1902 Encyclopedia > Tobias George Smollett

Tobias George Smollett
Scottish-born novelist

TOBIAS GEORGE SMOLLETT (1721-1771), novelist, was born at Dalquhurn, in the valley of Leven, Dumbartonshire, in 1721. His buoyant humour and energy were the gifts of nature, and early experience furnished him with abundant provocation for the harsh and cynical views of human nature to be traced in his novels. At a very early age he was placed in a position calculated to harden the heart of a proud and sensitive child. His father, the youngest son of the laird of Bonhill, a Scottish legal dignitary, married against the ambition of his family, and died young, leaving three children, of whom the future novelist was the second son, entirely unprovided for. The boy, being thus left dependent on the charity of relatives, grudgingly and insolently bestowed, as it seemed to him, learned to look with suspicion on kindly professions. He seems to have received the ordinary book education of the place and period. He was sent to the neighbouring grammar-school of Dumbarton—taught at the time by one of the most eminent schoolmasters in Scotland—and thereafter to the university of Glasgow. He wished then to enter the army, as his elder brother had done, but much against his will was apprenticed to a surgeon. His grandfather died when he was in his eighteenth year, without leaving any provision for the children of his youngest son, and in his nineteenth year Smollett left Glasgow and launched himself on London in quest of fortune with the tragedy of the Regicide in his pocket. He failed to get the tragedy accepted, and, reduced almost to starvation, was fain to take the situation of surgeon's mate on board a ship of the line. He was present in 1741 at the siege of Cartagena. He soon quitted the navy in disgust, but during his service of a few years he acquired, as Scott says, "such intimate knowledge of our nautical world as enabled him to describe sailors with such truth and spirit of delineation that, from that time, whoever has undertaken the same task has seemed to copy more from Smollett than from nature."

Returning to England in 1746, Smollett made a desperate attempt to live by his pen, publishing the satires Advice and Reproof—satire being then in fashion—and pushing the Regicide and other dramatic works on theatrical managers and patrons. He revenged himself in his satires for the rebuffs given to his plays. Whether he was ever reduced to such straits as Mr Melopoyn, whom Roderick Random met with in the Fleet, is not known for certain, but it is certain that he was sharply pinched; and he did not mend his circumstances by marrying a portionless lady whom he had met in the West Indies. His buoyant spirit was not in the least broken by adverse fortune, but it was considerably inflamed and embittered. His fierce and distempered mood when he wrote Roderick Random is reflected in the characters of the novel, which are drawn with a much more defiant and contemptuous hand than he used in any of his subsequent works. The author was not a cold-blooded cynic, but a proud warm-hearted man enraged by what he considered unjust usage. He was not in a mood to dwell upon lovable traits in human nature, or to find pleasure in pretty sentiments. The public, however, when Roderick Random was published —in 1748, a few months before Tom Jones—did not concern themselves with the character of the author. The wealth of humorous incident, the rapidly moving crowd of amusing figures, concealed all those harsher features in the picture of life which quiet reflexion can now trace to the circumstances of the author, smarting as he was under petty insults and real or fancied indignities. This novel at once raised Smollett into reputation. It was followed after an interval of three years by Peregrine Pickle (1751), the immediate popularity of which was helped by the insertion into the body of the novel of two stories from real life, the memoirs of a lady of quality (Lady Vane) and the memoirs of the philanthropist McKercher. This second masterpiece was written with a much lighter heart than the first, although it must be confessed that the hero is not much of an improvement on Roderick Random. Scott describes him as "the savage and ferocious Pickle, who, besides his gross and base brutality towards Emilia, besides his ingratitude to his uncle, and the savage propensity which he shows in the pleasure he takes to torment others by practical jokes, resembling those of a fiend in glee, exhibits a low and ungentlemanlike tone of thinking, only one degree higher than that of Roderick Random." There is, however, this difference, that the author seems much more conscious of the bad qualities of Pickle than of Random. He expends no sympathy or fine sentiment on either, but Random's defects are represented as the results of the harsh treatment he had himself received, while Pickle's appear rather as the outcome of a naturally harsh and insolent character. Both are far from being model gentlemen, but Pickle is several degrees lower rather than one degree higher than Random. In the second novel there is a still richer crowd of characters, quaint, amusing, disgusting, and contemptible; but there is more of a tendency to secure variety by extravagant caricature. For some of the indecencies in the first edition Smollett apologized, and withdrew them in a second edition, but he still left enough to satisfy the greediest taste in that particular. He also withdrew a very offensive allusion to Fielding, and in his next novel, The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom, paid that great rival the compliment of imitation. Though Smollett was far from being a servile imitator, there can be no doubt that he profited greatly by Fielding's example in all the higher essentials of his craft. This, his third effort, although it has not the same exuberant humour and fresh variety of character, is vastly better in point of constructive skill and sustained power of description. It looks as if he had deliberately set himself to show that he too as well as the author of Tom Jones could make a plot. The vileness of Fathom's character is so repulsive that the novel is much less often read than others of Smollett's; but it is his greatest feat of invention, being not a mere string of lively adventures, but a connected series in the progressive movement of the villain's career. It contains some of Smollett's most cynical comments on human motives, as well as passages that illustrate strikingly his real goodness of heart. He was not at home, however, in the direct expression of tender sentiment; when any of his persons gush, they do so with such wordiness and extravagance as to give them an air of insincerity.

