The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Broadening the mind…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way. Told entirely through letters, the introduction by Lewis M Knapp informs me it is “often regarded as the most successful epistolary novel in English”.

Matthew takes a grumpy view of life, especially in the beginning when his health is worrying him. A bachelor, he feels a little hard done by to have acquired a family – his maiden sister, Tabitha, who is desperate to throw off her spinster state, and two wards, Jery and Lydia, children of another sister now deceased. Despite his frequent grumbles about them all, though, he loves them and is mostly kind to them. The family are accompanied on their travels, of course, by servants. The maid, Win Jenkins, provides much of the comic relief – her letters full of misspellings and malapropisms, often ‘accidentally’ apt. Through her, we see the family from another angle, not always complimentary. Along the way, they pick up another servant, the eponymous Humphry Clinker, although it baffles me a bit why the book was given his name since I wouldn’t consider him one of the major characters.

Men dancing in a coffee house
All illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts via Wikimedia Commons

Part picaresque, part travelogue, there’s not much in the way of a plot, although there’s a love story concerning Lydia that runs throughout and pulls the thing together to a degree. However, really it’s not setting out to tell a story – it’s an observation, often satirical, of life in England and Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century.

This was a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I started off loving it, then it dipped badly to the point where I considered giving up, and then picked up again to a most enjoyable second half. As so often, especially with books from long ago, this is more to do with the reader than the book. It starts in the spa towns of England some years before our beloved Bath of Austen’s day, but still eminently recognisable. Then it moves to London where Smollett satirises the politics, politicians and literati of the day, most of whom I didn’t recognise even after checking who they were in the notes at the back, and I found this section intensely dull. However, the family then heads north, up through England and into Scotland where Smollett (a Scot, of course) discourses on habits, customs and the effects of the still relatively recent Union of Scotland and England. Naturally, I found this fascinating and fun since it’s a subject I am interested in and know reasonably well. I suspect other modern readers would find different parts entertaining and dull according to their own interests and knowledge.

Clinker preaching in Clerkenwell Prison

Some of the humour is quite crude, often dealing with bodily functions, about which Matthew the hypochondriac especially seems somewhat obsessed. Times were different too, of course, and some of what was apparently humorous back then seems rather cruel today. The women fall into two categories: young, desperately seeking romance, and foolish; or old, desperately seeking husbands, and foolish. I fear our Mr Smollett would today be called a misogynist, though I expect back then he was simply reflecting the prevalent world view.

However, there’s far more ‘good’ humour than bad. The three main correspondents are Matthew, Jery and Lydia, and they each see the world through the prism of their own age, experience and gender. Smollett is brilliant at creating individual voices for each, and maintaining them without a hitch. To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.

For my part, I detest it [Bath] so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.

To Jery, it’s a place where he socialises with his peers and talks horses. To Lydia, it’s an enchanted place of romance, with dancing and handsome young men galore. This three-way look at places continues throughout the journey and, as well as providing humour, gives a rounded picture of the attractions and downsides of the various places they stop at, while continuing to let us get to know each of the characters better. Tabby and Win write less often, and mostly about domestic matters for strictly humorous purposes, and if I recall correctly, Humphry doesn’t write at all, so everything we learn about him, we learn at second hand.

Tobias Smollett c. 1770
Artist unknown

Like most Scottish authors following the Union, Smollett was writing primarily for an English audience and, as Scott sometimes does at a later period, he uses the Scottish section to try to explain Scottish culture to them, musing on customs, accents, the legal system, the differences between Lowland and Highland culture, and so on. He introduces another Scottish character later in the book, whose discussions with Matthew enable Smollett to show both sides of the Union – the pros and cons – and this is remarkably interesting given our current national obsession with the same vexed questions three centuries on. He touches briefly on the already-developing cultural dominance of England and English in language and literature, a thing Matthew seems to see as positive, leaving me wondering if Smollett did too. The book itself is written almost entirely in standard English of the time, so should present no major problems for a patient modern reader.

Humphry Clinker smashing a dish at dinner

I’ve hummed and hawed over my rating for this one. I was highly entertained by bits and bored to tears by other bits. But because I’m reading it as a Scottish classic and enjoyed the Scottish parts so much, in the end I’ve decided to dismiss the London section and the bawdier parts from my mind and give it the full five stars. And a definite recommendation, if for no other reason than to enjoy Win’s mangled language and observations of her “betters”…

DEAR MARY,

Sunders Macully, the Scotchman, who pushes directly for Vails, has promised to give it you into your own hand, and therefore I would not miss the opportunity to let you know as I am still in the land of the living: and yet I have been on the brink of the other world since I sent you my last letter. — We went by sea to another kingdom called Fife, and coming back, had like to have gone to pot in a storm. — What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up; even Mr Clinker was not his own man for eight and forty hours after we got ashore. It was well for some folks that we scaped drownding; for mistress was very frexious, and seemed but indifferently prepared for a change; but, thank God, she was soon put in a better frame by the private exaltations of the reverend Mr Macrocodile.

Book 44 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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44 thoughts on “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

  1. I’ve a Smollett or two on my shelves where they’ve remained untouched for years. Must dig them out – he sounds like fun (despite your reservations, which seem valid). Reminds me a little of Swift – all that disgust with bodies. I love the names: Macrocodile is priceless…

    • Well worth digging out, I think. Despite the tedious London section – and it’s really not his fault I’m not well versed in the political scene of the 18th century! – overall I really enjoyed this one, and will certainly read his other famous ones now. Ha! I love Win’s mangled names and malapropisms! Smollett did it so well… 😀

  2. I can certainly see the fun and wit in this one, FictionFan. And the look at society sounds well-done, too. I’m absolutely not a fan of the whole bodily function thing, but I can see how a lot of the story would appeal to you. And eccentric, even quirky, characters can add much to a story. Glad you found a lot to like here.

