Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Smollett's Scots and Sodomites: British Masculinity in Roderick Random

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Smollett's Scots and Sodomites: British Masculinity in Roderick Random

Article excerpt

In the fourth number of his journal, the Briton (1762-3), Tobias Smollett bitterly declared "Scotchman" a slur more opprobrious than "sodomite," connoting "every thing that is vile and detestable." (1) Smollett intended this polemical comparison to denounce the virulent Scotophobia kindled by the Scottish Earl of Bute's recent appointment as First Lord of the Treasury. Yet his 1748 novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random, suggests that the Briton" s juxtaposition of Scot and sodomite is not as random as it initially might seem. Both regarded as foreigners or outsiders, Scots and sodomites threatened to penetrate a vulnerable English body politic. (2) Bute's enemies frequently alluded to his alleged but improbable affair with George III's mother, the Princess Dowager, as evidence of his lust for political power. English anti-Union and anti-Jacobite propagandists depicted Scots in general as "avaricious, dirty, poor, unprincipled, and thieving," figuring Scottish greed and ambition as unbridled sexual potency. (3) On one hand, this supposed virility represented the threat that Scots posed to English wealth and prerogative after the 1707 Union of Parliaments. On the other hand, it signified Scots' savagery and, by implication, Scotland's inferiority to a polite and prosperous England. The uncouth and uncivilized Scot in many ways seems the antithesis of a simpering, sophisticated sodomite like Roderick Random's Captain Whiffle. However, Smollett suggests that the Scot's vulgar aggression and the sodomite's degenerate effeminacy similarly deviate from the genteel masculinity proper to a commercial nation like England. (4)

Roderick Random explores the dynamics of anti-Scottish prejudice through a protagonist who in many ways embodies the eighteenth-century stereotype of the avaricious, ambitious, and aggressive Scot. Rather than simply refuting Scottish stereotypes with a counter-example, the novel illustrates the productive power of the bigotry that Smollett himself endured. (5) Seeking to escape poverty and ignominy in Scotland, Roderick concocts a number of cunning schemes to attain wealth and prestige in London. When he finds himself, as he so often does, an innocent victim, "deserted to all the horrors of extreme want, and avoided by mankind as a creature of a different species" (25), he responds by attempting to degrade his enemies in their turn--sometimes through physical violence, sometimes through sexual humiliation, but most often through the crafty exploitation of their hypocritical and unjust assumptions. This pattern of victimization and vindication suggests that Roderick's frequent feelings of "pride and resentment" function as a survival mechanism (200), motivating his determination to triumph over the prejudice and poverty that he faces as a Scot in England. (6) Through Roderick's reactions to repeated degradation, Smollett suggests that English anxieties regarding Scottish ambition are not entirely unfounded, but that this national tendency is only exacerbated by efforts to exclude Scots from sharing in England's, and potentially Britain's, prosperity.

To become a Briton, Roderick must avoid the Scot's aggressive ambition and the sodomite's corrupt dependence, embracing instead an autonomous masculinity that is feminized yet not effeminate. Roderick initially shares with the Earl Strutwell--a sodomite--an excessive and ungoverned self-interest. Although Smollett acknowledges that some degree of self-interest is essential to individual and national prosperity, Roderick's gradual reformation suggests that the countervailing virtues of compassion and affection are equally necessary both to Scots' betterment and to the harmony and stability of a newly united Great Britain. Before he can attain the economic self-sufficiency and moral agency defining British masculinity, Roderick must learn to temper with heterosexual love the excessive self-interest that Smollett attributes to sodomites. Love, in Roderick Random, is not "spontaneous and emotive" but rather "a highly committed, formal, and even ritualised form of sentiment," comprising mutual sympathy and generosity. …

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