View Full Version : Humphry Clinker (Tobias Smollet)

08-12-2014, 12:38 PM
I started reading Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollet (1771). It is not what I was expecting. It is an epistolary novel (i.e. the story is told as a series of letters). This is not a form I have come across very often. I remember reading some Henry Root books back in the 80s, in which the author sent a series of spoof letters to various newspapers, politicians and celebrities, but that was not really any sort of novel. There is a Ladies of Letters radio series, in which two middle-aged, women send rather catty letters to each other. Otherwise, I can't think of any. Humphry Clinker is a rather comic book too, so maybe they all are. One problem with it is that I have a bit of difficulty remembering how everyone relates to each other. I need to draw out a little stick diagram.

It has some nice writing in it. If I ever have reason to write a love letter, I will plagiarise Wilson's letter to Lydia Melford dated March 31. Also, how about this for a conclusion to a letter:

But I am afraid I have put you out of all patience with this long, unconnected scrawl; which I will therefore conclude, with assuring you, that neither Bath, nor London, nor all the diversions of life, shall ever be able to efface the idea of my dear Letty, from the heart of her ever affectionate

Lydia Melford

There was another interesting bit in that letter. Lydia Melford is in Bath with her family. She writes:

Hard by the Pump-room is a coffee house for the ladies, but my aunt says young ladies are not admitted, insomuch as the conversation turns upon politics, scandal, philosophy and other subjects above our capacity; but we are allowed to accompany them to the booksellers shops, which are charming places of resort; where we read novels, plays, pamphlets, and newspapers, for so small a subscription as a crown a quarter; and in these offices of intelligence (as my brother calls them) all the reports of the day, and all the private transactions of the Bath, are first entered and discussed.

I have sometimes wondered how and where people read pamphlets and essays such as Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, Jonathon Swift's A Modest Proposal, Thomas Malthus's Essay on Principle of Population, or Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Presumably it was at places like this book shop, which seems more like a library, only one you can talk in.

08-16-2014, 05:52 PM
I wouldn't like to say I was really enjoying this book, but I do find it quite interesting. I get the impression 18th century England was quite a violent place. In the book, duels seem to be fought quite frequently over not particularly serious matters. Earlier this week I heard a radio programme about smugglers. One gang of notorious smugglers often met in a pub called The Mermaid in the south coast town of Rye. If you went in there you might see flintlocks on the table. This reminded me of the first chapters of Tale of Two Cities where the coach driver and postillion are armed with blunderbusses, eight or ten pistols and a chest full of swords, in case highwaymen attempted to hold up the coach. Britain was constantly at war with someone. IIRC there were more than 100 capital offences. Why aren't there more historical novels written about this period? It sounds cool.

Some other bits that have interested me:

The word virus was used to describe the vector of disease, a long time before anyone knew exactly what they were.
Black people were not unknown in England. Squire Bramble beats two of them.
An unmarried woman, like Squire Bramble's sister, would still be addressed as Mrs if she was no longer young (like Madame in France or Frau in Germany).
One of the characters writes about having gone to a concert where castrasti (eunuchs) were singing.

I read with a wry smile one of the characters write about how crowded London was, and how it was becoming so built up. However, the Thames seems to have been more crowded with boats than it is now.

Jackson Richardson
08-18-2014, 10:34 AM
I read Humphrey Clinker last year as soon as I came our of hospital. I was very weak indeed and I don't know why my instinct lead me to it. But I enjoyed reading it so much I tried Fielding's Joseph Andrews which I didn't enjoy at all. Fielding has an arch smugness, whereas Smollet's curmudgeonliness is far more humane. It may be to do with the multiple viewpoints in Smollet rather than Fielding's crushingly and crude omniscient narrator.

As it happened, reading it last year made life seem more worthwhile. I didn't particularly feel that at the time.

08-18-2014, 07:36 PM
I read Humphrey Clinker last year as soon as I came our of hospital. I was very weak indeed and I don't know why my instinct lead me to it. But I enjoyed reading it so much I tried Fielding's Joseph Andrews which I didn't enjoy at all. Fielding has an arch smugness, whereas Smollet's curmudgeonliness is far more humane. It may be to do with the multiple viewpoints in Smollet rather than Fielding's crushingly and crude omniscient narrator.

