Tuesday 17 September 2013

Tobias Smollett, A Satirical Surgeon

Tobias George Smollett (Dalquhurn, Scotland, baptised 19th March 1721 – Livorno, Italy, 17th September 1771) 

Tobias Smollett

My grandpa Gilflurt was never without a book on his hands or a story on his lips and many's the night we sat around his chair listening to him reading tales of adventure and daring. When he was in his cups he liked a bit of poetry too and one of his favourites was Tobias Smollett, a writer whose works he would recite with no little enthusiasm!

Smollett was born to Barbara Cunningham and Archibold Smollett, a landowner and judge in what is now West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Enjoying a very comfortable upbringing, the young man found himself with a burgeoning interest in medicine and went to study at the University of Glasgow, where he trained as a surgeon. However, even as he found himself well-qualified for a medical career and apprenticed to William Stirling and John Gordon, Smollett's true ambitions lay elsewhere. He did not complete his studies and at the age of 18 decided to take his chances in London, envisioning a successful future as a novelist and dramatist.

Like so many other who travelled to the capital chasing their dreams, Smollett found his ambitions thwarted as he could raise no interest in his works. Frustrated and disappointed, he returned to his vocation and took a post as ship's surgeon on HMS Chichester, bound for Jamaica. He spent some time on the island and struck up a courtship with heiress Anne "Nancy" Lascelles before returning to the sea, serving at the Battle of Cartagena.

After the battle he finally set sail for England and established a hugely successful society practice in Downing Street. He married Nancy and together the couple had one child, a daughter. However, his marriage to Nancy was to prove somewhat troublesome as her generous dowry was tied up in her homeland and Smollett would spend a fortune in legal costs in his unsuccessful efforts to obtain it in the form of cash.

The Battle of Cartagena by Luis Fernández Gordillo
The Battle of Cartagena by Luis Fernández Gordillo

Despite the disappointments of his earlier literary efforts, Smollett continued to write and in 1746 published a poem of Culloden, The Tears of Scotland. However, his first true success was to come in 1748 with The Adventures of Roderick Random, a picaresque tale of an adventurous traveller that became a popular success and laid bare life naval life. Buoyed by this triumph he travelled to France to research his second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, which added to his already considerable reputation and sold in great numbers. The publication in 1753 of a third work, The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, cemented Smollett's reputation and he moved in the highest literary circles in London, basking in the respect of his readers and peers.

Smollett's personal dealings went from bad to worse despite his professional successes; he wrote a scathing report on the medicinal resort of Bath that gained him few friends and became involved with a dubious figure named Peter Gordon, who borrowed and refused to repay large sums of money. A failed novel proved costly and Smollett found himself in financial dire straits, borrowing large sums of money until he gained regular employment as the editor of The Critical Review in 1756. With life once again on the up he published his hugely successful work, Complete History of England and  continued to write and publish poetry and translate works from overseas.

Tobias Smollett by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1764
Tobias Smollett by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1764

However, things were to take a darker turn for Smollett once more in the 1760s when The Critical Review libelled Admiral Sir Charles Knowles and our hero found himself serving three months in prison. However, he was able to afford a relatively comfortable incarceration and even used the experience as research for another novel! 

In 1762 Smollett's teenaged daughter, Elizabeth, died. Her heartbroken parents left England to travel the continent, the writer's creative output never slowing and just months before his death he saw the publication of his last and arguably finest novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. With his health failing, Smollett retired to Livorno, the final destination in his well-travelled life. He died at the age of 50, laid to rest in the city he had made his home. 

Smollett left behind a rich legacy of satire, his novels providing a wonderfully witty account of life in the navy, on the continent and in our wonderful Georgian world!


Linda Collison said...

What an excellent brief bio of Smollett! I love his spirited approach to life and his sense of irony and satire.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you! I find Smollett particularly appealing as a gent who never seemed to let life get him down.

Unknown said...

Wow! This has it all from romantic literary notions to life on the high seas, scandal, libel and time in prison. I wonder why it always seems to be that we see so many professionally successful people whose private lives are in turmoil...

Catherine Curzon said...

In some ways I wonder if Smollett might have been better set had he remained in Jamaica; he certainly seemed happy there!

Antoine Vanner said...

Splendid post about a writer who seems to be strangely overlooked today. Not quite in the Fielding class, but close to it and very, very readable.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Antoine; Smollett is a favourite of mine but seems little remembered by many!

Mari Christian said...

I only knew Smollett by his literary output.But his life was something of a picaresque novel. Thank you.

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure; he really did live quite a life!

modernbricabrac said...

This was fascinating. I came across a copy of the Expedition of Humphrey Clinker a long time ago and still remember how much I loved the chaotic, funny, colourful 18th century world he brought to life.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you; he is a favourite of mine though not as well remembered as he ought to be!