Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett

by Mark Wallace

Having enjoyed Tobias Smollett’s early novel Roderick Random (1748) a few years ago, I finally got around to reading my second Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).  In Scotland’s Books, Robert Crawford calls it “Smollett’s last, greatest novel” (Penguin, 2007, p. 316). The Wikipedia entry for the novel cites the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in saying Clinker is considered by many to be Smollett’s best and funniest book. Whatever about “best”, I am strongly of the opinion that Clinker is much less funny than Random. As the literary product of an older gentleman, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a more sedate work, with less of the frantic energy and grossly scatalogical humour (but still quite a bit of the latter) of the earlier novel. This probably savours of maturity to the critical eye, but for me boisterous energy and scatology is where Smollett excelled, and much is lost between Random and Clinker.

Clinker is an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters: mostly those of Matthew Bramble and his nephew Jeremy Melford, and to a lesser extent various other members of Bramble’s entourage, as they all travel around Britain together, a journey undertaken for Bramble’s health. Bramble is essentially the protagonist, the patriarch of the party, a bachelor who is somewhat misanthropic and unsociable but is, we soon learn, benevolent and generous, with a keen sense of justice, a commitment to reason, and a strong interest in social progress. He is a forerunner of those philanthropic bachelors who populate the novels of Dickens, spreading goodwill but remaining aloof from intimate human relations. At the same time, he is more intellectual than Brownlow, the Cheerybles, etc. Through the course of his letters, he discourses on any number of subjects, demonstrating both Smollett’s “effortless range of learning” (Crawford, p. 314) and that Bramble is sort of a stand-in for Smollett himself.

Among the epistolarians of Clinker, women are coded as linguistically inept. The two primary female letter writers are Matthew’s sister Tabitha Bramble and her maid Winifred Jenkins. Both are distinguished by very poor spelling and comical malapropisms. In her first letter in the book, Tabitha orders her housekeeper “don’t forget to have the gate shit every evening before dark” (London: Heron, year not given [1960s?], p. 20). An example, obviously, of Smollett’s scatological humour, albeit not a particularly good one.

While Matthew Bramble’s bachelorhood gives him an opportunity to practice universal benevolence, Tabitha Bramble constitutes a rather spiteful depiction of the middle-aged spinster. She tries to marry every unattached man she meets. She is, as Jeremy puts it, “declining into the most desperate state of celibacy” (45). Matthew analyses her character as follows:

In her temper, she is proud, stiff, vain, imperious, prying, malicious, greedy and uncharitable. In all likelihood, her natural austerity has been soured by her disappointment in love; for her long celibacy is by no means owing to her dislike of matrimony: on the contrary, she has left no stone unturned to avoid the reproachful epithet of old maid. (72)

18th-century literature had a tendency to paint the position of old maid in the harshest light, and this novel is a particularly potent example.

This novel is epistolary, and it is episodic. There are threads that are introduced in the beginning and returned to at the end, but the novel is not by any means tightly plotted, and the resolutions to all the plot points are so obvious as to preclude tension. Because the book is structured around a tour, it is essentially a travelogue as much as it is a novel. An 18th-century travelogue is a volume of doubtful interest to the modern reader, and the detours (mostly in Matthew’s letters) over sociology, economics, agriculture, etc. are not always compelling. Some, of course, do resonate quite strongly with present concerns. Given the quite recent vote on Scottish independence (and the possibility of another), Bramble’s reflections on the Act of Union are interesting:

The only solid commercial advantage reaped from that measure, was the privilege of trading to the English plantations; yet, excepting Glasgow and Dumfries, I don’t know any other Scotch towns concerned in that traffick. In other respects, I conceive the Scots were losers by the union.—They lost the independency of their state, the greatest prop of national spirit; they lost their parliament, and their courts of justice were subjected to the revision and supremacy of an English tribunal.’ (277)

Or, how about this, on the subject or rural depopulation/urban overpopulation, a subject very relevant in terms of Ireland’s current demographics:

But, notwithstanding these improvements, the capital is become an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support. The absurdity will appear in its full force, when we consider that one sixth part of the natives of this whole extensive kingdom is crowded within the bills of mortality. What wonder that our villages are depopulated, and our farms in want of day-labourers? The abolition of small farms is but one cause of the decrease of population. Indeed, the incredible increase of horses and black cattle, to answer the purposes of luxury, requires a prodigious quantity of hay and grass, which are raised and managed without much labour; but a number of hands will always be wanted for the different branches of agriculture, whether the farms be large or small. The tide of luxury has swept all the inhabitants from the open country—The poorest squire, as well as the richest peer, must have his house in town, and make a figure with an extraordinary number of domestics.  (97)

There is much such debate on issues topical and arcane. These passages lacked Smollett’s characteristic humour, and for the most part were probably more interesting to the 18th-century reader than he of the 21st-century.

The plotting, too, is lacking in interest or originality. You know the drill: everybody turns out to be everybody’s else long-lost something; some people get married; some people get a chunk of money. There are no real villains in the novel to be punished, humiliated, or sent to the colonies – although one slightly repentant highwayman in the early part of the novel is recommended to make the journey:

It would be no difficult matter to provide you with an asylum in the country (replied my uncle); but a life of indolence and obscurity would not suit with your active and enterprizing disposition—I would therefore advise you to try your fortune in the East Indies. (192)

The book draws to a slow close with a plethora of predictable marriages and re-unitings (through outrageous coincidences) of long-lost families. But Clinker does have its moments. One nice humorous touch is the following anecdote about a man addressing a bust of Jupiter. This anecdote has an authentic ring to it, so I imagine Smollett is recording it rather than inventing it:

Some years ago, being in the Campidoglio at Rome, he made up to the bust of Jupiter, and, bowing very low, exclaimed in the Italian language, ‘I hope, sir, if ever you get your head above water again, you will remember that I paid my respects to you in your adversity.’ (187)

On the whole, though, I don’t agree with the consensus that Clinker is Smollett’s best. His real gifts are better exhibited in Random. 

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