Tobias Smollett Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tobias Smollett (SMAHL-uht), 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 language. He was at the same time one of England’s foremost political journalists and, after David Hume, its most influential historian; in the 1750’s and 1760’s he wrote or edited some seventy volumes of nonfiction.

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 entire section is 675 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Tobias George Smollett was born at Dalquhurn, Dumbartonshire, in western Scotland, and baptized on March 19, 1721. He was the son of Archibald Smollett, a lawyer, who suffered from ill health, and Barbara Cunningham Smollett, a woman of taste and elegance but no fortune. Smollett’s grandfather, of whom the boy was especially proud, had been knighted by King William in 1698 and had become an influential member of the landed gentry as a local Whig statesman. When Smollett’s father died only two years after his son’s birth, the family suffered from lack of money.

Smollett’s education, for all of his family’s financial deterioration, was of superior quality though erratic. He entered Dumbarton Grammar School in 1728, remaining for five years, and received the traditional grounding in the classics. His matriculation to Glasgow University (though officially unrecorded) was interrupted when he became a Glasgow surgeon’s apprentice while still attending university medical lectures. In the fall of 1739, Smollett was released from his apprenticeship to go to London; now eighteen, he had some reputation as a writer of earthy satires and doggerel. While traveling to London, Smollett carried the manuscript of a tragedy, The Regicide, which, he soon realized, would provide no entrée for him with the London theater managers. He is described at this time as “attractive, entertaining as a raconteur, and blessed with self-assurance.” His future as a London man of letters uncertain, Smollett received advice from a number of Scottish physicians suggesting he continue practicing medicine. On March 10, 1740, he received a medical warrant from the navy board and embarked on the HMS Chichester as a surgeon’s second mate.

The author’s naval experience, material used later for Roderick Random, began during the outbreak of war with Spain and continued through the bloody Carthagena, West Indies, expedition of 1741. Smollett returned to England in 1742 but was drawn back to Jamaica, where he resided until 1744. While living on the island, he met Anne Lassells, the daughter of an established family of planters; they married in 1743.

Smollett, on the advice of his wife’s family, returned to London alone, where he set up a practice as a surgeon on Downing Street in May, 1744. Having never lost hope of a literary career, he worked on improving his fluency in Spanish and then began translating Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615); his translation was published in 1755. The years from 1747 to 1750 were marked by considerable literary activity, numerous changes in residence, various trips abroad, a widening circle of acquaintances, and the birth of his only child, Elizabeth, in 1747.

In January, 1748, Roderick Random was published; this was followed by the...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)