This truly ingenious and original writer was the youngest son of Sir James Smollet of Benhill, and was born at Dalquharn, on the banks of the Leven, in Dumbartonshire, in 1720.
After an ordinary course of education, Tobias Smollet was put apprentice to a surgeon in Glasgow, and afterwards attended the medical classes in Edinburgh. He then proceeded to London, and engaging as a surgeon's mate in the navy, was present at the siege of Carthagena, of which ill-conducted enterprise he gives an account in his Roderick Random. It was in this situation that he acquired his knowledge of sea characters, which he has drawn in his novels in so masterly a manner, and with such technical nicety.
It is probable, that he early sacrificed to the muses; but his first known publication is The advice and Reproof, two satires, printed in 1746 and 1747. The Tears of Scotland likewise appeared about the same time; and The Regicide, a tragedy, founded on the assassination of James I. of Scotland, which was offered, but not accepted, for the stage. This seems to have excited his indignation against Garrick, which the warmth of his temper induced him to carry to an improper length, and for which he was afterwards sorry and ashamed.
In 1748, Roderick Random came out, and it completely established his fame. About this time too, he took the degree of doctor in physic, and settling at Bath, produced an essay on the waters of that place; but meeting with little success, and being easily discouraged, he relinquished the profession of physic, and fixed his residence at Chelsea, where he devoted the whole of his time to literature, and produced a number of excellent works, some of which will be immortal. It is probable, however, that with all his exertions, he could never reach that independence whose spirit he possessed in a high degree, and which be courted in a beautiful ode, which, with some other pieces of this author, we have inserted among the gems of British poetry.
In 1750 he commenced the Critical Review, a work which was long conducted with credit and ability; but which of late years has worn so many different liveries, that it is impossible to tell what master it serves.
The complete History of England was published in 1758, and yielded Smollet a considerable sum; but on his novels rather than his of her works, his fame must rest. During Lord Bute's administration, he became a political writer; but it is said he experienced ingratitude and neglect, and this preying on his mind, impaired his health, which he tried to recover by a two years residence on the continent.
He returned, however, in the same declining state, and visited his native country, Scotland, which gave rise to that incomparable romance, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. He was again induced to return to the warm climate of Italy, but died at Leghorn, October 21, 1771, in the 51st year of his age, admired as a man of genius, and loved as a man of exquisite sensibility and moral worth.
Of the domestic life of Smollet, the little that is known does not exhibit a picture of happiness. He married a lady from Jamaica, by whom he had a daughter, whom he tenderly loved, and whose death, a short time before he went abroad in 1763, made an impression on his mind which he never perfectly recovered.
As a traveller, he was petulant and illiberal; but some excuse is to be made for a frame convulsed by the pangs of disease, and a mind soured by disappointment and calamity. Under such impressions, perhaps he ought not to have written; but where is the man who, having once found solace in a pursuit, will not naturally seek for comfort and consolation in the same path? Yet testy and discontented as he is, he writes with perspicuity, his observations are always sensible, and even his oddities are entertaining.