I am always tickled when I find something in an old novel that mirrors an ultra-contemporary concern. Of course, most of the time it’s because the concern isn’t as ultra-contemporary as we tend to think, and the whole thing just reveals our ignorance about history. Which is all to the good. But I still wasn’t expecting Matthew Bramble to be an eighteenth-century locavore.
At the beginning of volume II of Humphry Clinker, Bramble gives Dr. Lewis one of his country mouse/city mouse spiels, in which he explains how awful London is compared to Wales. Not only is the country air cleaner and quieter and generally more pleasing, but the country food is also far superior:
I drink the virgin lymph, pure and crystalline as it gushes from the rock, or the sparkling beveridge, home-brewed from malt of my own making; or I indulge with cyder, which my own orchard affords; or with claret of the best growth, imported for my own use, by a correspondent on whose integrity I can depend; my bread is sweet and nourishing, made from my own wheat, ground in my own mill, and baked in my own oven; my table is, in a great measure, furnished from my own ground; my five-year old mutton, fed on the fragrant herbage of the mountains, that might vie with venison in juice and flavour; my delicious veal, fattened with nothing but the mother’s milk, that fills the dish with gravy; my poultry from the barn-door, that never knew confinement, but when they were at roost; my rabbits panting from the warren; my game fresh from the moors; my trout and salmon struggling from the stream; oysters from their native banks; and herrings, with other sea-fish, I can eat in four hours after they are taken—My sallads, roots, and
Continue reading Matt. Bramble, food activist
Today’s post is a question I really can’t answer. Another essay in the Norton Critical Edition (1983) of Humphry Clinker is by Wolfgang Iser, “The Generic Control of the Aesthetic Response: An Examination of Smollett’s Humphry Clinker.” Iser examines the epistolary form of Humphry Clinker and compares it with that of Richardson’s novels, and finds them different. According to the essay, “[t]he letter-form offered itself as a means whereby Richardson could capture the introspection he sought to portray” in “deal[ing] with the spiritual life of the characters.” Iser claims that “[t]he letter-form facilitates this self-examination insofar as it externalizes inner emotions.” On the other hand:
If Humphry Clinker is considered against this background, only the form of observation that we find in the different correspondents can be equated with that developed by Richardson. The individual personality of the letter-writer is present in everything he records. However, in Smollett the observations are no longer concerned with self-analysis, but with the changing situations that occur during the journey through town and country. For Richardson, the letter-form was a means of self-revelation to be achieved through a variety of situations, and it was on this central theme of self-discovery that the events of the epistolary novel were hinged. For Smollett, this central theme loses its importance. Richardson attached importance to the individual situation of his heroines only insofar as it led them to self-analysis and all the consequences resulting from it, but Smollett takes the situation itself as a theme.
Now, I should say that this is not a negative thing for Iser; he is not knocking Humphry Clinker here, in fact he seems to be saying that it makes HC more complex because it can deal with more than just its characters’ inner moral life.
But my question is this: where is
Continue reading Analyze this
This method of writing to you from time to time, without any hopes of an answer, affords me, I own, some ease and satisfaction in the midst of my disquiet, as it in some degree lightens the burthen of affliction; but it is at best a very imperfect enjoyment of friendship, because it admits of no return of confidence and good counsel—I would give the whole world to have your company for a single day—I am heartily tired of this itinerant way of life—I am quite dizzy with a perpetual succession of objects….
That is from a letter written by Lydia, Matthew Bramble’s niece, to her best friend Miss Willis, toward the end of their trip, and very well sums up the way the whole book works. The novel is episodic—the “perpetual succession of objects”—and each member of the party unburdens himself to a confidant, speaking his mind about the family and the trip, but without hope of a response.
In the essay “The Economy of Humphry Clinker,” Byron Gassman says that “the most obvious feature of Smollett’s multiple point of view is the manner in which each letter-writer characterizes himself though his reaction to the sights and scenes encountered on the expedition. At the same time that the reader is being given typical data about the social customs of Bath or the mushrooming growth of London, he is being intimately introduced to the personality of the observer.” The effect is multiplied when different characters describe the same scene. Matthew Bramble’s impressions of the social life in Bath are “strained through” his own sensibility; he is disgusted by the fatuousness of the balls, but Lydia describes the same events as wonderful. Her softness and excitement about the world counteract his prickliness; Win Jenkins’s rustic malapropisms have their own effect; Tabitha’s
Continue reading “These follies, that move my uncle’s spleen, excite my laughter”
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
Continue reading “the most risible misanthrope I ever met with”
The 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
Continue reading Humphry Clinker is a riot of “originals”
From The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:
You must remember the account I once gave you of a curious dispute he had at Constantinople, with a couple of Turks, in defence of the Christian religion; a dispute from which he acquired the epithet of Demonstrator—The truth is, H— owns no religion but that of nature; but, on this occasion, he was stimulated to shew his parts, for the honour of his country….
From the notes to the Norton Critical Edition:
Colonel William Hewett (1693–1766) was a well-known traveler and eccentric. This is a delicate allusion to an indelicate story. Samuel Pegge in Anonymiana (2nd ed., London, 1818, p. 196) suppresses the story while essentially revealing it. Hewett’s argument with the Turks concerned the Paradise of Mahomet, which was said to provide faithful Muslim men with beautiful women called houris, and Hewett argued that Christians were better qualified to enjoy them than either Jews or Turks. Apparently he then demonstrated the superiority in the form of an uncircumcised penis.
Why I love annotated editions.