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Tobias Smollett, Preface to The Adventures of Roderick Random

Tobias Smollett, Preface to The Adventures of Roderick Random

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genius received cultivation, these stories were embellished with the graces of poetry,

that they might the better recommend themselves to the attention; they were sung in

publick, at festivals, for the instruction and delight of the audience; and rehearsed

before battle, as incentives to deeds of glory. Thus tragedy and the epic muse were

born, and, in the progress of taste arrived at perfection.——It is no wonder, that the

ancients could not relish a fable in prose, after they had seen so many remarkable

events celebrated in verse, by their best poets; we therefore, find no romance among

them, during the aera of their excellence, unless the Cyropaedia of Zenophon may be

so called; and it was not till arts and sciences began to revive, after the irruption of the

Barbarians into Europe, that any thing of this kind appeared. But when the minds of

men were debauched by the imposition of priest-craft to the most absurd pitch of

credulity; the authors of romance arose, and losing sight of probability, filled their

performances with the most monstrous hyperboles. If they could not equal the ancient

poets in point of genius, they were resolved to excel them in fiction, and apply to the

wonder rather than the judgment of their readers. Accordingly they brought

negromancy to their aid, and instead of supporting the character of their heroes, by

dignity of sentiment and practice, distinguished them by their bodily strength, activity

and extravagance of behaviour. Although nothing could be more ludicrous and

unnatural than the figures they drew, they did not want patrons and admirers, and the

world actually began to be infected with the spirit of knight-errantry, when Cervantes,

by an inimitable piece of ridicule, reformed the taste of mankind, representing chivalry

in the right point of view, and converting romance to purposes far more useful and

entertaining, by making it assume the sock, and point out the follies of ordinary life.

The same method has been practised by other Spanish and French authors, and by

none more successfully than by Monsieur Le Sage, who in his adventures of Gil Bias, has

described the knavery and foibles of life, with infinite humour and sagacity.—The

following sheets I have modelled on his plan, taking the liberty, however, to differ from

him in the execution, where I thought his particular situations were uncommon,

extravagant, or peculiar to the country in which the scene is laid.——The disgraces of

Gil Bias, are for the most part, such as rather excite mirth than compassion; he himself

laughs at them; and his transitions from distress to happiness, or at least ease, are so

sudden, that neither the reader has time to pity him, nor himself to be acquainted with

affliction.—The conduct, in my opinion, not only deviates from probability, but

prevents that generous indignation, which ought to animate the reader, against the sordid

and vicious disposition of the world.

I have attempted to represent modest merit struggling with every difficulty to which

a friendless orphan is exposed, from his own want of experience, as well as from the

selfishness, envy, malice, and base indifference of mankind.—To secure a favourable

prepossession, I have allowed him the advantages of birth and education, which in the

series of his misfortunes, will I hope, engage the ingenuous more warmly in his behalf;

and though I foresee, that some people will be offended at the mean scenes in which he

is involved, I persuade myself the judicious will not only perceive the necessity of


describing those situations to which he must of course be confined, in his low estate;

but also find entertainment in viewing those parts of life, where the humours and

passions are undisguised by affectation, ceremony, or education; and the whimsical

peculiarities of disposition appear as nature has implanted them.—But I believe I need

not trouble myself in vindicating a practice authorized by the best writers in this way,

some of whom I have already named.

Every intelligent reader will, at first sight, perceive I have not deviated from nature,

in the facts, which are all true in the main, although the circumstances are altered and

disguised to avoid personal satire.

It now remains, to give my reasons for making the chief personage of this work a

North-Briton; which are chiefly these: I could at a small expence bestow on him such

educations as I thought the dignity of his birth and character required, which could not

possibly be obtained in England, by such slender means as thenature of my plan would

afford. In the next place, I could represent simplicity of manners in a remote part of the

kingdom, with more propriety, than in any place near the capital; and lastly, the

disposition of the Scots, addicted to travelling, justifies my conduct in driving an

adventurer from that country.

That the delicate reader may not be offended at the unmeaning oaths which proceed

from the mouths of some persons in these memoirs, I beg leave to premise, that I

imagined nothing could more effectually expose the absurdity of such miserable

expletives, than a natural and verbal representation of the discourse with which they

are commonly interlarded.


Catherine Talbot, letter

15 February 1748

From a letter to Elizabeth Carter, A Series of Letters between Mrs Elizabeth

Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot, 1809, Vol. I, p. 252.

