Wednesday 29 May 2019

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker’ was the last book written by Scottish doctor-turned-writer, Tobias Smollett and published in the last year of his life. It charts the journey of a Welsh family group wandering the spa towns of England, before a quick tour into Scotland and a return back towards Wales. The journey is meandering but peppered with incident and the book is pretty much the same.

The main interest of the text, as far as the group were concerned, were the opportunity for shedding light on interesting little details (which could be compared with our now extensive back-catalogue) and the treatment of the characters. The book is written in an epistolary manner and the events and places viewed through the different prisms of character brought everything to life.

The main writer is Mathew Bramble, an ageing, grumpy man in pursuit of health. He is scornful of most of the English spas; his description of Bath, with it’s waters with layers of pus and scabs, is truly stomach churning, while his description of London’s adulterated (and truly undrinkable) milk even found it’s way into ‘The Horrible Histories’ books. There are hints that Matthew isn’t as misanthropic as he first appears, however, with secret works of charity and he cheers up abundantly when they rich the clean, healthy towns of Scotland. Shortly before this work, Smollett had written a dyspeptic book about a European tour and had been ridiculed by Laurence Sterne as ‘Smelfungus’, Matthew Bramble seems to be playing up, and setting rest that image.

The next writer is Jeremy, Matthew’s nephew. He’s just finished university and is always on the look out for ‘originals’, oddballs that he can ridicule. He has a quick temper and almost fights several duals. Jeremy’s sister Lydia is another writer. She’s an optimistic dreamer who has recently fallen in love with a player (who might be something greater than he appears - hint, hint.)

The two other main writers are Tabitha, Matthews unmarried sister who is now so desperate to wed that she hopelessly throws herself at almost any single man they come across. She is fussy, cantankerous and not very kind to her servant Win. Win is the last main letter writer and she is not as stupid as she first appears. These two later writers create letters full of misspellings and malapropisms. 

Indeed, Smollett’s malapropisms are probably the most sustained and skilled that any in the group had ever read. The women talk about how they will ‘deify the Devil and his works’, fear people who are ‘devils in garnet’ and implore people to ‘employ your talons’. Nor does Smollett neglect the art of creative spelling, no references to accounts are left unmolested and sometimes the characters will ‘lay in damp shits’. We all wanted more of these letters, which sadly dipped in the middle. (Interestingly, a lot of these misspellings and such are linked to a representation of the women’s ‘Welshness’, with attention to detail into the accent.)

There was a big question of representation in this book, especially female representation. The three female characters had far fewer letters between them than the two male (a disparity still seen in modern fiction and tv) but more disappointingly, it seems to be the females we are encouraged to laugh at, rather than with. Add to that the adventure where Matthew finds an old school friend whose life has been ruined by his wife, a rant about evil wives, and shortly afterwards, when that wife dies, a joy about it. Matthew even stays on with his friend to encourage him to not miss her. There is clearly something amiss here.

But taken at that level, there is something amiss with much of Smollett’s presentation of people. Like Jeremy, he is searching for ‘originals’, odd little individualistic people to mock. The gang meet up with a Scottish veteran called Lismahago, he is a wizened, argumentative man whose head is all blotchy because he was once scalped. He is ugly and ridiculous, being mistaken for a ghost in one town - yet we warm to him. As we also warm to Tabitha and Win. It may be a weakness in this method of searching for ‘originals’ that it can turn over into nastiness at times.

Lismahago is a Scottish character, Smollett was a Scottish author and the Welsh family find themselves in Scotland towards the middle of the book. After Bath and London, it is an oasis of good behaviour, kind people and natural beauty. Glasgow is represented as the most beautiful town there has ever been - some contemporary reviews called foul and concluded that this was all secret Scottish propaganda. Indeed, modern fans of Scottish independence would probably enjoy looking at the chapters that talk about that topic, the arguments on both sides haven’t changed much in 250-odd years.

