Tobias Smollett

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173

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.

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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 impressive translations of Alain Le Sage and Cervantes, and in 1749, The Regicide was printed. The success of Roderick Random was instantaneous and prolonged, with sixty-five hundred copies sold in twenty-two months; it was to rival the popularity of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742). The success of Roderick Random, which was written in less than six months, became a kind of revenge on the theater managers of London. During this period, Smollett made plans to produce Alceste, his opera (George Frideric Handel was contracted for the music), but this effort was to fail; only a lyric from this work survives. Furthermore, Smollett’s failure at drama was a continuing source of frustration throughout his career.

In June, 1750, Smollett purchased his medical degree from Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in the same month moved his family to Chelsea, a fashionable London suburb. It became an ideal home for him, where both his medical practice and his writing flourished; he remained there for thirteen years until forced abroad by his health in 1763. It was in Chelsea that he wrote The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (commonly known as Peregrine Pickle), a work of nearly 330,000 words composed at top speed in anticipation of a trip to Paris. On February 25, 1751, his second novel was published to laudatory reviews and wide popularity.

Smollett’s involvement with various periodicals began during the 1750’s, first as a book reviewer for the Monthly Review and later as editor and proprietor of the Critical Review. Smollett joined Oliver Goldsmith in launching the British Magazine (the Monthly Repository beginning in 1760), remaining as coeditor until 1763. With a final venture, Smollett gained public notoriety and untold enemies by agreeing to write the Briton, a political effort in support of Lord Bute’s ministry. Of Smollett’s various journalistic efforts, only the work in the Critical Review is exceptional; as a literary periodical, it remains one of the most significant of the last half of the eighteenth century.

In the early 1750’s, Smollett was driving himself to escape debt. Publishing a medical paper, An Essay on the External Use of Water, brought him little money, and in February, 1753, his third novel, The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (commonly known as Ferdinand, Count Fathom), was published with poor financial results. The book attracted few readers, and Smollett was forced to borrow money and to supplement his medical fees with further hackwork. The years of hack writing began in earnest with A Complete History of England, a translation of Voltaire’s writings, a geographical reference work, and several digests of travel.

The period from 1756 to 1763 destroyed Smollett’s health, but his reputation as a critic and a successful writer became unquestioned. Unfortunately, this frantic production hardly kept him from debtor’s prison. Returning to the novel in the British Magazine, Smollett published “the first considerable English novel ever to be published serially”—The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (commonly known as Sir Launcelot Greaves). In monthly installments from January, 1760, to December, 1761, the novel gave the six-penny periodical substantial popularity.

In the middle of this literary hard labor, Smollett was imprisoned for three months, having been convicted of libeling an Admiral Knowles in an article in the Critical Review. On his release in early 1761, Smollett continued fulfilling his contracts with certain booksellers but also traveled extensively, possibly to Dublin, even though troubled by asthma and tuberculosis. In addition to these difficulties, his spirit was nearly broken by the illness and death of his daughter in April, 1763. This final shock caused him to cut all his London ties and move his family to the Continent, hoping to calm his wife and cure his ailments in the mild climate of the south of France and Italy. He spent two years abroad, returning to England in July, 1765; the literary result of his tour was Travels Through France and Italy. Though ill health plagued him, he sought for the third time a consulship but was rejected; in 1768 he left England for the last time.

Arriving in Pisa, Italy, Smollett visited with friends at the university, finally settling at his country villa in Antignano, near Leghorn, in the spring of 1770, where he completed his masterpiece, Humphry Clinker. Immediately following its publication, he received the rave notices of friends and critics concerning the novel, but he had little time to enjoy the praise. On September 17, 1771, he died from an acute intestinal infection and was buried at the English cemetery at Leghorn.

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Critical Essays