If you don't like 18th Century novels, or have got any conceivable reason to live, stop reading now. Nerds and Bookworms only past this point. Do not operate heavy machinery.
*Note* Humphrey Clinker is also known as Humphry Clinker, or The Expedition of Humphr(e)y Clinker. I have altered all appearances of "Humphry" in the following to "Humphrey" in accordance with the preexisting nodeshell.
Experience and the Misjudging Eye
Narrative Authority in Humphrey Clinker
In Tobias Smollett’s 1771 epistolary novel Humphrey Clinker, the lack of a distinct narrative voice raises a crucial issue for both the work and the reader. On their long tour of Britain from southern Wales, all the way to the highlands of Scotland and nearly back again, the Bramble family members record their opinions of the world and each other in letter form, documenting the development of their characters and subtly establishing Smollett’s narrative intention.
Each of five characters presents the events of the story through his or her own unique voice; a voice created by Smollett to function in a specific way. The deliberately underrepresented Lydia Melford is the touchstone of virtue in the legitimate Bramble family, a key to the understanding of truth throughout their travels. However, Smollett’s construction of the other characters through their letters causes the reader to overlook her importance, distracted by various elements intended to appear more valuable or credible to society. Smollett manipulates the reader into disregarding the wrong person for the right reasons, playing upon and encouraging the prejudices of the audience in order to construct a commentary on its values.
Characters of experience receive the greatest amount of attention in this novel. The elder, Matt Bramble, commands a given degree of respect from all those around him. Jeremy Melford, his nephew, rings in next. These well-traveled, opinionated, educated men have experience, hence narrative authority. Their letters make up the bulk of the novel, and typically go on at length, especially compared to the brief letters of Lydia, whom they regard as "the frail female, the poor creature in constant need of a man’s advice and protection" (Spector 72). The reader is inclined to agree. Smollett superficially makes the story theirs—characterologically misleading. The reader follows them through it, and like them, pays heed mainly to the endless details of baths, pubs, towns, local women, ailments, and doctors. The author trains the reader to disregard Lydia as her society disregards her, even though from the very beginning her character has all the virtue everyone comes to appreciate in the more ostentatious Humphrey Clinker. The recognition of that fact ends this novel, just as the intentional overshadowing of her begins it. This story, this journey, is Lydia’s. She shows the most profound development, the only character that truly changes in the reader’s estimation by the story’s close. Over the course of Smollett’s lengthy, verbose narrative, one often asks precisely why one has to read it. Lydia is the answer.
As in any meetings between people, first impressions count a great deal in forming and reinforcing those prejudices. Of the five main characters recording the events of this novel, the reader only gets untainted, first-hand impressions of four. Matthew Bramble, Tabitha, Winifred Jenkins, and Jeremy Melford each encounter the reader without previous mention in the letters that preceded their own (Matthew, of course, writes first). Three of them, however, make reference to Lydia before the reader gets to meet her. Bramble introduces her by mentioning "a ridiculous incident that happened yesterday to my niece Liddy," which puts him in such a state that he expects "to be laid up with another fit of the gout" (5). Winifred gets more specific, suggesting that "Miss Liddy had like to run away with a player-man" but stops in obedience to Tabitha’s orders that she not "speak a word of it to any Christian soul" (7). Jeremy, in his first letter (the last before Lydia’s) finally explains the matter of a young man with questionable intentions and unsuitable origins before offering the first real description of Lydia: "I found her a fine, tall girl, of seventeen, with an agreeable person; but remarkably simple, and quite ignorant of the world" (8). Every character, directly or otherwise, introduces Lydia’s character at the outset of the novel. She clearly has a place in the minds of everyone in her party, either mentioned directly, or in Tabitha’s case, deliberately omitted, from their letters of departure.
Ironically, the effect of these descriptions serves initially to reduce Lydia’s significance to the narrative structure of the entire novel. Bramble essentially calls her ridiculous, Tabitha refuses to mention her at all, and Jeremy gives much more occasion to his own involvement in her affair, citing "a foolish quarrel" he became involved with "on account of his sister" (8), whose name he never bothers to mention. Though, Robert Spector suggests in Smollett’s Women, "their journey is intended to safeguard her against" the "precarious situation" with Wilson (71), all of the other characters going write about it and her almost offhandedly. Smollett makes Lydia’s character the inspiration of the novel’s narrative line—her perceived "immaturity" and lack of experience provide the impetus for their taking her out of Wales—but simultaneously manipulates the reader into undervaluing her importance. One cannot help but approach Lydia with the bias created by her family members, and read her letters predisposed to discredit her as foolish, inexperienced, and strictly incidental to the progression of the story.