And what about Humphry Clinker? I have barely mentioned him for the good reason that he is barely in the book. Is he a symbol of deep-rooted nobility? A side-eye at Methodism? An important part of the plot that somehow got lost in rewrites? We really couldn’t decide.

This book was very popular an influential, it pops up in Middlemarch, has fingerprints all over Dickens and was highly praised by George Orwell. It’s puerile, with plenty of falling over, naked bottoms and laxative jokes and it’s also a thoughtful travelogue of the country. It may not get the pulse racing but it does get the mouth smiling and occasionally the brain thinking. We all agreed that it was worth reading and were glad we did.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Snacks at Leghorn Road

I’ve mentioned my pathetic artworks a number of times on this blog. I am very aware of my limitations in this field but I do like playing with a paintbrush, especially during longer holidays. 

About eight years ago I started a picture but was unable to finish it as I did not have the confidence to do faces. I finally overcome that feeling and put the faces on. They aren’t good - but they are done.

The picture is set in my old living room in my old shared house. It features the cloth and leather sofas. the wonky light, the custard coloured walls, the union flag cushions and the omnipresent mouse. It pictures me in the centre, handing crisps and beer to Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. Outside, Samuel Pepys does just that.

Here is the picture.

I apologise.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Review: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by Henry Fielding (Part Two)

Last week I looked at ‘The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling’ and why I love it for its tone and narration. This time, I shall look at how the characters help make it the wonderful novel it is.

Tom is not much of a character himself. He’s likeable, charming and good at heart – relatable but not exactly interesting. Certainly, when comparing him to the more extravagant members of the rest of the cast, he doesn’t exactly shine.

Sophia his beloved, on the other hand, is contradictory, determined, smart and takes things into her own hands. Fielding based her on his first wife, Charlotte Craddock. Sophia is fantastic, starting out as something of a weak damsel but quickly gets bored of that situation and takes charge herself, quitting her house and going to seek Tom down. By the end of the novel, the main obstacle between Tom and Sophia’s marriage is not class, wealth or imprisonment – but whether Tom can prove that he’s even worthy enough to marry her. As well as being an enjoyable character in herself, she makes a great double act with Mrs Honour, her maid.

Another great servant character is that of Benjamin Partridge, the man accused of being Tom’s father, he later becomes his manservant. He’s a good man but heavily put upon by the world – and not very bright. He confuses theatre for real life, quite an old joke at the time, but done well. His misunderstandings and loose lips cause constant problems for Tom, but his heart is in the right place, and that is the most important in this book.

Leading those whose hearts are not in the right place is Blifil. He is the nephew of Squire Allworthy (who is as kind but dull as his name suggests). Blifil is outwardly kind and gentle but really is an oily schemer, who does all he can to get in Tom’s way. He is supported by Thwackum and Square, the boys’ tutors. Thwackum is a rough brute of a man, who believes in the appearance of religion above anything else. He is is the model of pretty much every evil teacher ever since, down to Miss Trunchbull. Square is a little more nuanced, he uses sophistry to argue all his worst impulses but by the end of the book manages to have a moral turnaround and support Tom.

Another enjoyably unpleasant character is Miss Wilson described as ‘no welcome visitor’, who has never seen a man without his jacket on, she is uncharitable and cruel to anyone she perceives as below her. She’s the one who finds Tom in Squire Allworthy’s bed and initially wants to take him to the parish to look after. She even declares that the baby doesn’t ‘smell Christian’. When Allworthy immediately takes to the baby, her opinion changes and she declares that it might be a Christian after all, though she is secretly pleased to hear every bad thing she hears about Tom after that.

Probably the largest character in the book is one whose heart veers wildly between the good and bad. His is just too volcanic a character to keep in one place and explodes wildly in joy, anger, grief and probably a little more anger. He is Squire Western and as Sophia’s father is the ogre that imprisons the maiden and chases after her when she escapes. His chase is one of the funniest parts of the middle section of the book, gallivanting around, blustering through other plot threads and then getting distracted with hunting. If he wasn’t such an entertaining character, he’d probably be a monster, but he is so entertaining.

