Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker


An "Unwieldy Metropolis": London Through Three Lenses

The presentation of London in Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Tobias Smollett - Biographical information

He was born in 1721 at “Dalquhurn, near the village of Renton, Dunbartonshire” in Scotland (Simpson).  He was the youngest son and was trained as a surgeon in Glasgow.  After a period spent as a surgeon on board a British Navy ship in the West Indies, Smollett returned home, continuing with medicine and starting to produce various forms of writing, including poems, satirical tracts and plays.  His first novel The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) was a success and made his reputation.  He continued to write many different things, becoming known also as a translator (Don Quixote), critic and editor.  His health started to fail around 1763, so he decides to take travel on the continent to hopefully provide some relief.  He travelled through France and Italy, writing a book on the journey, coming back to Bath to take in the healing waters (Simpson).  These journeys provided inspiration for Humphrey Clinker, which Smollett started on his return to England in 1766 (Kahrl 121).  He finished writing in 1770 in Italy where he lived out his life (Simpson).

The Expedition Humphry Clinker  - The Work

Humphry ClinkerThe novel is in the picaresque tradition, which Davis describes as “the travel adventures of an unsettled young man, often of good birth, who has the moral characteristics of the picaro, the love of hoaxes and intrigues” (Davis vi).  Another trait of the picaresque is that “the adventures are self-sufficient… [and] could happen in almost any order equally as well" (vi).  The section of Humphrey Clinker that we’re looking at is set in their stay in London where the characters take in the sites. 

Humphrey Clinker differs from the picaresque tradition by being an epistolary novel.  More importantly, an epistolary novel where the main character does not get to speak for himself.  The five letter writing characters in the novel are Matt Bramble, his sister Tabitha Bramble, their niece and nephew Lydia and Jery Melford and their servant Winifred Jenkins.

The Three Views of London

In the London section we are looking at, we get to see letters from four of the five characters (everyone, but Tabitha) that show their first impressions of London.  I have decided to focus on the letters from Matt Bramble, Lydia Melford and Win Jenkins because their social positions represent a good mixture of class, gender and London experience.

Three Views
Matt Bramble's locations in BLUE.
Lydia Melford's locations in GREEN.
Win Jenkins's locations in RED.   

The three characters technically experience the same London, but through their letters (which work as filters or lenses) we see three different fictionalized Londons.  Much of this difference is predicated on social class and gender.

For established, wealthy citizens (usually men) like Bramble, London holds no interest because he already has the wealth and luxury he desires in the country.  However, as Flanders points out “For those with no prospect of accumulating great estates or sharing in the proceeds of small ones, London was the place to rise in the world.  It seemed to promise fabulous delights” (47).  Bramble scorns this idea, criticising workers who leave the country to come to London:

The tide of luxury has swept all the inhabitants from the open country --- The poorest squire, as well as the richest peer, must have his house in town, and make a figure with an extraordinary number of domestics.  The ploughboys, cow-herds, and lower hinds, are debauched and seduced by the appearance and discourse of those coxcombs in livery, when they make their summer excursions.  They desert their dirt and drudgery, and swarm up to London, in hopes of getting into service, where they can live luxuiously and wear fine clothes, without being obliged to work; (Smollett 98)

Though Lydia is not in town to accumulate her wealth, unless it is though an advantageous marriage, she does succumb to these “fabulous delights.”  Win Jenkins is also lured in by London’s many wonders.  In fact, Flanders believes Smollett uses their similar initial responses to London to point out “the irony inherent in London’s attractiveness” to high and low alike (47). 

Lydia's "Inexpressible" Pleasures, Extensively Expressed

Lydia is appropriately excited about her first trip to London, sending a detailed letter of her exploits to her confidante Miss Laetitia Willis in Gloucester.  Mapping the locations she mentions, we see that she does get a chance to see a good part of the city as well as the town.

When we look at the places she goes on the map, we see that she mainly resides in the upper class West side of London.  However, she does occasionally enter the city proper when she visits St. Paul’s cathedral and sees the three bridges (though possibly from a location further west than London Bridge).

The locations Lydia visits or mentions are in green.


Win's "Wonderful Sitty" Tour

Win covers more area than Bramble or Lydia during her time in London.  The locations she mentions contrast both in location and nature.  We can clearly see the distinction in status between places she goes with Tabitha (St James’s and The Tower) and places she goes with fellow servant Humphrey Clinker (Sadler’s Wells).

The locations Win visits or mentions are in red.


We do not see the overlap of locations mentioned by Lydia and Win that we see with Lydia and Matt, but from the places we know the ladies visited, we can suppose that they have both seen similar parts of London (for example, they have both been East, Lydia to St Paul’s and the bridges, Win to the Tower).  The mapping allows us to see that they have both covered significant portions of London, so their descriptions of London become more interesting to compare since their equally enthusiastic descriptions of London reflect it more as a whole.

Matt Bramble's (Limited) Rambles

Though I feel that mapping the three characters travels in London is useful to get a sense of their own social boundaries, the mapped locations mentioned by Matt Bramble further our knowledge of the work.  In his first letter to Dr. Lewis upon arrival in London, Bramble laments London’s growth since his last visit.  He labels the city an “unwieldy metropolis” where “Pimlico and Knightsbridge are now almost joined to Chelsea and Kensington” (Smollett 98).  Reading this description, one gets a sense of the countryside being taken over by new developments, but visualization is required to understand why Bramble is concerned.  The perfect tool to visualize Bramble’s narrative is a map.  When these locations are mapped, a pattern emerges.  The remaining countryside is being circled and enclosed by these locations.  The map helps to depict the predatory aspects of London that Bramble emphasises in his quotation “London is now gone out of town” (98).  Not only has London gone out of town, it is attacking neighbouring settlements with its urban infrastructure. 

The locations that Matt Bramble visits or mentions are labelled in blue.

Matt Bramble Map

The mapping also helps to display Bramble’s disgust with the city.  Most of his travels stay in West London.  He stays in Ranelagh and limits his descriptions to the gardens there and Vauxhall.  He does not say positive things about either location, but this is perhaps due more to his personality than to the qualities of the spots.  The one exception to Bramble’s Western living seems to be his favourable mention of “the bridge at Blackfriars,” located at the end of Fleet Street (98).  This mention indicates that Bramble does break free from the West End and see more of London.  The question becomes, why does he not make more explicit mention of what he sees on this outing?  He goes on to criticise the city’s growth in general once again likening it to: “an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support” (97).   The maps leave us with an overall impression that Bramble does not want to enter the city, so either he doesn’t, or he doesn’t bother commenting on the city when he does.  He leaves off his letter stating his intentions to shorten his stay in the city, but it appears as though he is leaving without really seeing it.

Works Cited

Davis, Robert Gorham. Introduction. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. By Tobias Smollett. San Francisco: Reinhart, 1950.

Flanders, W. Austin. "Urban Life and the Early Novel." The Country Myth: Motifs in the British Novel from Defoe to Smollett. Ed. H. George Hahn. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990. 45-68.

Kahrl, George M. Tobias Smollett Traveler-Novelist. New York: Octagon Books, 1978.

Simpson, Kenneth. "Smollett, Tobias George (1721–1771)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 <> 27 March 2009.

Smollett, Tobias. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Ed. Robert Gorham Davis. San Francisco: Reinhart, 1950.