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 pot-herbs, my own garden yields in plenty and perfection; the produce of the natural soil, prepared by moderate cultivation. The same soil affords all the different fruits which England may call her own, so that my desert is every day fresh-gathered from the tree; my dairy flows with nectarious tides of milk and cream, from whence we derive abundance of excellent butter, curds, and cheese; and the refuse fattens my pigs, that are destined for hams and bacon….
Mmm, nectarious tides of milk and cream…and the cultivation is moderate and, dare I say, sustainable! And what of the situation in London? Well, the drinking situation is abominable—“If I would drink water, I must quaff the maukish contents of an open acqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement,” of which pollution “Human excrement is the least offensive part”—and the alcoholic beverages are shamefully adulterated. And the food!
The bread I eat in London, is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste, and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholsome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn: thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants, to a most absurd gratification of a mis-judging eye; and the miller, or the baker, is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession.—The same monstrous depravity appears in their veal, which is bleached by repeated bleedings, and other villanous arts, till there is not a drop of juice left in the body, and the poor animal is paralytic before it dies; so void of all taste, nourishment, and savour, that a man might dine as comfortably on a white fricasee of kid-skin gloves, or chip hats from Leghorn.
As they have discharged the natural colour from their bread, their butchers-meat, and poultry, their cutlets, ragouts, fricassees, and sauces of all kinds; so they insist upon having the complexion of their pot-herbs mended, even at the hazard of their lives. Perhaps, you will hardly believe they can be so mad as to boil their greens with brass half-pence, in order to improve their colour; and yet nothing is more true….—As for the pork, it is an abominable carnivorous animal, fed with horse-flesh and distillers grains; and the poultry is all rotten, in consequence of a fever, occasioned by the infamous practice of sewing up the gut, that they may be the sooner fattened in coops, in consequence of this cruel retention.
Of the fish, I need say nothing in this hot weather, but that it comes sixty, seventy, fourscore, and a hundred miles by land-carriage….
Oh, no, you need say nothing more on that count. I especially like that Londoners are knowingly absurd, rather than simply defrauded—what could be more like the complaints of the contemporary food activist? Bramble does, however, part ways with (many of) them in his concluding remarks, the best part:
Now, all these enormities might be remedied with a very little attention to the article of police, or civil regulation; but the wise patriots of London have taken it into their heads, that all regulation is inconsistent with liberty; and that every man ought to live in his own way, without restraint—Nay, as there is not sense enough left among them, to be discomposed by the nuisances I have mentioned, they may, for aught I care, wallow in the mire of their own pollution.
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 the self-analysis in Richardson? These claims about Richardson’s novels were what I had been generally led to believe, before starting this project, that I should expect from epistolary fiction. The idea that the letter allows the author to “externalize inner emotions” is something I ran into…I don’t know where, but that’s the impression I had of at least one notion of the “point” of the epistolary form. And I may have been unfortunately blinded by my dislike of Pamela, but I really did not see this happening there much.
Yes, Pamela thinks about herself and her situation a lot. She spends a lot of time “talk[ing] about [her] vartue,” agonizing over the awful way she’s been treated, and wishing she could go home to her poor but honest parents. But is this self-analysis? Is there any self-discovery? The little tiny bit of self-discovery there is, where Pamela realizes that after all she’s in love with Mr B., is minimized by her for obvious reasons—because it’s absurd and embarrassing. And I just can’t think of any more self-discovery than that. Pamela isn’t on some kind of spiritual journey. Is she?
Now, admittedly, Iser talks more about Clarissa in this essay than about Pamela, and my understanding is that Clarissa and Charles Grandison are better-developed than Richardson’s first novel. Maybe they really do show the self-analysis that’s claimed; I hope so. But Pamela is not excluded from those claims here, and I just didn’t see it. In fact, it was something I had expected to be able to write about after reading Pamela, since I’d expected it to be a major feature, but I didn’t mention it because it didn’t seem to be there.
I guess it’s months now since I finished Pamela and maybe my prejudice combined with the elapsed time is making me forget; that’s why this post is really a question. Did I miss it?
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 absurdness brings another perspective. You put together each episode from multiple angles.
Gassman finds the letters of Jeremy Melford, Bramble’s nephew, different:
It is not so true in the case of the fifth letter-writer, Jeremy Melford, who remains considerably less individualized, keeping free of the situations that embarrass and distress the others. He is tolerant and amused, but seldom carried away into excess of pleasure or displeasure, excitement or disgust, as are his fellow-writers. He is, in brief, a good reporter, narrating events without the embroidery of personal animus or affectation, describing scenes with affable objectivity, and, in direct contrast with the others, keeping his own personality and opinions fairly well in the background.