I said a little before about how Fielding’s broad characterisation help his story, with some of the clearest and most distinctive delineation of types of people until Dickens came along. There are plenty of characters to love, hate, root for and boo - that, along with the playful tone of the book, succeed in bringing it to what is (for me) the pinnacle of the early novel. I love it, and you should too.

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Review: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by Henry Fielding (Part One)

The first version of GrubStLodger was called and I attempted to make a ‘proper’ website. Later I discovered that my skills at arranging it were not up to the task and I chose to go with the simpler blog format. The first post on that original site was a review of Henry Fielding’s ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’. I have lost that original review and felt I needed one, so here it is.

‘Tom Jones’ is not only my favourite eighteenth century novel but probably my favourite novel of all time. For such a doorstop of a book, I’ve read it four times and enjoy it more on each re-read. 

It’s the story of Tom Jones, found as a baby on Squire Allworthy’s bed and brought up by him as a son. As he grows, he becomes a good-hearted boy but impetuous and naive. Through the course of the narrative, he has to gain wisdom enough to be worthy of a happy and settled life, frequently being led into scrapes by his own foolhardy nature and the snares of the sneakier people that surround him.

From my first read, nearly ten years ago, the general experience has been the same. The first third, where Tom is grows up in Somerset, is as close to perfect as a book gets and I gallop through it with ease and pleasure. The second third, where Tom has adventures on the road, is an enjoyable romp but not as immersive as the first. The final third, set in London, is an almost interminable succession of misadventures and mistakes which I find such a slog that when I get to the end, my pleasure is as much relief as it is satisfaction. However, the first part is so very good (and the second pretty good) that I can still excuse the third and rate the book as high as I do.

The novel is separated into eighteen books, which contain different amounts of time. These books are then separated into short chapters. This is a boon to me, as I love a short chapter, they make me feel like I am making progress and if they are short then it’s always easy to read just one more. The chapters are given useful titles that give a clue to the contents, such as;

“Containing five pages of paper”
“In which the reader will be surprised”
“A little chapter in which is contained a little incident” - which is followed by;
“A very long chapter containing a very large incident”
“Containing such grave matter, that the reader cannot laugh once through the whole chapter, unless peradventure he should laugh at the author”

I love these chapter headings, I could probably quote them all, particularly the ones that run towards the end of the book, teasing the reader about the upcoming denouement. They also serve to introduce the particular strength of the book, Henry Fielding’s controlled use of tone. Whereas ‘Joseph Andrews’ is too silly, ‘Amelia’ too serious and ‘Jonathan Wilde’ too arch - ‘Tom Jones’ manages to balance all the flavours perfectly.

At the beginning of each book, Fielding directly addresses the reader in a sort of curtain-piece. In these he pretends to wax lyrical, joshes the reader, instructs them in how to read a novel such as his and also describes his own writing style. At one point he describes the kind of person who can write such a novel as his, claiming they need genius, learning, a good knowledge of the world and a feeling heart. He manages to style this list of job requirements as both a buffoonish boast and an honest description. He also describes how, as an author, he needs to be engaged with what he is writing, saying;
“I am convinced I never make my reader laugh heartily but where I have laughed before him.”

The first third of the novel oozes, drips and seethes irony from every pore and barely one thing is said that is not intended as its opposite. He talks about, “the good natured disposition of the mob” and some giving “good advice” by means of blood-curdling threats. It’s not the cynical irony of later Fielding works but playful and fun. 

He’s also fond of the mock-heroic, the most famous part being the ‘battle’ in the churchyard written as a scene from ‘The Iliad’ but repeated time and time again in his elevation of all the tiny parts of people’s lives. Even his book introductions are mock-heroic, with his frequent expostulations on his own genius. 

