This book was first published way back in 1748 and it’s the first one I’ve read by Tobias Smollett. I’ve actually owned a copy of this book for about 30 odd years, it’s in two volumes printed in 1914 but I decided to download it onto my Kindle from Project Gutenberg to read it. You can get it here if you’re interested.
Smollett was a local author as he was born in Dalquhurn (pronounced Dalhurn) just a few miles from where I was brought up in Dumbarton on the west coast of Scotland and I often walked past his memorial stone by the side of the road which leads to Loch Lomond. For some reason I always imagined that he was a sort of poor man’s Walter Scott but I was completely wrong. I think Scott can be safely read by the most prudish of people but this book is quite satirical and bawdy and for something which is over 260 years old it’s surprisingly modern in some of its subject matter. That’s quite depressing when you think about it because the same inequalities in life which Smollett was writing about stil exist today.
Anyway, Roderick Random has had the misfortune to be born to a father who has gone against his own father’s wishes and married a woman of no family or fortune. The consequence is that they are penniless, Rory’s mother dies and his father goes off to find his fortune never to be seen again. Rory’s wealthy grandfather ignores him but allows him to be educated and so when Rory is of age he takes himself off to London to try to better himself.
Surprise surprise, London is full of Scotsmen trying to make their way in the world, and the naive Rory is duped and conned time and time again. Whenever he gets a bit of money he loses it quickly and never seems to learn from his mistakes. At one point Rory is press-ganged into the navy and as Smollett was a surgeon in the navy this part is all written from his own experiences on ship during battles.
I enjoyed this book which apparently influenced Dickens and other Victorian novelists. He got into the nitty gritty details of life amongst Georgian sailors and gamblers as well as the so called high society of the times, pointing out how unfair life was, as it still is of course. I was interested to read that the phrase son of a bitch was used in Georgian Britain as nowadays we think of it as being an American term of abuse.
A lot of the book is obviously autobiographical and towards the end of it we meet a character who has had ambitions to become a writer and he describes his appalling treatment at the hands of publishers and stage managers. Smollett had tried to have a tragedy which he had written for the stage published for years but it never was published. I’m sure there are plenty of aspiring writers nowadays who have had exactly the same experience.
It’s quite amazing to think that Roderick Random was published just three years after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.
I’m going to download Peregrine Pickle next, although I think my next Kindle read will be a Trollope.