Last year I was invited to join a friend’s book group. I plodded through the book they’d chosen that week – a particularly ghastly and badly written effort by some minor celebrity – and naturally expressed my distaste at their meeting. Why had they chosen such rubbish? I thought book groups were meant to stretch the mind. And so they suggested, as I thought myself so clever, that I should choose their next book.
I chose my favourite – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett, his last book, written in 1766 just before he died. How could anyone fail to love it? What a treat they would have, I thought, reading Smollett’s exquisite prose, laughing like drains at his ferocious wit and humour, shuddering with horror at his vivid and minutely observed reports of eighteenth-century daily life. How fascinating to have another century evoked so convincingly that you could almost smell it. But they didn’t like it. I can’t think why. Perhaps it was too coarse or its form too complex – Jeremy Lewis, Smollett’s biographer and great admirer, describes it as ‘an epistolary novel involving five letter-writers’. Or perhaps the ladies of the book group have no taste, because Humphry Clinker deserves to be read, over and over again.
I first read it at the age of 16 in Ruislip Library, haven of tranquillity and treasure-trove of classic gems, surrounded by green lawns and herbaceous borders, next to a small duck pond, all encircled by a low wooden fence. Such libraries no longer exist – peaceful outside, complete silence inside. No children fiddling around and squabbling, no computers, no mobiles going off, and on its shelves the entire works of Fielding, Swift, Sterne and Smollett. For a sullen girl who was finding her mother and suburban Ruislip close to unbearable, here was the perfect means of escape. I could leave the 1950s and enter another far more thrilling world, and not just for the length of an ordinary boo
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