The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker
“The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” is the second book by Tobias Smollett on the List and, oh boy, is this a step up, both from his first entry and from the mediocre stuff I have been reading lately.
Tobias Smollett was a man of comedy and satire, but what he did with “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” was to tone down the sarcasm and wittiness and instead embrace a concept to the extent that it truly comes alive. We follow a group of people as they travel around Britain, consisting of the bachelor squire Matthew Bramble, his sister, aging spinster Tabitha, his niece and nephew, Liddy and Jerry and an assortment of servants, particularly Tabitha’s maid Winifred Jenkins. The story is their journey and experiences, both with each other and with the places they pass through. As an interesting and elegant stylistic touch, the story is written as letters these people are sending back to people they left at home. In this way we get different viewpoints, often on the same events, as first (and sometimes second) hand accounts as these people are experiencing them.
Mr. Bramble is an excitable and hypochondriac patriarch with a good heart but very opinionated. Likely a cover for the author himself. His viewpoints are rather settled, there are those things he despise, dirt, stink, hypocritic coxcombs and insensible management, and there are those he love, which are decent, honest people, cleanliness and common sense. His letters are often counterpointed by Jeremy’s letters. His young age allows for a more unprejudiced viewpoint, especially where Mr. Bramble gets agitated, and he is the progressive one pointing out absurdities both in his travelling party and in the environment, they are travelling through.
Tabhita is described comically is a nightmare of a woman, past her prime and desperately looking for a husband, she jumps at everything male until refused, at which point she despise them with a vengeance. She is petty and cheap and very impressed with herself and therefore an easy mark for hilarity. Liddy is almost the opposite, a timid young girl who offers a romantic element to the story as she is wooed by the mysterious Mr. Wilson. Finally, Winifred offers the servant point of view in letters of poor spelling, misunderstandings but also common sense.
The story follows two tracks, one of character development and the second of a travelogue through 18th century Britain. The character development side to the story holds some elements of romance and mistaken identity, both favorites of the era, but it is in the interaction of these characters that we see the real progression of the characters. Mr. Bramble learning to appreciate the active life, Jerry to control his temper and Tabitha finds her match from the most unlikely corner. This is all fun and interesting, but the satire never crosses the line and become unbelievable. As original as these characters are, they remain absolutely believable and even today they are recognizable.
Yet, in my opinion the travelogue is the greatest asset of the novel. I am not one for long descriptive parts, but this portrait of 18th century England and Scotland, as seen from different angles is fascinating stuff. The spa life in Bath, high society hypocrisy in London, a seaside escape on the Yorkshire coast, the curious habits of the Scotch such as eating haggis, drinking Whiskey and playing that weird game they call golf… To sit here in the 21st century and read an excited description of these well known institutions, written with a wonder and curiosity of a novel experience is infectious. I could not get enough of it.
What impressed be much was how Smollett went from his rambling and inconsistent style of “Peregrine Pickle” to this super tight and consistent masterpiece and without losing the astute and humorous perception. I am so used to these “almost-right” novels of the 18th century that I am frankly surprised at finding one so well-rounded and polished. There is never too much, the editing is sharp, but still, it has room for a wealth of detail. He is also able to go through with his concept down to the details. Each character writes, and writes consistently, in his particular style with consistent wordings, mistakes and penchants. You believe Smollett actually visited the places or met people like those he describes. There is no sloppiness here.
I thoroughly liked “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker”, one of the best books so far on the list, and this is certainly a recommendation from me.
And Humphry Clinker? He is just some dude the party picks up on the way.