Catherine Talbot (1721–70), educated by Thomas Seeker, Archbishop

of Canterbury, an author in her own right. Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806),

miscellaneous writer, friend of Samuel Johnson.

Now I name acting, have you read that strange book Roderic Random! It is a very

strange and a very low one, though not without some characters in it, and I believe some

very just, though very wretched descriptions. Among others, there is the history of a

poor tragedy author, ill used by actors and managers, that I think one cannot but be

touched with, when one considers how many such kinds of scenes there are every day

in real life. That wicked good-nature of the rich and great, that can see, and

acknowledge merit in distress, speak it fair, promise high, raise expectations, and yet

continue indolent, and do nothing to relieve it, is shewn in a striking manner; so is the

cruelty of delaying people, and putting them off from day to day, and many other

inhumanities unfelt by the doers; but not less blameable.


The Earl of Orrery on Roderick Random

12 March 1748

From John Boyle, Earl of Cork and Orrery (1707–62), in The Orrery

Papers, ed. Emily Charlotte Boyle, Countess of Cork and Orrery, 2 vols,

1903, vol. II, p. 23. This extract, from a letter to Thomas Carew dated

Caledon, 12 March 1748, is given as an index of fashionable interest in

Smollett’s first novel. Richardson’s Clarissa appeared in seven volumes

during 1747–8.

Clarissa kept us up till two in the morning. Rhoderic [sic] will keep us up all night, and

he, I am told, is to be succeeded again by Clarissa, whom I left, adorable girl, at St



‘An Oxford Scholar’ on Roderick Random


From The Parallel; or, Pilkington and Phillips Compared. Being Remarks upon the

Memoirs of Those two celebrated Writers, by an Oxford Scholar, 1748, pp. 7–8.

This anonymous pamphlet, including a discussion of Pamela, Joseph Andrews

and Roderick Random, is thought to be the first printed criticism

of Smollett’s novel. As Martin C.Battestin points out in Notes and Queries,

213, 1968, 450–52 the writer’s ‘Judgement of the book is astute: the quality

he finds most salient and disturbing is the starkness of Smollett’s realism,

the refusal to “represent Nature with a Veil”’ (cf. No. 38).

Why then, Sir, What think you of Roderick Random? I think, said I, that it is very

sprightly, very entertaining, and very full of poignant Satire. In short, Sir, you think it

excellent; I did not say so, quoth I; a Book is excellent when it has no Faults, as well as an

infinite Number of fine Things, but this has both Beauties and Blemishes, nay, what in

one Sense are Beauties, are Blemishes in another. There are many free Strokes that please,

because they are true and agreeable to Nature; but some Truths are not to be told, and

the most skilful Painters represent Nature with a Veil. Upon the whole, Sir, says my

Bookseller, by way of summing up, we are, I find, of very different Opinions; I fancy you are

fit for any Things, whereas you look upon yourself as good for nothing. Look ye, Sir, our Business

is to distinguish Men’s Talents, and take my Word for it, I have found out yours. You have a rare

Head for Criticism, believe me. Why Doctor Quibus at Tom’s, who is the great Censor of the

present Age, pronounced the very same Judgment upon these Books that you have done.——

There are your Materials; I must go to meet a Stationer at the Temple Exchange, I suppose

you’ll have done by Tuesday, and so, Sir, speed the Plow; ’till then, I am your very humble



The Gentleman’s Magazine

XIX, March 1749, 126

From a footnote to ‘An Extract from a famed Sermon…by Edw. Cobden,

D.D.Archdeacon of London, and Chaplain ordinary to his Majesty’.

The Gentleman’s Magazine editor adds a footnote to Cobden’s sermon, ‘A

Persuasive to Chastity’, where Cobden describes the miseries following

upon fornication.

This appears to be the first reference to Smollett in a periodical.

Of this wretched state, a most lively and striking picture is exhibited in Roderick Random,

which we have here copied as a warning to one sex, and a remonstranse against t’other.

Miss Williams, who had been betray’d into a course of vice by the fraud and cruelty of a

man of pleasure, is introduced relating the story of her own misfortunes:

[quotes from Miss Williams’ story, Roderick Random, ch. 23, pp. 192–4]

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Tobias Smollett, Preface to The Adventures of Roderick Random

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