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Tobias Smollett



Tobias Smollett

Scottish novelist
in full Tobias George Smollett

baptized March 19, 1721, Cardross, Dumbartonshire, Scot.
died Sept. 17, 1771, near Livorno, Tuscany [Italy]

Scottish satirical novelist, best known for his picaresque novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and his epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).

Smollett came of a family of lawyers and soldiers, Whig in politics and Presbyterian in religion. In 1727 or 1728 he entered Dumbarton grammar school, proceeding from there to the University of Glasgow and apprenticeship to William Stirling and John Gordon, surgeons of that city. His first biographer states that he “attended the anatomical and medical lectures,” and, if his first novel, Roderick Random, may be taken as evidence, he also studied Greek, mathematics, moral and natural philosophy, logic, and belles lettres. He left the university in 1739 without a degree and went to London, taking with him his play The Regicide. A year later he was commissioned surgeon’s second mate in the Royal Navy and appointed to HMS Chichester, which reached Port Royal, Jam., on Jan. 10, 1741. It is probable that Smollett saw action in the naval bombardment of Cartagena (now in Colombia). The expedition was disastrous; he would later describe its horrors in Roderick Random. In Jamaica he met and was betrothed to—and perhaps there married—an heiress, Anne Lassells. He returned to London alone to set up as a surgeon on Downing Street, Westminster, his wife joining him in 1747. He failed to secure a production of The Regicide, but in 1746, after the defeat of the Jacobite rebels at Culloden, he wrote his most famous poem, “The Tears of Scotland.” He had by now moved to cheaper accommodations in Chapel Street, Mayfair, no doubt because, despite litigation, he had managed to recover only a fraction of his wife’s considerable dowry, which was invested in land and slaves. It was in Chapel Street that he wrote Advice and Reproof, verse satires in the manner of the Roman poet Juvenal.

In 1748 Smollett published his novel The Adventures of Roderick Random, in part a graphic account of British naval life at the time, and also translated the great picaresque romance Gil Blas from the French of Alain-René Lesage. In 1750 he obtained the degree of M.D. from Marischal College, Aberdeen. Later in the year he was in Paris, searching out material for The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. This work contains a great comic figure in Hawser Trunnion, a retired naval officer who, though living on dry land, insists on behaving as though he were still on the quarterdeck of one of his majesty’s ships at sea.

In 1752 he published “An Essay on the External Use of Water,” an attack on the medicinal properties of the waters of a popular English health resort, Bath (he would resume the attack in his later novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker). The essay made him many enemies and little money. His financial difficulties were intensified by his generosity in lending money to a hack writer called Peter Gordon, who employed legal stratagems to avoid repayment. Smollett came to blows with Gordon and his landlord and was sued by them for £1,000 and £500, respectively, on charges of trespass and assault. In the event, Smollett was required to pay only small damages. He was now living at Monmouth House, Chelsea, where he was host to such leading literary figures as the authors Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, as well as to the actor David Garrick and John Hunter, a famous surgeon and anatomist. On Sundays, if one may take a passage in Peregrine Pickle as autobiographical, Smollett threw his house open to “unfortunate brothers of the quill,” whom he regaled with “beer, pudding, and potatoes, port, punch, and Calvert’s entire butt-beer.” He himself seems to have been a man irascible, pugnacious, infinitely energetic, courageous, and generous.

The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (now, with The History and Adventures of an Atom, the least regarded of his novels) appeared in 1753. It sold poorly, and Smollett was forced into borrowing from friends and into further hack writing. In June 1753 he visited Scotland for the first time in 15 years; his mother, it is said, recognized him only because of his “roguish smile.” Back in London, Smollett set about a commitment to translate Don Quixote from the Spanish of Miguel de Cervantes, and this translation was published in 1755. Smollett was already suffering from tuberculosis. Early in 1756 he became editor of The Critical Review, a Tory and church paper, at the same time writing his Complete History of England, which was financially successful. This work relieved the financial pressure that he had felt all his adult life. A year later, his farce The Reprisal: or, The Tars of Old England was produced at Drury Lane and brought him a profit of almost £200. In 1758 he became what today might perhaps be called general editor of Universal History, a compilation of 58 volumes; Smollett himself wrote on France, Italy, and Germany. His friendship with the politician John Wilkes enabled him to secure the release of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s black servant, from the press-gang. But a libel on Admiral Sir Charles Knowles in The Critical Review led to Smollett’s being sentenced to a fine of £100 and three months’ imprisonment in the King’s Bench Prison. He seems to have lived there in some comfort and drew on his experiences for his novel The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762), which was serialized in The British Magazine, of which Smollett became editor in 1760.

Two years later he became editor of The Briton, a weekly founded to support the prime minister John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. He was also writing an eight-volume work entitled The Present State of all Nations, and he had begun a translation, in 36 volumes, of the varied works of the French writer Voltaire. Smollett was now seriously ill; attempts to secure a post as physician to the army in Portugal and as British consul in Marseille or Madrid were fruitless. In 1763 the death of his only child, Elizabeth, who was 15 years old, overwhelmed him “with unutterable sorrow.” He severed his connection with The Critical Review and, as he said, “every other literary system,” retiring with his wife to France, where he settled at Nice.

