Smollet - PA Criticism Archive

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TOBIAS SMOLLET, one of the most prolific as well as popular of our novel-writers, was born in the year 1721, at the farm of Dalquhurn on the banks of the Leven, amidst some of the most picturesque scenery of Scotland, to the beauties of which he afterwards paid an elegant poetical tribute. [2]  His father was the fourth son of Sir James Smollet, of Bonhill: he married, without his father's consent, a lady of no fortune; and dying soon after the birth of his youngest son, his family, consisting of two sons and a daughter, were left entirely dependent on the bounty of their grandfather for a subsistence. The eldest, James, went into the army. His regiment was ordered abroad; and the transport in which he was, with part of the troops, was unfortunately lost off the coast of America. He is mentioned as a young man of great promise, and Dr. Smollet always preserved towards him an affectionate remembrance.

Tobias, the subject of this memoir, was put to school at Dumbarton, where it is recorded that the first efforts of his genius were shown in a copy of verses to the memory of Wallace,

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several of whose adventures took place in the vicinity; for he had always a large share of that national spirit by which his countrymen are generally distinguished. Young Tobias, however, was not always in the heroic mood. Many stories are told of his exploits; and many acts of boyish mischief and frolic, recorded in Roderick Random, are supposed to be supplied from the memory of his own early years. From Dumbarton he was removed to Glasgow, where he was apprenticed to a surgeon, Mr. John Gordon, and at the same time attended the University lectures of anatomy and medicine. At Glasgow he began to display that vein of humour, and propensity to satire, which afterwards so strongly distinguished him, at the expense of the circles to which he had access, and even ventured to aim the shafts of his ridicule against some of the graver sort, whose exterior of piety he represented, possibly with truth, as only worn in compliance with the costume of the country. This, as may be supposed, gave great offence.

His grandfather died while he was at Glasgow: and though he had maintained the family in a decent manner while he lived, and would probably have continued so to do, he made little or no provision for them at his death; and Smollet on this event, his apprenticeship being finished, came up to London to seek his fortune. On this occasion he was in want of money and recommendations; his friends supplied him very sparingly with the former, but were uncommonly liberal, he used to observe, in the latter article.


He soon got a situation as surgeon's mate in a ship of the line, and acted as such in the unfortunate expedition to Carthagena which took place in the year 1741. [3] . Of this he published an account, joining with those who threw great blame on the commander. The scenes he was here witness to made the strongest impression on his mind, and he has given them with great strength of colouring in his Roderick Random. Whoever reads that book will not wonder that he was disgusted with the sea-service, which he soon quitted, though he was certain of promotion, and resided some time in Jamaica, where he married a lady of the name of Lascelles. He returned to London soon after the year 1745, and became writer by profession.

The talents of Smollet were vigorous, his powers of application strong, his execution rapid, and there were few departments of general literature in which at one time or other he did not engage. Poetry, history, novel-writing, travels, criticism, by turns employed his pen. At the age of eighteen he had written a play called The Regicide. The subject was the assassination of James the First of Scotland, the affecting story of which, as related by Buchanan, had deeply impressed his young mind. It was afterwards offered to the managers of the theatres, and, on their rejection, printed by subscription; a mode of publicity by which unsuccessful candidates have not unfrequently vindicated the sagacity of the managers. He does not seem to have studied euphony in the piece, if one may judge by the following speci-

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men,—"While grimly smiling Grime." [4]  He also wrote an opera, which was rejected by Rich; and the querulous disposition which always made a part of his nature, poured itself out in complaints, which the good sense he possessed would have told him, in any case but his own, were little interesting to any but the disappointed author.

In poetry the talents of Smollet were more respectable; he is the author of several pretty and elegant pieces, some of which, as The Ode to Leven Water, The Tears of Scotland, Verses to a young Lady playing, are written with tenderness and delicacy; while the Ode to Independence exhibits a manly vigour of thought, perhaps more analogous to the general tone of his mind. His Tears of Scotland was inspired by a generous sentiment for his country on occasion of the severities exercised there after the rebellion of 1745. He felt strongly on the occasion; for, in aid of his patriotism, he was a Tory if not a Jacobite; and when he was advised not to give any more copies of his Ode, lest it might hurt his interest, his only reply was the adding the following animated stanza:

While the warm blood bedews my veins,
And unimpair'd remembrance reigns,
Remembrance of my country's fate
Within my filial breast shall beat;
And spite of the insulting foe,
My sympathizing verse shall flow,
"Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn
Thy banish'd peace, thy laurels torn." [5] 

He also wrote two Satirical Epistles, [6]  with


something of the strength and also the coarseness of Churchill. They were well calculated to raise him enemies.

