Tobias Smollett and the Law

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Studies in Philology



"To trace Tobias Smollett's encounters with the law is to under- stand better not only many relevant passages in his writings but also the character and thought of the man himself. Indignation, impulsiveness, courage, tenacity, class consciousness, and generosity-these traits are revealed in Smollett as he moves through court and prison. To judge by his novels, he views these scenes ironically, humorously, and very sharply. For him trial and imprisonment are vicissitudes rather than dispensations of justice in human society. He orients his conduct not so much by the legal code of his day as by the code of the gentleman. And this is the essential clue to his actions and feelings: he thinks of himself as an aristocrat. (Had he lived four years longer, it should be remembered, he would have succeeded to his cousin James as master of Bonhill.) As a gentleman he pours out charity for needy writers and indigent Scots. As a gentleman he arrogates to himself the privilege of chastising a Peter Gordon, apparently never considering this conduct lawless. That his gentle birth did not bring him at least some measure of immunity from prosecution must have intensified his exasperation under legal attack."

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