Tobias Smollett (1721 – 1771) was a Scottish physician, traveler, poet and journalist, considered one of the greatest novelists of the eighteen century. With the Scottish referendum nearing his name and works are going through a sort of rediscovery in his native land.
He is buried with his wife in Livorno (Leghorn) where they took residence. Both are resting in the old English cemetery of Via Verdi, Livorno, at the very center of the city but, despite its centrality, it is a place in a sorry state of disrepair and closed to visitors. Nearby there is a large car park which was built after demolishing the Odeon cinema, one of the few examples of rationalist architecture in Italy.
Smollett is mainly famous for his picaresque novels, such as The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), which were greatly admired by Voltaire and which later were a source of inspiration for novelists like Charles Dickens and George Orwell.
He was born at Dalquhurn, now part of Renton, in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland and educated at the University of Glasgow, where he qualified as a surgeon; he then proceeded to the University of Edinburgh but left without taking a degree; in 1739 he went to London to seek fortune as a dramatist. Being unsuccessful he became a naval surgeon on HMS Chichester bound to Jamaica, where he settled down for several years. In 1742 he served as a surgeon during the campaign to capture Cartagena. On his return, he opened a medical studio in Downing Street and married a wealthy Jamaican heiress, Anne “Nancy” Lascelles (1721–1791). They had one child, a daughter Elizabeth, who died aged 15 years around 1762 breaking their hearts.
His 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’.
The Adventures of Roderick Random was modelled on Le Sage’s Gil Blas, and was published in 1748. Smollett followed it up by finally getting a tragedy, The Regicide, though it was never performed on stage. In 1750, Smollett took his MD degree in Aberdeen, and also travelled to France, where he obtained material for his second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, another big success. He was now recognized as a leading literary figure, and associated with David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson, whom he famously nicknamed “that Great Cham of literature”. In 1755 he published a translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which he revised in 1761. In 1756, he became editor of The Critical Review.
From 1757 to 1765 he served a short prison sentence for libel, and while in the nick he 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 Travels through France and Italy (1766) which had been translated in Italian in 2003. He also wrote The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769), a picture of British politics during the Seven Years’ War under the guise of a tale from ancient Japan.
He had suffered for some time because of an intestinal disorder, and had sought a cure at Bath but eventually retired in a villa he had bought near Livorno.