"An Honest Scar Received in the Service of My Country": Lismahago's Colonial Perspective in Humphry Clinker

By Evans, James E. | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

"An Honest Scar Received in the Service of My Country": Lismahago's Colonial Perspective in Humphry Clinker


Evans, James E., Philological Quarterly


When Matthew Bramble's expedition reaches Durham, his family encounters a character introduced as "a tall, meagure figure, answering, with his horse, the description of Don Quixote mounted on Rozinante." (1) While Lieutenant Obadiah Lismahago may appear quixotic, his formative experience has not been imagined chivalric adventures, but military combat in the North American colonies. Wounded in battle and confined to a French hospital, he was later captured by the Miamis. The "out-lines of Mr. Lismahago's history" (189), as Smollett calls the oral account reported by Jery Melford in his letter of July 13, resemble some conventions of the contemporary non-fiction genre known as the captivity narrative. To that extent, his history is one of those instances, which Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse describe, "when colonial writing flowed back across the Atlantic to England." Considering England "as part of a larger nation whose boundaries extended overseas to North America," they argue that the novel was not "first and foremost a European genre, but rather one that simultaneously recorded and recoded the colonial experience." (2) In Culture and Imperialism Edward W. Said more generally relates the novel to the colonies in declaring, "Without empire ... there is no European novel as we know it .... [T]he novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other." Said judges eighteenth-century novelists after Defoe, whose fiction "is explicitly enabled by an ideology of overseas expansion," to be less direct in connecting their novels "to the act of accumulating riches and territories abroad." Said adds, however, that Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett do "situate their work in and derive it from a carefully surveyed territorial greater Britain, and that is related to what Defoe so presciently began." (3)

Humphry Clinker, despite Said's reservations, manifests both of the features he discusses. Largely through the adventures and speeches of Lismahago, Smollett connects the domestic plot of the novel more directly to British overseas expansion, though he also invites skepticism about the ideology that legitimates it. Lismahago's story and his status as a veteran of colonial strife provide a wider context for the comic adventures described in the letters of five travelers through the more closely surveyed space of England, Scotland, and Wales. Smollett's eccentric Scot returns home after the Peace of Paris ended the Seven Years War (1756-63), at the moment when England triumphed over its principal colonial rivals, France and Spain, and thus dominated the North American continent, as well as much of India, West Africa, and the West Indies. Linda Colley calls the Seven Years War "the most dramatically successful war the British ever fought"; it allowed them to assume "the reputation of being the most aggressive, the most affluent and the most swiftly expanding power in the world." Yet Colley also identifies in this period a "post-war uncertainty," the causes of which were "profound and long-lasting": "The success had been too great, the territory won was at once too vast and too alien. The British had enormously inflated their national prestige and imperial power. But ... at the end of the day they were left wondering if they had overstretched themselves, made nervous and insecure by their colossal new dimensions." (4) Smollett's last novel represents this ambiguity and tension, for Lismahago's North American sojourn provides the basis for a critique of the new world order, with his grotesque body serving as a material sign of its costs. As Michael Rosenblum recognizes, Smollett "is not quite like Defoe, a novelist who ... `enables' the new order," for his "relation to change is mainly anxious, even adversarial." (5)

Charlotte Sussman finds in Lismahago's captivity the novel's only "extended anecdote about colonial life" and interprets it as "a parody of the narrative convention that encompassed these complicated relations, the captivity narrative," but she takes a different approach from mine.

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