In 1748 Smollet began his career of a novel-writer by publishing The Life and Adventures of Roderick Random, a work replete with humour and character, for a long time universally read by novel-readers, and still a favourite, as are all Smollet's, with those who can overlook their grossness, vulgarity, and licentious morals. Smollet seems to have taken Le Sage in his Gil Blas, and Scarron in his Roman Comique, for his models.

Roderick Random, like Gil Blas, has little or nothing of regular plot, and no interest is excited for the hero, whose name serves to string together a number of adventures. This work is in a great measure the history of the author's own life. The novel opens with the story of a young couple turned out of doors by their father on account of an imprudent match, and their consequent distress. It is natural and affecting. The cool selfish character of the parent, the scene of the female relations besieging his deathbed, the opening of the will, and the disappointment of the gaping cousins, are all admirably drawn, and probably contain much of the author's own story on the death of his grandfather. The character of a British tar [7]  is portrayed in that of Tom Bowling, uncle to the hero of the piece. It has been the original of most sailor characters which have been since exhibited. He is drawn brave, blunt, generous, enthusiastically fond of his profession, and with


a mixture of surliness in the expression of his kindest affections. There is an admirable stroke of nature in his behaviour, when, after attending the opening of the will, he walks away with his nephew, indignant that nothing had been left him. Full of vexation, he quickens his pace, and walks so fast that the poor lad cannot keep up with him; upon which he calls out to him with a cross tone, "What! must I bring-to every moment for you, you lazy dog?" his anger thus venting itself on the very person on whose account that anger was excited. Into this novel the author has introduced an account of the expedition to Carthagena, and has given a strong and disgusting picture of the manner of living on board a man of war. It must give pleasure to the reader of the present day to consider how much the attention to health, cleanliness, and accommodation, in respect to our navy, has increased since that account was written. Still, it is probable, nothing can present a more horrible sight than the deck of a man of war after a battle. Many of the characters in these volumes are said to be portraits. Strap the barber, schoolfellow and humble friend of Random, was one Hugh Hewson, whose death was lately announced in the papers. Captain Whiffle was a particular nobleman. Much of the work is filled up with low jokes, and laughable stories, such as, one may suppose, had been circulated in a club over a bottle. Some incidental particulars mark the state of accommodations at that time. Roderick Random comes to London with the pack-horses, there


being then no stage waggon, and the inventory of his goods and linen was very probably Smollet's own.

Towards the hero of this tale the reader feels little interest; but after he has been led through a variety of adventures, in which he exhibits as little of the amiable qualities as of the more respectable ones, the author, according to the laudable custom of novel-writers, leaves him in possession of a beautiful wife and a good estate.

In the summer of 1750 Dr. Smollet took a trip to Paris, and laid in a fund for a new display of character in his Peregrine Pickle. This is a work even more faulty than the former in its violation of decency and good morals. It has two or three characters of sailors not devoid of humour, though inferior to his first sketch of Tom Bowling. Commodore Trunnion is so rough and bearish, as scarcely to be like any thing human. He is the Caliban of Smollet. The wife is still more overcharged. Peregrine himself is a proud, disagreeable, ungrateful boy; vicious, as soon as he could know what vice was, and who had deserved to be hanged long before the end of the first volume. The most entertaining and original part of Peregrine is the account of a classical feast, supposed to have been held by a learned physician and other gentlemen, after the manner of the ancients. In this there is humour, and a display of learning, though in the former it is inferior to Scriblerus. [8]  Dr. Akenside was meant to be marked out by the physician, and a painter whom he met at Paris furnished the character of Pallet.


The author has in this work shown his predilection for the party of the Stuarts, by introducing in a touching manner some Scottish gentlemen under exile for having engaged in the rebellion of 1745, whom Peregrine is supposed to meet at Boulogne, and who go every day to the sea-side to gaze with fond affection on the white cliffs of Britain, which they were never more to behold but at a distance. This Dr. Moore mentions as a real incident he was himself witness to, being with Smollet at the time. Many strictures on the government and manners of France are introduced into this work; some of them just, but tinged with that prejudice against French manners which he had deeply imbibed, and which showed itself afterwards in his travels.

The Memoirs of a Lady of Pleasure, Lady Vane, written by herself, are introduced into this work. They excited interest at the time, the lady being them much talked of, but can only now raise astonishment at the assurance which could give such a life without compunction.

