Renton’s Writer

If you are a fan of eighteenth century novels, you may have heard of Tobias Smollett.

If you haven’t heard of him, or think you don’t like eighteenth century literature – why not live dangerously, take a risk, and give him a read?

I have to confess that, so far, I’ve only read one of his works: The Adventures of Roderick Random. Roderick saw the light of day in 1748. I didn’t know what to expect, but I found it a surprisingly easy read. Smollett may have written it more than 250 years ago, but the language isn’t obscure or difficult, and there is a strong sense of humour.

Roderick Random is a picaresque novel. I used to have a vague idea that picaresque had something to do with pirates, and I think the terms do have a common root, but picaresque novels do not have to be about pirates. Although they could be.

The main characteristics of the genre are a rapscallion hero and a general lack of plot. They often read like autobiographies, and involve the protagonist gaily wandering from one adventure to another. Moll Flanders is a picaresque: so is Huckleberry Finn. Sergio Leone’s Dollars Western movie trilogy is also picaresque. You get the idea.

So, who was Tobias Smollett? He was born in Dalquhurn, which is towards the Dumbarton end of Renton, in 1721. Daddy was wealthy, and Tobias was able to attend Glasgow University, where he qualified as a surgeon. But Smollett had literary leanings, and in 1739 he headed south to make his fortune as a dramatist in London Town. In true picaresque style the venture was an abject failure, so he signed up as a naval surgeon instead. He lived in Jamaica for a time, married a Jamaican heiress, and set up a medical practice in London’s Downing Street. But he still had the writing bug, and eventually became a literary success. He seems to have wandered around as much as his characters, and he eventually died, and is buried, in Livorno, Italy. His last book, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, was published in the year he died, 1771.

His sister erected a memorial to him in 1774, in Renton: it stands beside the primary school. It’s a great big column with an urn on the top. I don’t suppose the primary school kids read his books, but I often wonder if the high school ever mentions him in English classes.

Indeed, I wonder how many local folk know anything about him, let alone read him. The Renton road sign says ‘welcome to Renton – birthplace of Tobias Smollett’, and even has a drawing of him. I hope people do make the effort to read him – as I said at the start, his work might be old but it’s not obscure. It’s an entertaining romp, and also – as it pretends to autobiographical realism – a great wee glimpse of social history.

He was well known as an author in his day, and is still respected now – Renton’s very own literary giant!


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