As it happened, reading it last year made life seem more worthwhile. I didn't particularly feel that at the time.

Glad to hear the forum's late 18th century Brit Lit enthusiast is on the mend. I have never read Fielding but he has a huge rep. Wasn't it he who wrote Tom Jones?

I find Humphrey Clinker interesting more than enjoyable. Having lived twelve years in Brighton, I was interested to read it was still called Brighthelmstone in Humphrey Clinker. The last letter that I read discussed the British Museum, which I think was quite new then. Squire Bramble was writing about the sort of books it should contain, so presumably, this was before the British Library had been established.

One thing I might take from Humphrey Clinker is the way the writers end their letters. It is very charming.

Jackson Richardson
08-19-2014, 04:11 PM
Fielding's great claim to fame is indeed Tom Jones and he is often contrasted with Richardson, as more, well, fun.

But I found Joseph Andrews left a nasty taste in my mouth.

Thanks for your good wishes, kev. It was last November I staggered out of hospital barely able to manage the stairs twice a day. I did read a lot and just reading was very healing. I don't know why within twenty four hours of leaving hospital, I knew Humphrey Clinker was the goods (as well as Monterverdi's Ulisses and Trollope's Barchester Towers) but I did. I'm much, much better now.

08-20-2014, 01:43 PM
Humphry Clinker is the oldest novel I have read, if it can be called a novel. I have read literature older than this, but either they were Shakespeare, the Bible, or Latin texts at school. Actually, I tell a lie, because I read half of Don Quixote, and I think I read some of Morte d'Arthur when I was a boy. I have not read any of Fielding or Richardson so I cannot compare them to Smollett. I intend to read Robinson Crusoe some time, maybe next year. I plan to read one Trollope book too, if you have any recommendations. Actually I may read two, because I am thinking of reading Castle Richmond, as it seems to be one of very few books that referred to the Irish potato famine.

Well Clinker is still a bit patchy. Some of the letters are entertaining;others are long-winded. The thing that saves it for me is all the historical, eye-witness description. There is a description of what London was like at the time. It was very polluted, especially the river. There is a discussion on food adulturation. Squire Bramble complains about the smoke caused by the burning of seacoal. I am reading a pop science book about energy. It said that England started running out of woodland for fuel by the 17th and 18th century, but had started to rely on coal. At first it was referred to as seacoal, because it was often mined close to the coast where the seams were exposed; also, it was shipped in from the north.

In one letter, Humphry gets into trouble with Squire Bramble for preaching; Methodism was taking off and Bramble did not approve. Something I wondered about was that occasionally a person would be referred to as a capital letter and a dash. I wondered whether they were real people. There was a Mr S- who was involved in the literary world. I wondered if that might have been Samuel Johnson, but he would more likely to be Mr J-. Humphrey Clinker said he had been inspired by a certain Mr W-'s preaching. Presumably this would have been John Wesley himself.

Jackson Richardson
08-20-2014, 04:40 PM
Humphrey Clinker said he had been inspired by a certain Mr W-'s preaching. Presumably this would have been John Wesley himself.

Almost certainly. The Penguin Classics edition which I bought in my student days gives in the notes the historical characters referred to.

Dickens was an enthusiast for Smollet more than Fielding but I don't think I'd bother with his novels other than Clinker. The fourth C18 novelist to take account of is the Reverend Lawrence Sterne, but Tristan Shandy is a totally different kettle of fish to the others.

08-20-2014, 04:46 PM
I intend to read Robinson Crusoe some time, maybe next year.

I re-read that recently and greatly enjoyed it. I also liked Moll Flanders. I keep on meaning to read more Defoe. I enjoyed Tom Jones. I'm a bit wary of Richardson (don't know why!) I have his shorter novel, Pamela, on my shelf, so will give him a go some time. I'm re-reading Pickwick at the moment and finding it a great mood raiser.

08-30-2014, 03:46 PM
Humphry Clinker is an interesting book. It is like a travelogue through 18th century Britain, only fictionalized and told via letters to people who never write back. Nevertheless, if it weren't for the historical, eye-witness stuff I don't think it would be entertaining enough to be worth reading. Squire Bramble has just been complaining about the residents' of one Scottish town practice of throwing the contents of their chamber pots out onto the street. He said that by morning, scavengers had removed most of it, but there was still enough left to be offensive to the eye :ack2: He is much more complimentary about Edinburgh. I suppose this was when they were building the New Town section of Edinburgh. I think it was also the time of the Scottish Enlightenment.

