Oxford World Classics, 1998, 353 p, plus 22 p notes, ix p introduction, 7 p bibliography of works by or about Smollett and 2 p chronology of his life. (Edited by Lewis M Knapp and revised by Paul-Gabriel Boucé.)
Smollet was born at Dalquhurn, in Renton, which is only two miles from Dumbarton. Since he was educated in the town that just about makes him a fellow Son of the Rock.
I found this difficult to get into at first, perhaps because of its epistolary structure. In an innovation by Smollett (previous epistolary novels had consisted of letters “written” by one character) we are given the missives of several; Matthew Bramble, his sister Tabitha, his niece and nephew Lydia and Jery Melford and the lady’s maid Winifred Jenkins: but not, you will perhaps have noticed, any by the eponymous Humphry Clinker, a destitute who turns up around page 80, gets employed as a footman and thereafter performs the company various services. Coupled with the orotundities of 18th century language (the book was first published in 1771) this means the threads are slow to gel. Tabitha’s letters are full of misspellings as are Win Jenkins’s, with in her case the addition of multiple malapropisms.
The structure means that some incidents are rendered from more than one viewpoint – which is not in itself a problem but tends to impede the flow of narrative. It does though give Smollet ample scope to anatomise the society of the latter half of the 18th century and to poke fun at various aspects both of it and of human nature. Tabitha Bramble sets her sights on any available male, Lydia Melford’s sympathies are engaged with a man thought unsuitable by her family, Bramble dislikes the closeness of city life, decries the insanitary aspects of taking the waters at Bath and the adulteration of food.
Smollet does not forego the opportunity to guy his English readers. One character tells Mr Bramble that “the English language was spoken with more propriety at Edinburgh than in London,” that the Scots language was true, genuine old English since it had retained the guttural sounds, that the English render simple vowels as diphthongs and moreover they mumble and run their words together. (The same passage says that wright, write, right and rite were each pronounced differently by Scots in Smollet’s time. No longer – except perhaps for those who still say “a’ richt”.) On the understandings within the two countries we have, “What between want of curiosity, and traditional sarcasms, the people at the other end of the island know as little of Scotland as of Japan.” This is still largely true but the reverse never was and remains so. Later, Mr Bramble is informed in no uncertain terms that, far from Scotland benefitting from the Union, much the greater advantage was derived by England.
We also here the authentic voice of the traditionalist in the sentiment, “Woe be to that nation where the multitude is at liberty to follow their own inclinations!”
Pedant’s corner:- the intentional misspellings, malapropisms and differences in the language over two and a half centuries make any such listing otiose.