Humphry Clinker- Tobias Smollett

13 May




“Humphry Clinker” begins in disharmony and ill health, a collection of travelers who for the perceived betterment of themselves undertake a circuitous progress through Britain. The journey takes them from their home in Wales through England and onto Scotland. Their dissimilar experiences are related in an epistolary, where their varied descriptions and shared adventures juxtapose one another. The novel is a didactic quest; a journey filled with new experiences and self-realization. Smollett’s underlying insinuation is the application of modern thinking, with the inclusion of tried and tested wisdom in order to achieve the “best of all worlds.”

             Mathew Bramble, the principle letter writer, initially complains of the gout and ineffective medication and upon the the advice of his doctor seeks the antidote that fresh air and exercise will hopefully provide. To his horror the town of Bath, rather than a center of well-being and purification, displays all the characteristics of modern excess and a stark realization that the pastoral sublimity of Wales is now far behind him. Bramble, just as progress and society, must move forward – there’s no going back. In contrast his fellow family members are charmed by the expanding city, of it extravagances and entertainments, representative of a generation growing up in the modern era. Even Tabatha, the man-hungry sister, is charmed by the excesses of the city, or rather the men it contains. Smollett cleverly shows divided opinion and therefore doesn’t state that modernity is an evil to be avoided; rather it brings both good and bad in its wake.

               London is expanding beyond its ancient boundaries and the lucrative trade with the colonies is detrimental to Bramble’s experience of the English way of life. Class is hardly recognizable, quality unavailable and the experience intolerable. Despite this Bramble recognizes innovation and comments on the quality of streets, squares, lights and buildings and even marvels at Westminster Bridge. Everywhere there is disharmony and this is the crux of Smollett’s treatise; the creation of a harmonized society with all the benefits and none of the problems. This idea is introduced to us incrementally through the character of Clinker, who although initially taken on as a beggar turns out to be the son of Bramble himself; a diamond in the rough, not unlike the England of the eighteenth century. Smollett intentionally alludes to disharmony through the search for husbands, the star-crossed lovers, and the appreciation of Scotland and distaste for England. Scotland is an Arcadia where the old ways are still practiced, where Edinburgh is the seat of all genius, and yet even Bramble recognizes that the Scots are lagging in progress. Smollett describes via his picaresque the benefits of unity, and in particular intimates to the possibility of union between England and Scotland that eventually occurred in 1707.

                             Through husbandry – a clever pun – and various marriages, nations and societies are brought together. Tabatha marries the Scot Lismahago, demonstrating international union. The Dennisons move from the city, to farm the North, bringing with them the necessary farming practices whilst incorporating the pre-existent ideals of communal living. Bramble’s daughter marries into the Dennisons, implying an international and generational union as well as a move towards modernity. Baynard’s adoption of Dennison’s husbandry alludes to societal division, the benefits of unification, and therefore the betterment of each. Bramble, initially alienated from family, health, and even society, by the end of the novel achieves personal satisfaction through the happy marriages of his sister and niece as well as good fortune thanks to Clinker’s revelation, and even an improved constitution.

               Smollett denigrates England with his descriptions of filth, avarice and all that modernity brings with it, and by comparing it to a retarded, pristine, pastoral of Scotland is able to showcase the best and worst of both societies. His employment of marriage as an international unifier and the use of husbandry to exemplify social change, although amusing, is didactic. The journey taken by Smollett characters is really a progression of British society undergoing great change and espouses the myriad problems facing an emerging nation. Bramble’s health and that of the nation are intertwined.



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