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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth Taking the Time to Read Slowly, September 3, 2003
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This review is from: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (English Library) (Paperback)
Tobias Smollett's 1771 novel, "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker," took me almost two months to read. The novel, a "sort of novel," as Dr. Johnson once said, I think of his own "Rasselas," doesn't really have a plot, which contributes to the pacing, which is slow, but highly enjoyable. From the beginning of April through the end of November, basically from the season of planting through the season of reaping, Squire Bramble, an irascible hypochondriac of a Welshman, and his family engage upon a series of travels which lead them from Wales through England to Scotland and back again.
An epistolary novel, "Humphry Clinker" is no stranger in format to the eighteenth century - however, odd to me was the fact that none of the writers - Squire Bramble, his sister Tabitha, their nephew and niece Jery and Lydia Melford, and Tabitha's waiting woman Winifred - ever receives a response. The letters of the Bramble expedition encompass a wide range of topics, along a range of experience and sentiment, of interaction, which itself is a veritable buffet of later eighteenth century customs, coffeehouse culture, civil engineering, agriculture, speech, fashion, science, moral philosophy, art, and manners spanning Wales, England, and Scotland, both in countryside and cityscape.
As such, the novel has a number of preoccupations - the social and political relations between different countries which comprised the then-British Empire - English-Scottish relations in particular are a focus, some 71 years after the Act of Union, and were pretty fascinating to me. There are a number of references to America, and to the Native Americans, which the Scot Cadwallader Colden had written of only a few years before in his "History of the Five Indian Nations." England's own internal politics are reflected on throughout the novel. The debate over luxury, a hot eighteenth century topic, is constantly in the background of the Bramble family's letters.
The letters of Squire Bramble to his doctor-friend Lewis and Jery Melford's to his college friend Wat Phillips comprise the bulk of the novel, and as with so many epistolary novels, their letters often tell us as much about their circumstances and exploits as they do about the writers themselves. These are both heroes of sensibility, a young and an old whose ages frequently provide interesting takes on the same events. Such can be said about the other writers as well - From the Squire to Jery to Tabitha to Lydia to Winifred - we are given a wealth of perspective and language - valuable lenses all to form our own opinions of the events, such as they are, that transpire in their travels. Their various perspectives on two of the novel's minor characters, the eponymous Humphry Clinker and the combative disputant Scot Obadiah Lismahago (the most cosmopolitan figure among the recurring characters), confer substance, interest, and warmth upon characters who do not themselves write letters.
As valuable and entertaining a travelogue as Voltaire's "Letters Upon England," or Smollett-rival Laurence Sterne's "Sentimental Journey through France and Italy," and as simultaneously celebratory and critical of sentimentality as Henry Mackenzie's "The Man of Feeling," "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker" was my first experience with Tobias Smollett, and certainly shall not be my last. Empahses on religion and reason, on intellect and emotion, on the state of marriage, on the Horatian preoccupation with how to live the good life, interest in literature and culture, and an almost universal eye for satire and critique make "Humphry Clinker" well worth taking the time to read slowly. It is a novel which I found both entertaining and edifying. Surely, a "great original."
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