Lydia’s opening letters do nothing to deter these conclusions. The first of two presented in succession and composed four days after the family’s departure at first glance appears to contain little more than an apology and a weakly constructed defense of her behavior, both of which only serve to support Matthew and Jeremy’s opinions of her:
"I confess," she writes to Mrs. Jermyn, "I have given just cause of offence by my want of prudence and experience…but I was ashamed to mention it; and then he behaved so modest and respectful, and seemed so melancholy and timorous, that I could not find in my heart to do any thing that should make him miserable and desperate" (9).
Nearly two hundred and thirty years later, her description of Wilson would still cause many a father and older brother to raise an eyebrow in suspicion. Society has made Wilson a shady character by default, basing judgement entirely upon professional status and modus operandi. He is a stroller who seeks her company by stealth and subterfuge. Lydia’s continued faith in him only serves to make her appear precisely the "rather pathetic woman in need of…protection to defend her from her own weakness and the dangers of the great world" that Bramble and Jeremy consider her (Spector 71). The second letter, to Laetitia Willis, makes matters still worse. She writes and will receive correspondence "under cover," and does not think it possible to keep her promise to "break off all correspondence" with her enigmatic suitor. Moreover, she once again calls attention to her lack of "experience" (10), and labels her comments "simple," strongly reinforcing the prejudices that Jeremy originally created by using the same words, a deliberate but subtle construction on Smollett’s part.
The reader, presented with all this evidence, is hard pressed to put faith in the wisdom and sophistication of Lydia’s character, thus failing to appreciate the most astute, perceptive, and idealistic statements that actually foreshadow the novel’s fortuitous endings. "I am still persuaded," she says, "that Wilson is not what he appears to be: but time will discover" (9). Even more profound, though, are the closing sentiments of her letter to Letty: "Let us trust to time and the chapter of accidents; or rather that Providence which will not fail, sooner or later, to reward those that walk in the path of virtue" (10). The occasional overturned carriage, as the reader discovers, contributes a great deal to the propulsion of this story along its narrative, right up to its wedding-filled conclusion. Lydia knows, and tells the reader right at the start, how the story will move forward and end, ultimately proving "more perceptive about the truth of appearances" than her superiors (Spector 73). Unfortunately, the reader has been characterologically misled; prejudices have already been set in motion, and Lydia’s remarkably lucid sentiments are overwhelmed by a seemingly endless torrent of events, places, and people. As a narrative device, she is concealed by discredit. To discover Lydia and the course of her romance through Britain, one must navigate one’s way through the other characters’ discourses.
Of course, some discourses are easier to navigate than others. Tabitha Bramble, for example, comes across as a stellar example of a perfect imbecile—a hopelessly shallow would-be socialite twenty years out of fashion and thoroughly self-involved. That "Smollett…sets her to work as an important element in his social satire" (Spector 145) is clear from the beginning; the extremities of her disposition are a perpetual distraction that pull attention away from Lydia. Tabitha is the anti-Bramble, clearly untrustworthy, not to be emulated, a walking caricature of societal vice and hypocrisy. There are pages, entire letters, dedicated to describing her complaints, conceits, and general ridiculousness. Her own letters "show her extreme gullibility as well as a lack of any learning or delicacy of sentiment" (Costopoulos-Almon 203). Invariably, "account" reads "accunt," "purpose," "porpuss," and "comes," as "cums." The woman has sex on the brain to the extent that her desperate wish to lose her virtue adjusts her iconography. Yet when out of the boarding-school and on the family road-trip, this wretched, unmarriageable, unmanageable woman becomes Lydia’s guardian and supposed model. "What a pity it is," Lydia writes, "that a woman of her years and discretion, should place her affection upon such an ugly, ill-conditioned cur…" (55). Lydia endows Tabitha with the quality of discretion out of naivete; she presumes it in Tabitha because Tabitha is supposed to have it. However, As R.D.S. Jack writes, "she is quite capable of misleading herself when faced with honesty" (214). Quite naturally then, she completely misses Lydia’s virtue. As a narrative device, Tabitha functions most like a caricature, an extreme example of Lydia’s societal disregard and misinterpretation that should call attention to Lydia, but better manages to distract. The reader’s attention again is held from Lydia, and Smollett has again left the reader misled, focused on the wrong person.
