Tobias Smollett

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Tobias Smollett
Tobias Smollett c 1770.jpg
BornTobias George Smollett
(1721-03-19)19 March 1721
Dalquhurn (now part of Renton, Scotland)
Died17 September 1771(1771-09-17) (aged 50)
Livorno, Grand Duchy of Tuscany, now Italy
OccupationNovelist, playwright and surgeon
Alma mater University of Glasgow
University of Edinburgh
University of Aberdeen
Genre Picaresque, satire
Tobias Smollett as depicted on the Scott Monument Tobias Smollett as depicted on the Scott Monument.JPG
Tobias Smollett as depicted on the Scott Monument

Tobias George Smollett (baptised 19 March 1721 – 17 September 1771) was a Scottish novelist, surgeon, critic and playwright. [1] He was best known for picaresque novels such as The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), [2] which influenced later novelists, including Charles Dickens. His novels were liberally altered by contemporary printers; an authoritative edition of each was edited by Dr O. M. Brack Jr and others.


Early life and family

Smollett was born at Dalquhurn, now part of Renton in present-day West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, and baptised on 19 March 1721 (his birth date is estimated as 3 days previously). [2] He was the fourth son of Archibald Smollett of Bonhill, a judge and landowner, laird of Bonhill, living at Dalquhurn [3] on the River Leven, who died about 1726, when Smollett was just five years old. His mother Barbara Smollett née Cunningham brought the family up there, until she died about 1766. He had a brother, Captain James Smollett, and a sister, Jean Smollett, who married Alexander Telfair of Symington, Ayrshire. Jean succeeded to Bonhill after the death of her cousin-german, Mr Commissary Smollett, and resumed her maiden name of Smollett in 1780. They lived in St John Street off Canongate, Edinburgh, and had a son who was in the military.

Education and career

Smollett attended Dumbarton Grammar School and then was educated at the University of Glasgow, where he studied medicine and eventually qualified as a surgeon. [2] Some biographers assert that he then proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, but left without earning a degree.[ citation needed ] Others state that his career in medicine came second to his literary ambitions at the age of 18, [2] and it was not until 1750, that Smollett was granted his MD degree at the University of Aberdeen.[ citation needed ]

In 1739 he went to London having written a play The Regicide, about the murder of King James I of Scotland. Unsuccessful at getting this on stage, he obtained a commission as a naval surgeon on HMS Chichester and travelled to Jamaica, where he settled down for several years. In 1742 he served as a surgeon during the disastrous campaign to capture Cartagena. These experiences were later included in the narrative of his novels. [2]

He married a wealthy Jamaican heiress, Anne "Nancy" Lascelles (1721–1791). She was a daughter of William Lascelles, but was unable to access her inheritance as it was invested in land and slaves. On their return to Britain, at the end of his Navy commission, Smollett established a practice in Downing Street but his wife did not join him until 1747; [2] they had a daughter Elizabeth, who died aged 15 years about 1762. His two native languages were English and Scots. He translated famous works of the Enlightenment from other European languages.

Written works

Smollett's first published work in 1746 [2] was a poem about the Battle of Culloden entitled "The Tears of Scotland". [2] However, it was The Adventures of Roderick Random , a semi-autobiogaphical story of a 'north Britain on the make' [2] which made his name. His poetry was described as "delicate, sweet and murmurs as a stream". [4] The Adventures of Roderick Random was modelled on Le Sage's Gil Blas and despite its scandalous content covering 'snobbery, prostitution, debt and hinting at homosexuality', it was published [2] in 1748. After that, Smollett finally had his tragedy The Regicide published, although it was never performed.

In 1750, he travelled to France, where he obtained material for his second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle , another success. Having lived for a brief time in Bath, he returned to London and published The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom in 1753, but this did not sell well and he went into debt. His novels were published by the well-known London bookseller Andrew Millar. [5] Smollett became considered as a 'man of letters' [2] and associated with such figures as David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, [2] and Samuel Johnson, [2] whom he famously nicknamed "that Great Cham of literature". [6]

In 1755 he published an English translation of Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote , which he revised in 1761. In 1756, he became briefly editor of the 58-volume Universal History, and editor of The Critical Review, from which later he had a successful libel case brought against him by Admiral Sir Charles Knowles, and a three-month prison sentence, and fine of £100. [2]

