Tobias George Smollett

Of the major 18th-century novelists and satirists, the British author and physician Tobias George Smollett (1721-1771) is most clearly identified with the picaresque tradition of novel writing.

The variety and extent of Tobias Smollett's interests, his phlegmatic Scottish nature, the grossness and bite of his satires, and the keenness of his caricatures distinguish the man and his works. The acts of shocking violence and brutality and the coarseness of language that Smollett incorporated into his novels set him off from the three other principal English novelists of the mid-18th century: Samuel Richardson, best known for his massive and powerful epistolary novel, Clarissa; Henry Fielding, the satirist and novelist of English manners most frequently remembered for Tom Jones; and Laurence Sterne, whose experiments with structure in Tristram Shandy produced a work unique in the fiction of the period. Like his contemporary, friend, and fellow physician Oliver Goldsmith, Smollett earned his living primarily as a professional writer rather than from his medical practice.


Early Life

Smollett was born of a good family in Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on March 19, 1721, the third child of Archibald and Barbara Smollett. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow during the 1730s, but he did not receive his formal medical degree from Marischal College, Aberdeen, until 1750. After a brief term as an apprentice surgeon in Glasgow in 1739, Smollett moved to London in order to pursue his literary ambitions. Financial necessity led him to take a post as surgeon's mate aboard H.M.S. Chichester in 1740. His grim exposure to life in the Royal Navy provided him with many of the vivid scenes of life at sea that he later incorporated into Roderick Random and other novels.

Smollett returned to London from the West Indies briefly in 1742, but he soon sailed back to Jamaica, where he married Anne Lassalls, an heiress, probably in 1743. In 1744, at the same time that he was trying to establish a medical practice in London, Smollett began to publish a series of minor poems and attempted unsuccessfully to have his first play, an ill-starred tragedy entitled The Regicide, produced. Of the occasional odes that Smollett published between 1744 and 1747, the best was his movingly patriotic The Tears of Scotland (1746). The most noteworthy of his Juvenalian verse satires, Advice (1746) and Reproof (1747), merely furthered his growing reputation as a quarrelsome Scotsman outraged by the refined vices of London.


Roderick Random

The Adventures of Roderick Random, published in "two neat Pocket-Volumes" in 1748, made Smollett a controversial literary celebrity. The success of his raw, bold story of a young man's progress through the world was immediate, impressive, and prolonged. While some critics attacked Smollett for the viciousness of his characters, the indecency of his language, and the carelessness of his prose, the English public enjoyed Smollett's vivid depiction of the horrors of naval warfare, the rapid pace of his narrative, the brutality that marked individual scenes, and the colorful—if roughly drawn—caricatures that abounded in the novel. As young Roderick moves from adventure to adventure, he observes the grasping, vicious nature of most of the human beings whom he encounters and quickly learns that he can survive in the world only by using his cunning and native wit.

In 1748 Smollett also published his laborious translation of Alain René Lesage's Gil Blas in four volumes, began work on a translation of Cervantes's The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote (not published until 1755), and completed a second abortive dramatic piece entitled Alceste. After The Regicide had been published in 1749, the cantankerous Smollett, in ill health, made his first extensive visit to the Continent.


Peregrine Pickle

In 1751 Smollett released his second picaresque novel, Peregrine Pickle, widely read because of its magnificently drawn naval characters and because of Smollett's bitter, personal attacks on such prominent English figures as Henry Fielding and David Garrick. Peregrine, like Roderick Random, must learn to live by his wits in a world that Smollett depicts as corrupt and unfeeling. In the same year Smollett began reviewing books for the Monthly Review, an activity that he expanded later for the Critical Review.

Ferdinand Count Fathom

Smollett's third novel, The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, appeared early in 1753. Again the story of a rogue moving through vicious elements in society, it was financially less successful than his first two works of fiction. Smollett continued to supplement his meager medical income by undertaking hackwork for various booksellers in London during this period. By 1756, in fact, he had largely abandoned his medical practice. Although he was deeply involved in establishing and contributing to the Critical Review in 1756, he did not find the venture commercially profitable until 1762.

Real financial success from his writing came to Smollett only with the publication of the four volumes of his Complete History of England in 1757-1758, a project begun in 1755 and already being revised before the end of 1758. Smollett's farce, The Reprisal; or, The Tars of Old England, was successfully produced at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1757. By 1759, although he was only 38 years old, he was already suffering so severely from the asthma and associated complicating disorders that eventually led to his death that he sought feverishly but unsuccessfully to obtain a diplomatic post that would take him to a warmer climate to live and work.


Sir Launcelot Greaves and Editorial Work

During 1760-1761 Smollett published his fourth novel, The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, in the British Magazine, which he had helped to found. The novel, although an unsuccessful attempt to translate the Don Quixote story into 18th-century English characters and situations, was the first considerable English novel ever to be published serially. Smollett also undertook a Continuation of the Complete History of England (five volumes of which were published between 1760 and 1765), engaged in virulent political controversy, and in 1761 agreed to contribute to and help prepare a 36-volume edition of The Works of M. de Voltaire (1761-1769). By 1763, in broken health and mourning the death of his daughter, Elizabeth, who had been born in 1747 or 1748, Smollett sailed for France, where he remained for 2 years.

In 1766 Smollett published two important volumes of his Travels through France and Italy, a popular compendium of observations on character, customs, commerce, the arts, and antiquities. Although he traveled constantly through England and Scotland between 1765 and 1768, he was finally forced by his deteriorating health to leave England forever and to move to Italy in 1768. Smollett is usually considered to be the author of The Adventures of an Atom (1769), a satire that pretended to be about Japan but was, in fact, a coarse and violent attack on important political issues and personages in the early years of the reign of George III.


Humphrey Clinker

While living in II Gardino, Italy, Smollett completed work on his last and finest novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, which was published in three volumes in June 1771. His only epistolary novel, Humphrey Clinker reflects a more careful structure, a more balanced view of human nature, and a greater control of style and character than any of his earlier fiction. The novel describes the travels of Matthew Bramble, various members of his family, and their companions through England, Wales, and Scotland in a series of letters written from startlingly different points of view. While Matt's letters, for example, criticize the noise and pollution of London and Bath, those of his niece, Lydia, describe the excitement, the bustle, and the charm of these cities with relish and delight. In depicting Matthew Bramble's progress from sickness to health during the novel, Smollett drew much from his own adventures traveling through England. Smollett died in Italy in 1771.

Further Reading on Tobias George Smollett

Major biographical studies of Smollett are Louis L. Martz, The Later Career of Tobias Smollett (1942); George M. Kahrl, Tobias Smollett: Traveller-Novelist (1945); Lewis M. Knapp, Tobias Smollett: Doctor of Men and Manners (1949); and Robert D. Spector, Tobias Smollett (1968). Important critical studies of Smollett are Fred W. Boege, Smollett's Reputation as a Novelist (1947), and G. S. Rousseau and P. G. Boucé, eds., Tobias Smollett: Bicentennial Essays Presented to Louis M. Knapp (1971). Useful chapters on Smollett are in the following works: Alan D. McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction (1956); Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957); Robert Alter, Rogue's Progress (1964); and Ronald Paulson, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth Century England (1967). Recommended for general historical and social background are J.H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (1950); A. H. Humphreys, The Augustan World (1954); and R.J. White, The Age of George III (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Smeaton, William Henry Oliphant, Tobias Smollett, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.