At first I was inclined to disagree with this—Jeremy does have a personality, and it comes out especially when the storyline of his sister’s love affair comes up. He can be impetuous and surprisingly hot-tempered, and in his letters to an Oxford school chum his individuality also comes through when talking about their college escapades. Gassman also says Jeremy does the least to propel the narrative, which seemed wrong to me. But when I thought about some examples, I decided this is really true.
That’s partly because propelling the narrative isn’t that important—this is a highly episodic novel. The excitement of the episodes is often told by other characters, or told by Jeremy in their voices, and it’s the characters that are foremost in these. And Jeremy provides the reporting that will crystallize each episode and therefore the characters of its participants. One of my favorite examples is in an early letter from Jeremy to his friend Phillips, written soon after the party’s arrival in Bath. They move into their accommodations and a ridiculous series of noisy and troublesome events disturbs them, after which:
My sister Liddy was frighted into a fit, from which she was no sooner recovered, than Mrs. Tabitha began a lecture upon patience; which her brother interrupted with a most significant grin, exclaiming, “True, sister, God increase my patience and your discretion. I wonder (added he) what sort of sonata we are to expect from this overture, in which the devil, that presides over horrid sounds, hath given us such variations of discord—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 over-head, and the bursting, belching, and brattling of the French-horns in the passage (not to mention the harmonious peal that still thunders from the Abbey steeple) succeeding one another without interruption, like the different parts of the same concert, have given me such an idea of what a poor invalid has to expect in this temple, dedicated to Silence and Repose, that I shall certainly shift my quarters to-morrow, and endeavour to effectuate my retreat before Sir Ulic opens the ball with my lady Mc Manus; a conjunction that bodes me no good.” This intimation was by no means agreeable to Mrs. Tabitha, whose ears were not quite so delicate as those of her brother—She said it would be great folly to move from such agreeable lodgings, the moment they were comfortably settled. She wondered he should be such an enemy to musick and mirth. She heard no noise but of his own making: it was impossible to manage a family in dumb-shew.
For all of Bramble’s irascible nature, before this passage we have got the truth out of Jeremy himself: they really were hit by some outrageous people making absurd disturbances in and around the house. Tabitha is being deliberately stupid because of her all-encompassing desire to find a husband, and Bramble, while he may be more irritable than average, is not wrong.
The other day I was extolling the virtues of annotated editions, and I do love them, but here I have to digress and point out that sometimes they can be frustrating. One insight of Gassman’s essay is one I had myself before reading it, but now I can’t claim it so much as my own, what with him having put it into better words already and supporting it very well. So the answer to yesterday’s question will come from him:
To any reader of the novel it soon becomes obvious that Matthew Bramble has assumed for himself the role of moralist and social critic among the travelers, but it is perhaps not so immediately obvious how seriously Smollett intended his readers to respond to Bramble’s criticism of English society. It is at least possible for the reader to consider Bramble’s querulous denunciations as merely another characterizing device, emphasizing again his peevish and eccentric disposition. But even assuming that the reader is more convinced by the humors of Bramble’s character than by the soundness of his moral judgments, and that the reader concludes his pronouncements to be mere eccentricities to be smiled at rather than pondered over, there is another source of didactic effect that acts as a corroboration of Bramble’s pronouncements. This source is Jery’s objective reporting of events and situations which carry with them an implicit moral or comment on society.
That is to say, Bramble is forever complaining, and it’s easy to assume he’s always just being a gouty middle-aged man. But it often turns out, from the pen of our objective reporter, that he’s right. One of the best examples is then cited in the essay. In Bath, as everywhere else, Bramble complains of the mixing of the classes, and how it can only lead to the lowering of the upper classes. Jeremy gets a little individualized here by claiming it should have the opposite effect, and that the lower classes will be raised up by contact with better society. An experiment is conducted, and Bramble is vindicated—so much so that “he hung his head in manifest chagrin, and seemed to repine at the triumph of his judgment” because he was more right than he had even imagined about the bad conduct of even “good” people.
The general situation is repeated several times with the same outcome, and is magnified by the fact that before this trip, Jeremy doesn’t actually know his uncle. So he’s learning about Bramble’s personality for the first time as we go, just as we are, and explaining it to Phillips. Another reason to find Jeremy’s reporting generally accurate: he has the same idea of Matthew as we do. He thinks his prickliness is funny, is glad it isn’t directed at him, and also sees the good, generous side of his uncle.
Gassman notes that without using the epistolary form, the whole thing would have had significantly less effect. Using a single reporter could have given you the excellent personality of Matthew Bramble, but without enough context to know what it means. This is why I think this is the best use so far of the form: it’s really doing something. A question related to that tomorrow. And then, on Thursday, a curiosity. After that it will be the end of Humphry Clinker*, even though I want to write about practically every episode in the whole thing. There’s just an embarrassment of riches.
*Again without really talking about that pesky title character! There’s too much to say there, and he wasn’t my main interest for now at least.
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.)
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 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.
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.