Portrait of Tobias Smollett by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, ca. 1764 Tobias Smollet (Nathaniel Dance-Holland).jpg
Portrait of Tobias Smollett by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, ca. 1764

Smollett then began what he regarded as his major work, A Complete History of England (1757–1765) which helped recoup his finances, [2] along with profits from his only performed play, a farce, The Reprisal of the Tars of Old England. After his imprisonment, he used the experience in producing another novel, The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760). [2]

In 1763, Smollett was ill, perhaps with tuberculosis, and suffered the loss of his only child at the age of 15. He gave up his editorships and, with his wife Nancy, and relocated to Continental Europe, which led to the publication of Travels Through France and Italy (1766). [2] He also published The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769), which gave his opinion of British politics during the Seven Years' War in the guise of a tale from ancient Japan. In 1768, the year he moved to Italy, Smollett entrusted Robert Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore with selling off the slaves he still owned in Jamaica. [7]

A further visit to Scotland helped to inspire his last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), published in the year of his death. He had for some time been suffering from an intestinal disorder. Having sought a cure at Bath,[ citation needed ] he retired to Italy, where he died in September 1771 and was buried in the Old English Cemetery, Livorno. [2]


There is a monument to his memory beside Renton Primary School, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on which there is a Latin inscription. The area around the monument was improved in 2002, with an explanatory plaque. After his death in Italy in 1771, his cousin Jane Smollett had the Renton monument built in 1774. It comprises a tall Tuscan column topped by an urn. On the plinth is a Latin inscription written by Professor George Stuart of Edinburgh, John Ramsay of Ochtertyre and Dr Samuel Johnson. It is a category A listed building. [8]

Tobias Smollett Monument in Renton, West Dunbartonshire Smollett Monument, Renton.jpg
Tobias Smollett Monument in Renton, West Dunbartonshire

There is also a plaque at his temporary residence in Edinburgh, just off the Royal Mile at the head of St John's Street, where his wife lived after his death until at least 1785. [9] This states that he resided there in the house of his sister, Mrs. Telfer, for the summer of 1766. A second plaque (dating the building at 1758, making it relatively new at that time) states that he "stayed here occasionally," implying more than one visit.

Smollett is one of the 16 Scottish writers and poets depicted on the lower section of the Scott Monument in Princes Street, Edinburgh. He appears on the far left side of the east face. [2] There are streets named after him in Nice, France and in Livorno, Italy, where he is buried. [10]

References in literature

Laurence Sterne, in his A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy , refers to Smollett under the nickname of Smelfungus, due to the snarling abuse Smollett heaped on the institutions and customs of the countries he visited and described in his Travels Through France and Italy . [11]

Mr Brooke in George Eliot's Middlemarch says to Mr Casaubon: "Or get Dorothea to read you light things, Smollett – Roderick Random,Humphry Clinker. They are a little broad, but she may read anything now she's married, you know. I remember they made me laugh uncommonly – there's a droll bit about a postillion's breeches."

In W. M. Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair , Rebecca Sharp and Miss Rose Crawley read Humphry Clinker: "Once, when Mr. Crawley asked what the young people were reading, the governess replied 'Smollett'. 'Oh, Smollett,' said Mr. Crawley, quite satisfied. 'His history is more dull, but by no means so dangerous as that of Mr. Hume. It is history you are reading?' 'Yes,' said Miss Rose; without, however, adding that it was the history of Mr. Humphry Clinker."

Charles Dickens's David Copperfield mentions that his young protagonist counted Smollett's works among his favourites as a child.

John Bellairs referenced Smollett's works in his Johnny Dixon series, where Professor Roderick Random Childermass reveals that his late father Marcus, an English professor, had named all his sons after characters in Smollett's works: Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphry Clinker, and even "Ferdinand Count Fathom", who usually signed his name F. C. F. Childermass.

George Orwell praised him as "Scotland's best novelist".

In Hugh Walpole's fifth novel Fortitude, the protagonist Peter refers to Peregrine Pickle as a text that inspired him to document his own memoirs.



Minor poems








The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was adapted for radio in three one-hour episodes in August 2008. It was dramatised by Yvonne Antrobus and starred Stuart McLoughlin as Clinker and Nigel Anthony as Matthew Bramble.

See also

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