It is probable that Smollet had been struck with the objections which must have been made to these two novels, that no poetical justice is exercised on the characters; for in his next piece, Count Fathom, he has exhibited, as the hero of his piece, a vicious character, who, after going through many scenes of triumphant villany, is detected and punished: but the narration is far from pleasing; knavery is not dignified enough to interest us by its fall. There are more serious characters in this piece, and he has


attempted scenes of tenderness and exalted feeling, but with little success. Strong humour he possessed, but grace and delicacy were foreign to his pencil. He could not draw an interesting female character. But in his own way, the picture of Count Fathom's mother, the follower of a camp, is very striking. It is impossible to contemplate her going about, stripping the dying and the dead, with all the coolness of a mind long hardened by scenes of misery, without a thrill of horror. Count Fathom's adventure in the wood, where he is benighted, and narrowly escapes being murdered by ruffians, is exceedingly well told, and a man must have strong nerves to read it without shuddering. There is less of humour in this than in his two former works; but the story of the sharper, who introduces himself to a gaming-table as a boisterous, ignorant country squire, and takes in the knowing ones, is very amusing.

Smollet's next publication was a translation of Don Quixote, generally esteemed the best we have, though some accused him of not having had sufficient acquaintance with the language of the original to do it complete justice. He also translated Gil Blas.

Dr. Smollet had by this time entirely given up the practice of physic. He made a tour to Scotland to visit his relations and friends, particularly his mother, to whom he introduced himself as a stranger. She was a woman of strong sense, and a great share of humour, which she retained to the end of life. She did not know him at first; but as he could not entirely keep

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his countenance, she threw her arms about his neck, saying, "Ah! my son, your old roguish smile has betrayed you at once."

On his return to London he engaged in The Critical Review, [9]  the chief direction of which was in his hands for a number of years.—Reviewing is at best but an invidious office, and Smollet's temper was not formed to conciliate. It was the means of bringing him into continual quarrels. One of these was with Dr. Grainger, whose translation of Tibullus he had reviewed with some acrimony.

A little before this he had drawn upon himself a prosecution for an assault, in which he had caned a person who had injured him. This chastisement was magnified into an assassination. He was honourably acquitted; but he gave vent to his indignation in a very angry letter to the prosecutor's counsel.

Another scrape he got into was on account of some strictures in the same Review on the conduct of Admiral Knowles, on occasion of a pamphlet published by him relative to a secret expedition which had failed. For this he was sentenced to a fine of a hundred pounds and three months imprisonment in the King's Bench. Dr. Smollet showed he had not forgotten this when he wrote his History of England, in which he mentions Admiral Knowles with great contempt.

About this time he published another novel, The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. It is an imitation of Don Quixote, and is but a flat performance.


While Smollet lay in the King's Bench, Garrick generously brought out a farce of his called The Reprisals, on which the author's former animosities against the manager were buried in oblivion; and he tells Garrick in a letter, that he hopes to have an opportunity of convincing him that his gratitude is at least as warm as any other of his passions.

As Smollet wrote neither for amusement nor for fame, but for subsistence, he soon engaged in another work, which, though hastily composed, had a large sale, namely, A History of England, in four volumes quarto. It was published in the year 1758, and is said to have been composed and finished for the press in fourteen months. Such facility of execution shows powers, but precludes excellence. The narrative is rapid and sprightly, and the characters are drawn with spirit; but it is a hasty work, and strongly tinctured with the political prejudices of the author. It was, however, acceptable to the public, and sold well, because we had at that time no history of credit which came down lower than the Revolution. A Continuation of it was published some years afterwards. In this history, under the head of Arts, he has taken occasion to mention with honour Akenside and others whom he had satirized in Peregrine Pickle. A high eulogium is also paid to Garrick; and he handsomely told him, that he deemed it incumbent upon him to make a public atonement in a work of truth, for wrongs done him in a work of fiction.

Smollet, having decidedly taken his political party, was engaged to write in defence of the



measures of the Earl of Bute, which he did in a weekly paper called The Briton. This occasioned the well-known North Briton of Wilkes, and broke off the friendly intercourse which, as men of literature and genius, they had hitherto held with one another.

Smollet's temper was not well calculated for calmness in such altercations, and the virulence with which he wrote The Adventures of an Atom, a political satire describing public characters that figured upon the stage at the end of the last reign and beginning of the present, lost him many of his best friends.

