Smollett, Tobias (1721–1771)

views updated May 11 2018


SMOLLETT, TOBIAS (17211771), Scottish novelist, translator, and periodicals editor. Smollett is perhaps best known as the author of the hugely successful picaresque novel Roderick Random (1747), as an editor of the monthly magazine The Critical Review, and the patriotic periodical The Briton (17621763), and the xenophobic travel book Travels through France and Italy (1766), which details his own experiences of traveling in Europe. He was born Tobias George Smollett in Dumbarton, the son of a Scottish laird, attended Glasgow University to read medicine, and was subsequently apprenticed to a surgeon to learn the trade. In 1741 he traveled to the West Indies as a surgeon's mate in the navy, where he met his wife, Anne Lassells, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in Jamaica. He returned with her to London in 1744 to establish himself as a surgeon in Downing Street.

Smollett's career as a surgeon did not flourish. In order to supplement his income, and to satisfy an urge that had inspired him to produce the play The Regicide in 1739, he undertook editing, translating, and, subsequently, writing. In 1746 he produced "The Tears of Scotland," a poem in support of Scottish tolerance after the Jacobite uprising of 1745. As a Scot and lifelong supporter of the British union, Smollett was not afraid to court controversy or to be outspoken in his opinions. Indeed, he declared in the preface to his first novel that his "avowed purpose" in writing was to arouse "generous indignation against cruelty and injustice" wherever possible.

Smollett anonymously published his first novel, Roderick Random (2 volumes), in 1747 to enormous public and critical approval. As a picaresque tale, a form that Smollett himself believed to be best for a novel, Roderick Random has a rambling structure detailing the life of a hapless, outcast naval surgeon seeking his fortune and a wife, who ultimately emerges at the end of the novel wealthy and married, despite an eventful and at times violent series of events. Following Smollett's success with this novel, he wrote two more tales in a similar style, including The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (2 volumes, 1751 and 1758), which contained many savage caricatures of contemporary figures, including Henry Fielding; and The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (2 volumes, 1753), the story of a charming but treacherous con man in search of a fortune. Neither of these tales enjoyed the success of his first novel, however, leading him to engage in other literary ventures in addition to writing novels.

In 1755, Smollett translated Cervantes's seventeenth-century romance Don Quixote, and, in the following year, cofounded The Critical Review, which, though not a commercial success, ran for seven years and placed Smollett at the heart of literary London. In the late 1750s, Smollett turned his attention to nonfiction and published A Compendium of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages (7 volumes, 1756) and his own A Complete History of England (4 volumes, 17571758), which sold well and made him financially secure. His fourth novel, The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, appeared serially in The British Magazine in 1760.

In the 1760s, after he had suffered with consumption (tuberculosis) for a number of years, Smollett's health began to deteriorate. Despite his ill health, however, he embarked on a new project, The Briton, a pro-union periodical that he wrote and edited in the years 17621763, but that was eventually killed off by a rival publication, the satirical North Briton, edited by John Wilkes. In the same year that his periodical was taken off the press, his only child died suddenly, and Smollett headed for France and Italy, hoping the change of climate would restore both his mind and body. Returning to London in 1765, he published the story of his journey through Europe as a series of anonymous letters in Travels through France and Italy (1766), a book that was condemned for its xenophobic portrayal of the French, and prompted Laurence Sterne to rename its author Smelfungus in 1768, but also admired for its frank reporting of his own experiences and his detailed observations of life in the French town of Nice. Smollett returned to France in 1768. Before his death in Livorno in 1771 he wrote and published two further novels, the anonymous and bizarre The History and Adventures of an Atom (1786) and, perhaps his most respected work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), a comic epistolary novel that tells the story of a family's tour through Great Britain.

See also Burney, Frances ; Defoe, Daniel ; English Literature and Language ; Fielding, Henry ; Jacobitism ; Scotland ; Sensibility ; Sterne, Laurence .


Primary Sources

Smollett, Tobias. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom. Edited by Paul-Gabriel Boucé. London, 1990.

. The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle in which are included Memoirs of a Lady of Quality. Edited by James L. Clifford. London and New York, 1969.

. The Adventures of Roderick Random. Edited by David Blewett. London, 1995.

. A Compendium of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages. 7 vols. London, 1756.

. A Compleat History of England. 4 vols. London, 17571758.

. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Edited by Angus Ross. London, 1977; reprinted 1985.

. Fénelon's Adventures of Telemachus. 2 vols. London, 1776. Translation.

. The History and Adventures of an Atom. Edited by O. M. Brack. Athens, Ga., 1989.

. Le Sage's Adventures of Gil Blas. 4 vols. London, 1749. Translation.

. The Letters of Tobias Smollett. Edited by Lewis M. Knapp. Oxford, 1970.

. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. Edited by Peter Wagner. London, 1988.

. Poems, Plays, and The Briton. Edited by O. M. Brack. Athens, Ga., 1993.

. The Present State of all Nations. 8 vols. London, 1764.

. Travels through France and Italy 2 vols. London, 1766.

Smollett, Tobias, with Thomas Francklin. The Works of M. de Voltaire. 38 vols. London, 17611774. Translation.

Secondary Sources

Bourgeois, Susan. Nervous Juyces and the Feeling Heart: The Growth of Sensibility in the Novels of Tobias Smollett. New York, 1986.

Douglas, Aileen. Uneasy Sensations: Smollett and the Body. Chicago, 1995.

Grant, Damian. Tobias Smollett: A Study in Style. Manchester, U.K. and Totowa, N.J., 1977.

Kelly, Lionel, ed. Tobias Smollett: The Critical Heritage. London, 1987.

Rousseau, G. S. Tobias Smollett: Essays of Two Decades. Edinburgh, 1982.

Spector, Robert Donald. Smollett's Women: A Study in an Eighteenth-Century Masculine Sensibility. Westport, Conn., 1994.

Wagoner, Mary. Tobias Smollett: A Checklist of Editions of his Work and an Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York, 1984.

Alison Stenton

Tobias George Smollett

views updated May 29 2018

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

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 Sources

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

Smollett, Tobias

views updated May 29 2018

Smollett, Tobias (1721–74). Novelist. Son of a prosperous Dumbarton laird, Smollett became the best-known London-Scottish man of letters of his generation. His life was dogged by financial disaster and he took to Grub Street out of necessity. Much of his literary career was the stuff of hack writing—translations, political and historical journalism, travel writing. But he was a cut above the rest. His ‘Continuation’ of Hume's History of England was not only lucrative but a serious foray into contemporary history. His Critical Review founded in 1756 was a respected and popular literary journal. His early picaresque novels Roderick Random (1748) and Peregrine Pickle (1751) are minor classics. His last novel Humphry Clinker (1771), set in London, the English provinces, Wales, and Scotland, is the first genuinely British novel. It is also a major classic of comic fiction.

Nicholas Phillipson

Smollett, Tobias George

views updated May 29 2018

Smollett, Tobias George (1721–71) Scottish novelist and surgeon. Smollett's debut novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), drew on his naval experience. The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) was in the same bawdy, picaresque vein. His masterpiece is The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), a comic, epistolary novel. Smollett also translated Voltaire and Cervantes and edited several periodicals.