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.

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