The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

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The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Smollett Humphry Clinker Cover.jpg
Author Tobias Smollett
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Novel, Picaresque, Epistolary
Publisher W. Johnson and B. Collins
Publication date
17 June 1771
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 375
ISBN 0-19-283594-7
OCLC 41152911

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was the last of the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett, and is considered by many to be his best and funniest work.[1] Published in London on 17 June 1771, it is an epistolary novel, presented in the form of letters written by six different characters: Matthew Bramble, a Welsh Squire; his sister Tabitha; their niece and nephew, Jeremy and Lydia Melford; Tabitha's maid Winifred Jenkins; and Lydia's suitor, Wilson.

Much of the comedy arises from differences in the descriptions of the same events by different participants. Attributions of motives and descriptions of behaviour show wild variation and reveal much about the character of the teller. The setting, amidst the high-society spa towns and seaside resorts of the 18th century provides his characters with many opportunities for satirical observations on English life and manners.

The author's own travels in Scotland, France and Italy helped provide inspiration for the plot.

Plot summary[edit]

Matthew Bramble and his family and servants are traveling through England and Scotland. Although the primary motivation for the expedition is to restore the health of the gouty Matthew Bramble, each member of the family uses the excursion to achieve his or her own ends. Leaving from Bramble's estate, Brambleton Hall, in the southwestern corner of England, the family passes through many major cities, making extended or significant stops at Gloucester, Bath, London, Harrogate, Scarborough, and Edinburgh.

The splenetic patriarch, Matthew Bramble, visits various natural spas to alleviate his health problems; he corresponds primarily with his physician Dr. Lewis. Through his own letters and Jeremy's, it is revealed that Bramble is misanthropic and something of a hypochondriac. However, despite his frequent criticisms, he is generally reasonable and extremely charitable both to the people he meets on his travels as well as to his servants and wards back at home. His letters introduce and ridicule significant eighteenth century concerns such as medicine, the growth of urban life, class, the growth of periodical press, and the public sphere. His growing disillusionment at the changing moral and social landscape of England embodies his traditionalist perspective while revealing the absurdities of contemporary culture.

His sister, Tabitha Bramble, is a foolish and cantankerous spinster who uses the expedition as an excuse to search for a husband. Through her correspondence with Mrs. Gwyllim, the house-keeper at Brambleton Hall, Tabitha reveals her selfishness and lack of generosity toward both servants and the impoverished. Her social pretensions are rendered all the more comical by her frequent misunderstandings, misuse of common idioms, and atrocious spelling.

Tabitha's servant, Winifred or Win Jenkins, also corresponds with the servants at Brambleton Hall. As the only correspondent not related to Matthew Bramble, Ms. Jenkins offers a sympathetic and humorous perspective on the family and their travels. As a comic foil to Tabitha Bramble, Win Jenkins shares many of her misspellings and malapropisms but demonstrates considerably more common sense and intuition in her observation of the family. At London, she becomes infatuated with Humphry Clinker and Methodism both.

Bramble's nephew, Jeremy Melford, is a young man looking for looking amusement. Corresponding primarily with Sir Watkin Phillips of Jesus College at Oxford, Jery also reflects upon issues of city life, class, and the growing public sphere but often with a more progressive perspective than his rather traditional uncle. Despite his own generously democratic views and his astute perceptions of the hypocrisy and absurdity of others, he is--as revealed through Bramble's letters--"hot-headed" and prone to rash anger and impulsive defenses of perceived slights to his family honor, especially when it relates to his sister's interest in a stage actor below her status. His introduction into society as a young gentleman often centers around his socializing at the coffeehouse, a burgeoning social institution in eighteenth century London especially. His study of the places and people of his journey also includes the members of his family, whom he comically sketches for the readers. His accounts help provide insight into Matthew Bramble's character especially.

Bramble's niece Lydia Melford is trying to recover from an unfortunate romantic entanglement with a stage actor named Wilson who is later revealed to be a gentleman named George Dennison. Her letters to Miss Letitia Willis at Gloucester reveal her struggles between familial duty and her affection for Wilson. She describes her secret communications with Wilson as well as her surprise encounter with the disguised Wilson in Bath. In addition to describing her romantic interests, Lydia also reflects upon the wonders of city life with astonishment and excitement. Having spent most of her life at a boarding school for young women, the expedition serves for Lydia as a debut into society, an important cultural phenomena with its own literary tradition.

The titular character, Humphry Clinker, is an ostler, a stableman at an inn, who does not make his first appearance until about a quarter of the way through the story. He is taken on by Matthew Bramble and his family while they are traveling toward London after offending Tabitha and amusing Matthew Bramble. Humphry Clinker is a primarily foolish character who's good-nature earnestness earns him the esteem of Matthew Bramble. He is largely described through the letters of Matthew Bramble and Jeremy Melford, and despite his frequent misunderstandings, is presented as a talented worker and gifted orator, attracting a devoted following of parishioners during a brief oratorical stint in London. After various romantic interludes, Humphry suffers false imprisonment due to accusations of being a highway robber, though he retains the confident support of Matthew Bramble and his family.... but is rescued and returned to his sweetheart, the maid Winifred Jenkins. Eventually, it is discovered that Humphry is Mr. Bramble's illegitimate son from a relationship with a barmaid during his wilder university days. The book ends in a series of weddings.


  • Paperback, Penguin Classics, 414 pages
  • Published May 30, 1967 by Penguin Group (first published 1771)
  • ISBN 0140430210 (ISBN13: 9780140430219)
  • Edition language English
  • Original title The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
  • Setting United Kingdom


  1. ^ K. Simpson, 'Smollett, Tobias George (1721–1771)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004). Available online (paid subscription required)

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "article name needed". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne. 

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