Tobias Smollett, physician, novelist, translator, historian, satirist, poet and playwright, died on the 17th of September, 1771.
The novel thing about Tobias Smollett is that he is considered to be the first Scottish novelist. Whereas Sir Walter Scott is considered to be the father of the historical novel, Smollett’s career pre-dates that of Scott, whom he may well have influenced to some extent and so, he is deserving of that reputation. Backing up the assertion, Louis Stott, in his book ‘Discovering Scottish Writers’ described Smollet as the “first Scottish novelist and he has never been surpassed.” You can argue about the latter part of that claim, suggesting names such as Louis Grassic Gibbon and Scott, of course, but the first part seems entirely reasonable, given his vintage. Smollett was a pioneering author in his own right and undoubtedly an influence on several English authors, including a young man by the name of Charles Dickens, of whom you may have heard. A well-known quote of Smollett’s is “Some men are wise, and some are otherwise.”
He is best known for his novels, for which he had high ambitions, having declared in the preface to his first that his “avowed purpose” in writing was to arouse “generous indignation against cruelty and injustice” wherever possible. His novels are indeed rich in character, incident, and realistic detail, much of which was drawn from the variety and extent of Smollett's own experiences. He created a gallery of characters seldom surpassed and the bite of his satire is certainly a distinguishing feature of his work, although this relish and enthusiasm for the exploits of his ‘heroes’ sometimes gets in the way of his moral purpose. His stories are depicted with realistic violence, and a brutality and coarseness of language that was undoubtedly sourced from his time aboard ship as a naval physician. As such he is head and shoulders above his contemporaries; rival authors such as Samuel Richardson, best known for the novel ‘Clarissa’ and Henry Fielding, the novelist of English manners who wrote ‘Tom Jones’. Like his friend and contemporary, and fellow physician, Oliver Goldsmith, Smollett earned his living primarily as a professional writer rather than from his medical practice. His works are often described as being in the picaresque tradition of novel writing. That remains a popular sub-genre of prose fiction, which is usually satirical, and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish, working class hero who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.
Tobias George Smollett was born near Renton in Dumbartonshire, sometime before the 19th of March, 1721, when he was baptised. During the 1730s, he studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, but did not receive his formal medical degree from Marischal College in Aberdeen, until 1750. After a period as an apprentice surgeon in Glasgow, in 1739, Smollett moved to London in order to pursue his literary ambitions. However, in 1740, financial necessity led him to take a post as surgeon's mate aboard H.M.S. ‘Chichester’. His grim exposure to life in the Royal Navy during the Carthagena expedition of 1741 provided him with many of the vivid scenes of life at sea, which he later incorporated into some of his novels.
His first novel, called ‘The Adventures of Roderick Random’ was published in 1748 and many of his stories carried similar alliterative titles. If the picture of 18th Century naval life that he depicted is a faithful one, it’s no wonder that Smollett left the service in disgust and satirised it with such success. Following the success of his first book, ‘Peregrine Pickle’ was published in 1751. Both novels overflow with what you might call ‘rollicking good humour’ and are often excessively coarse, but contain excellent characterisation. Both are considered minor classics, with the latter being a savage yet comic portrayal of the society of those times. It also contains savage caricatures of contemporary figures, including the aforementioned Henry Fielding. You may surmise that Tobias wasn’t a fan. Smollett’s last novel, ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker’, which was introduced in 1771, is considered to be the first genuinely ‘British’ novel and the one with which he achieved his greatest success. It is a funny and sympathetic story of a family's adventures through England and Scotland, following the epistolary form. Smollett used the epistolaric contrivance of letters to add realism to his story, which allowed him to represent different points of view without having to recourse to the device of an omniscient narrator. His most bizarre story was the satirical ‘The History and Adventures of an Atom’, which appeared anonymously in 1786.
In 1755, Smollett published his translation of Cervantes's 17th Century romance ‘The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote’, which he had begun seven years previously. His other notable translation was the four volumes of Alain René Lesage's ‘Gil Blas’. He co-founded ‘The Critical Review’ which ran for seven years and placed Smollett at the heart of literary London. In the late 1750s, Smollett turned his attention to non-fiction and published ‘A Complete History of England’ in four volumes, between 1757 and 1758). That sold well and really made him financially secure. He also undertook the five volumes of a ‘Continuation of the Complete History of England’, which were published between 1760 and 1765. Notoriously, in 1766, after he returned to London from a soujourn in France and Italy due to health reasons, Smollett published the story of his travels. He did so as a series of anonymous letters in ‘Travels through France and Italy’, which were condemned for his xenophobic portrayal of the French.
Tobias Smollett died of consumption (tuberculosis) in Livorno, Italy, on the 17th of September, 1771, and he is probably still the most famous figure to be buried there, in the old cemetery in Via Verdi. Despite war damage and neglect, his tombstone can still be seen in its peaceful resting place in the middle of the city of Livorno. Back in Scotland, a monument to Smollett was erected in 1774 and it now stands outside Renton Primary School. The original inscription was written in Latin by several luminaries, including Dr Samuel Johnson, however, a translation of the inscription has been created to highlight the author's life. It reads in part:
“If elegance of taste and wit, if fertility of genius and an unrivalled talent in delineating the characters of mankind, have ever attracted your admiration, pause awhile on the memory of Tobias Smollett, MD, one more than commonly endowed with these virtues which, in a man or citizen, you would praise or imitate.”