The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Paperback Book
5 out of 5 (1 rating)


William Thackeray called it "the most laughable story that has ever been written since the goodly art of novel-writing began." As a group of travellers visit places in England and Scotland, they provide through satire and wit a vivid and detailed picture of the contemporary social and political scene.

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 400 pages, 1 map
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
  • ISBN: 9780199538980

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This is an epistolary novel, that is to say it is entirely in the form of letters written by the characters to their friends and acquaintances. It was published in 1771. It is also a travelogue, a satire of social behavior, a running commentary on the politics and literature of the time, and a pitch for tourism in Scotland.I am always put off by epistolary novels, even though the only one I had read before this was Dorothy Sayers's The Documents in the Case, a brilliant tour de force told all in letters that I enjoyed hugely. Finally overcoming my aversion to the form, I read Humphry Clinker, and found it equally satisfactory. The letters in this case are written by the members of a family touring party during an expedition around eighteenth-century Britain. They start from their estate in Wales, four of them along with various servants, and acquire companions from time to time as they go along. They visit Bath and Bristol, London, various spas in northern England, Edinburgh, the Inner Hebrides, and thence back to Wales. The journey provides occasion for numerous picaresque adventures and matchmaking both humorous and sentimental. The great bulk of the letters are written by the leading character, Squire Matthew Bramble, and his nephew and ward, Jery Melford, just down from Oxford. Bramble, an irascible curmudgeon and hypochondriac whose kindness belies his grumpiness, corresponds with his friend and physician in Wales; Melford, with an Oxford friend. Both are superb raconteurs, who carry the story along swimmingly in their lengthy epistles, with occasional help, mainly in a burlesque style, from the others. So the story rarely drags, and the different viewpoints provide some irony and humor. Like any picaresque novel, Humphry Clinker is strong on incident, weak on plot. It is one event after another, like a television series, with the marital intrigues providing whatever overall structure there is. The episodes provide the journalist Smollett with ample opportunities for satire and comment on the social and literary foibles of his time. The initial sequence in Bath and Bristol was a little slow with its scathing view of the valetudinarian tourism that was a feature of the place and time. Also the segment in London was filled with political comment at a level of detail of interest only to historians. Some judicious skipping would have been in order, but I plowed through. Once the party got out of London and back on the road, it was back to the picaresque and a window on another world. Smollett was a Scot, and the lengthy visit to Scotland is the brightest segment of the story, with vivid appreciation for Scottish scenery and society, though not for the stench of sewerless Edinburgh. So there you have it, a long, leisurely, good-humored, cozy read that I found very rewarding. I read the Oxford World Classics edition, which has an unmemorable introduction and excellent explanatory notes. (As always, leave the intro till after you've read the novel - too many spoilers. Better yet, skip the intro.) Recommended for anyone who likes long novels, light comedy, happy endings all round, and the eloquence of eighteenth-century conversation.

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