Recently since joining my library’s book club I’ve been pottering around the shelves picking up books at random and taking them home with me. This was one of those random books – I’ve been wanting to read more 18th Century classics and I hadn’t heard of Tobias Smollett before.
Smollett is a Scottish author who first trained as a doctor and worked as a ship’s surgeon before giving up that career to become an author. Where Henry Fielding’s books contain references to the law and justice, Smollett’s concerns within the story are often medical or relating to the outer human body.
It starts off very amusing and light hearted. Matthew Bramble is a grumpy fellow and where most people find enjoyment in life, he sees only the bad side. He is concerned about his health and inclined to be a hypochondriac. He is bad tempered and easily annoyed by most people around him. Yet despite this, he has a kind heart and extremely charitable to those in need.
I like grumpy characters with big hearts like Bramble. I’m a little grumpy myself so I can empathise.
Bramble keeps up a correspondence with his friend Dr Lewis and the subject is often his health. On the bath spas in Bristol and Bath, known for their medicinal waters he writes:“I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a felicate beveridge is quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat and the dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below.”
“I find that the old Roman baths of this quarter, were found covered by an old burying ground, belonging to the Abbey; through which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage; so that as we drink the decoction of the living bodies at the Pump-room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath – I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach!”
The Georgian/Regency periods of the 18th Century were much characterised by their excessive extravagance. Both Fielding and Smollett, and probably other authors of the time, criticise this excess within society.
Whereas Bramble does not enjoy Bristol or Bath in the slightest for these reasons, his nephew Jeremy Melford sees a much more positive side and perhaps due to being a young man of the time, enjoys what society has to offer. Often Jeremy’s letters to his Oxford friend Watkin Phillips completely contradict his Uncle. Jeremy’s letters are also so much more about the people he has met, whereas Bramble tends to complain about the service of an Inn, the quality of the food – state of the roads etc.
Less often are the letters from Lydia, Tabitha and Winfred, Tabitha’s maid. Tabitha and Winfred cannot spell and are quite silly women which makes their letters quite funny to read. They also provide a welcome break from Bramble and Jeremy’s often long winded letters.
The title character Humphry Clinker only features as a secondary character, but his importance to the plot only comes out towards the end.
The letters cover about a year in time as they travel from place to place up into Scotland and back down again. It is quite interesting seeing places that I’ve been to or know of as they were in the 18th Century. It’s such a different time all together that it is quite enjoyable to read for it’s historical context. Even the spelling and the way of writing is completely different from what you’d find in a Victorian novel.
However, towards the end the story began to get very repetitive and boring, so much so I found myself speed reading the last 100 pages or so. It started to get that way in Scotland, where Smollett became a little carried away with patriotic fervour. Matthew Bramble was very impressed with almost every aspect of Scotland, from its people to it’s architecture and agriculture.
The history between Scotland and England is fairly interesting to read about from the mouth of a Scottish author, even though I do not know enough of this history myself. However it just tended to go on and on and on a bit too much.
According to the Introduction – many young Scots like Smollett who came to England wanted to prove themselves as Britons. There were more opportunities over a broader scale – in the armed forces and medicine. They became embarrassed over their accent – in Bramble’s opinion the Scottish would do better to ditch their accent and speak more like the southern English. Smollett hated “Scotticisms” but hated “Scottophobia” held by many English people.
The ending felt incredibly coincidental and contrived. Overall I would say this book disappointed me and I was not able to enjoy it all together. I really hate it when you start enjoying a book and then it grinds to a half midway or towards the end. However, it is worth a read and I’d like to check out Smollett’s other books as well. He’s a good author and quite easy to read.