In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tobias Smollett

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographical Studies
  • Letters
  • Essay Collections
  • Picaresque and Quixotic Fictions
  • Smollett and the English Novel
  • Satire
  • Gender and Genre
  • The Scottish Smollett
  • Speech and Writing
  • Commerce and Consumption
  • Smollett and Medicine
  • Criticism and Journalism
  • Translation
  • Political Views

British and Irish Literature Tobias Smollett
Aileen Douglas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0093


“I am so fatigued with the unremitting Labour of the Pen that I begin to loathe the sight of Paper” (from the 1970 edition of The Letters of Tobias Smollett [Knapp 1970, p. 58, cited under Letters]). The prodigious achievements of Tobias Smollett (b. 1721–d. 1771), novelist, historian, journalist, editor, compiler, and translator, involve thousands of printed pages and span many varied literary endeavors. Born in Dunbartonshire, Scotland, into the younger branch of a prominent local family, the orphaned Smollett attended the local grammar school and was subsequently a surgeon’s apprentice. He moved to London, his home for most of his life, in 1739. As a wartime naval surgeon (1740–1742), Smollett was in the West Indies at the time of the disastrous English attack on the Spanish possession of Cartagena, an experience reflected in one of the most memorable episodes of his quasi-picaresque and very popular first novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748). Other early novels include The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), and the quixotic imitation, The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, published serially (1760–1761). The unprecedented commercial success of his four-volume Complete History of England (1757–1758) and its five-volume Continuation (1760–1765) earned Smollett financial independence. As a journalist and editor, Smollett played a significant role in an expanding print culture. The Critical Review, which he cofounded and edited between 1756 and 1763, helped to develop and guide polite interest in the arts. However, as the editor of the partisan, pro-government paper, The Briton (1762–1763), Smollett also had a direct and bruising experience at the extremely sharp end of mid-18th-century political writing. This latter experience later informed the anonymously published scatological political satire, The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769). Strenuous literary labor, political battles, and personal tragedy in the death of his fifteen-year-old daughter exhausted Smollett. In 1763 his poor health caused him to leave England for the Continent. He lived in the south of France for two years, publishing his Travels through France and Italy in 1766. Smollett’s final novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), concerns a family group traveling through England and Scotland; an epistolary novel, it is famed for its development of multiple viewpoints. Markedly physical and topical, sometimes violent and cruel, Smollett’s novels are distinguished by their highly varied settings and by protagonists who are always on the move, often through very harsh fictional worlds. Although they differ considerably from each other, the novels combine considerably to extend the range of mid-18th-century fiction in English.

General Overviews

No critic has emulated Smollett to the extent of attempting an overview of the entirety of his writings. Studies of Smollett vary considerably in terms of focus and approach, but a distinction can be made between studies restricted to the novels and those ranging further. Foundational early-20th-century works have strong biographical emphases and demonstrate links between the fiction and Smollett’s work in other forms. Martz 1942 argues that Smollett’s engagement between 1753 and 1765 in immense tasks of compilation and synthesis, such as the seven-volume Compendium of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages (1756), profoundly influenced both the topicality and style of the late works. Kahrl 1945 relates Smollett’s actual travels to travel accounts, and to fictional representation, with illuminating effect. Spector 1989 firmly places Smollett in a tradition of picaresque writing. Boucé 1976 and Beasley 1998 offer comprehensive treatments of the fiction with a formal, structural orientation, whereas Richetti 1999, a stimulating single-chapter discussion, applies Smollett’s own conception of the novel as a form to his fictional practice. More recently, the trend has been for thematic accounts involving consideration of the fiction alongside other works. Douglas 1995 focuses on the body; Jones 2011, on enlightenment.

  • Beasley, Jerry C. Tobias Smollett, Novelist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

    Presents the episodic nature of the fiction positively, as Smollett’s attempt at a faithful, immediate representation of life. Sees the novels as verbal pictures and emphasizes analogies with painting, especially Hogarth. A clearly written and detailed study. The wide-ranging introduction will be particularly useful to undergraduates.

  • Boucé, Paul-Gabriel. The Novels of Tobias Smollett. Translated by Antonia White in collaboration with the author. London: Longman, 1976.

    An abridged version of Les romans de Smollett (Paris: Didier, 1971). This major reassessment argued for the structural importance of recurrent moral themes within the fiction. Its emphasis on artistry raised Smollett’s status during a reputational slump. Occasionally dogmatic on matters literary and nonliterary, this expansive and richly allusive study is a classic of Smollett criticism.

  • Douglas, Aileen. Uneasy Sensations: Smollett and the Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    Includes a chapter on the body in 18th-century narrative (pp. 1–26) and discussions of all of the novels along with Adventures of an Atom. Argues that Smollett’s sophisticated and insistent representations of the body disrupt narratives of social and political power.

  • Jones, Richard J. Tobias Smollett in the Enlightenment: Travels through France, Italy, and Scotland. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011.

    This elegant and unusual study uses Travels through France and Italy as a textual threshold to Smollett’s life and varied writings. The approach yields dense, informative discussions of Smollett as critic, dramatist, and historian.

  • Kahrl, George M. Tobias Smollett: Traveler-Novelist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945.

    A multifaceted work that considers Smollett’s travels to the West Indies and in Europe and his professional exposure as a journalist to travel writing as sources for the fiction. Reads the Continental section of Peregrine Pickle as a satire on the Grand Tour. Includes a suggestive account of Smollett as an “alien Scot” in London (pp. 65–79).

  • Martz, Louis L. The Later Career of Tobias Smollett. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942.

    Especially notable is the demonstration that Travels through France and Italy was not a spontaneous epistolary production, but a work constructed through various literary devices and sources (pp. 67–89). The extended discussion of Humphry Clinker links the novel to the eight-volume Present State of all Nations (1768–1769), particularly in its representation of Scotland.

  • Richetti, John J. The English Novel in History: 1700–1780. London: Routledge, 1999.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203393079

    Chapter 6, “Smollett: Resentment, Knowledge, and Action” (pp. 162–195), begins with Smollett’s definition of the novel form in Ferdinand Count Fathom and discusses each of the novels. It links the problems of fictional form and social coherence, teasing out the theoretical implications of the fullness and intensity of Smollett’s representation.

  • Spector, Robert Donald. Tobias George Smollett. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

    Originally published in 1968. The first chapter (pp. 1–23) of this updated edition provides an expanded, but downbeat, consideration of Smollett’s nonfiction. It is followed by an incisive, strongly evaluative study of the novels. Arguing for Smollett’s consistent allegiance to the picaresque, it clashes with most critics including Boucé 1976 and Paulson 1967 (cited under Satire). Not fashionable but a coherent, useful overview.

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