Monday, November 7, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE EXPEDITION OF HUMPHRY CLINKER” by Tobias Smollett (first published in 1771)
There’s a famous aphorism, which has been attributed to many different actors without ever being definitively attached to one. It says that when the actor lay dying, a sympathiser commiserated with his condition. In response the actor said: “Dying is easy, it’s comedy that’s difficult.”
Comedy is indeed difficult, not just for actors but for audiences. What was hilariously funny for one generation will have the next scratching their heads in mirthless puzzlement. A book that was once accepted as a masterpiece of comedy may now strike us as a crashing bore.
This is a pompous way of introducing a novel that was described (by Thackeray) as “the most laughable [i.e. humorous] story that has ever been written.”
Humphry Clinker is lively, vigorous and entertaining, but is its humour the type that would play easily now? All those pratfalls and pieces of playful violence and rude class-based condescension?
The answer is a definite maybe.
I’ve dealt with Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) once before on this blog, and I admit I was rather dismissive about him in my notice concerning his The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. Notoriously, the Scots naval surgeon and prodigious hack was a quarrelsome man whose humour often consisted of direct personal attacks on individuals and who had a fascination with the grotesque, the lavatorial, the decaying and the medical. No wonder Sterne called him “Smelfungus”. He also wrote very much in the picaresque tradition. In my ancient (1930s) OUP “World’s Classics” copy of Humphry Clinker there is a preface by somebody called Rice-Oxley who remarks truly that Smollett “had not the patience or subtlety to construct good plots and in this respect his novels are wanting, but what they lack in that way is largely concealed by the rapidity of the action and the vigour of description.” In Smollett’s case the picaresque didn’t just mean formless and episodic stories. It meant that his main characters were often real “picaros” – that is, rogues and cheats, as in his Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Ferdinand Count Fathom. Yet Humphry Clinker, while as episodic and plotless as Smollett always was, is notably a gentler book.
Its first joke is its title. Humphry Clinker is in fact only a minor character in the novel, introduced quite late. If the novel were to be named after its main character, it would be called “Matthew Bramble”. Humphry Clinker is an epistolary novel – a series of letters mainly written by the dyspeptic, hypochondriacal, frankly neurotic Welsh squire Matthew Bramble, always in search of a cure; his 45-year-old sister Tabitha (“Tabby”), always in search of a husband; his pleasure-seeking nephew Jeremy Melford (“Jerry”, almost a rake); his sentimental niece Lydia; and the semi-literate maidservant Winifred Jenkins (“Win”). These are the novel’s five most constant letter-writers, but of course each of them writes to his or her own friends so there are many other correspondents involved as well.
Plot, such as it is, concerns the travels of this group around various parts of England and Scotland, in the course of the nine months between April and November. In search of a cure, Matt Bramble goes first to the hot springs in Gloucester, then to Bath bringing his relatives with him. Later there are trips to London, to Harrogate, to Scarborough, to Edinburgh, to Argyllshire, to Glasgow and Loch Lomond, then back into England with a side trip to Wales. Reasons for all these departures and arrivals are sometimes related to farcical circumstances (Matthew and his relatives move on because something embarrassing has happened) but more often are motiveless travel in the nature of a tour. The different characters of Matt, Tabby, Jerry, Lydia and Win are often revealed by the different ways in which they react (in their letters) to the same things or the different ways they describe the same town or city.
Smollett doesn’t hesitate to drop in topical references and in-jokes. In Bath, Matt Bramble is the boon companion of the (historical) actor James Quin. In London, some of the novel’s male characters go to a literary soiree at the house of Tobias Smollett (!) and in the north of England they run into the eponymous character of another of Smollett’s novels, Ferdinand Count Fathom. Matt Bramble is glad that his sister Tabby’s attachment to a penniless Irish baronet, Sir Ulric Mackilligut comes to nothing, and is later pleased that her sentimental passions are diverted into (what Matt sees as) the harmless, if slightly hysterical, nonsense of Methodism. Later still the delightful Scottish Lieutenant Obadiah Lismahago is introduced into the novel, with his tales of his adventurous life. (An almost quixotic character, Lt. Lismahago was judged the best thing in the novel by Sir Walter Scott). He proves a much better match for Tabby, and the two of them are married in the three weddings that provide the novel’s conventional happy ending. Lydia also finds a spouse, as does Humphry Clinker. Speaking of Humphry Clinker, he first appears in the novel as a ragamuffin yokel, an ostler who can take on the role of a Methodist preacher or heroically rescue Matt Bramble when his coach is flooded in mid-stream; and who later (oh, the obvious and desperate contrivance of it!) turns out to be Matt Bramble’s illegitimate son.
All of which amounts to the merest wisp of “plot” to link the episodic events and the various letter writers’ comments about them. For the record, Humphry Clinker includes such events as a coach being overturned and a postilion being dismissed for kicking a pet dog, an innocent man being mistaken for a highwayman, a conniving lawyer (Micklewimmen) and his plots, the wrong man turning up to a duel etc. etc. etc.
