Smollett, Tobias George

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Smollett, Tobias George (1721-71): Scottish Writer.

Remembered mostly for Humphry Clinker, Smollett was an ambitious journalist, essayist, travel writer, editor, novelist, translator, poet, and opera librettist. He promoted pan-European arts and sciences and Scottish Enlightenment empiricism.

Smollett was born in Dunbartonshire, Scotland, into a landed family. He attended Glasgow University but got no degree, then apprenticed to a Glasgow surgeon. In 1739 he moved to London. In 1741 Smollett joined the crew of H.M.S. Chicester as surgeon’s mate. In 1743 he was married to Anne Lassells, a West Indian heiress. Moving to London in 1744 to practice at Surgeon’s Hall, he remained there most of his life. He died in 1771 at Monte Nero, near Leghorn, Italy.

Smollett never succeeded financially at surgery or writing, his only lucrative publications being A Complete History of England (1757-58) and a Drury Lane farce The Reprisal (1757). He co-edited Voltaire's works; in 1756 he and two others started the Critical Review, beginning a friendly rivalry with Johnson, Samuel's Literary Magazine. He also reviewed for other publications. For maximum profit, the histories, Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de ’s works, and Present State of All Nations appeared serially. His opera Alceste was never performed or published. In 1755, responding to widespread calls for an organization to regulate the arts, he circulated an unsuccessful proposal for a national academy of arts and sciences.

His novels gained critical notice from the first. The picaresque Roderick Random (1748) was influenced by Gil Blas, which Smollett had translated (1748). The main character’s uncle Captain Bowling becomes wealthy from the slave trade, whose profits make Roderick’s fortune. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) satirizes English Gothic fiction and explores Hobbesian determinism; it is compared to Hogarth, William’s Progress series. The picaresque Peregrine Pickle (1751) develops the grotesque in ways unique to Scottish novelists; it ends by viciously satirizing English literary and social groups. In 1755 Smollett translated Don Quixote, the source for The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelote de Greaves (1760-61), serialized in his British Magazine. In Humphry Clinker, published posthumously (1771), Smollett explores the conflict between reason and emotion in Welshman Matthew Bramble. Its context is the idealized hierarchy of Bramble's estate versus London brutality.

Smollett drew invective from prominent writers and politicos. His attempts in The Briton to defend his fellow Scotsman Lord Bute were met by Wilkes's North Briton in 1762-63. Although he and Fielding, Henry agreed on aesthetics and establishing an academy, he also provoked Fielding's attack in Covent Garden Journal. In 1760 Smollett was imprisoned for a Critical Review libel against Admiral Knowles, leader of the West Indies expedition in which Smollett had participated. His Travels through France and Italy (1766) disgusted Laurence Sterne, whose character Smelfungus resembles Smollett.

Many scholars consider Smollett a conventional Tory, but Michael Rosenblum (1996) notes some departures. First, his social views and politics are not based on religion. Second, he lambastes aristocrats who violate aristocratic ideals. Third, he criticizes the social order as predicated on injustice. Smollett’s Toryism is conventional in attacking commercialism and “the mob." He defended noblesse oblige and hierarchy, influenced probably by Highland society. Overall, his writing suggests anxiety about social and political change.

Further Reading:

P.G. Boucé, Novels of Tobias Smollett, 1976.

Mary Jane Curry

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