Death of a novelist

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On this day in 1771 – exactly 240 years ago, in other words – the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) died in Italy. Like Henry Fielding, another of the eighteenth-century founders of the English novel, he had travelled to the Mediterranean in search of health: as a sufferer from tuberculosis, it was felt that he would benefit from the warmer, drier climate. Like Fielding, if he found any respite it was brief: the disease killed him there and he is buried in Livorno. Thus far, Smollett’s is a familiar story of a disease well-documented in our holdings, but he is relevant to the Library not merely as a patient: he was also a medical man, serving when a young man as a naval surgeon’s mate and taking part in the disastrous Cartegena expedition to the Caribbean in 1741. Although, from the 1750s onwards, he earned his living chiefly by his pen – and his universal reputation among his contemporaries for irascibility suggests that bedside manner would not have been one of his strengths – he remained in touch with the world of medicine and would have been well placed to note, with foreboding, the progress of his disease.

We have only one item by Smollett in our archives and manuscripts collection, a letter held as MS.7887/7, but it comes at an interesting point in his career. It dates from 1749, when Smollett had just published his first novel, Roderick Random, and begun to establish himself as a writer. Smollett’s novels are unjustly neglected these days, despite the fact that he fully deserves his place in the quartet of great names that followed Defoe and set up modes of the novel in English that shaped it for the next century (the others in this quartet would be Fielding, Richardson and Sterne). His splenetic satires and grotesque characters are not to everyone’s taste. The Victorians in particular regarded Smollett as very strong meat indeed – Dickens was a fan, but at the same time regarded his work as marred by the coarseness of an earlier, less polished era. All of which is, essentially, code for the fact that Smollett never met a chamber-pot joke that he didn’t like; broad farce with brimming jordans is a staple of his comedy, something that became impossible in the mid-nineteenth-century novel (and renders his work problematic for Sunday afternoon costume-drama adaptations).

In the letter held in the Wellcome Library, Smollett writes to the great anatomist William Hunter (a fellow Scot) that he is shortly to visit Paris, and would appreciate being put in touch with anyone that Hunter knows there. We thus see a small light on the genesis of Smollett’s next novel, Peregrine Pickle, which was to appear in 1751. Just as Roderick Random had drawn on Smollett’s experience by sending its hero on the Cartagena expedition, so his next novel sent the hero and his entourage to Paris. It is to be hoped that not too much of it was drawn from the life. In Paris, Pickle sees the sights in conjunction with a vain, gullible, xenophobic English painter named Pallet, possibly based on Hogarth, whose linguistic skills stretch no further than “No parly Francy. Damn your chattering! Go about your business, can’t ye?” In maybe the most characteristic scene of the novel, Pallet – who has been tricked into attending a ball in women’s clothing, for complicated reasons! – finds himself in anguish with a full bladder and eventually, “compelled to yield to the urgent dictates of necessity”, follows some male guests into the gentlemen’s toilet and, hitching up his skirts, “discharge[s] the source of his vexation in the presence of them all, crying in his own excuse, ‘By your leave, by your leave. Egad! necessity has no law.'”

Strong meat indeed for the Victorian palate, and unsuprisingly there has been no move towards a Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Smollett. On the anniversary of his death, though, think about this medical novelist and maybe make a resolution to read one of his works. Failing that, we have at least equipped you with a phrase to use in awkward social situations (for example, squeezing your way along a line of theatre seats after the perfomance has started): just adjust your wig like a true-born eighteenth century Briton and cry out “By your leave, by your leave. Egad! necessity has no law.”

1/ Portrait of Tobias Smollett: engraving after Sir Joshua Reynolds. One of many pictures of Smollett to be found in Wellcome Images.
2/ MS.7887/7, letter from Smollett to William Hunter.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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