Humphry Clinker is a riot of “originals”

The Expedition of Humphry ClinkerThe Expedition of Humphry Clinker has yet another variation on the epistolary structure. Matthew Bramble, Welsh country gentleman, goes on a tour of Great Britain with his old maid sister Tabitha and their niece and nephew. These four, along with Tabitha’s maid Win Jenkins, each write to a single confidant during the course of their travels.* This means that each gets to give his or her own perspective on basically the same events.

It’s a perfect method for characterization, and Tobias Smollett is talented enough to use it to great effect. Matthew Bramble is officially one of my favorite people ever. Nephew Jerry is good too; niece Lydia not half bad; Tabby hysterical; Win almost as funny. And Lismahago! Here I really must just say: read it. This novel is unmissable. I am going to have to read a lot more Smollett. I mean, did you see this? Unmissable, I say.

What Humphry Clinker really put me in mind of, with its ultrasharp focus on character, and its amazing characters, was a bit of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, criticizing E.M. Forster for his criticism of “flat” characters:

…[I]f by flatness we mean a character, often but not always a minor one, often but not always comic, who serves to illuminate an essential human truth or characteristic, then many of the most interesting characters are flat. I would be quite happy to abolish the very idea of “roundness” in characterization, because it tyrannizes us—readers, novelists, critics—with an impossible idea. “Roundness” is impossible in fiction, because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people….

Forster struggles to explain how we feel that most of Dickens’s characters are flat and yet at the same time that these cameos obscurely move us—he claims that Dickens’s own vitality makes them “vibrate” a bit on the page.

I’d always hated the distinction between “flat” and “round,” which, like Wood, I found somewhat false, when vitality is a much bigger issue. I don’t even know whether you would call someone like Matthew Bramble round or flat in this traditional sense. I suppose you could say he was round, because he’s got a lot of stuff going on in a pretty expansive personality, but at the same time he is so…singular. Of course, Wood thinks the distinction is confused for similar reasons in general.

I’ll try to talk more about Matt Bramble tomorrow, and how the whole thing works. I really think this is the best use yet (in terms of the project) of the epistolary form. Smollett’s really doing something great with it.

*Lydia is a minor exception to this; while she mainly writes to a girlfriend, she writes two letters to her former governess as well.

4 comments to Humphry Clinker is a riot of “originals”

  • Flat vs round: yes, exactly. Dead vs alive is more like it. Smollett’s best characters are alive.

    Yes, please read more Smollett. I’ve just read this and Roderick Random (quite different, a straight picaresqe, but very easy to recommend), but I want to know more. Can Peregrine Pickle possibly be as good as its title?

  • Great stuff! Smollett has been on my radar for a while. I must give him a try.

    Glad I found your blog. I’m working my way through Wuthering Expectations’ blogroll, looking for book bloggers with similar tastes to mine. Looks like I found one.

  • nicole

    Aw thank you! I’ve definitely seen you around at Wuthering Expectations and read your blog as well. More on Smollett next week…he’s awesome.

  • Super! Looking forward to it.