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The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias…
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The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

by Tobias Smollett

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I wavered between 3½ and 4 stars for this -- it took me a while to get into the swing of Smollett's style. However, once I did I found this epistolary novel increasingly enjoyable. Even the mis-spellings of the servant Win Jenkins which annoyed me at first became a source of amusement by the end. ( )
  leslie.98 | Dec 31, 2016 |
I have said it before and I'll say it again: I am never disappointed when I read a classic. Always there is at least historical interest to be gotten out of them, and usually a great deal more than that.

Despite a good grounding in 18th Century British fiction, I had somehow failed to explore the works of Tobias Smollett up until now, so when I spotted the Heron Books hardcover reprint of Smollett's final novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, on a sale table at one of the weekend book fairs here in Queretaro, naturally I snapped it up. (The frontispiece illustration below is from a different edition of approximately the same vintage, the Folio Society printing of 1955.)

Humphry Clinker draws in genial fashion on several literary traditions - the travelogue, the picaresque, and the epistolary novel.

The story follows the peregrinations of a Welsh squire, Matthew Bramble of Brambleton Hall, his husband-hunting sister Tabitha, his nephew and niece Jeremy and Lydia Melford, and their servants and occasional fellow-travelers, as they make their way in literally roundabout fashion through various spa towns - Bath, Harrogate, Scarborough - and prominent cities - Gloucester, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow - across the whole Island of Britain. This positions the book in the company of such non-fictional specimens as Daniel Defoe's A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain.

Smollett wrote an account of his own travels in France and Italy just a few years before Clinker, and apparently was an even more dyspeptic chronicler than his own Matt. Bramble, who may be taken as a somewhat autobiographical portrait. Bramble finds travel a great fuss and bother, but is willing to undertake it for the possibly salutary effects on his health - he suffers from gout - and the edification of his younger relations.

As an epistolary novel, Humphry Clinker is perhaps unusual for highlighting letters by men - in most novels of this kind, the women are the more enthusiastic correspondents. By my count, there are 27 letters by Bramble here; 28 by Jery Melford; and a total of 28 by four others - Tabitha, Lydia, Tabitha's scattered servant Winifred Jenkins, and Lydia's now-you-see-him-now-you-don't suitor Wilson (who gets but a single brief missive). The letters by Matt. Bramble and Jery Melford are epically longer than those by the others, which together can't take up more than 15% or so of the word-count of the novel. The novel belongs to the two men.

Matt. Bramble's letters to his friend Dr. Lewis are a combination of the philosophical and the somewhat petulant; Jery Melford's letters to his fellow Oxonian Watkin Phillips are observant, amused, and largely carry the thread of the narrative.

Matthew characterizes his nephew as a "pert jackanapes, full of college-petulance and self-conceit; proud as a German count, and as hot and hasty as a Welch mountaineer." Jery is a splendid depiction of a post-collegian male who would seem at home in any era, but oddly perhaps, he is not especially lusty. Oh, he makes the occasional admiring comment about this or that woman. But he is skeptical about the "permanence" of female charms, and to that extent resistant of them. Although Humphry Clinker is full of love and lust - all the women are hot for beaux in one way or another - it is decidedly not a tale of Jery Melford's love-life.

And what, you may wonder, of Humphry Clinker himself? He does not, surprisingly, figure very largely in the book named for him. He comes on the scene late, insinuates himself into the family's graces as a manservant for Squire Bramble, has a few misadventures, writes no letters, and makes a pretty minor character overall.

So why is this novel titled The Expedition of Humphry Clinker? It may have to do with the picaresque element, which is the weakest of the major strands here. A picaro is a rogue who lives by his wits. Humphry Clinker is lower-class and marginally roguish, with a penchant for getting into scrapes - but is also very religious. Nothing in "his" novel is related from anything close to his POV, which would ordinarily be standard in a picaresque narrative. So I am afraid he is a half-picaro at best - but apparently just enough of one to score a title. Frankly, I would have named the novel something else.

No matter ultimately, for this is a joyous book despite all of Matt. Bramble's grousing. It has high spirits for days. The late-arriving character who stands out is not actually Clinker, but the Scotsman Lieutenant Lismahago, who once spent an extended period with a Native American tribe, thereby securing a "colorful" status for all time, and who although interesting to talk to is confoundedly contradictory of whatever position one might choose to take. Matt. Bramble can't quite decide whether he likes this fellow or not, but sister Tabitha has no such qualms - he is an available male of appropriate age and social class, and she moves in for the kill.

All resolves nicely, as is appropriate for a comedy - although one must admit that the long-term prospects for a couple of the couplings do not look all that bright. ( )
  PatrickMurtha | Aug 21, 2016 |
Not as good as Henry Fielding but if you like Fielding you'll probably like this. Written entirely in letters, typical of 18th century novels, it's fascinating as a travelogue of mid-18th century England and Scotland as well as being very knockabout funny in places. All the eventual coincidences are ridiculous but can be taken as part of the fun. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
Genuinely funny 18th century picaresque novel. ( )
  Only2rs | Feb 17, 2016 |
I listened to this on a Libravox shared reader version, and it was highly entertaining. Different readers were the characters, so it was far easier to follow than just the written version. I did enjoy the tale (even if Humphry Clinker is a somewhat peripheral character--who knew?). ( )
  Prop2gether | Jun 4, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tobias Smollettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ross, Angussecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Before we had gone nine miles, my horse lost one of his shoes; so that I was obliged to stop at Barnet to have another, while the coach proceeded at an easy pace over the common. About a mile short of Hatfield, the postilions, stopping the carriage, gave notice to Clinker that there were two suspicious fellows a-horseback, at the end of a lane, who seemed waiting to attack the coach. Humphry forthwith apprised my uncle, declaring he would stand by him to the last drop of his blood; and unflinging his carbine, prepared for action. The ’squire had pistols in the pockets of the coach, and resolved to make use of them directly; but he was effectually prevented by his female companions, who flung themselves about his neck, and screamed in concert—At that instant, who should come up at a hand-gallop, but Martin, the highway-man, who, advancing to the coach, begged the ladies would compose themselves for a moment then, desiring Clinker to follow him to the charge, he pulled a pistol out of his bosom, and they rode up together to give battle to the rogues, who, having fired at a great distance, fled across the common.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140430210, Paperback)

This book offers a fascinating picture of eighteenth-century society. Tough, splenetic, and widely experienced, of all the great novelists of his time Tobias Smollett is the one who registered best the bawdy, brutal side of the eighteenth-century life. Towards the end of his life, however, he grew mellower, and "Humphrey 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:14 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Matthew Bramble, a gout-ridden misanthrope, travels Britain with his nephew, niece, spinster sister and man-servant, the trusty Humphry Clinker. In poor health, Bramble sees the world as one of degeneracy and raucous overcrowding, and will not hesitate to let his companions know his feelings on the matter.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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