But his constitution now began to be much broken, and a heavy domestic affliction which fell upon him, the loss of an only daughter, led him to seek relief for himself and his wife in a foreign tour, of which he published an account under the title of Letters from France and Italy. They were entertaining, but full of spleen, and they betray those illiberal prejudices against foreigners and foreign manners of which he gave a specimen in Peregrine Pickle. Smollet never possessed the French language sufficiently to converse in it with freedom, and he probably thought he showed his own delicacy by finding fault with the the national usages. Yet whoever reads Smollet's works, even the least exceptional of them, will be of opinion that he had little title to be fastidious upon the score of delicacy. He was also disappointed in the Pantheon, which he calls a huge cock-pit, and was not enchanted with the Venus de Medicis. These animadversions drew upon him the lively satire of Sterne, who intro-


duces him in his Sentimental Journey under the appellation of Smelfungus. "The learned Smelfungus," says he, "travelled from Boulogne to Paris, from Paris to Rome, and so on; but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he passed by was discoloured and distorted. He wrote an account of them, but it was nothing but an account of his miserable feelings. I met Smelfungus in the grand portico of the Pantheon; he was just coming out of it. 'It is nothing but a huge cockpit,' said he. 'I wish you had said nothing worse of the Venus de Medicis,' replied I. He has been flayed alive and bedeviled, and worse used than St. Bartholomew, at every stage he had come at. 'I'll tell it,' said Smelfungus, 'to the world.' 'You had better tell it,' said I, 'to your physician.'" [10]  The last sentence suggests the best excuse for the author's misanthropy. However, the raillery of Sterne was too amusing to be forgotten, and gave a wound to the book from which it never recovered.

In 1766, he paid another visit to his native country; but his health was at this time so broken, that he was incapable of enjoying his tour. A fretfulness hung upon him the whole time, which, after his return, he himself noticed to his friends, with much sense of mortification at the peevishness which he could not conquer. He recovered, however, to a certain degree, and, in an interval of tolerable health, wrote the last of his novels, Humphrey Clinker. It was indeed the last of his publications. His complaints returned upon him with renewed violence, and he



was advised to try again change of air and climate; but as his circumstances could but ill support the expense of the voyage, his friends applied to the ministry to obtain the office of consul at Leghorn or Nice, by way of sinecure, that he might be free from all care but that of his health; but it could not be obtained: — a repulse not greatly to be wondered at, considering the part he had taken in politics. And indeed, what was there in any of his works to deserve from the public any other remuneration than what his bookseller afforded him? He went abroad, however, having probably obtained the desired assistance through the channel of private friendship, but died at Leghorn in the month of October 1771, in the fifty-first year of his age. His wife, who was with him, erected a plain monument to his memory on the spot, for which his friend Dr. Armstrong furnished a Latin inscription, highly complimentary to the deceased, and highly indignant against those who, he imagined, had not sufficiently patronized him. His cousin, James Smollet of Bonhill, erected a very elegant pillar to his memory on the banks of the Leven, the stream he had celebrated, and near which he was born, with an appropriate Latin inscription. It is one of the objects which attract the attention of the tourist in the neighbourhood of Dumbarton.

Dr. Smollet was in person stout and well-proportioned. His looks and manners had dignity, with a great mixture of reserve and haughtiness. He had a high independent spirit, and, it is said, would not stoop to flatter those who might have


served him; but how far this was a matter of principle, and how far of temper, may be made a question. A memoir of this author by Dr. Moore, his friend and countryman, is prefixed to an edition of his Works, from which the facts in this account are chiefly taken. He concludes his character in these words: "He was of an intrepid, independent, imprudent disposition, equally incapable of deceit and adulation, and more disposed to cultivate the acquaintance of those he could serve, than of those who could serve him."

As a novel-writer the characteristics of Smollet are strong masculine humour, a knowledge of the world, particularly of the vicious part of it, and great force in drawing his characters; but of grace and amenity he had no idea. Neither had he any finesse. He does not know how, like Fielding, to insinuate an idea under the mask of a grave irony. He had largely conversed with the world, and travelled, so that his delineations of character and adventures are as different as possible from the effusions of the sentimental theorist. He had certainly vigour of genius, as well as rapidity of execution, but he had none of the finer feelings. To the tender and delicate sensibilities of love he seems to have been a stranger, and he fails whenever he attempts serious and interesting characters. He has little of plot, but deals much in stories of broad mirth, such as that of the man who got at all the secrets of the town by pretending deafness; and his works would afford much pleasant amuse-


ment, if it were not for the coarseness and vicious manners which pervade them all.