In 1766 Smollett published Travels Through France and Italy, his one nonfiction work that is still read. It is a satire on both tourists and those who batten on them, and its jaundiced version of traveling on the Continent led to Smollett’s appearance as the splenetic Smelfungus in Laurence Sterne’s novel A Sentimental Journey (1768). He returned to England in that year, visited Scotland, and at Christmas was again in England (at Bath), where he probably began what is his finest work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, an epistolary novel that recounts the adventures of a family traveling through Britain. In 1768, steadily weakening in health, he retired to Pisa, Italy. During the autumn of 1770 he seems to have written the bulk of Humphry Clinker, which was published on June 15, 1771.

Smollett is not the equal of his older contemporaries, the novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, but he is unrivaled for the pace and vigour that sustain his comedy. He is especially brilliant in the rendering of comic characters in their externals, thus harking back to the manner of the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson and looking forward to that of the novelist Charles Dickens. By modern criteria, his art as a satirical novelist is defective, his model being the “picaresque” novel, relating loosely linked episodes in the life of a rogue hero. But his panoramic picture of the life of his times is surpassed only by that given by Henry Fielding, while his account of conditions in the Royal Navy is especially valuable.

Walter E. Allen



Roderick Random

Tobias George Smollett

Smollett's first novel is an account of the varied adventures of the quixotic Roderick Random. Praised for Smollett's depiction of the harsh realities of British naval life, Roderick Random is more than just a vivid account of life aboard a man-of-war. The novel follows Roderick as he travels the world attempting to find his own path both financially and morally. Despite his overriding roguish and crude behaviour, Roderick's education and eloquence help establish him as impoverished but gentlemanly. For Roderick, adversity provides moral education and improvement. However, it is only when he regains his true social standing and reclaims his paternal estate that Roderick is truly reformed.
Despite declaring his love for Narcissa, Roderick repeatedly engages in aimless and indiscriminate sexual relations with other women. His double standards are not consistently punished and he is ultimately rewarded in gaining Narcissa as a wife. However, Smollett's interpolated narrative, "The History of Miss Williams" provides a critical backdrop for Roderick's own sexual activity. This account of a woman who succumbs to her own sexual desire and descends into prostitution provides a sympathetic, although not condoning, portrayal. Roderick Random is a novel full of unexpected and peculiar twists and turns, and by the conclusion alert readers cannot entirely forgive Roderickfor his debauchery.


Peregrine Pickle

Tobias George Smollett

The exploits of the egotistical Peregrine Pickle are the subject of Smollett's second novel. While the episodic construction and interpolated narratives are reminiscent of Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle is more than a repetition of an earlier narrative. Peregrine is a fallible hero and this is emphasiszed by the frequently critical tone of the third-person omniscient narrator. The son of a short line of moderately successful merchants, Peregrine is despised by his own mother and adopted by his eccentric uncle, whose exploits provide much of the humor in the early part of the novel. Peregrine enjoys a privileged education that compounds his own misguided sense of self-importance. He undertakes the Grand Tour, traveling through Europe amid a profusion of excess, sexual intrigue, and rakish conduct and, on his return to London, attempts to ingratiate himself into fashionable society and political circles. He aspires to marriage with an heiress as a way of rising to the ranks of the nobility. However, Peregrine's ambitions are thwarted by his own destructive and corrupt behavior, demonstrating his inability to conduct himself in a manner appropriate to his financial standing. Eventually, during his incarceration in the Fleet prison, Pickle reforms. He marries Emilia and adopts the life of a country gentleman removed from the evils of fashionable society.
Despite its scatological humor, Smollett's satire engages with serious concerns such as the arbitrariness of French justice and the threat posed to social order by contemporary commercialization. Peregrine has to learn the responsibilities and privileges of social position before he can truly value his ultimate reward: a quiet life of felicity with his beloved Emilia.


Humphry Clinker

Tobias George Smollett

Smollett's last novel is an epistolary narrative detailing the travels through Britain of Matt Bramble and his company including the servant hero, the impoverished Humphry Clinker. The letters reveal the characters of their very different authors. Matt Bramble is a hypochondriac misanthrope, his sister Tabitha, an aging husband-hunter, Jery Melford their nephew, an exuberant Oxford student, his sister Lydia a naive sentimental romantic, and Tabitha's maid, Wyn Jenkins, a virtually illiterate social climber. These varied points of view provide a lively and wide-ranging narrative that engages the reader directly in deciphering not only the progress and adventures of the party but also the targets of Smollett's satire. The narrative allows for multiple interpretations of the events that unfold, and there is no one authoritative version. However, Clinker's moral integrity and religious zeal are constant throughout the accounts.
The party continually encounters mishap, with Clinker invariably at the center. Such mishaps include duels, romantic intrigues, jealous encounters, a false imprisonment, and innumerable disputes both large and smatl. Finally the love matches are made, and the plot tied up. Unlike Smollett's other titular heroes, Clinker reaps a reward that is unquestionably deserved. His naivety regarding the ways of the world and his morality are admirable traits, against which the flaws of his companions and his society are clearly exposed.



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