    • I was glad too, since it had never really appealed to me so it was a relief to find there were parts of it that I thoroughly enjoyed! On the whole my cut-off is Victorian literature – earlier stuff often loses me because I don’t know enough about the context. But fortunately with so much of this one being about the effects of the Union, it happened to hit on a bit of history I’m familiar with and interested in…

    • Ha! Maybe they won’t be so impenetrable to you – my lack of knowledge of the politics and literature of that era is profound. 😉 But the different voices are very well done and there’s plenty of humour to help the whole thing along. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    • Yes, you’re right! I hadn’t thought about it but it is very like Pickwick in some ways, although Matthew is a much more sensible person than Pickwick and the humour is certainly bawdier in some places…

  3. Probably wouldn’t be of much interest or enjoyment to me, FF, but I liked your review and am glad you found this one five-star worthy! Telling a story strictly through letters would be a bit of a challenge, I’m thinking.

    • To be honest, I can’t imagine it being of much interest to non-Brits unless they happened to be particularly interested in that period of history for some reason. He handled the letter brilliantly – every voice was different and all the characterisations came through strongly. It was that and the humour that carried me through the more obscure bits…

  4. I want to read this just for the author’s name so I’m pleased that you liked it (overall). I immediately thought of Dickens and Pickwick. Certainly sounds like a worthy precursor.

    • Haha! His titles are always fun too – The Adventures of Roderick Random will probably be the next one I go for. Or maybe The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle… 😀 I hadn’t made the Pickwick link, but yes, indeed – lots of similarities. Although Matthew Bramble is a much more serious and realistic character than poor old Pickwick and the humour is undoubtedly bawdier. But the same insight into politics and the way people behave, for sure…

  5. Hmmm… while parts of this do sound entertaining, I’d probably have to be in just the right mood to pick it up. (and maybe lacking anything else good to read, which is never a problem I seem to have 🙄 )

    • There’s a lot to enjoy in it but I did wonder while reading it if non-Brits would be as bored by the whole thing as I was by the London passages. Some of it is just about human nature in general but a lot is about actual events and when you don’t know the background, a lot of the fun gets lost. However, it’s considered a true classic, so maybe I’m being unfair…

  6. I have to admit I’d never even heard of this book and despite your five stars (although I’m not strictly sure how fairly they were awarded) I’m not sure I’d find this as interesting as you did although I can see that there are elements, such as viewing a place through three separate pairs of eyes, that I would enjoy.

    • Ha! I’d only heard of it because my weird brother reads all these ancient Scottish classics and then tries to force them on me… 😉 Yeah, the five stars was a bit of a stretch but I did enjoy the Scottish parts, so it got an extra star for reasons of patriotism… 😀

  7. I have this one – in two volumes on my shelves and now think that I should get around to reading it soon. I’ve only read The Adventures of Roderick Random and enjoyed that one. Smollett’s home was not far from where I grew up but I believe it had been pulled down by then.

    • This was my first Smollett but I’ll probably read Roderick Random – this one was enjoyable enough to encourage me to read more of his stuff. Oh, really? Was that his birthplace in Renton? I’m not a million miles from there myself – about 25 in fact, I think!

    • Haha! I love the name Tobias Smollett too. You’ll like the titles of his other most famous books – The Adventures of Roderick Random and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle… 😀

      • Between this and Tolkien’s Peregrine Took and a character in Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, is Peregrine actually a common British name? I’ve only heard it in novels.

        • I think it was more common in the past and definitely English I think, rather than Scottish or Irish. I did know a couple of “Perry”s when I lived in London, though, and always assumed they were actually Peregrines.

          • Interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever met a real life Perry. I’d probably assume it was short for Percival…which is also pretty uncommon.

            • Ah, could be! I always think of Percy as the diminutive of Percival, but who knows with young people today – they have no sense of tradition… 😉 I remembered yesterday that we do have one existing famous Peregrine – an extremely posh journalist and columnist called Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. His wife has the wonderful name of Lady Lucinda Lambton – you gotta just love the British aristocracy… 😀

  8. Great review! I’m not sure at all about reading this one. Maybe if I found a cheap copy of this in a charity shop. Is it one of those books with paragraphs that last for a whole page?

    • Thank you! Hmm… not that I noticed and I probably would have because that annoys me too. No, it was surprisingly readable considering its age – some of the references have got lost over time but the language didn’t feel too horribly dated overall.

  9. I enjoyed your hemming and hawing review, my friend. I especially enjoyed their banter about Bath! So fun! I have been there and would love to live there! This title is so darn good, too! Wonderful review! Now I have to decide if I’m adding it or not! 😂 ♥️

    • The stuff about Bath was a lot of fun, especially the difference in how grumpy old Matthew and romantic young Lydia saw it! I’ll be honest, though, I’m not sure how well this would work for non-Brits unless they really had a specific interest in the period. I suspect you might feel as lost by the Scottish stuff as I did by the London section…

  10. Wonderful review. I read this one a few years ago essentially because it was mentioned in Dickens (can’t remember which one at the moment) and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected.

  11. To be honest, if I lived back then, I’d probably be perpetually grumpy too! I like epistolary novels myself, I find them really straightforward in a weird sort of way…

    • Hahaha – yes, me too! I could maybe live without mobile phones, but I wouldn’t give up anti-biotics and painkillers for anything! Not to mention food hygiene… 😉 I haven’t read many epistolary novels but I did enjoy this one, especially the way he developed clear styles and voices for each correspondent.

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