Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tobias Smollett: Humphry Clinker

Actually, the full title of the novel is The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, and it was published in 1771, the same year Smollett died. It is considered his best novel, quite different and far superior to his earlier works. Unfortunately, Smollett died before he had a chance to write another, so he was unable to increase his standing among 18th century writers.

Just why Smollett named the novel as he did is still not clear to me. This is an epistolary novel which consists of letters written by five characters on a journey to Scotland. Humphry Clinker is not one of the five letter-writers, and he doesn't even appear until the reader is at least 1/4 to 1/3 into the novel. Most copies of the work simply call it Humphry Clinker and forget the expeditionary part. A more apt title, I think, would be The Expedition of Squire Bramble.

Most of the novel takes place on a journey to Scotland undertaken by Squire Matthew Bramble and members of his family. First and foremost is, of course, the Squire, who is the moving force behind the journey. He suffers from gout and various digestive ailments and refers to himself as a valetudinarian. He usually is wise and kind and generous, except when bothered by his various ailments or by bad weather or by obnoxious people, or at least those he considers obnoxious.

A significant member of the traveling party is Tabitha Bramble, the Squire's spinster sister, whose main goal in life is getting a husband, and much of the fun of the novel is watching her set her traps for anything in pants who appears on the horizon and seems to be lacking a spouse. Also occupying a seat in the coach is Jery Melford, Squire Bramble's nephew and heir apparent, who is somewhat distant from his uncle as they are not in agreement on many issues. Lydia Melford, Jery's sister, is also present, as is a maid, Winifred Jenkins. The story is told by these five people in letters to their friends and confidants. Humphry Clinker joins them on their journey as a servant, mainly because of the Squire's generosity. When they first meet, Clinker is impoverished and barely covered by his rags.

Warning: From this point on, I will discuss significant plot elements as well as the ending to the novel.

Smollett has gone to some pains to include every possible cliche normally found in the 18th century novel. First are the young lovers. Lydia has fallen in love with a young man who doesn't appear to be at her social and economic level and is therefore forbidden to have any contact with him. He then tells her that he will leave temporarily and return with proof of his high social standing, the equal of her family, at least. She, of course, spends much of the trip pining away for her young man. Jery, her brother, is so incensed at the young man's suit to his sister that he challenges him to a duel when he sees him during the journey. At the site of the duel, Jery discovers that a mistake has been made and apologizes to the man, who coincidentally has the same name as Lydia's suitor.

As already mentioned above, we have Tabitha, a constant source of amusement as she goes charging madly off after every single male who appears. There is Winifred, the attractive young maid, who, according to her letters, wouldn't be better than she should, given the opportunity. There is an attack by highwaymen who have designs upon the Bramble finery and currency, as well as what appears to be a reformed highwayman, looking for an opportunity to get out of the business. Can he be trusted?

And, what's lacking so far is an unjust imprisonment, in which one of the characters is falsely accused of a crime, one whose penalty is hanging. It's Clinker's turn now, as he ends up in jail, accused of being part of a robber gang.

A common problem in 18th century novels is that of identity. The novels are filled with people traveling under false names, either deliberately or unknowingly. A number of the characters in this novel are not using either their right names or a name they have used in the past, which adds to the confusion. And, as should be expected, a natural (illegitimate) child appears who is joyfully reunited with his father at the end.

And, predictably, numerous coincidences occur. Near the end of the novel, the coach overturns while fording a rain-swollen stream, and Clinker rescues the Squire. They find they are near the home of the Dennison family who graciously takes them in, for Squire Bramble is in no shape to travel. In addition, the coach itself needs repairs. The Dennisons introduce themselves and tell them that they have a son, who happens to be visiting a friend and should be home the next day. I'll bet that nobody could ever guess just who their absent son is.

As befits the formal definition of a comedy, the work ends happily with three marriages. Jery and his uncle now are in harmony once again. Clinker is reunited with his father. Squire Bramble's gout and various digestive problems have disappeared, and the Squire decides that perhaps a little regular exercise and some care taken about his diet could be beneficial.

Along with the above, the reader is blessed with various rants and raves about parliament, the jury system, medical quackery, and religious preachers, primarily the Methodists. Smollett even throws in, at no extra cost, a sentimental happening that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, except that it gives the characters and the readers an opportunity to demonstrate their sensitivity and sensibility by shedding tears of joy at a family reunion.

Overall Rating: I enjoyed the novel. It, however, is quite different from the modern novel, and those who believe that novels must be in the modern mode will not appreciate The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.


  1. Fred, I've neglected Tobias Smollett, but now, based on your fine comments, I must add him to my "must read" list. Thanks!

  2. R. T.,

    This is the first work by Smollett that I've read, and I was impressed. Humor usually doesn't time travel too well, but his is less topical, so it works, at least for me, several centuries later.

    While I was in grad school, his name was mentioned, but his works were never covered in any class that I took, and I specialized, to some extent, in the English Novel.

    Based on this work, I am going to read another one of his novels--possibly _Roderick Random_ or _The Adventures of Peregrin Pickle_, probably the latter because of its title--a hero named Peregrin Pickle?

  3. Maybe I should point out that Smollett was Scottish. Just saying.

    Roderick Random is excellent. Primitive compared to Humphrey Clinker - more of a standard picaresque. It has some naval scenes that are especially good.

  4. A.R.,

    Yes, I gathered that from the editor's intro. It's probably purely coincidental that some of the people he meets in Scotland are named Smollett.

    It's also, no doubt, a coincidence that the Squire is definitely unhappy with everything he sees and encounters on the trip while he is still in England until he reaches Scotland. Now, he seems to be ecstatic about everything--the people, the landscape, the towns--almost Edenic I might say.