With the composition of Count Fathom in 1753 Smollett's invention seemed to be exhausted for the time. For the next ten years he occupied himself with miscellaneous literary work, translating Don Quixote (published 1755), compiling a Compendium of Voyages and Travels (1757), and producing a History of England from the Landing of Caesar to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1757), followed by a continuation down to the date of publication (1761-65). Smollett, in short, from the time of his first success made his living as a professional man of letters. He obtained a medical degree from a German university about 1752, and set up as a physician, but seems never to have acquired much practice. He turned this experience to account, however, by caricaturing in Count Fathom the arts of rising in the profession. He had very little more success in his attempts to write for the stage. The Regicide was never acted, and, when it was published in 1749 to expose the folly of managers in not accepting it, the verdict of the public was rather with the managers than with the author. Smollett's single success on the stage was a farce with a political object, The Reprisals, or the Tars of Old England, produced in 1757 to excite feeling against the French. As a journalist also Smollett was not particularly successful, partly perhaps because he attached himself to the losing side,—the Tory and High Church party. He edited their organ The Critical Review for some years, and in 1759 suffered imprisonment for an attack on Admiral Knowles. At the beginning of the reign of George III. he supported Lord Bute's ministry in The Briton, but The Briton was driven out of the field by Wilkes's North Briton. Altogether Smollett's revenue from play-writing and journalism seems to have been small, unless his party services were requited independently of the sale of his papers. But his name stood high with booksellers. He introduces himself in Humphrey Clinker as a dispenser of literary patronage, surrounded by a number of humble dependants. These were probably the hacks to whom he gave employment in his journals and in such booksellers' jobs as his translation of Voltaire and the compilation entitled The Present State of all Nations, containing a Geographical, Natural, Commercial, and Political History of all the Countries of the Known World (1763).

In the course of this hard miscellaneous task-work, under which Smollett's health gave way completely, he wrote by instalments for the British Magazine (in 1760 and 1761) the curious satirical romance of Sir Lancelot Greaves. It is only in externals that this work bears any resemblance to Don Quixote. The author seems to have hesitated between making Sir Lancelot a mere madman and making him a pattern of perfectly sane generosity. The fun and the seriousness do not harmonize. The young knight's craze for riding about the country to redress wrongs armed cap-a-pie is too harshly out of tune with the lightness of his sympathies and the grave character of the real abuses against which his indignation is directed. In execution the work is very unequal and irregular, but the opening chapters are very powerful, and have been imitated by hundreds of novelists since Smollett's time. Upon the failure of his health in 1763 Smollett went abroad and lived in France and Italy for three years. He published two volumes of Travels soon after his return in 1766. Three years more he spent in England, trying in vain to get some consular post abroad, where the climate might suit his shattered constitution. His extremely clever and extremely coarse political satire, The Adventures of an Atom, published in 1769, was probably inspired partly by resentment at the neglect of his own claims by successive ministries. He left England soon after its publication, and spent the last two years of his life in a house at Monte Novo in the neighbourhood of Leghorn. Here, labouring under a painful and wasting disease, he composed his last work, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, published in 1771. This is generally regarded as his best novel. It certainly is the most pleasant reading, much softer and more humane in tone, while equally alive with vivid sketches and studies of character and a never-failing supply of ludicrous adventures. The loose and easy plan does not require for its execution the sustained power shown in Count Fathom; but, on the other hand, it leaves the novelist free to introduce greater variety of character and incident. None of his novels gives a better impression of Smollett's versatility than Humphrey Clinker, and there is none of them to which his successors have been more indebted. But whoever would understand how much the English novel owes to Smollett must read all his five fictions and not merely the most celebrated three. His influence upon novel-writing was wider even than Fielding's. He died at Monte Novo on 21st October 1771. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: Prof. William Minto.

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