His mind, either from the vulgar scenes of his early life, or the society of the crew of a man-of-war, seems to have received an indelible taint of vice and impurity. Vice in his works cannot be said to be seductive; for an air of misanthropy pervades all his compositions, and he has scarcely in any of them given us one character to love. It has been said of Fielding, that he could not draw a thoroughly virtuous character; but Smollet could not draw an amiable one. It must be remembered, however, that vice may pollute the mind, and coarseness vitiate the taste, even when presented in the least attractive form; and it is therefore to the praise of the present generation that this author's novels are much less read now than they were formerly. The least exceptionable of them is Humphrey Clinker, which, that a name of so much celebrity might not be entirely passed over, makes a part of this Selection. It was written at a time when the author's mind was mellowed by age, and cultured society had somewhat softened the coarseness of his painting without destroying his vein of humour. It is the only one of his productions in this line which has not a vicious tendency; but though the moral sense is not offended in it, the same cannot be said of all the other senses. There is very little of plot in Humphrey Clinker. It is carried on in letters, and is rather a frame for remarks on Bath, London, &c. than a regular story. There is a great


deal of humour, especially in the first volume: the latter part might be entitled with more propriety A Tour into Scotland, and not an unentertaining one, though the nationality of the author is very apparent. The character of Matthew Bramble, Smollet seems to intend for his own. He is represented as a humourist and a misanthrope, with good sense and a feeling heart under his rough husk. His letters are filled with the most caustic strictures upon every thing he sees and hears; the London markets, the rooms and company at Bath and Bristol, the accommodations in travelling; and, in short, every thing he meets with is disgusting till he comes to Scotland — when the scene is changed. He has introduced a whimsical character, Lismahago, into whose mouth he artfully puts an apology for his countrymen more partial than he would have chosen to take upon himself. The letters of Bramble are amusingly contrasted with those of his niece, who sees every thing with the youthful eyes of admiration, and is pleased and happy every where; by which means the author has in a sprightly manner exhibited both sides of the canvass. The reader is often put in mind of The Bath Guide, [11]  which has suggested several of his remarks and descriptions, and which may also be traced in the humour of the characters. The letters of Tabitha Bramble are very diverting. Winifred is another Slipslop; but her bad spelling grows rather tiresome towards the end. It must be observed that the style of the different personages, all ap-


propriate, is admirably kept up during the whole work. Humphrey Clinker is the only one of the author's pieces that has no sailor in it. It may perhaps be a greater curiosity for that reason, as the connoisseurs value a Wooverman without a horse.


[1] The British Novelists; with an Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Mrs. Barbauld, 50 Vols. (London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington; W. Otridge and Son; A. Strahan; T. Payne; G. Robinson; W. Lowndes; Wilkie and Robinson; Scatcherd and Letterman; J. Walker; Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe; R. Lea; J. Nunn; Lackington and Co.; Clarke and Son; C. Law; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; E. Jeffery; J.K. Newman; Crosby and Co.; J. Carpenter; S. Bagster; T. Booth; J. Murray; J. and J. Richardson; Black, Parry, and Kingsbury; J. Harding; R. Phillips; J. Mawman; J. Booker; J. Asperne; R. Baldwin; Mathews and Leigh; J. Faulder; Johnson and Co.; W. Creech, Edinburgh; and Wilson and Son, York, 1810), 30: i-xviii. Victoria Wynn and Mary A. Waters co-edited this essay for The Criticism Archive with assistance from Christina Bartlett, Emily Graves, and Joshua McKnight. BACK

[2] The Tears of Scotland (1746?). BACK

[3] This disastrous battle between British and Spanish forces over territory now part of present-day Columbia was decided more by disease and demoralization that by military prowess. British commander Admiral Edward Vernon was blamed for failing to create an effectively cooperative British leadership that could respond to the challenges at hand. BACK

[4] The Regicide V.v.23. BACK

[5] Lines 49-56 of Tobias Smollet's poem The Tears of Scotland (1746). BACK

[6] Advice: A Satire (1746) and Reproof: A Satire (1747). BACK

[7] Slang for a common sailor. BACK

[8] Psuedonymous author of The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus and other satirical works. The authors behind the name were members of The Scriblers Club, including but not limited to: Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, and Thomas Parnell. BACK

[9] The Critical Review was founded by Smollett in 1756 and edited by him until 1763. It continued publication thereafter until 1817. Originally conceived of as a Tory-leaning rival to the more Whiggish Monthly Review, the The Critical Review never attained the stature enjoyed by the Monthly Review during its first half century of operation. BACK

[10] From Chapter 18, "In the Street. Calais" of Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). BACK

[11] A popular epistle by Christopher Anstey, published in 1766. BACK

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