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The Many Styles in “Humphry Clinker”

Throughout the reading I have been struggling to find some underlying solid base that connects the work and transcends all of the playful banter that fills “Humphry Clinker’s” pages. I usually just take a work as it comes to me, but in the second half I found it harder and harder to just read as I found myself growing tired of the story and the format. After finishing, I started in on a few of the various critical essays that follow the text in my copy of the book. Of these essays one in particular grabbed my attention and gave me almost exactly what I was looking for and I was wondering if anyone else felt like some of these criticisms tied things together for them as well. I found Wolfgang Isner’s “An Examinations of Smollet’s Humphry Clinker” to be the most insightful and agreeable to my interpretation of Smollet’s last work. The point that stuck with me the most was that this work is so vital because of the fashion in which Smollet blended three different concepts of ‘the novel’ so well. “Humphry Clinker” really is a blend of three different styles and it is done so well that one might not notice at first. Furthermore, the styles that Smollet put together in this novel were all transforming at the time it was written making it an even more vital work for the time period. Smollet seamlessly intertwines the forms of the epistolary novel, “the book of travels,” (Isner 374) and the picaresque novel. Isner points out how these were all “greatly favored in the eighteenth century” (374). Looking back at the text this seems like an incredibly insightful way of looking at “Humphry Clinker” and I find myself in almost complete agreement with Mr. Isner and for some odd reason it really brought the text full circle for me. I was just wondering if anyone else got to these criticisms as I didn’t get to them all and if anyone had a similar experience with any of the others.

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3 thoughts on “The Many Styles in “Humphry Clinker”

  1. I read a short critique by Sir Walter Scott, written in 1821. From this, I learned that Smollett was actually dying as he wrote this book. His doctor told him that he had to leave his home country of Scotland and relocate to some place warmer. After reading this, I decided to learn about Smollett’s life on Wikipedia. This changed the way I view the novel. I now see Matt as a version of Smollett and the novel as Smollett’s fantasy.

    At the beginning of the novel, Matt mentions that Lydia becomes ill and he speaks of “the fear of losing her entirely.” Throughout the book, Lydia’s health is seen as precarious and she must be protected from shock and hardship. Smollett had only one child, a daughter who died at age 15. Perhaps Lydia is styled after Smollett’s daughter? Smollett died with no heirs. Maybe he wished that a moral, attentive son would appear (like Humphry), full of adoration for his father and eager to carry on his name.

    As the novel begins, Matt and his family have traveled to Bath to try to improve his vague illness. Smollett, around this time, traveled to Bath in the unsuccessful hope of relieving the unidentified intestinal disorder that eventually killed him. While Matt is harsh and critical in the first half of the book, he becomes increasingly sentimental and approving as he travels through Scotland. Scotland was Smollett’s own country and, after a farewell visit, he was forced to leave at his doctor’s assertion that his only hope was to seek a warmer climate. Interestingly, the only negative thing Smollett seems to say about Scotland is in regards to its climate.

    At the end of the novel, Matt is much healthier and returns home in an ending that is happy for all characters involved. In addition, Matt has gotten rid of an irritating sister/wife sort of character in exchange for a loyal, humble, and completely non-threatening son. Is this Smollett’s expression of his own fantasy?

    I thought the ending of Humphry Clinker was very happy, but now it seems pretty sad. Smollett was 50 when he died. Does anyone know how old Matt was supposed to be?

    • Hi Vicki – Thanks for sharing all of your great connections between Matt and Smollett! I didn’t know that the author died so young or that he was writing the book during his last years. In regards to your question about Matt’s age, I think he was in his mid-forties because even though Smollett never explicitly tells us, Jery writes, “the old gentleman told me last night, with great good-humour, that betwixt the age of twenty and forty, he had been obligated to provide for nine bastards, sworn to him by women whom he never saw . . .” (26). In other words, since Matt talks about forty as the end of the timeframe, to me, it seems like he is at least a few years past that, especially since he talks about it with “the good old times” mentality. Consequently, I certainly think the novel could be an expression of Smollett’s fantasy because if Matt were on the same path as the author, he would also be dead in a few years and was lucky to have so much happiness in the meantime.

      Additionally, I didn’t even remember this part until I Googled Matt’s age and this scene came up. If I had, I would not have had such a positive attitude towards him when he seems so shocked at Humphry being his son. I initially thought it was shock from not knowing he fathered a son at all, but now I know it was shock because of the awkward situation one of his (nine!) kids being reunited with him…

  2. Pingback: RE: “The Many Styles in Humphry Clinker” « History and Literature of Georgian England

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