20 January 2009

Book Review: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker When Squire Bramble leaves Wales to take his family on a tour through England and Scotland, the result is a comical series of misadventures. His niece Liddy is being pursued by a most unsuitable young man, his spinster sister Tabitha sets out to throw herself at every halfway eligible bachelor she sees, and his nephew Jery watches and is greatly amused by it all. Before they even reach London there is an addition to their party: a shabby servant named Humphry Clinker who quickly becomes devoted to them - particularly Tabitha’s maid.

Between the family party themselves, the people they meet along the way, and recollections of events past, their journey is filled with entertaining incidents, all faithfully related by the travellers in their letters to friends back home.

At first the epistolary form of this novel was confusing, as it was hard to tell who was writing what. But after the first few dozen pages it was easy to identify the writer by the style and addressee - and it helped that most of the writing was done by only two people, Squire Bramble and his nephew. Luckily they were also the most entertaining and literate of the bunch. The literary malapropisms of Tabitha and her maid Win allowed plenty of jokes and double entendres, but made for painful reading.

The story is really a series of incidents, with the only continuing threads being Liddy’s star-crossed (or is it?) love for a mere strolling player, and her aunt’s attempts to lure someone, anyone, into matrimony. In a way it was reminiscent of a Cranford on the road - there’s not much that you could call a plot, but things do happen, and the book works wonderfully. At least, until the end, where things get wrapped up a little too neatly, and with too much help from coincidence. But the vivid picture it provided of eighteenth-century life was well worth the raised eyebrows.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776