The Pringles and the Brambles

Amid all the obvious nods in The Ayrshire Legatees to Humphry Clinker, it’s the differences that stand out most. Mrs. Pringle is almost too much like her counterpart Tabitha Bramble, but the difference between Mr. Pringle and Matt Bramble, and the resultant difference in attitude between Andrew Pringle (“my son”) and Jeremy Melford (Matt’s nephew), is most interesting to me.

We know from Humphry Clinker week that Matthew Bramble is a misanthrope, in fact, “the most risible misanthrope I ever met with.” But for all that Matt is smart, worldly-wise (though he prefers the country, he well knows how to act outside it), friendly and caring, to be made fun of for his quirks but not, at bottom, ridiculous. Mr. Pringle, on the contrary, is ridiculous. He is a real country mouse, who tries to pull medallions off hackneycoaches, is barely able to carry out his affairs with regards to the legacy, and generally looks a fool more often than not—while insisting on acting the most respectable person in the entire country on account of his superiority of religion, of course.

And where Jeremy Melford comes to really love and appreciate his uncle through acquaintance with his eccentricities and ultimate character, Andrew Pringle is genuinely embarrassed, as when he writes to his friend Mr. Snodgrass:

I know not how it is, that the little personal peculiarities, so amusing to strangers, should be painful when we see them in those whom we love and esteem; but I own to you, that there was a something in the demeanour of the old folks on this occasion, that would have been exceedingly diverting to me, had my filial reverence been less sincere for them.

The poor Pringles. They hardly know whom to look to for advice on the fashions, once finding they’ve been led astray. But they try so hard! Try so hard, that is, to be something they really and truly aren’t. Writes Rachel:

The Argents, who are our main instructors in the proprieties of London life, say that it would be very vulgar in me to go to look at her, which I am sorry for, as I wish above all things to see a personage so illustrious by birth, and renowned by misfortune. The Doctor and my mother, who are less scrupulous, and who, in consequence, somehow, by themselves, contrive to see, and get into places that are inaccessible to all gentility, have had a full view of her majesty.

And here, another great difference from the Brambles. These stodgy Calvinists do fall in love with vulgar London, and return to Garnock, amid much celebration, in finery. All the more reason to love Matthew Bramble and his retreat to the country with its tides of nectarious milk and cream. On the other hand, none the less reason to love John Galt.

2 comments to The Pringles and the Brambles

  • I think you’re getting at why I don’t find The Ayrshire Legatees to be quite first-rank. Humphrey Clinker has more complex characters, or at least one, and the patterning is more complicated (the crossover with Don Quixote, for example.

    The Galt novel is a dazzling lark, but Smollett’s novel is richer.

    You’re also reminding me how funny Galt’s lark really is. Shouldn’t all of the gags be outdated and no longer funny? How did he do that?

  • nicole

    Yes, for sure, in that sense it doesn’t compare. It really is just a lark, by contrast: the Pringles go to London for a singular purpose, they do not make such a circuit, as you allude, and there is no ode to the Scottish countryside mixed in. They do do a lot of what Smollett’s crew does, all in miniature, but they don’t do all of it by a long shot.

    You’re right, though. You’d think, with a summary like that, it would make the characters but “pale shadows” of what we find in Smollett, and while they’re not as good, they’re not pale shadows either.

    And everything is still funny, though I wonder how universal it would still be. I feel like you need to know more than average about the kirk, about Calvinism, that sort of thing, to get a lot of what’s going on in both Galt novels I read. I mean you can’t just expect these people to be “conservative” in a typical way…it’s different. Also, the stuff about George IV and his wife. I don’t think you need to know the history to appreciate the humor in the way the Pringles act like fools, but certainly some of it gets a bit technical and I think a lot of contemporary readers would think it was a bit confusing.