Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, written by Tobias Smollett and published in 1771, is an epistolary novel, meaning that it is told through a series of letters. Some epistolary novels focus on one or two main characters writing letters between one another. This novel includes letters from several different perspectives as the characters travel together. One of the primary characters in the book is a man named Mr. Matthew Bramble, who is known to be a hypochondriac, and is overly focused on his health issues. Knowing this, it is not surprising that Mr. Bramble writes his letters to his doctor, Dr. Lewis. Many of the details in his letters are not particularly exciting, since they relate to his exaggerated health concerns, but his concerns reveal what matters most to him. Smollett solely relies on characters' word choices and the content in their letters to create their personalities.
On his journeys, Mr. Bramble brings his sister and her servant, as well as his niece and nephew. Mr. Bramble and his companions travel to Bath, London, and Scotland in the novel. Each of these characters tell their story entirely in their first person letters to friends and family, as they tell of events from their own point of views. Smollett is known for the way he showed class differences in this novel through misspellings and unusual grammar choices. His upper class characters speak with widely varied word choices and perfect spelling. His lower class characters misspell many words and even confuse words, adding humor to the plot.
When we first meet Humphry Clinker, whom the novel gains its name from, we're over a quarter of the way through the novel. Jerry Melford writes of their meeting to his friend Sir Watkin Phililips. At first, Mr. Bramble and his traveling companions are in their carriage, and he serves as the postilion, meaning that he his helping to steer the horses. Mrs. Bramble complains,
"he was such a beggarly rascal, that he had ne'er a shirt to his back; and had the impudence to shock her sight by shewing his bare posteriors, for which act of indelicacy he deserved to be set in the stocks" (London, May 24).
In other words, his pants had drooped down his back, and he had no shirt to cover the top of his bottom. Mrs. Bramble is shocked by this event and suggests he deserves to be publicly humiliated in the stocks for his lack of manners, and Mr. Bramble demands that he come and make an excuse for his clothing choices. Clinker explains how poor he is, and how he is unable to buy clothing for anything better. Mr. Bramble continues to seek information on this character and finds out that he was a "love-begotten child," which inferred that no father was in his life to support him financially. Mr. Bramble gives him money to aid him, and he returns in much nicer clothing. Because of Mr. Bramble's kindness and generosity, Clinker promises that he will
"follow him to the world's end, and serve him all the days of his life, without fee or reward" (London, May 24).
His kind loyalty to Mr. Bramble is much less appreciated by Mrs. Bramble, who was so shocked by the sight of his partial nakedness. Eventually, the two make peace.
The group ends up continuing their journey with Humphry Clinker. By the end of the story, the group finds out he was much more a part of their family, by his birth, than they ever imagined.