Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 53.djvu/181

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

ness, deprecated the honour of sponsorship for the play, which was, indeed, exceptionally bad. Smollett retorted at once by ‘discarding his patron,’ exhibiting thus early the ‘systema nervosum maxime irritabile’ of which he complained in later life to a French physician. That same autumn, probably through the influence of Sir Andrew Mitchell (1708–1771) [q. v.], he obtained a post as surgeon on board a king's ship. Next year he sailed in the Cumberland in the squadron under Sir Chaloner Ogle [q. v.] to join Vernon's fleet in the West Indies, and served during the whole of the operations of the combined fleet and land forces against Carthagena in the spring of 1741, including the terrible bombardment of Bocca Chica. When this enterprise was abandoned the fleet returned to Jamaica, where part remained for further service in the West Indies. Smollett was with this portion during 1741 and 1742. Residing for a while in Jamaica, he became enamoured of a creole beauty, Nancy Lascelles, the daughter of an English planter, whom he married some time after his return to England, probably in 1747.

Smollett seems to have removed his name from the navy books in May 1744, whereupon he settled as a surgeon in Downing Street, Westminster. He took kindly to tavern life and to coffee-house society, among which he shone as a raconteur. He was a great acquisition to the Scottish circle in London, and Dr. Alexander Carlyle, during his visit to the metropolis in 1746, dilates upon the charm of his society. His indignation was excited by the rigour with which the Highland rebellion was crushed in this year, and he penned the most spontaneous and best remembered of his poems, ‘The Tears of Scotland.’ The years 1746 and 1747 saw his shilling satires ‘Advice’ and ‘Reproof,’ two admonitions to the whig party, with whom he was rapidly losing patience; but they attracted little attention. In 1747 also appeared his ‘Burlesque Ode on the Loss of a Grandmother,’ an unfeeling parody of Lyttelton's ‘Monody’ to the memory of his wife.

Smollett's marriage should have brought him a dowry of at least 3,000l. invested in land and slaves in Jamaica, but, after a complicated lawsuit with trustees upon the death of his wife's father, only a fraction of this was recoverable. He seems to have migrated from Downing Street to Mayfair in search of practice, but his demeanour can hardly have been of a kind to reassure patients, while a rare facility for plain and forcible composition seemed to beckon him into the busiest part of the world of letters.

From the prospect of pamphleteering he was soon to be diverted to prose fiction. Richardson had published his ‘Pamela’ in 1741, and Fielding his ‘Joseph Andrews’ in 1742. To these, however, Smollett, when he produced the two small volumes of ‘Roderick Random’ in 1748, owed little beyond the first impulse. The analytical method of Richardson had little attraction for him, while he was for the most part insensible to, as he was incapable of, the literary blandishments of Fielding. He preferred to adapt to his purpose the ‘picaresque’ method of Le Sage, to whom he frankly admits in the preface his obligation. His appreciation of the ‘humours’ of Ben Jonson and Shadwell is shown very markedly in his fondness for grotesque colouring, while many touches betray the influence of Swift and Defoe. Smollett's hero, like ‘Gil Blas,’ recounts a life of varied adventures, which he experiences in the company of a servant; he enters the service of a physician and meets with old schoolfellows, robbers, disillusions, and in the end an unexpected fortune (cf. Wershoven, Smollett et Lesage, Berlin, 1883). The novel owed its savour to its studies of eccentric character. Uncle Bowling in ‘Roderick Random,’ said Thackeray, was as good a character as Squire Western, and Mr. Morgan as pleasant as Mr. Caius, while Strap has often been preferred to his congener Partridge. There was no author's name on the title-page of ‘Roderick Random,’ and Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, among others, attributed the work to Fielding (in whose name it was actually translated into French), while many said that Fielding would have to look to his laurels. The first use Smollett made of his popularity was to publish ‘The Regicide’ at five shillings a copy, as by the ‘author of Roderick Random.’ Lyttelton was so intimidated by the ferocity with which Smollett bore his triumph that ‘fear of Smollett’ is said to have been the primary cause of the protracted delay in the appearance of his ‘Henry II.’

Smollett now became a centre of attraction to the group of able Scotsmen who were in London, and especially to those of the medical profession, such as Clephane, Macaulay, Hunter, Armstrong, Pitcairne, and Smellie. The latter had the benefit of Smollett's literary adroitness in the revision of his ‘Treatise on Midwifery’ published in 1752 (Glaister, Dr. William Smellie and his Contemporaries, 1894, p. 113). Smollett himself seems to have still designed to combine the practice of medicine with authorship, and in June 1750 he obtained the degree of M.D. from Marischal College, Aberdeen.