“When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude.” —Theodore Dalrymple
In Humphry Clinker, a novel written using the epistolary method, the case is put that the situation of the underclass cannot be entirely the fault of society.
Firstly let me explain what the ‘epistolary method’ is. It is a style of novel writing in the form of correspondence, or letters. It is very different from other methods as it shows a more ordinary view of the world, through the eyes of a ‘real’ person. Smollett was not the first to use this method and many followed him. Other notable authors who used this method include Richardson, Fielding and even Austen.
The ‘first person’ is an interesting form and is often used when writing a semi-autobiographical. Smollett’s earlier work Roderick Random is semi-autobiographical, however Humphry Clinker is not. Rather, it is a reflection of Smollett’s views on the society of the day told in an entertaining manner.
The ‘first person’ method can be limiting because the central character must be where the action is happening or have heard about it. Smollett gets around this problem by using multiple first persons. In this respect he was a pioneer of the epistolary method. There is a great contrast in style and subject of the various letters. Matthew Bramble, the country squire writes eloquently and at length as befits someone of his social standing . Tabitha Bramble, Matthew’s sister, however writes in a lyrical, if obscure style full of dreadful spelling mistakes. These mistakes serve to illustrate her lack of academic education but also provide light relief. For example, in a letter to Mrs Gwyllim dated June 14 (pp 189-190), she writes, “I can’t help thinking it very strange, that I never had an answer to the letter I wrote you…concerning the sour bear, the gander, and the maids eating butter…I wrote to doctor Lews for the same porpuss…I shall never favour him with another, though he beshits me on bended knees.” The language is robust but in general all the women are undereducated in this book.
The ‘first person’ is a narrative style, and while in Humphry Clinker there is more than one writer, Matthew Bramble emerges as our narrator while the other characters serve to fill out details, give different perspectives and tell stories of their own. They also illustrate class divides. Besides Tabitha they are Lydia, Matthew’s niece and Jery, Lydia’s brother and a student at Oxford. They are the wards of Bramble who is apparently reluctant about this situation. Winifred Jenkins is a lady’s-maid. The English in her letters is of an even lower standard than that in Tabitha’s. Here the class divide is really emphasised. The lack of education is clear as in her letter of May 15 (pp 101-102), “We are all upon the ving – Hey for London, girl! – Fecks! we have been long enough here; for we’re all turned tipsy turvy…”
One important aspect of the epistolary method is that it allows you to show yourself in your writing. You can say anything you want to by making a character say it in your novel. Thus opinions and ideas that would not be readily acceptable at the time of writing can be written without fear of reprisals. In this respect the Bramble character can be seen as an medium for expressing Smollett’s own views. In the text his observations are intended to illuminate ageing (Bramble himself), human suffering, filth, compassion and to illustrate Smollett’s own awareness of medical controversy and theory etc. However Bramble often contradicts himself but this has not stopped certain biographers looking to Humphry Clinker in attempting to chronicle the latter part of Smollett’s life.
Matthew Bramble’s views in particular portray the class separation idea. While staying in London he says of the rural working class (pp 118-119), “plough-boys, cow herds, and lower hinds are debauched and seduced by the appearance and discourse of those coxcombs in livery…They desert their dirt and drudgery, and swarm up to London, in the hopes of getting into service, where they can live luxuriously and wear fine clothes, without being obliged to work; for idleness is natural to man — Great numbers of these…become thieves and sharpers; and London…affords them lurking places as well as prey.”
Bramble is really saying that while London attracts these country men it is not the capital’s, or indeed society’s fault that they become thieves and brigands. He says that they were bound to because they came to London seeking to escape work in the first place. This idea reoccurs throughout the book.
Another idea that Smollett conveys through Bramble is that of the decadence of urban life. Even early on in his stay in Bath he writes, “What sort of monster Bath will become in a few years…may be easily conceived: but the want of beauty of these new mansions; they are built so slight, with the soft crumbling stone found in this neighbourhood, that I shall never sleep quietly in one of them, when it blowed (as the sailors say) a cap-full of wind; and, I am persuaded, that my hind, Roger Williams, or any man of equal strength, would be able to push his foot through the strongest part of their walls, without any great exertion of his muscles.”