09-05-2014, 09:35 AM
With the referendum of Scottish independence coming up, and all the heated discussion that it is generating, this letter makes interesting reading. Tobias Smollett was a Scot, but he seems to have been fairly happy with the Union between England and Scotland. The character Matthew Bramble is Welsh, at least his estate is in Wales. On their tour around Great Britain, they meet an ageing Scottish lieutenant on half pay. He has spent most of the previous thirty years or so in America. Bramble and Lismahago argue a lot, but they get on.

Lismahago is more paradoxical than ever.—The late gulp he had of his native air, seems to have blown fresh spirit into all his polemical faculties. I congratulated him the other day on the present flourishing state of his country, observing that the Scots were now in a fair way to wipe off the national reproach of poverty, and expressing my satisfaction at the happy effects of the union, so conspicuous in the improvement of their agriculture, commerce, manufactures, and manners—The lieutenant, screwing up his features into a look of dissent and disgust, commented on my remarks to this effect—'Those who reproach a nation for its poverty, when it is not owing to the profligacy or vice of the people, deserve no answer. The Lacedaemonians were poorer than the Scots, when they took the lead among all the free states of Greece, and were esteemed above them all for their valour and their virtue. The most respectable heroes of ancient Rome, such as Fabricius, Cincinnatus, and Regulus, were poorer than the poorest freeholder in Scotland; and there are at this day individuals in North-Britain, one of whom can produce more gold and silver than the whole republic of Rome could raise at those times when her public virtue shone with unrivalled lustre; and poverty was so far from being a reproach, that it added fresh laurels to her fame, because it indicated a noble contempt of wealth, which was proof against all the arts of corruption—If poverty be a subject for reproach, it follows that wealth is the object of esteem and veneration—In that case, there are Jews and others in Amsterdam and London, enriched by usury, peculation, and different species of fraud and extortion, who are more estimable than the most virtuous and illustrious members of the community. An absurdity which no man in his senses will offer to maintain.—Riches are certainly no proof of merit: nay they are often (if not most commonly) acquired by persons of sordid minds and mean talents: nor do they give any intrinsic worth to the possessor; but, on the contrary, tend to pervert his understanding, and render his morals more depraved. But, granting that poverty were really matter of reproach, it cannot be justly imputed to Scotland. No country is poor that can supply its inhabitants with the necessaries of life, and even afford articles for exportation. Scotland is rich in natural advantages: it produces every species of provision in abundance, vast herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, with a great number of horses; prodigious quantities of wool and flax, with plenty of copse wood, and in some parts large forests of timber. The earth is still more rich below than above the surface. It yields inexhaustible stores of coal, free-stone, marble, lead, iron, copper, and silver, with some gold. The sea abounds with excellent fish, and salt to cure them for exportation; and there are creeks and harbours round the whole kingdom, for the convenience and security of navigation. The face of the country displays a surprising number of cities, towns, villas, and villages, swarming with people; and there seems to be no want of art, industry, government, and police: such a kingdom can never be called poor, in any sense of the word, though there may be many others more powerful and opulent. But the proper use of those advantages, and the present prosperity of the Scots, you seem to derive from the union of the two kingdoms!'

I said, I supposed he would not deny that the appearance of the country was much mended; that the people lived better, had more trade, and a greater quantity of money circulating since the union, than before. 'I may safely admit these premises (answered the lieutenant), without subscribing to your inference. The difference you mention, I should take to be the natural progress of improvement—Since that period, other nations, such as the Swedes, the Danes, and in particular the French, have greatly increased in commerce, without any such cause assigned. Before the union, there was a remarkable spirit of trade among the Scots, as appeared in the case of their Darien company, in which they had embarked no less than four hundred thousand pounds sterling; and in the flourishing state of the maritime towns in Fife, and on the eastern coast, enriched by their trade with France, which failed in consequence of the union. The only solid commercial advantage reaped from that measure, was the privilege of trading to the English plantations; yet, excepting Glasgow and Dumfries, I don't know any other Scotch towns concerned in that traffick. In other respects, I conceive the Scots were losers by the union.—They lost the independency of their state, the greatest prop of national spirit; they lost their parliament, and their courts of justice were subjected to the revision and supremacy of an English tribunal.'

