“the most risible misanthrope I ever met with”

Who is Matthew Bramble, and why do I love him so?

Briefly, he is a gouty, middle-aged Welsh country gentleman. He complains all the time: of being an invalid, of how awful everyone is, of the way the world is going to ruin because of the mixing of the classes, of the degeneracy of architecture, of boredom, of city life, of his family. Most of his complaints are directed to Dr. Lewis, his physician and friend back in Abergavenny. The very beginning of the very first letter (aside from the framing letters regarding the publication of the letters that make up the novel):

The pills are good for nothing—I might as well swallow snow-balls to cool my reins—I have told you over and over, how hard I am to move; and at this time of day, I ought to know something of my own constitution. Why will you be so positive?

Despite the frequent complaints about his health, Bramble is robust enough when he’s in a good mood. He thanks the stars he is not “yoked” to his sister Tabitha by marriage, but tells his nephew Jeremy that he couldn’t possibly rid himself of her by force since she’s still a part of his life. And while he can’t stand people en masse, he gets on with individuals very well. In this he is very like myself—also in the OCD-like way he is just completely grossed out by the idea of other people’s bodies. I knew Matt and I were kindred spirits when I read things like this, written at Bath from Bramble to Lewis:

Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch—, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye, was a child full of scrophulous ulcers, carried in the arms of one of the guides, under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight, that I retried immediately with indignation and disgust—Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin, when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence?—Good Heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! we know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe….

But I am now as much afraid of drinking, as of bathing; for, after a long conversation with the Doctor, about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the Pumproom don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat, and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below.

In another letter to Lewis from Bath, discussing a ball the family attended:

The continual swimming of those phantoms before my eyes, gave me a swimming of the head; which was also affected by the fouled air, circulating through such a number of rotten human bellows…. Then, all of a sudden, came rushing upon me an Egyptian gale, so impregnated with pestilential vapours, that my nerves were overpowered, and I dropt senseless upon the floor.

The notion of air circulating through “rotten human bellows” is one I have often pondered myself, especially when using mass transit during the winter. Shiver.

Smollett’s really not afraid of writing about bodily functions and such either, as you can see. It can be pretty explicit and sort of unpleasant, but I think mostly fun. According to the “contemporary responses” business in my Norton Critical Edition, he caught at least some flack for it, but I am almost always a fan of this sort of thing. I mean, in the passage above, are the scrophulous ulcers not enough? No, because then Bramble has to fixate on them, and think of all the running sores he hasn’t noticed, and what is mixing all together in the water, obsessing over it and completely freaking himself out. Well, I can relate. Plus it’s very well done—I might have written just this sort of letter.

There is a lot of good in Bramble too, though. As I said, though disgusted by humanity, he is very kind and generous toward individual humans, including the members of his family as well as his old friends and newer arrivals like Humphry Clinker himself, who is taken into the party under the protection of Bramble and rises from a penniless beggar with “his posteriors” showing to a well-outfitted footman and more. And Lismahago, who is truly bizarre and definitely irritates Bramble in some ways, still becomes a favorite of sorts.

Bramble does a lot of country mouse vs. city mouse stuff, complaining about how awful Bath and London are, and generally valuing the lifestyle of a virtuous country squire above all else. And when the party arrives in Scotland all the bile turns to sugar. Bramble likes Edinburgh, even though it’s a city (and one where they slop out all the household’s rubbish right into the street!), and the Scottish countryside is like heaven on earth. The peasants are industrious, the manufacturing sector to be admired. (The Scotland-love is obviously a whole Thing for Smollett, one which I’m not going to write about, however.)

With Bramble so prickly, and sometimes so silly, and sometimes so conservative, you might wonder whether he is “right” or not, in the world of Humphry Clinker. Well, that’s what you have the other letters for—and tomorrow’s post.

(Also, I hope you are getting the humor. “Why will you be so positive?” Well, I think it’s wonderfully funny.)

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