Sunday, September 04, 2011

I'm reading "Humphry Clinker," a 1771 novel in letters I hadn't heard of before finding it in a free box. I don't know much about it--I think it's one of those where everyone is quirky, which can have a certain charm or can seem self-indulgent, on the part of the author, and quaint-phoney. I have good hopes.

I could read the intro, but I like to dive in and see what I learn when I hear the author directly, without having been told what to think and what tone to think in.

One thing I know, after a few pages, is that if I write down and look up all the words I don't know, I'll be words ahead by the time I'm finished.

I think some of them are probably out of use and only to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Some are foreign, probably mostly French. I don't know if the OED will help me with the French. If the French is as old and obscure as some of the English words, I'll need to find another reference book to look it up in.

I'm sixty pages into my paperback "Humphry Clinker." Almost everyone is quirky, and it works.

The only important character who isn't quirky is the ingenue, Lydia, the young woman in love with the apparently inappropriate young man.

She has only enough characteristics to fulfill her plot part. She is dewy-eyed about the guy, dutiful toward her uncle, who is her guardian and wants her to give up the guy, and torn between those feelings.

Dewy-eyed, dutiful, torn--that's it. No hobbies. No hints of anything else going on inside. A human being has to flatten herself a lot to appear to be that kind of woman.

Her uncle, Mr. Bramble, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of characteristics.

He runs most of his varying characteristics through anger.

He moves into a hotel in the resort town of Bath. Someone else staying there has musicians playing. He doesn't like that they are playing music. He goes and hits the musicians with his cane.

The person taking care of business for him while he travels writes and wants to prosecute a poacher and evict a tenant not paying his rent.

Mr. Bramble blows up. He writes angrily how can you throw someone out of where they live just because they are having money problems? Probably the poacher shouldn't poach, but he and Bramble have known each other and long time and putting the law on him is something Bramble will not do.

So Bramble can be angrily attacking or angrily generous.

It would be wild to think of a young woman of that time or now expressing everything she has to express angrily. Bramble's niece Lydia doesn't come within a continent of thinking of it.

This is one of the unusual novels of its time that actually mentions that not-white people exist. The musicians Bramble hits are not white, African background. A mulatto woman is mentioned in passing, which is more mention than non-whites get in many 18thand 19th century novels.

Such mentions when they happen are a mixed blessing. The accuracy is nice--not white people have been in Britain a long time. But the way they are mentioned is likely to be a drag.

Bramble hit some black guys, at a time when slavery was legal and black people were often hit. Bramble declared himself ready to hit their presumably white employer, but in fact, he didn't find him, didn't hit him and moved to another place in Bath. It seems likely that him expressing his ever present, ever expressed rage by hitting was related to these musicians being not white.

And maybe the author set it up like that to show Mr. Bramble at his worst on somebody with whom he could believably get away with it.

Lydia, though shallow, has Grand Canyon depth compared to the black musicians, who are black and musicians and that's it. It would be a big promotion for one of them to have love life problems, and it's a promotion they don't get.

The author, having invented Lydia shallow is uninterested in her. The set-up in her letters to her school friend is that she'll write regular letters to her through the post and find someone to take secret letters, about her love life frustration, to the friend directly.

But all that disappears for long swathes of the novel where all the other letter writers write multiple letters and Lydia writes none.

The author invented a boring character and is bored. Sort of the problem for woman in many times and places--people with power invented ways women were pressured to be which were boring, and the people in power were bored with women to the extent that the went along with it--and nasty when they didn't.

Also the Lydia in love plot is a potential through plot. A fun thing about the author of the book is he is little interested in through plot. The characters are traveling together and writing people who aren't traveling with them. The author likes small to medium sized events along the way, not a love plot unfolding, again.

He actually seems to have foreshadowed a solution for the love plot, with the inappropriate beloved, who is working as an actor, saying he is really a gentleman, and will appear as a gentleman and it will all be okay. But he keeps not appearing, either for reasons to be announced later in the book, or because the author doesn't care about this plot, or both.

I'm not really complaining, because love plots about wimpy women are often boring, even if one has a larger, historical understanding of why being wimpy was a strategy for real women that was workable and sometimes required.

This book was published in 1771, and the Declaration of Independence was published in 1776. I keep trying to find some relationship there.

The guy the novel is named after, Humphry Clinker, is the lowest status person with a speaking part. So it's something about the value of the lowly.

The Bramble household picked him up with Bramble ill-natured sister who is traveling with him, mistreated a servant to the point that he was so mouthy back to her he got fired.

Bramble noticed Clinker, poor, in desperate straits, nearby, and hired him, Bramble acting in a typically soft-hearted, in spite of his often ill-natured self-presentation.

Clinker is a good ad for lowly people in general. Lots of skills. Sort of weird, but lots of skills.

When they are traveling, the coach they are in turns over and needs both carpentry repair and metal repair--blacksmith work. Clinker can do and does do both.

The way Clinker does the blacksmith work is Bramble finds a smithy near the site of the wreck, but the smithy isn't there and the forge is all fired up and ready to go.

The author has fun creating what he needs in a time when people didn't give coincidence in books a hard time. The means of being a blacksmith and the absence of a blacksmith gives Clinker his chance to fix the messed up metal. He's already fixed the wood.

So is the message that the poor are awash in saving skills. I don't know.

A thing that the Declaration and the book, especially Mr. Bramble's letters, have in common, is really enjoying using language. Luxuriating in saying what there is to be said is present in both documents, with different topics and levels of seriousness.

I think sometimes as a language evolves through group improv a point is reached where isn't noticably different, and to some people alive then, more fun to play with. So they go for it. Elizabethan England was like that--Shakespeare and a bit later the King James Bible imply a lot of people talking grandly and to the point at the same time.

The 1770's in English might have been like that.

Which fact is used for humorous purpose. In his first letters in the book, Mr. Bramble uses his big vocabulary and love of wording it up to complain about his health. Maybe it's gout, he writes, or maybe, he writes, fearfully and hopefully, it's much worse.