Aesthetics and the senses / Eighteenth Century

The Want of Taste in Humphry Clinker: Mr. Bramble’s Double Folly

Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker addresses the issues of Taste particularly through Mr. Matt Bramble’s character. Social status is a crucial part of Mr. Bramble’s identity, and is one of the reasons why he does not like Bath. Unlike London and the country, in Bath “genteel people are lost in a mob of impudent plebeians who have neither understanding nor judgment, nor the least idea of propriety and decorum,” meaning the classes are mixed and the upper class is lost within the lower class whose citizens are uneducated, do not have good manners, and do not know beauty (35). He finds pleasure in knowing he is superior to those diseased who live in “nastiness . . . breath[ing] contagion” and sleeping in infection, and later mocks London citizens for “their want of taste and decorum” (44, 85). In other words, in Mr. Bramble’s opinion, people in the middle and lower classes will be damned whether they are content with their situation or if they try to learn Taste because, in his eyes, that want of Taste will automatically mean they are phonies and proprietors of absurdity (85).

Another example of Mr. Bramble’s judgment is with the unnamed author whose writing he enjoyed, but when he discovered the author would “decide dogmatically upon every subject, without deigning to shew the least cause for his differing from the general opinions of mankind,” he immediately changed his opinion. That is, when he found out that the author already had an unchangeable stance on everything, and that he would not explain the ways he formed those opinions, Mr. Bramble quickly decides that, “As for the success of those, who have written without the pale of this confederacy, he imputes it entirely to want of taste in the public” (100). In other words, the author accuses writers who are not criticized by society and, thereby, are successful, as only earning that success by stooping to the desires of the public. Keenly, Mr. Bramble then observes that in this judgment, the author does not consider “that to the approbation of that very tasteless public, he himself owes all the consequence he has in life” (100). That is, since the writer himself was successful, he had also participated in stooping to the tasteless public.

In these two examples, it is evident that Mr. Bramble is more like the unnamed author than he would like to think. Specifically, he has already made up his mind that people of lesser class are worthless and dirty, which is why he leaves Bath. Then, in comparing London to the country, he finds that it is not only the lower classes, but also the increased number of people creating the “centre of infection” that he is extremely opposed to (112). Consequently, we can see how he condemns city life like the author condemns the want of taste in the public, and how his approbative status is also owed to the population in the city because without people knowing who he is, he would not have the revered status to begin with. Furthermore, although both Mr. Bramble and the unnamed author make the same mistake, one could argue that the former’s is worse because in his ignorance to his own he, essentially, is fooled twice.


One thought on “The Want of Taste in Humphry Clinker: Mr. Bramble’s Double Folly

  1. Amy, it’s funny reading your comments on Bath and social status. You noted that Bramble considers the inhabitants of Bath to be “plebeians”, where today, Bath is mostly populated by the upper/-middle class, and is a hot spot for wealthy Brits for getaways. Funny how times change!

    Secondly, thanks for doing a great job of putting Bramble’s insights regarding authors into laymen’s terms. Your insights regarding authors’ success being dependent on their lowering of standards, as they “ impute it entirely to want of taste in the public”, are still extremely relevant today. Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and Ancient Aliens have been dumbing down the public for years, but what’s most frustrating about it, is that people actually tune in to watch it. I don’t know if anyone watches South Park, but there was an episode last week where a character had to “raise the bar” for society. I think it’s a scary thought when an obnoxious cartoon raises awareness of this overlooked issue, yet nothing is being done.

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