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, Italy
OccupationAuthor, poet, surgeon
GenrePicaresque, satire
Tobias Smollett as depicted on the Scott Monument

Tobias George Smollett (19 March 1721 – 17 September 1771) was a Scottish poet and author. He was best known for his picaresque novels, such as The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), which influenced later novelists including Charles Dickens. His novels were amended liberally by printers; a definitive edition of each of his works was edited by Dr O. M. Brack, Jr, to correct variants.


Smollett was born at Dalquhurn, now part of Renton, in present-day West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. He was the fourth son of Archibald Smollett of Bonhill, a judge and land-owner who died about 1726, and Barbara Cunningham, who died about 1766. He was educated at the University of Glasgow, where he qualified as a surgeon; it has been asserted by some biographers that he then proceeded to the University of Edinburgh but left without earning a degree. His career in medicine came second to his literary ambitions; in 1739 he went to London to seek fortune as a dramatist. Unsuccessful, 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.

On his return to Britain, he established a practice in Downing Street and married a wealthy Jamaican heiress, Anne "Nancy" Lascelles (1721–1791), in 1747. She was a daughter of William Lascelles. They had one child, a daughter Elizabeth, who died aged 15 years about 1762. 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.

Smollett's first published work was a poem about the Battle of Culloden entitled "The Tears of Scotland", but it was The Adventures of Roderick Random which made his name. His poetry was described as "delicate, sweet and murmurs as a stream."[1] The Adventures of Roderick Random was modelled on Le Sage's Gil Blas and published in 1748. After that, Smollett finally had his tragedy, The Regicide, published, although it was never performed. In 1750, Smollett was granted his MD degree at Aberdeen. He also 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. He was now recognised as a major author. His novels were published by the well-known London bookseller Andrew Millar.[2] Smollett became associated with such figures as David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson, whom he famously nicknamed "that Great Cham of literature".[3] In 1755 he published an English translation of Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote, which he revised in 1761. In 1756, he became editor of the magazine The Critical Review.

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 (1757–65). During this period he served a brief prison sentence for libel, and produced another novel, The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760). Having suffered the loss of a daughter, he went abroad with his wife, and the result was the publication Travels through France and Italy (1766). 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.

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, he retired to Italy, where he was buried in the old English cemetery in Livorno, Italy.


There is a monument to his memory beside Renton Primary School, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on which there is a Latin inscription composed by Dr. Johnson. 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 monument built in Renton 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.[4]

Tobias Smollet Monument in Dunbartonshire

There is also a plaque to his temporary residence in Edinburgh just off the Royal Mile at the head of St John's Street. This states that he resided here 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, which may well be true if it was the house of his sister.

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.

There is a street in Nice, France, named after him.

References in literature[edit]

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 postilion'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 Fortitude, the protagonist Peter references "Peregrine Pickle" as a text that inspires him to document his own memoirs.



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 Mathew Bramble.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gilfillan, George, dissertation in The Poetical Works of Johnson, Parnell, Gray and Smollet 1855, kindle ebook 1855 ASIN B004TQHGGE
  2. ^ "Andrew Millar Project, University of Edinburgh". Retrieved 2016-06-03.
  3. ^ Bartleby. [1].
  4. ^ "RENTON, MAIN STREET, SMOLLETT MONUMENT". Historic Environment Scotland.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860634-6
  6. ^ Kenneth Simpson, Smollett, Tobias George (1721–1771) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online ed. January 2008. Retrieved 13 December 2009, pay-walled.

External links[edit]