Since making his name and fortune with Roderick Random, Tobias Smollett has been a generous benefactor to the brethren of the quill, among whom I count myself, however modestly. His largesse, which consists in beef dinners at his Chelsea town-house, tends to attract the sort of Grub that spends the rest of the week avoiding creditors and living on sheep’s trotters up three pair of stairs backward in Butcher-row. These knavish understrappers eat Smollett’s pudding, drink his punch, traduce him in the papers, and steal his poney. They are bad men, as well as being bad writers; indeed I have known a number of them professionally; yet they are lively company, and Smollett exercises tolerance upon them, only resorting to his cane in extremis.
This new offering, Humphry Clinker, a comedic-epistolic picaresque in three volumes, puts the seal on Smollett’s reputation and ought to keep his pot-companions in neck-beef for a gross more Sundays. It may be read in part as a manifesto of old Roman virtue, an impassioned cry of O tempora! O mores! – yet far from being backwardly gloomy, it stands first as a hymn to the Union, and the future of this, our new nation, Great-Britain.
Our principal correspondents are Matthew Bramble, a Monmouthshire squire, and his ward and nephew Jery, who, accompanied by family and attendants, make an eight-month long circuit of the British island, recording their impressions along the way. Although these gentlemen are hewn from the same kind of wood, one represents the solid trunk of tradition, the other the searching, budding branches of progress.
Bramble confesses to misanthropy, but in fact is just averse to crowds. He pours forth rhapsodies of disgust at those concentrations of humanity we call cities, in which each is obliged to rub up against the other, and breathe in his filth. Thus follow passages on stercoraceous effluvia, imposthumated lungs, scrophulous ulcers, and dreck, dirt and dandriff that may disturb delicate dispositions. Bramble is no man for the mob then, nor for the collapse of station in towns such as the Bath, where lords and esquires are obliged to contend for elbow-space with hob-nails and hoydens. But although he abhors men in the lump, Bramble, like Swift, loves them in the particular. Friendship is his sovereign cordial, generosity his leading spirit, and just as you would do well not to provoke his choler, him being ready to leap to the cudgels, or the pistols, at the first slight or knavery, you would be fortunate to count him among your friends.
He is moreover perfectly outgoing and curious, and at every stage of his journey makes keen observations on the amenities and conveniences, the food, the water and the air, the governing bodies and the institutions. His letters constitute a factual survey of the nation, and will serve foreign visitors and future historians handsomely.
Young Jery is of an equally inquisitive nature, his field of scholarship being principally characters, or originals as he terms them, and he faces no dearth of material for his studies, being surrounded by as many unlikely specimens as would fill out a Hogarth engraving, his own family not least among them. Jery is brighter in outlook than his uncle, seeing urbanisation as progress rather than perversion, and revelling in the social fluidity that enables him to drink with anyone he likes. He is the embodiment of Whiggish confidence, that the future will be better than the past, unlike his stout Tory uncle, who believes that change is generally synonymous with decay.
But not even Bramble can bemoan the marriage of South-Britain and North-Britain, of John Bull and his sister Moggy, and it is in Scotland that he truly seems to discover his country. He proclaims Edinburgh and Glasgow to be hotbeds of genius, recognising there a spirit of enterprise that will see us fair into the nineteenth century. Mean while he celebrates the Highlands for their Arcadian beauty, a mere twenty-five years after Culloden, when they would have represented nothing but primordial savagery to men of his stamp. But the Sawnies have given way to the Humes and the Smiths now, and it is in Scotland that Bramble finds the wholesome rusticity he craves, combined with the industry and learning he esteems as progress.
The eponymous Clinker is a servant, a handy half-wit, thrown in by Smollett for comic relief and as the hinge for a climactic plot device that was hackneyed when Fielding was a lad. The humour in the novel turns upon Clinker being weak in the head, and on the other servants, and the women-folk, being ill-lettered. Abusages and mis-spellings abound in their correspondences, eliciting groans rather than laughter from this reviewer; though Smollett may yet keep his public on the grin if they think it mirthful to refer to a quarter-penny as a ‘farting’, or to spell ‘country’ without the ‘o’.
Humphry Clinker is printed by W. Johnston in Ludgate-Street, and B. Collins in Salisbury, and costs somewhere ‘twixt a toom poke and a sack o’ siller.