Tobias (George) Smollett 1721-1771
Scottish novelist, satirist, travel writer, historian, journalist, translator, poet, and dramatist.
Smollett is regarded as one of the major British novelists of the eighteenth century, the era when the novel as a genre emerged and became established as an important new form of literary expression. His experiments in satire and caricature, as well as his manipulation of the picaresque and epistolary forms, helped establish the novel as an appropriate means for attacking social vices and criticizing the absurdities of humanity. Before his reputation declined during the Victorian period, Smollett's writings exerted a considerable influence over the work of a number of nineteenth-century authors, among them Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, both of whom borrowed from his methods of comic characterization and picaresque realism. Although today, many critics rank Smollett below Samuel Richardson in his methods of characterization and far beneath Henry Fielding in dramtic presentation, they still find his novels—particularly his first, Roderick Random, and his last, Humphry Clinker—significant and enjoyable. In the words of Robert Donald Spector, these two works "remain among the finest novels written in English."
Smollett was born in Dumbartonshire, Scotland. His father died when Smollett was only two years old. Smollett was supported well into his teens by his grandfather. At fifteen, Smollett was sent to Glasgow, first to attend the university there and then to be apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary. Although he received no degree from the university, three years later Smollett left it as a qualified surgeon. Meanwhile, he had been working in his spare time on a drama entitled The Regicide; or, James the First of Scotland. In 1739 he moved to London, where he hoped to secure the production of this, his first literary effort. An immature play filled with inflated rhetoric, The Regicide was turned down by everyone who read it, including the actor David Garrick and the literary patron George, Lord Lyttelton. Smollett never forgave any of his potential producers for their rejection. Unable to support himself as a writer, Smollett was forced to accept an appointment as a surgeon for the British Navy. In 1740 he sailed to the West Indies. He participated in the battle of Cartagena, a brutal experience he later vividly portrayed in his first novel, Roderick Random. When the fleet reached Jamaica, Smollett abandoned both the ship and the navy. He remained in Jamaica until 1744. while there, he met a woman named Anne Lascelles. Smollett returned to London and opened a medical practice; Lascelles joined him there and the two were married in 1747, and Smollett began work on Roderick Random. Published in 1748, the novel was a great popular and financial success, the one such success that Smollett would experience in his lifetime. In 1750 he received his degree in medicine and tried again to establish a medical practice. He published two more novels, Peregrine Pickle and Ferdinand, Count Fathom, neither of which won critical or public acclaim. In need of money, Smollett began what was to be the first English "literary factory," employing a dozen or so writers to produce all kinds of literary hackwork, such as translations, travelogues, and brief histories. It was also during this period that Smollett composed most of his nonfictional works and undertook his translations of Gil Blas and the works of Voltaire. In the 1760s Smollett tried unsuccessfully to launch a career as a journalist. He also traveled through Europe to improve his failing health. He returned to England in better health, but soon became ill again. In 1769 he and his wife moved to Italy, where he began work on what was to be his last and what many consider his greatest novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. This novel appeared just shortly before his death in 1771.
Smollett's first novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random, was a major success. The novel is a combination of picaresque narrative and social satire that strings together a series of often-unrelated episodes and ends with the hero's reformation and marriage to the heroine. The stock ending has put off many modern readers—just as Roderick's selfishness and brutality repelled some of Smollett's contemporaries. Nevertheless, there is much in the novel that is regarded as both powerful and unique, particularly the description of shipboard life and the vivid account of the disastrous attack on Cartagena by the British fleet. In fact, several scholars consider Roderick Random among the earliest literary protests against abuses in the Royal Navy. Smollett's next novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), was based on material he collected while living in Paris. Although not as well received as his first work (probably the result of its savagery and its ruthless, womanizing hero), Peregrine Pickle has since been commended for its excellent prose and a number of brilliant scenes. Many literary historians consider Peregrine Pickle as significant as Roderick Random because it demonstrates Smollett's growing ability to direct his satire toward a specific end, and because it helped broaden the scope of the English novel by including events and characters from European countries other than England. The plot of Peregrine Pickle is similar to that of Roderick Random although Peregrine is more despicable as a character than Roderick and thus his transformation to goodness is even less probable. Both novels share Smollett's facility for comic characterization and graphic realism. Peregrine Pickle was followed two years later by The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753), a complete failure during its time and still regarded by many as one of Smollett's weaker novels, principally because its central character, Count Fathom, is a portrait of villainy. For nearly a decade afterward, most of Smollett's writing was nonfictional. Then in 1762 he published The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. Modeled on Cervantes' Don Quixote, Greaves is from start to finish the only morally upright and sentimental hero in all of Smollett's works. Unfortunately for Smollett, Sir Launcelot Greaves enjoyed little popularity with its contemporary audience, and its reputation has not improved significantly over time. By contrast, Smollett's last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) was an immediate success and is today regarded by many as one of his greatest works. Humphry Clinker is an epistolary rather than a picaresque novel. It is based on a family's tour of the British Isles and includes a cast of humorous characters who through their letters provide different points of view of their travels and of each other. While it is considered one of Smollett's funniest and most enjoyable novels, it shares with his other works a detailed account of the more sordid aspects of the eighteenth century, in this case illness and hygiene. Variously interpreted as a creative work of political propaganda, an autobiographical account of Smollett's travels through Britain, a commentary on the breakdown of traditional values in the eighteenth century and the movement toward religious, social, and moral reform, and a mythical-psychological quest, Humphry Clinker remains the most praised, as well as the most controversial of Smollett's canon.
Smollett, like many other English novelists of the eighteenth century, had the misfortune of competing against such writers as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Although numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics judged him according to the accomplishments of these two novelists, Smollett has since been regarded as of a temperament far different from either Fielding or Richardson. Smollett saw the world as a "vicious and sordid place," and most twentieth-century critics agree that this perception of society and humanity shaped all of his work. During the century after his death, the established opinion of Smollett was that he was a talented caricaturist and a master of realistic presentation, but that he lacked the psychological insight of Fielding and, most signifcantly, his work suffered from indecency. Gradually, a more tolerant view of Smollett's coarseness has evolved, with most critics attributing it to the nature of his age or of the picaresque tradition, rather than as something inherently wrong with his personality. Other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of Smollett's work have also been challenged in the present century. For example, the argument that his novels (with the exception of Humphry Clinker) lack any sense of structure has been contradicted today by numerous critics. And the longstanding belief that Smollett's moral conclusions to his stories were simply tacked on in order to avoid censorship has increasingly come under attack by critics who argue that Smollett's early picaresque novels follow a pattern similar to the German Bildungsroman and, therefore, must depict the eventual education and reformation of their protagonists. In fact, most modern critics agree that Smollett was more aware of his craft than previous commentators understood. Although he still lacks the stature of Fielding, Richardson, or Sterne, Smollett nevertheless must be included among the group as a significant contributor to the development of the English novel.