conduct of public affairs in England from the beginning of the Seven Years' War down to the date of publication. He lashes out on all sides without fear or favor. The king, Chatham, Bute and North are bespattered with filth, the acridity of which owes something to Gulliver, with aid as to local color from the Jesuit and other accounts of Japan which had come under his ken as a compiler of travels. After its publication in 1769, without other serious consequences, Smollett's health completely relapsed, and in December (a consulate in the Mediterranean having been refused him) he left England finally, and settled first at Pisa and then near Antignano, a few miles out of Livorno. There, during the autumn of 1770, he penned his immortal Humphrey Clinker, in which he reverts to his favorite form of itinerant letters, a rare example of late maturity of literary power and fecundity of humor. The sardonic humor, persistent curiosity and keen faculty of observation shown in the Travels are here combined with the mellow contentment of the voyager who has forgotten the small worries of transport and with the enthusiasm of the veteran who revisits the scenes of his youth. The character drawing, too, though still caustic, seems riper and more matured. Smollett's speculative and informing 18th-century mind is here content for the most part, like Oliver Goldsmith's, merely to amuse.

Smollett died at Livorno aged fifty on the 17th of September 1771, and was buried in the old English cemetery there. Three years later the Smollett obelisk was put up at Renton (it now stands in the parish schoolground), halfway between Dumbarton and Balloch. The best portrait belongs to the Smollett family, Cameron House, Loch Lomond (engraved by Freeman, 1831). The genuineness of the others, if we except that in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, is doubtful. The novelist has been confused with the Dr. Smollett, the contemporary of Dr. William Hunter, who figures in Rowlandson's "Dissecting Room."

Hume said that Smollett was like a coconut, rough outside, but full of human kindness within. He was easily ruffled by the rubs of fortune of which he had more than his fair share. Hence the adjectives corrosive and splenetic so often applied to a nature essentially both generous and tender. After Fielding, Smollett counts as the greatest purveyor of comic prose-epic of contemporary life to his generation, if not to his century. Scott and Dickens regarded him as fully Fielding's equal. Hazlitt and Thackeray thought otherwise. Equally rationalist and pagan with Fielding, Smollett is more of a pedagogue and less of the instinctive scholar and wit than his predecessor. His method in its broad outlines is similar, historic and ambulant rather than philosophic or poetic, but he has more potential romance or poetry about his make-up than the mystery-hating Fielding. In the recognized requirements of prose-epic such as plot, character, scene, reflection and diction, Smollett could fairly hold his own. His prose, which carries on the robust tradition from Swift and Defoe to Johnson and Jeffrey, is more modern in tone than that of his great rival. In fictions such as Tom Jones, Roderick Random and the like, England could at length feel that it possessed compositions which might claim kinship and comparison with Cervantes and Lesage. Much that these writers attempted has been done again in a style better adjusted to the increasing refinement of a later age. But Smollett's great powers of observation and description, his caustic and indignant turn of speech, will long render him an invaluable witness in the century which he so well represents. Much that he did was mere hackwork, but at his best he ranks with the immortals.

Father: Archibald Smollett (d. 1723)
Wife: Anne Lassells
Daughter: Elizabeth (d. 1763)

    High School: Dumbarton grammar school (1728)
    University: University of Glasgow (dropped out)
    Medical School: MD, Marischal College, Aberdeen (1750)

Author of books:
The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748, novel)
The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751, novel)
The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753, novel)
Complete History of England (1756, history)
The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762, novel)
Travels Through France and Italy (1766, travelogue)
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771, novel)

Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile

Copyright ©2019 Soylent Communications