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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TBR Thursday 193…

Episode 193

Well, I’ve had a little influx of books this week, so I must be getting through them too, since the overall increase is just 1 to 231. Surprises me, since I feel as if I’ve done nothing except gaze at the farce put on by our revered and well-paid politicians for weeks now.

Order! Order! Here’s what’s next on the order paper…

Crime

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins. This one popped unexpectedly through my letter-box a couple of weeks ago. I always enjoy getting the occasional book sent to me that I haven’t specifically chosen because it kicks me out of my rut. Sometimes they turn out to be great reads – fingers crossed for this one!

The Blurb says: A gripping literary thriller and the first of a new crime series, from the bestselling author of Before We Met.

Detective Inspector Robin Lyons is going home. Dismissed for misconduct from the Met’s Homicide Command after refusing to follow orders, unable to pay her bills (or hold down a relationship), she has no choice but to take her teenage daughter Lennie and move back in with her parents in the city she thought she’d escaped forever at 18. In Birmingham, sharing a bunkbed with Lennie and navigating the stormy relationship with her mother, Robin works as a benefit-fraud investigator – to the delight of those wanting to see her cut down to size.

Only Corinna, her best friend of 20 years, seems happy to have Robin back. But when Corinna’s family is engulfed by violence and her missing husband becomes a murder suspect, Robin can’t bear to stand idly by as the police investigate. Can she trust them to find the truth of what happened? And why does it bother her so much that the officer in charge is her ex-boyfriend – the love of her teenage life? As Robin launches her own unofficial investigation and realises there may be a link to the disappearance of a young woman, she starts to wonder how well we can really know the people we love – and how far any of us will go to protect our own.

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Scottish Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. I know very little about this one except that it always shows up on lists of Scottish classics, and that I mercilessy mocked my brother for years for reading obscure Scottish books like this and he’s now getting his own back. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the Scottish section of my Classics Club list, so my hopes are high… well, fairly high… though I’ve just read the blurb… maybe I should have done that before I put it on my list… 

The Blurb says: Smollett’s savage, boisterously funny lambasting of eighteenth-century British society charts the unfortunate journey of the gout-ridden and irascible squire Matthew Bramble across Britain, who finds himself everywhere surrounded by decadents, pimps, con-men, raucousness and degeneracy – until the arrival of the trusty manservant Humphry Clinker promises to improve his fortunes.

Populated with unforgettable grotesques and written with a relish for earthy humour and wordplay, and a ferocious pessimism, Humphry Clinker is Smollett’s masterpiece.

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Crime

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Hurrah! A new one in the wonderful Maeve Kerrigan series! It’s been a long wait for this, so hopes are astronomically high…

The Blurb says: Leo Stone is a killer. A year ago, he was convicted of murdering two women and sentenced to life without parole. But now, a juror from his trial has revealed the jury was prejudiced, and a retrial is called.

Detectives Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent are tasked with re-examining the evidence. Before long, they uncover links between Stone and a possible third victim.

But with Stone behind bars, a fourth woman disappears in similar circumstances. Is there a copycat killer out there, or have they been wrong about Stone from the start? And will Maeve discover the truth before another innocent victim is killed?

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Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley. I loved Paver’s Dark Matter, finding it up there with the very best of classic horror, and was pleased to see my opinion reinforced when it was one of the few modern books mentioned by the illustrious horror expert, Darryl Jones, in his history of the genre, Sleeping With The Lights On. So… no pressure for this one, then, Ms Paver… 😉

The Blurb says: In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl’s longing to fly free.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?