Tobias George Smollett, 1721–1771

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Biographical note

Novelist, 2nd son of Archibald Smollet, of Dalquhurn, Dumbartonshire, and educated at Glasgow, proceeded to London in 1739 with the view of having a tragedy, The Regicide, put on the stage, in which, however, he failed. In this disappointment he took service as surgeon’s mate on one of the vessels of the Carthagena expedition, 1741, an experience which he turned to account in his novels. On his return he settled in London, and endeavoured to acquire practice as a physician, but was not very successful, and having discovered where his talent lay, he thenceforth devoted himself to literature. Roderick Random appeared in 1748, The History of an Atom [1749], Peregrine Pickle in 1751, Ferdinand, Count Fathom in 1753, Sir Lancelot Greaves in 1766, and Humphrey Clinker, generally considered his best novel, in 1770. Besides these works, however, he translated Voltaire, wrote a History of England in continuation of Hume’s, an Ode to Independence, travels and satires, and contributed to various periodicals. He was repeatedly involved in acrimonious controversy, and on one occasion fined and imprisoned for a libel, which, with various private misfortunes, embittered his life, and he died disappointed and worn out near Leghorn. Had he lived four years longer he would have succeeded to his grandfather’s estate of Bonhill. The novels of S. display great narrative power, and he has a remarkable comic vein of a broad type, which enables him to present ludicrous scenes and circumstances with great effect. There is, however, a strong infusion of coarseness in his treatment of his subjects.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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