Portrait of Tobias Smollet, c1770
National Portrait Gallery
Tobias Smollett (1721-71) was born in Renton Scotland, and educated at Glasgow Uni as a surgeon. He obtained a commission as a naval surgeon on the HMS Chichester and travelled to Jamaica for some years. Then in 1742 Tobias served as a surgeon during a disastrous campaign in Columbia. On his return home, Tobias set up medical practice in Downing St and married Anne Lascelles (1721-91).
After the 1745 Battle of Culloden, Smollett’s first work was published the very next year, a poem The Tears of Scotland. Then fame arrived with Adventures of Roderick Random 1748. Based on Smollett's experience as a British naval-surgeon’s mate, it told the life story of Roderick Random who was born to a nobleman and a lower-class woman. Shunned by his father's family, Roderick ended up finding his maternal uncle, a sailor who tried to support Roderick between voyages. This novel was full of adventure action, displaying farce rather than comedy. Through much of the novel Roderick posed as a nobleman, alongside his close mate, a barber's apprentice Hugh Strap.
In 1750 Smollett got his final medical degree from Aberdeen Uni. His lasting impact on medicine was improving the delivery of midwifery.
Now examine Smollett’s friend, Irishman Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74), who studied medicine at Edinburgh Uni in 1750s. After further medical training at Leiden Uni, Goldsmith worked as a doctor, and only returned to Britain in 1756 to establish himself as a dramatist. So Goldsmith and Smollett, friends and fellow physicians, both earned their livings primarily from writing.
Even at his young age, Dr Smollett must have planned to combine medicine with writing. He travelled to France, where he found material for his second, successful novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle 1751. Peregrine was a young country lad, rejected by his disinterested family, and raised by a loving Commodore. Peregrine's upbringing, Oxford education, French travel, debauchery, bankruptcy, gaol, inheritance of dad’s fortune and marriage all provided scope for Smollett's satire on human cruelty and greed.
Adventures of Peregrine Pickle 1751
The doctor was now recognised as a leading literary figure and associate of Samuel Johnson. Smollett also caricatured many of his rivals in his novels eg Henry Fielding and actor David Garrick.
Smollett's 3rd novel, Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom 1753 was less popular than his first novels. The central character was a villain who swindled and philandered his way across Europe with little concern for the law or for others’ welfare; human depravity.
In 1755 Tobias published a translation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, complete with beautiful engravings. Smollett's translation of Don Quixote captured the spirit of the Spanish original for English readers. But where did Smollett learn classical Spanish?
In 1756, he became editor of The Critical Review.
In the late 1750s-1760s, Smollett took up residence in Bath which was already a fashionable city. Professional dandy Beau Nash had long been Bath’s Master of Ceremonies i.e he created a set of rules governing social activities, and enforced them. Bath people met in the Pump Room each day to hear music, drink and socialise. It was a world obsessed with social class, money and gainful marriage, all providing grist for Smollett’s literary mill.
Smollett apparently libelled Admiral Charles Knowles in The Critical Review, May 1758. So Knowles sued both Smollett & Archibald Hamilton of the Critical Review. This prolonged trial resulted in heavy fines and short sentences. Smollett’s horrid experiences damaged his attitude towards the law and courts. After the Bath final trial, Smollett definitively left medicine for literature and settled down at Monmouth House Chelsea.
With a co-author he finished his major work, Complete History of England, which he began in 1755-8. Then Smollett brought out the first number of a new 6d publication, The British Magazine. His major contribution was a serial work of fiction, Mediocre Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves.
After suffering the loss of their only child in 1763, Smollett and Anne left England. They sailed across to Nice, Genoa, Rome and Florence, and returned to London by June 1765. Travels through France and Italy 1766 was his account of this journey. Smollett detailed the natural phenomena, history, social life, economics, diet and morals of the places he visited. But he was irritated. Smollett quarrelled with innkeepers and fellow travellers; he scorned Catholicism, duelling and petty nobility. Worse still, he had rheumatism and suffered pain arising from a neglected ulcer.
Once Travels were published, Smollett planned a summer journey to Scotland. Edinburgh society, then at its brilliant best, saluted the famous Dr Smollett; he was visited by Hume, Adam Smith, Carlyle etc. But he was still in a precarious state of health when he moved back to Bath. Smollett also wrote History and Adventures of an Atom 1769, a clever and rugged satire of English politics during the horrid 7 Years' War 1756-63. This book examined public affairs, Pitt the Younger, politicians, monarchs and the American colonies, lightly disguised.
Smollett's last book,
Expedition of Humphry Clinker 1771