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The Scenic Route to Humphry Clinker: Smollett's Travels Through France and Italy

Portrait of Tobias SmollettIn 1763, Tobias Smollett embarked on a two-year trip round France and Italy. The great eighteenth-century novelist, historian, journalist and man of letters had good reason for quitting Britain. His support for the deeply unpopular prime ministership of the 3rd Earl of Bute (from 1762-1763) had left him the target of what he saw as political 'persecution' at home, and the recent death of his youngest daughter, combined with his poor state of health, had prompted Smollett to take a restorative trip to the continent.1 As well as taking up a prolonged residence in Nice, Smollett visited Boulogne, Paris, Dijon, Lyons, Montpellier, Nîmes, Genoa, Pisa, Florence and Rome. His account of this time abroad was recorded in a series of letters published in 1766 under the title Travels Through France and Italy, a work which in many respects lays the groundwork for Smollett's final novel and finest work, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).

Unlike Humphry Clinker, however, Smollett's Travels have not been the most enduring or well-received of the author's works. This is partly because of a peevishness which pervades the text, whereby Smollett appears as what one commentator called 'the most embittered and cantankerous Englishman [sic] that ever travelled abroad'.2 At every stage of his journey, Smollett meets with discomfort and dissatisfaction, 'idleness and dissipation',3 and – what has to be one of the most frequently used terms in the book – 'imposition', as the various individuals he meets en route attempt to swindle unwitting travellers.

Contemporary travel writers were quick to criticise Smollett's manifest meanness of spirit. To Philip Thicknesse, Smollett's experience had been clouded by his 'his own state of ill health and want of appetite' which had 'been the means of warping his judgement, and corrupting his own imagination'.4 Likewise, Laurence Sterne, who bumped into Smollett in Montpellier, offered the reader of his highly successful Sentimental Journey (1768) a satirical characterisation of his fellow traveller and countryman:

The learned SMELFUNGUS travelled from Boulogne to Paris – from Paris to Rome – and so on – but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he passed by was discoloured or distorted – He wrote an account of them, but 'twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.5

In turn, these reactions coloured responses to the Travels, leading to a pervasive view of them as (to use the words of one biographer) 'melancholy proof of the influence of bodily distemper over the best disposition'.6

If Smollett's work thus appears a curious and somewhat uncharacteristic journal of gripes, snipes and stereotypes, it nevertheless merits attention for providing a shaping context for Humphry Clinker. In this novel, Smollett reflects upon the vogue for travel writing and places his own Travels in a list of precursors which includes the work of detractors such as Thicknesse and Sterne: 'There have been so many travels lately published', writes the novel's patriarch Matthew Bramble, 'What between Smollett's, Sharp's, Derrick's, Thickness's, Baltimore's and Barretti's, together with Shandy's Sentimental Travels, the public seems to be cloyed with that kind of entertainment'.7 The astute eighteenth-century reader would no doubt have noticed a direct response to Sterne in particular. Sterne had reacted to Travels Through France and Italy with a lampoon of Smollett as the typical splenetic traveller in direct contrast to his own idealised type of 'sentimental' traveller, as embodied in the literary persona of Mr. Yorick. In turn, Smollett offers a riposte to Sterne through the character of Matthew Bramble, Humphry Clinker's misanthropic Welsh Tory squire, who shows that even the most splenetic traveller has a sentimental side. Bramble, by his own admission, is 'rankled by the spleen'8 and views the situations he encounters accordingly. The pleasures of Bath and London, for instance, appear to the bluff old Tory invalid little more than a hotbed of folly and presumption. However, his nephew Jery Melford discovers another side to the squire: Bramble merely 'affects misanthropy, in order to conceal the sensibility of a heart, which is tender, even to a degree of weakness'.9 By the time Bramble arrives in Scotland, his sensibility is on full display, allowing him to openly wax rapturous about the landscape around Cameron House (a Smollett family property) in a manner which might even make his overly romantic niece Lydia blush. This revelation of Bramble's hidden sensibility is part of a series of self-conscious gestures within a self-reflexive work which flaunts its awareness of the charges laid against Travels Through France and Italy. When Bramble admits 'I have perceived that my opinion of mankind, like mercury in the thermometer, rises and falls according to the variations of the weather',10 this itself is an admission that somehow relates back to the traveller who had so riled the critics with his account of France. [...]

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1 Tobias Smollett, Travels Through France and Italy (London: R. Baldwin, 1766), pp.1-2. Smollett outlines his reasons for travelling in the first letter.
2 Edward Cox, A Reference Guide to the Literature of Travel: including voyages, geographical descriptions, adventures, shipwrecks and expeditions, 3 vols (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 19351949), I, p.137.
3 Smollett, Travels, p.88.
4 Philip Thicknesse, Observations on the Customs and Manners of the French Nation. In a Series of Letters in Which That Nation is Vindicated from the Misrepresentations of Some Late Writers (London: Robert Davis, 1766), pp.8990.
5 Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005), p.28.
6 Robert Anderson, Life of Tobias Smollett, M.D. With Critical Observations on His Works (London: J. Mundell & Co., 1796), p.29.
7 Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (Oxford & New York: OUP, 2009), pp.23.
8 Ibid., p.77.
9 Ibid., p.28.
10 Ibid., p.77.