Much of this is in the firm tradition of picaresque knockabout, but less violent than in Smollett’s earlier efforts. You can see quite clearly the ancestor of early Dickens’ comedy (Dickens devoured Smollett’s novels as a child). Indeed I wonder if the tour with the old gentleman at the head, and the ostler who takes on important tasks, wasn’t the direct inspiration of The Pickwick Papers, even if the ostler in Dickens’ novel (Sam Weller) took on a much larger role than Humphry Clinker ever does.
I first read Humphry Clinker as an undergraduate, forty years ago. Coming back to it recently, I deliberately set myself the (distinctly unfunny) task of finding out what sort of comedy it offers readers. Most obvious is pure visual slapstick – Matt Bramble lustily belabouring two Negro servants (Letter of 24 April); a cat shod with walnut shells being released into a bridal chamber (Letter of 8 November). “Nothing diverts me so much as to see certain characters tormented with false terrors”, says Jerry Melford (Letter of 3 October), thus articulating one of the basic principles of slapstick. It is the type of rough humour that is suited to the boisterous milieu found in Matt Bramble’s description of “the trampling of porters, the creaking and crashing of trunks, the snarling of curs, the scolding of women, the squeaking and squalling of fiddles and hautboys out of tune, the bouncing of the Irish baronet overhead, and the bursting, belching and brattling of the French horns in the passage.” (Letter of 23 April)
Of course the slapstick sits beside grotesque descriptions of people, befitting the age of Hogarth, and some cruelty. There are jokes about tricking somebody into believing he has swallowed a laxative (Letter of 1 July). There is much dwelling on what is physically gross, as when Jerry Melford blandly reports a conversation about smells, dropsy, contaminated water etc. (Letter of 18 April) and Matt Bramble frequently comments on the foulness of Bath, London and Edinburgh. Bearing in mind that Smollett was a doctor of medicine, he had a particular interest in spas and the healing powers of water, and indeed produced a pamphlet on the value of the waters at Bath, nearly twenty years before he wrote Humphry Clinker. Oddly, though, the medicinal humour is not as oppressive in Humphry Clinker as it is in Smollett’s other novels. Often what seems gross suddenly turns benevolent. In the letter of 5 May, Matt Bramble describes in outrageous terms a group of cripples and invalids, but then turns the joke against himself when he reveals that he was one of the invalids’ company and “they had even philosophy enough to joke upon their own calamities.” He also (as reported by Jerry Melford) turns benevolent irony upon Humphry Clinker after Tabby has been cruelly berating the ragamuffin. Says Matt: “Heark ye Clinker, you are a most notorious offender – You stand convicted of sickness, hunger, wretchedness and want.” (Letter of 24 May)
The best irony in the novel comes from the way their letters show the different characters to have contrasting views of the same things. For Matt, the people met in Bath are “a very inconsiderable proportion of genteel people… lost in a mob of impudent plebeians, who have neither understanding not judgement, nor the least idea of propriety and decorum.” For his impressionable niece Lydia, in Bath “the eye is continually entertained… The merry bells ring round from morn till night” and she goes on to laud “the gayety of the company”.
In the letters there is much unwitting revelation of character. It is notable that most of the novel’s crude slapstick is reported by the boyish Jerry Melford, while Matt himself tends to dwell on serious matters such as the unsanitary conditions of London streets, Highland feudalism, Lowland agriculture and English xenophobia (the Scotsman Smollett was very sensitive about the last of these, especially as he was married to a creole wife). As for Tabby and Win, Smollett loads them with malapropisms and misspellings to provide the novel’s most facile humour. Win innocently writes obscenities when she misspells “shut”, “fought” etc. Sometimes Win’s naivete is used to deflate her Welsh Methodist religiosity, as when she writes “the pleasures of London are no better than sower whey and stale cyder when compared to the joys of the new Gerusalem.” (Letter of 3 June). The freethinking Smollett is cheerfully irreverent about religion. Below stairs, Humphry’s and Win’s Methodism is held to ridicule. Above stairs, Tabitha’s interest in religion is often shown to be a mere pretext for husband-hunting. Most religious people encountered in the novel are either hypocrites or figures of harmless pantomime.
I find it hard to detect much real satire in this novel, although some have detected a deliberate satirical contrast of the English and the Scots, especially when Lieutenant Lismahago appears. What I get mainly from this novel is a gentler, sometimes even whimsical, version of the roughhouse humour Smollett had served earlier in his career. We are often reminded that Humphry Clinker was Smollett’s last novel, appearing in print only months before he died. It is mellow. It is chatty and gossipy. It is largely inoffensive. It is of its age. And though I do not think it would now cause uproarious laughter, it is still often funny.