'Softly, captain (cried I), you cannot be said to have lost your own parliament, while you are represented in that of Great-Britain.' 'True (said he, with a sarcastic grin), in debates of national competition, the sixteen peers and forty-five commoners of Scotland, must make a formidable figure in the scale, against the whole English legislature.' 'Be that as it may (I observed) while I had the honour to sit in the lower house, the Scotch members had always the majority on their side.' 'I understand you, Sir (said he), they generally side with the majority; so much the worse for their constituents. But even this evil is not the worst they have sustained by the union. Their trade has been saddled with grievous impositions, and every article of living severely taxed, to pay the interest of enormous debts, contracted by the English, in support of measures and connections in which the Scots had no interest nor concern.' I begged he would at least allow, that by the union the Scots were admitted to all the privileges and immunities of English subjects; by which means multitudes of them were provided for in the army and navy, and got fortunes in different parts of England, and its dominions. 'All these (said he) become English subjects to all intents and purposes, and are in a great measure lost to their mother-country. The spirit of rambling and adventure has been always peculiar to the natives of Scotland. If they had not met with encouragement in England, they would have served and settled, as formerly, in other countries, such as Muscovy, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Germany, France, Piedmont, and Italy, in all which nations their descendants continue to flourish even at this day.'

By this time my patience began to fail and I exclaimed, 'For God's sake, what has England got by this union which, you say, has been so productive of misfortune to the Scots.' 'Great and manifold are the advantages which England derives from the union (said Lismahago, in a solemn tone). First and foremost, the settlement of the protestant succession, a point which the English ministry drove with such eagerness, that no stone was left unturned, to cajole and bribe a few leading men, to cram the union down the throats of the Scottish nation, who were surprisingly averse to the expedient. They gained by it a considerable addition of territory, extending their dominion to the sea on all sides of the island, thereby shutting up all back-doors against the enterprizes of their enemies. They got an accession of above a million of useful subjects, constituting a never-failing nursery of seamen, soldiers, labourers, and mechanics; a most valuable acquisition to a trading country, exposed to foreign wars, and obliged to maintain a number of settlements in all the four quarters of the globe. In the course of seven years, during the last war, Scotland furnished the English army and navy with seventy thousand men, over and above those who migrated to their colonies, or mingled with them at home in the civil departments of life. This was a very considerable and seasonable supply to a nation, whose people had been for many years decreasing in number, and whose lands and manufactures were actually suffering for want of hands. I need not remind you of the hackneyed maxim, that, to a nation in such circumstances, a supply of industrious people is a supply of wealth; nor repeat an observation, which is now received as an eternal truth, even among the English themselves, that the Scots who settle in South-Britain are remarkably sober, orderly, and industrious.'

I allowed the truth of this remark, adding, that by their industry, oeconomy, and circumspection, many of them in England, as well as in her colonies, amassed large fortunes, with which they returned to their own country, and this was so much lost to South-Britain.—'Give me leave, sir (said he), to assure you, that in your fact you are mistaken, and in your deduction erroneous. Not one in two hundred that leave Scotland ever returns to settle in his own country; and the few that do return, carry thither nothing that can possibly diminish the stock of South-Britain; for none of their treasure stagnates in Scotland—There is a continual circulation, like that of the blood in the human body, and England is the heart, to which all the streams which it distributes are refunded and returned: nay, in consequence of that luxury which our connexion with England hath greatly encouraged, if not introduced, all the produce of our lands, and all the profits of our trade, are engrossed by the natives of South-Britain; for you will find that the exchange between the two kingdoms is always against Scotland; and that she retains neither gold nor silver sufficient for her own circulation.—The Scots, not content with their own manufactures and produce, which would very well answer all necessary occasions, seem to vie with each other in purchasing superfluities from England; such as broad-cloth, velvets, stuffs, silks, lace, furs, jewels, furniture of all sorts, sugar, rum, tea, chocolate and coffee; in a word, not only every mode of the most extravagant luxury, but even many articles of convenience, which they might find as good, and much cheaper in their own country. For all these particulars, I conceive, England may touch about one million sterling a-year.—I don't pretend to make an exact calculation; perhaps, it may be something less, and perhaps, a great deal more. The annual revenue arising from all the private estates of Scotland cannot fall short of a million sterling; and, I should imagine, their trade will amount to as much more.—I know the linen manufacture alone returns near half a million, exclusive of the home-consumption of that article.—If, therefore, North-Britain pays a ballance of a million annually to England, I insist upon it, that country is more valuable to her in the way of commerce, than any colony in her possession, over and above the other advantages which I have specified: therefore, they are no friends, either to England or to truth, who affect to depreciate the northern part of the united kingdom.'

