Last reviewed: June 2018
March 19, 1721 (baptized)
Dalquhurn (now Renton), Scotland
September 17, 1771
Livorno, Tuscany (now in Italy)
Tobias Smollett, born in 1721 at Dalquhurn near Bonhill, Scotland, was the most prolific and venturesome of the eighteenth century’s novelists. After 1754, the year Henry Fielding died and Samuel Richardson published his last work, Smollett was often praised as the most talented novelist in the English language. He was at the same time one of England’s foremost political journalists and, after David Hume, its most influential historian; in the 1750s and 1760s he wrote or edited some seventy volumes of nonfiction. Portrait of Tobias Smollett.
Portrait of Tobias Smollett.
A poor and hot-tempered Scot, Smollett was a real-life replica of one of his own literary creations. After study at Glasgow University, he went to London to seek his fortune. After a stint in the navy as surgeon’s mate, he remained for a time in the West Indies, where he fell in love with Nancy Lascelles, daughter of a Jamaica planter, whom he later married. In 1744 he was back in London, doctoring and writing.
His first novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random, was a picaresque work that strung together a series of episodes through which the hero ultimately finds love and wealth. In all Smollett’s novels, there is a plenitude of delight to be found in the minor characters, who are treated as humor types. Lieutenant Tom Bowling, eccentric sea dog, and Morgan, a Welsh surgeon, are two such figures. Because of his interest in naval life, Smollett has been called the father of the nautical novel. The picture of shipboard life and the account of the disastrous attack on Cartagena in The Adventures of Roderick Random are among the earliest literary protests against naval abuses.
The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, his next novel, mined the vein of The Adventures of Roderick Random. Again, a young man with roguish tendencies achieves security after a series of adventures and amours. Commodore Hawser Trunnion, Smollett’s finest picture of an old salt, graces this novel. The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom, published in 1753, is a novel remarkable chiefly for the baseness of its hero, a thoroughly villainous ingrate who is made to undergo an unconvincing reformation. This was followed by The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, a lackluster imitation of Don Quixote.
In the year of his death Smollett published The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, at once his masterpiece and his happiest book. This epistolary novel employs a trip through the British Isles as the framework for the exhibition of a brilliant set of humorous characters. Chief among them is Matthew Bramble, a kindhearted man who unsuccessfully tries to hide his goodness behind a gruff manner. Bramble is accompanied by his sister Tabitha, a virago who finally succeeds in marrying Lieutenant Obadiah Lismahago, a terrible-tempered Scot. The novel takes its title from a starveling whom Bramble befriends and who turns out to be Bramble’s natural son. The episode of the discovery of Humphry’s identity is unsurpassed in the English novel.
In addition to his novels, Smollett labored prodigiously at a number of literary projects in which he was sometimes the coordinator of the work of several hack writers. His translations include The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, and The Works of M. de Voltaire. He edited The Critical Review (1756–1763), The British Magazine (1760–1767), and The Briton (1762–1763). He also wrote or edited a group of multiple-volume works, including A Complete History of England, A Compendium of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages, and The Present State of All Nations. In the field of poetry he wrote "The Tears of Scotland" (1746?, 1753), "Advice, a Satire" (1746), "Reproof, a Satire" (1747), and "Ode to Independence" (1773). Smollett was very ambitious for a stage success; after the failure of his tragedy The Regicide, he enjoyed a small hit with a farce, The Reprisal.
Ill health sent Smollett abroad, and out of his trips came Travels Through France and Italy, a curious mixture of laughter and anger. The History and Adventures of an Atom is a scurrilous political satire in which events attributed to Japan stand for occurrences in England.