As the book goes on, the playfulness drops a little as the plot takes more hold, but the playfulness never disappears completely and the often laugh-out-loud funny narrator often comes in to explain or contextualise events. There are those who will hate Fielding for the intrusiveness of his narrator but I find it one of the particular charms of the book.

Another criticism of the book was given by Samuel Johnson, who said that Fielding only understood people the way a person looking at a clock-face understands it. Compared to Richardson, he found Fielding to be shallow in his understanding of people and their characters. While it is true that ‘Tom Jones’ rarely enters the heads of it’s characters, preferring instead to talk of muscles in the mouth and expressions on the face, I found this to be far superior to RIchardson’s endless examination of every character’s motivations. Dickens was another great novelist who dealt principally with what he saw on the surface and managed to create numerous vivid characters that way. In one of his curtain-pieces, Fielding compares what he is doing to that of Hogarth (a good friend) and says that while he is creating vivid characters he does not want to step into caricature. A deep, insightful look at the people in the novel would rob it of much of its fun and vitality. 

Finally, I did think it strange that an author who started out as a playwright but doesn’t portray whole conversations but reports most of them with the occasional piece of direct speech to give a flavour. Given the conversation we do get, were I be able to go back in time and ask for a little more dialogue.

‘Tom Jones’ is a book I could talk about for pages and pages but my fingers are wearing down and the time is getting late, so next week I will talk about the other main reason I love this novel - the characters.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

Under the Glass Ten...Living in a Dropsical Head

“The Capital is become an overgrown monster; which like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support.”
-Tobias Smollett ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.”

Yesterday at work, a colleague burst into the break room with a furious face on, declaring that they’d had enough of this city. She’d tried to get some lunch at the supermarket but the chiller cabinets were all broken and there was no food there (this happens quite a lot), then she’d tried to get a hot sandwich from the coffee shop but the grill didn’t work there (also a regular occurrence), then a rude person had pushed her out the way (every day).

I can see it. My folks recently moved out of London to a small Midlands Town and they were pretty keen to get going. I stayed at their house for a fortnight and on two separate occasions had to duck police tape from fights outside to get to the front door. Then there was the time a man shouted at my uncle for killing Michael Jackson, the car that mounted the pavement so some people could threaten my sister and I, then of course there was the time a man tried to spit in the street and accidentally gobbed in my Mum’s face. 

In my time in London; I was mugged by some teenagers who gave me my phone back because it was too old, lived three months in a flat thinking that my flatmate was the landlord and had the shock of my life when the real landlady turned up and thought I hadn’t paid any rent. There was also the time a builder had got drunk, fallen off scaffolding and died in the house behind mine and when the police came through my house to investigate stopped to share weed with my housemates. That’s not forgetting the day I moved in to my current place, a man thought he found an unexploded bomb in the house next door. Oh, and I once say a man walking a dog and the dog had to stop so the man could pee in the street.

London living is not for everyone, I don’t think Matthew Bramble, the crowd-hating character from ‘Humphry Clinker’ would like it much. Earlier in the quoted passage, he makes the claim that one day, London will grow so large that the whole of Middlesex will be a sea of brick houses. He’s not wrong. If London is a dropsical head, Middlesex as a county is something of an appendix. 

Yet, dropsical head or not, I spent last weekend in a very interesting bookshop, saw an exhibition on the psychology of magic at the Wellcome Centre and even picked up some slightly hard to find refills for my lucky pen. Every morning on the way to work I walk through a park and watch the green parakeets, I even saw what I think might be turtledoves the other day (though they have been collared doves). Now spring is here, I wake up every morning to birdsong and I fall asleep of a night to the quiet rush of traffic and the rhythmic whine of tube-trains going into and out of the station. 

I pay much, live cramped and negotiate my way through all sorts of peculiar people and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. Though I might change my mind if I get gobbed in the face.