Bramble and Jeremy both know better about Tabitha—they have benefited from years of experience. Experience, in Humphrey Clinker, is a weighty component of trust in a character. If one lacks experience, one lacks knowledge, and evidently, Bramble has the most of both. Lydia is entirely without it; indeed, according to Jeremy, lack of worldliness is responsible for the "situation" in which Wilson has placed her—she cannot be relied upon to act responsibly or intelligently. As a result, most of what the reader hears of Lydia comes from the man unnecessarily trying to protect her from herself. "Jeremy becomes, by virtue of his restraint, a reasonably reliable describer of the other members of the family" (Jacobsen 203). Smollett makes certain that the reader learns about Lydia primarily through such characters of experience by removing her voice from the narrative for large amounts of time; indeed, from June 10th to September 7th, nearly three months’ time (from last signature to next opening, exactly one-hundred pages in this edition, and thus nearly one-third of the novel), she writes no letters at all. Jeremy, on the other hand, writes no less than nine, records the dialogue of Lydia in none, mentions a faint, swoon or tears on her part in five, and does not mention her at all in at least two. The space is taken up by an almost journalistic approach to transcribing the actions of Matt Bramble, Tabitha, Lismahago, Winifred, and Humphrey Clinker. In short, everyone except Lydia. Even a potential Wilson appearance in Edinburgh (209) reaps only a few lines. He does not regard her as a complex character, and writes so much about everything else that the reader can hardly keep up with her story, the story discovered at the beginning to be the motivation for the tour. "Jery never does justice to Lydia’s stronger characteristics" (Spector 72). The trip through Britain is for Jeremy a continuation of his own education, the gathering of experiences that will ultimately put him in the same stead as his respected uncle. The reader looks to Jeremy for an accurate record of events and familial descriptions, and sees Lydia presented with little consequence by one of the central characters.
The other has a significantly greater connection to her as the novel progresses. Much of the criticism generated by Humphrey Clinker regards Matthew Bramble as the central character, the closest to Smollett’s own mind and hence the figure through which the book essentially develops. "An Oxford graduate, he writes in good plain style, letters which reveal a character of great sensibility and a good deal of sense" (Costopoulos-Almon 203). Another critic asserts that "Bramble is clearly defined…as a just and honourable gentleman" with "an acute awareness of the world around him" (Jacobsen 74). If the reader trusts Jeremy’s opinions of the characters, then he trusts Bramble’s opinions of society and the world. His letters make up the bulk of the novel, and he presents his opinions with strong reasoning based upon coherent observation and particular attention to detail. His hatred of the city, especially London, has roots in as unassuming a foodstuff as bread. "The bread I eat in London," he complains, "is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste, and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration, but they prefer it to wholesome bread because it is whiter." He extrapolates from this quotidian detail a moral judgement relevant to the multiple identity plots and Smollett’s overall social criticism. "Thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants, to a most absurd gratification of a mis-judging eye" (114). Bramble repeatedly does not appear to be easily deceived by appearance; therefore, the reader trusts his judgment as "ultimately sound," and gives his character’s letters precedence over those of every other. Every other character makes unfortunate decisions because of the misjudging eye, even Jeremy. When challenged by Jeremy on the point of maintaining and tolerating Aunt Tabitha, Matt Bramble responds, "a young fellow, when he first thrusts his snout into the world, is apt to be surprised at many things, which a man of experience knows to be ordinary and unavoidable" (58). Matthew Bramble has wisdom, wit, and a multitude of experience, which Smollett offers the reader in abundance to reinforce the trust of the reader as well as the other characters, all of which reveal him in their own letters as a man of virtue and good sense.
Consequently, his connection to and understanding of Lydia is somewhat greater than those of even her highly protective brother. It is no coincidence that the development of Lydia’s character toward similarity with her uncle’s lends her greater credibility and enables her to take a more active first-person role in the closing letters of the novel. The reader, who has followed Bramble through Britain, follows him in his regard for his niece, failing to fully appreciate her until the end, when she has become more like the figure of respect seen in her uncle. All along, however, the qualities that Bramble loved in Humphrey Clinker were not dissimilar from those he acknowledged in Lydia. Bramble’s second letter describes Lydia as "a poor good-natured simpleton" (11), to whom he certainly affords a great deal of affection, if not respect. "You cannot imagine what I have suffered, partly from the indiscretion of this poor child, but much more from the fear of losing her entirely" (13). Bramble never values anyone else except Humphrey Clinker so highly—though displeased by Humphrey’s preaching, he nonetheless cannot "help smiling at the poor fellow’s simplicity" (131), and promises to take care of him. Humphry and Lydia—both described, again and again, as poor and simple. Humphrey’s incarceration inspires in Bramble "those symptoms" (complaints of the stomach and bowels) that he also feels on Lydia’s behalf when circumstances place her under duress (146). Matt’s sympathies with both characters clearly fall upon nearly identical lines. Bramble, the character most trusted by the reader as the leader of the expedition and cornerstone of good sense, has an attachment to two figures of simplicity, honesty, and virtue.
