Friday, October 03, 2014

Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)

A wealthy family travels around England and Scotland, and various members thereof write letters to different off-screen non-characters.  These are: Matthew Bramble, the irritable but kind-hearted family patriarch; his grating, unhappily-single sister Tabitha; his quietly amused nephew Jery; his niece Liddy; and Tabitha's maid, Win[ifred] (and the fact that I add no descriptors to those last two may not be by random chance)--although the great majority of the novel, along with whatever narrative momentum it has, is found in the men's letters.

An odd book I found this, neither fish nor fowl.  What is it about?  Good question.  The narrative conflicts, such as they are, revolve around Liddy's having fallen in love with an itinerant vagabond of whom the family disapproves for social class reasons; the question of whether Tabitha, the maiden aunt, will bag herself a man; and somewhat vague questions regarding what the deal is with the titular Humphry Clinker, a poor servant whom the family takes on (and who is far less important to the story than the title would make you think).  Would it amaze you to learn that certain lowborn people may not be lowborn after all?  But don't worry--only good guys.  You never see poor people who are complete fucking assholes suddenly turning out to be the heirs of vast estates, do you?  

However, these plotlines are only very intermittently touched on throughout the novel, until the last fifty pages or so, when Smollett apparently decides, okay, time to wrap things up.  Most it is taken up with a mixture of allegedly-humorous vignettes and character portraits; satirical broadsides at rather easy targets (failed writers, opportunistic politicians, &c), and straightforward, somewhat tedious descriptions of various towns and their governments and customs.  They definitely do not write 'em like this anymore.

Did I like it?  Well…not really.  Certainly not as much as I'd have hoped.  I found it vaguely amusing in parts, but Smollett's satire struck me as pretty toothless and somewhat right-wing (okay, so those words are anachronistic when applied to a man who died in 1771--Toryish, let's say): there's a general belief that members of the lower orders should know their places (though in fairness he does allow Humphry to marry the servant he'd been involved with before his provenance was revealed, and if you think that's a spoiler, maybe you should try reading a novel sometime), and Smollett is very dubious about freedom of the press.  Also, there's one cringe-inducing part regarding a character's exploits among the American Indians.  He's not too good with women, either; Win's letters are just the fucking WORST, the "joke" being that she cannot spell, thus leading to quite some tedious confusion as you try to work out the quite eccentric manglings of common eighteenth-century words.  Tabitha also misspells words, to a lesser extent, for no obvious reason, but that's really the least of our worries here, as the main gist of her story is lol look how pathetic and unfuckable she is.  It's sorta gross.

I don't know; I have to admit that, in spite of everything, I have more affection for it than it probably deserves.  Who knows why?  But that still isn't that much!  I am told that this, his last novel, is generally regarded as his best, which makes me think I've probably read enough Smollett for one lifetime.


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