I must own, I was at first a little nettled to find myself schooled in so many particulars.—Though I did not receive all his assertions as gospel, I was not prepared to refute them; and I cannot help now acquiescing in his remarks so far as to think, that the contempt for Scotland, which prevails too much on this side the Tweed, is founded on prejudice and error.—After some recollection, 'Well, captain (said I), you have argued stoutly for the importance of your own country: for my part, I have such a regard for our fellow-subjects of North-Britain, that I shall be glad to see the day, when your peasants can afford to give all their oats to their cattle, hogs, and poultry, and indulge themselves with good wheaten loaves, instead of such poor, unpalatable, and inflammatory diet.' Here again I brought my self into a premunire with the disputative Caledonian. He said he hoped he should never see the common people lifted out of that sphere for which they were intended by nature and the course of things; that they might have some reason to complain of their bread, if it were mixed, like that of Norway, with saw dust and fish-bones; but that oatmeal was, he apprehended, as nourishing and salutary as wheat-flour, and the Scots in general thought it at least as savoury.—He affirmed, that a mouse, which, in the article of self-preservation, might be supposed to act from infallible instinct, would always prefer oats to wheat, as appeared from experience; for, in a place where there was a parcel of each, that animal has never begun to feed upon the latter till all the oats were consumed: for their nutritive quality, he appealed to the hale, robust constitutions of the people who lived chiefly upon oatmeal; and, instead of being inflammatory, he asserted, that it was a cooling sub-acid, balsamic and mucilaginous; insomuch, that in all inflammatory distempers, recourse was had to water-gruel, and flummery made of oatmeal.

'At least (said I), give me leave to wish them such a degree of commerce as may enable them to follow their own inclinations.'—'Heaven forbid! (cried this philosopher). Woe be to that nation, where the multitude is at liberty to follow their own inclinations! Commerce is undoubtedly a blessing, while restrained within its proper channels; but a glut of wealth brings along with it a glut of evils: it brings false taste, false appetite, false wants, profusion, venality, contempt of order, engendering a spirit of licentiousness, insolence, and faction, that keeps the community in continual ferment, and in time destroys all the distinctions of civil society; so that universal anarchy and uproar must ensue. Will any sensible man affirm, that the national advantages of opulence are to be sought on these terms?' 'No, sure; but I am one of those who think, that, by proper regulations, commerce may produce every national benefit, without the allay of such concomitant evils.'

So much for the dogmata of my friend Lismahago, whom I describe the more circumstantially, as I firmly believe he will set up his rest in Monmouthshire. Yesterday, while I was alone with him he asked, in some confusion, if I should have any objection to the success of a gentleman and a soldier, provided he should be so fortunate as to engage my sister's affection. I answered without hesitation, that my sister was old enough to judge for herself; and that I should be very far from disapproving any resolution she might take in his favour.—His eyes sparkled at this declaration. He declared, he should think himself the happiest man on earth to be connected with my family; and that he should never be weary of giving me proofs of his gratitude and attachment. I suppose Tabby and he are already agreed; in which case, we shall have a wedding at Brambleton-hall, and you shall give away the bride.—It is the least thing you can do, by way of atonement for your former cruelty to that poor love-sick maiden, who has been so long a thorn in the side of

Yours, MATT. BRAMBLE Sept. 20.

We have been at Buxton; but, as I did not much relish either the company or the accommodations, and had no occasion for the water, we stayed but two nights in the place.