Way Beyond Retro: Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the third of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous two and the next book are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Tough, splenetic, and widely experienced, of all the great novelists of his time Tobias Smollett is one who registered best the bawdy, brutal side of the eighteenth-century life. Towards the end of his life, however, he grew mellower, and Humphry Clinker (1771) is a tale of high good humour. Squire Bramble’s picaresque tour of the Britain of George III has enough eccentric characters and comic adventures for several lifetimes, and a wealth of local colour.

Published in June 1771, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was to be Tobias Smollett’s last novel. The author died in September of the same year. Though Smollett is most remembered for his picaresque works, such as The Adventures of Roderick RandomHumphry Clinker is more of a travelogue than a picaresque. It is not the ending or the plot that is the story, but the scenery on the way. There isn’t really a solid plot to the story; Bramble takes his niece, nephew and sister on a tour of the Isle after collecting Liddy from her school, after she got in trouble for falling in love with a common player boy. This indiscretion and its ultimate resolution and Mrs Tabitha’s attempts at landing herself a husband would seem to be the closest we get to a traditional storyline. But again, this isn’t the point of the novel. The portrayal of contemporary British life is far more important and if you are looking for a glimpse of what eighteenth century life was like for the well off, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker provides just that and in spades.

Humphry Clinker is an epistolary novel and this episodic form of narration suits the wandering tale very well. It allows Smollett to jump ahead in time at will, but also to give us several viewpoints on the same event. Smollett’s touch is deft, the voices of the narrators are distinct and each is different in style and tone. Liddy sounds girlish and teeny, Jere typifies the collegiate boy and Bramble is ponderous and serious, but with a good heart. The other two letter writers are more defined by style than tone, both Mrs Tabitha and Win are recognisable from their atrocious spelling and grammar. This serves as excellent comic relief, but also serves to drive home points about their personalities; Tabitha is shown in all her self-important and self-serving ignorance, while Win is shown to be a barely literate, rather naive serving girl. The titular Humphry Clinker isn’t one of the correspondents, in fact he only appears after about a quarter of the book.

The title of the book seems to be a bit of a pun. The titles of all of Smollett’s other books start with The Adventures of. This one is the only one starting with The Expedition. Of course this refers to their travels, with Clinker as one of the party, but it can also seem to refer to Clinker’s eventual upward mobility.

In the introduction to the book, written by its editor, Angus Ross, the narrative is said to contain parts of Smollett’s earlier writings. These passages are easily identified as they are often disguised as harangues by Bramble on the state of society. Bramble seems to be Smollett’s mouthpiece; Smollett is known for his rather autobiographical streak in his writing and while both Jere and Bramble have long pieces which seem to have been lifted from earlier works, Bramble is the one who expresses opinions, while Jere more or less provides background information. While these ‘lifted’ sections were easily identified in the text, they never feel clunky or information dump-like, they flow from the narrative and serve to build the characters. They actually made me smile more often than not, as it seemed Bramble had the eternal ‘old man’s complaint’ most of the time: ‘In my time, when I was younger everything was better.’

The prevailing sense I had while reading this novel can be summarised by the proverbial The more things change, the more they stay the same. Smollett gives us a snap shot of his time and includes the plaints uttered by its inhabitants. Funnily, a lot of the complaints are still uttered today, both by the old and not-so old. It gives the book a sense of timelessness and relevance for the modern-day reader. Add to this the fact that it is as humorous as The Adventures of Roderick Random and you have a great read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Highly recommended for people who want to explore some of the classics of British literature!