Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)
- James Smart
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
Tobias Smollett's last and best novel is misleadingly named. Clinker - a comically over-enthusiastic Scottish manservant - does not appear until a third of the way through the book, and is often conspicuous by his absence. Instead, the central figure is Matt Bramble, a grumpy member of the Welsh landed gentry, who takes his family and assorted hangers-on on a trip around Britain. The journey is supposedly for the good of his health, but much of what he sees – patrons of Bath's spas bathing in each other's waters, Londoners mixing in a relentless mess and Edinburgh's common stairwells dripping with effluent – puts him in a foul temper.
Born near Dumbarton in 1721, much of Smollett's writing (he was a journalist and a surgeon as well as a novelist) was characterised by this scurrilous negativity and obsession with disease. Alongside high points like the bestselling picaresque The Adventures of Roderick Random and the Complete History of England, Smollett was imprisoned for three months for libel. His health, never strong, encouraged him to move to Italy, where he wrote Clinker, dying months after its publication. The work shows a certain mellowing in the irascible author. Bramble's is the dominant voice, but Smollett's use of the epistolary form allowed him to introduce the views of varying associates: his cocky nephew Jery, naive niece Liddy and barely literate maid Win. These accounts contradict and qualify each other in a sparky narrative mesh. The result is that, for all its wicked satire and gruesome comedy, Humphry Clinker is a warm and engaging novel.
Its grotesque, caricatured social climbers illustrate Smollett's conservatism, while its praise of Scotland as an example to the rest of Britain echoes his unionism. But this ideology is never overpowering. Today, among a host of 18th century classics that seem ponderous in the extreme, its pungent descriptions, clever dramatic irony and broad humour are well worth relishing.
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