The prejudices of the reader, however, due to Smollett’s narrative constructions, do not appreciate these qualities in Lydia until experience qualifies her by making her increasingly similar to her uncle. Smollett uses Tabitha to distract attention away from Lydia, makes Jeremy depict her a figure of weakness, has Winifred follow the model of Tabitha, and focuses Bramble’s attention (and consequently the reader’s) on Clinker. Instead of calling attention to Lydia as a worthwhile, significant character, her simplicity and inexperience serve in the reader’s mind to "bring forth…those characteristics of Matt that expose him as a good-natured man" (Spector 74). The reader has come to associate wisdom with experience, virtue with judgment. Lydia does not gain real credit until late in the novel, when she begins to pass judgment on those members in her party that deserve it. Dutton, Jeremy’s valet de chambre, she calls "a debauched fellow," and she finally comes to terms with her aunt’s hypocrisy. "I am afraid she has used even religion as a decoy." Winifred, her de facto confidante and the other impressionable young female figure in the novel, she labels "a good body in the main, but…weak in her nerves as well as in her understanding" (240), representing a divergence in her development as compared to Winifred’s. "Detailing the various ways in which Win and Tabby throw out their lines, Lydia, sounding remarkably like Matt, abjures their use of religion and false charms" (Spector 162). She becomes more like her uncle than her aunt; experience has made her wiser, according to the reader’s pre-established standards. She has also come around to her uncle’s view of city life, claiming that "nature never intended me for the busy world—I long for repose and solitude," and though she still considers herself "unexperienced," she knows she "has seen enough to give her a disgust to the generality of those that carry on—There is such malice, treachery, and dissimulation…as cannot fail to strike a virtuous mind with horror" (283). Lydia has conformed to the judgments of her wise, trustworthy uncle, yet she persists in her desire to exonerate Wilson.
Fortunately, or perhaps, Providentially, the discovery of Humphrey Clinker as Bramble’s son paves the way for the revelation of Wilson’s true background and Lydia’s vindication. An accident overturns the carriage, leading the family to the care of Mr. Dennison, who in turn remembers Bramble as Matthew Loyd, which then sparks Clinker to reveal his own true name and origin. Shortly thereafter, the young Wilson is revealed to be the young Dennison, and the identity plots are wrapped up quite neatly by time and Providence, just as Lydia hoped, in all her simplicity, they would be. No instance of experience, judgment, or prejudice leads to the happy endings of this novel, truth is revealed, at last, simply by "accident," and those that walk in the path of virtue—Lydia and Humphrey—are rewarded. The reader’s prejudices, however, formed by Smollett through the characters of experience, must be defeated by Clinker before Lydia can earn her prize, and she must become more like her experienced, opinionated uncle before she can earn credibility. Smollett uses Clinker, Bramble, Melford, Tabitha, and Winifred—all the characters that appear throughout their journey—to bring the reader the long way around to trusting simplicity, which Lydia had done all along. The map of the story, at its end, brings the reader with Lydia close to home, but not all the way back to where she started.
Costopoulos-Almon. "Smollett’s Central Characters: The Fictive Discoursing through the Fictile." Compendious Conversations. Ed. Kevin L. Cope. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang GmbH, 1992. 193-205.
Jack, R.D.S. "Appearance and Reality in Humphrey Clinker." Smollett. Ed. Alan Bold. London: Vision Press Limited, 1982. 209-227.
Jacobsen, Susan. "'The Tinsel of the Times': Smollett’s Argument against Conspicuous Consumption in Humphrey Clinker." Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Ed. David Blewett. 71-87.
Smollett, Tobias. Humphrey Clinker. Ed. James Thorson. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1983.
Spector, Robert Donald. Smollett’s Women. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
This has been a Node Your Homework, Nodeshell Rescue, and Everything Quest Entry Enterprise.