When the party moves to fairer fields the sense of the serene is there, however, unlike Rousseau, Smollett does not value the wilderness for its own sake alone. Indeed, Smollett’s idea of nature is of properly maintained farms, of the successful exploitation of nature e.g. breeding cattle etc.
This idea of the great divide between the rural and urban becomes clear when the travellers leave the city for Scotland. Here there is evidence of the Romantic movement but Smollett is more down to earth. He presents a truer picture than that of the Romantic idealism of Rousseau. Bramble congratulates the Scots on gaining affluence (presumably in a manner described in Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality). However, Smollett does not consider the American Indian to be a noble savage. His view is portrayed in Jery’s letter of July 13 (pp 226-237). We join the story as Lismahago and ensign Murphy have been captured by Indians; “The intention of these Indians was to give one of them as an adopted son to a venerable sachem, who had lost his own in the course of the war, and to sacrifice the other according to the custom of the country.” He goes on to detail the tortures an humiliation that the pair were put through until Murphy finally dies singing the ‘Drimmendoo’. Perhaps it was symptomatic of the time that native Americans were idealised in England and Europe and that there was such a fascination with these ‘savage’ Indians.
Lismahago, a retired military officer, is essentially a character of fun, a generalisation of ‘Scots’ to Smollett. He presents himself very brusquely, almost in a manner befitting a modern day Scottish nationalist (p 316), “True (said he with a sarcastic grin), in debates of national competition, the sixteen peers and forty-five commoners of Scotland, must make a formidable figure in the scale, against the whole English legislature.”
In reference to the use of the epistolary method to present the truth it is fair to say that all the ‘pens’ of the letters firmly believe what they write. Indeed much of the content is purely factual. The party basically goes on a journey across the country picking up a servant called Humphry Clinker on the way (though not until p 113) and then relate their experiences to various other characters. They travel from Gloucester through Bristol, Bath, London, York, Scarborough, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow etc. on a ‘journey of discovery’. The underlying message is that the further north you go, or the further you get out of the urban wasteland the healthier you will become and the more pleasant will be your surroundings.
What is ironic is the discovered truths in the book, Humphry Clinker’s true origin of birth, and Wilson’s for that matter. The reactions to these two are completely changed. Jery suddenly finds Wilson very agreeable and Humphry is also held in high regard by the party where previously he was scorned. Indeed the change in Jery’s attitude when compared with his early letters is marked.
A further device used to give the epistles validity is the self reference (where Smollett complains bitterly how hard it is to write novels — p 28 “Writing is all a lottery…” He also refers to other authors of books on travels ad again he includes himself (p 29). This gives extra credibility to a story that attempts to be true to life.
Then, towards the end of the book Smollett changes tack. Baynard’s estate is rescued from insolvency. As Lydia writes in her letter of October 14 it is revealed that Humphry Clinker is actually the bastard son of squire Bramble. The various romances are brought to a conclusion as Lydia finds out that Wilson is in fact a gentleman. Something about the three romances reminds me of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There are two final twists however. Winifred marries Humphry but as he is the squire’s son she is effectively moving out of her class and scaling the social ladder. The other is in the fabric of the epistles themselves. While Jery sees writing as a worthwhile pursuit, Bramble is fearful of the “vulgarisation of the upper [class]” and (p 394) resolves to give up writing letters.
In conclusion it seems prudent to ask what Smollett is attempting to achieve. He appears to be looking to better things [than the metropolis he foresees]. He wants to give ordinary people a share of the land. The idea of property and independence is clear when he refers to the influence of the Scottish Chiefs over their clansmen (pp 293—). Smollett is also showing his own anxieties about mass dissent. Indeed he goes to lengths to demonstrate the difference between social and economic conditions of the rank and file, and the privileged in society.
He is also writing about writing. He humorously refers to the poor authors (p 156) who have been served with writs and may only venture out on Sundays. This illustrates the fact that writing for money in eighteenth century could be a very hazardous business. Smollett also tries to portray sense of honour and morality in his characters. Indeed the strength of these epistles is such that the only deviance from this method found in the book is the poem (p 287) and this serves mainly to illustrate the scenery in a way that simply cannot be done through a simple letter alone.