Carry on, doctor

Tobias Smollett

Jeremy Lewis <em>Jonathan Cape, 340pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0224061518

Interest declared: Jeremy Lewis's grandfather, Edgar, a high sheriff and justice of the peace in the 1920s, and my great-grandfather, Wyndham, a farmer and a butcher, were brothers. The family seat was a red-brick Edwardian villa in the shabby South Wales mining borough of Bedwas. I was raised there, and in the attics there was an abandoned laboratory that I used for my Frankenstein films. The laboratory, many decades previously, had belonged to Jeremy's father, a distinguished urologist who decorated his mantelpiece, Lewis recalls in this book, with souvenir bladder stones, "like Maltesers with the chocolate sucked off".

Medical horror stories might be the inspiration for this rollicking biography; Tobias Smollett (1721-71), as well as being a writer, was a ship's surgeon back in the days when "amputation was the universal panacea". Born near Glasgow, the youngest son of a local worthy (high sheriff of Dunbarton and a justice of the peace), Smollett trained from his early teens to be a doctor, "a manual job, akin to hairdressing". He was apprenticed to William Sterling in 1736 and became expert in "the use of the obstetrical hook"; Smollett also chopped off "gangrenous limbs and syphilitic chancres" and was a virtuoso when it came to administering the enema pump, particularly on the high seas during a gale.

Smollett's novels, boisterous, loose, episodic picaresques with heroes called Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle or Humphry Clinker, celebrate this 18th-century world, portrayed here as half horror story and half Carry On. There are plenty of jokes in the novels about putting laxatives in the brandy, having to wring the urine out of your wig because a chamber pot has been tipped over your head, or contracting diarrhoea so badly that you are taken "to the brink of the grave". Cripples trip over and hunchbacks are laughed at. The books are prose equivalents of Hogarth's and Rowlandson's graphic satires - and what Lewis produces here is a glorious, semi-fictional portrait of Augustan London, an evocation drawn from contemporary plays and pamphlets, memoirs and historical research, replete with "bottle-nosed hunting squires, sea dogs with wooden legs and a profusion of saucy wenches". If only Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor could have made a film of it.

"Quite how Smollett made his way to London we shall never know," confesses Lewis. No matter - one way or another, our hero made his way past highway- men and herds of cattle to the capital's "stinking alleys, dark gloomy courts and suffocating yards". Having qualified as a doctor (a task no more onerous than asking St Andrews University to post you a certificate), he signed on as a surgeon's mate on board HMS Chichester, which guarded the cargoes of slaves destined for the American colonies. Lewis's descriptions of 18th-century naval life are as enthralling as the Maturin-Aubrey yarns of Patrick O'Brian. There are the pirates, the smugglers, the press-gangs; the incompetence of the elderly admirals; the brutality - the sailors suffered "flagellation, stripes, shackles, court martials", not to mention having to face death and maiming from the enemy: the French and the Spanish. The misery of shipboard life is richly conveyed.

In Jamaica, Smollett met his wife, Anne Lassells, but domestic details are scarce. (When she joined him in London remains a mystery.) Instead, we are told of Smollett's failure, back in England and on dry land, to get started as a playwright, and his immersion in Grub Street, with its indigent hacks and parsimonious publishers. Lewis gives us a tumultuous account of London's theatres and coffee houses, newspaper offices and law courts. For instance, we meet James Quin, an actor "who was once charged with murder after stabbing a fellow actor in the eye with his cane during a quarrel over a wig", and we learn about a drama called The Golden Rump, which dealt with George II's flatulence and piles - provoking the Lord Chamberlain and censorship to be brought in.

Smollett thrived in this ferment - crowds stormed on stage to show their disapproval during performances at Drury Lane. He became "the quintessential man of letters, combining the writing of fiction with work as a publisher's editor, an anthologist, a pamphleteer, an historian, a translator, and a pioneering and influential magazine editor".

Smollett translated Cervantes (though he claimed to be "a mere piddler in the Spanish language") and wrote encyclopaedias as well as a bestselling, 2,600-page history of England. Worried about money; hating lawyers (who, "to perplex the truth, browbeat the evidence, puzzle the judge and mislead the jury" - Smollett was once sentenced to three months in prison for libel); swift to take offence and avenge insults; hating foreigners ("slovenly, slothful and unconscionable cheats") but loving foreign travel, Smollett was as contrary and fascinating as any modern man.

He died in Livorno, aged 50. This biography is a loving rite of resurrection.

Roger Lewis is the author of Charles Hawtrey (1914-88): the man who was Private Widdle (Faber & Faber)