Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Sexual Politics and Social Mobility in the Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Sexual Politics and Social Mobility in the Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Article excerpt

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), the last novel of Tobias Smollett (1727-1771), combines the travelogue with the epistolary form to explore the issue of Scottish nationalism. Its method is to contrast English society and cityscape, on the one hand, with Scottish society and natural landscape, on the other. Through the letter exchanges of characters in the novel, various aspects of social problems and political questions between the dominant English and the underprivileged Scottish are raised, and most debates or discourses eventually lead to a eulogy on the independent spirit of Scottish nationalism and a strong protest against English discrimination and oppression. (1) The valetudinarian Matthew Bramble harbors a longstanding grudge against cities like Bath--"I found nothing but disappointment at Bath" (31)--and London--which has developed into "an overgrown monster" and "an immense wasteland" (82, 83) and whose inhabitants are all "resolved into the grand source of luxury and corruption"--with its ways of living "actuated by the demons of profligacy and licentiousness" (83, 84). The staunch nationalist Obadiah Lismahago criticizes the centralism and supremacy of England and grieves over the subordinate political and economic status of Scotland--the loss of its independent state, its parliament, and the legal integrity of its courts of justice (255)--after the Act of Union in 1707. Jery Melford, Bramble's nephew, holds a more moderate view in his appraisal of the social, cultural, and geographical differences between Scotland and England; he thus exhibits the compromising and reconciliatory attitude of the younger generation. While these male views constitute an intensive and extensive criticism of the national and ethnic problems resulting from the union of Scotland and England, the issues of sexual politics and social mobility emerge time and again to complement and rival these agendas simultaneously throughout the novel.

If the three major male characters--Matthew Bramble, Jery Melford, and Lieutenant Lismahago--are preoccupied with issues of politics and nationalism, the three female letter-writers--Lydia Melford, Tabitha Bramble, and her maid Winifred Jenkins--and the effeminized Humphry Clinker bring up the subjects of sexual politics and social mobility in the novel. (2) In the second letter to Dr. Lewis, Matthew Bramble complains about his "domestic vexations": his niece's clandestine involvement with a wandering player, his nephew's "college petulance and self-conceit," and his sister's being "the devil incarnate" (11). In his patriarchal and almost misogynistic view, women seem to be an eternal plague on his bachelor life. Bramble's initial descriptions of the two major female characters have already set the tone for the novel's attitude towards female sexuality. His depiction of Lydia Melford (Liddy), his niece, exhibits no more than a condescending and sardonic tone:

   She is a poor good-natured simpleton, as soft as butter, and as
   easily melted--not that she's a fool--the girl's parts are not
   despicable, and her education has not been neglected; that is to
   say, she can write and spell, and speak French, and play upon the
   harpsichord; then she dances finely, has a good figure, and is very
   well inclined; but, she's deficient in spirit, and so
   susceptible--and so tender forsooth!--truly, she has got a
   languishing eye, and reads romances. (11)

This succinct introduction summarizes stereotypical attitudes toward and conventional expectations of young women: intellectually inferior, emotionally unsound, and physically fragile. Aside from a penchant for (French) romances, the most a young woman can do is to cultivate the so-called "female accomplishments" so as to make herself agreeable and acceptable in the marriage market. As Adela Pinch points out, "The intellectual education of women ... was generally considered unnecessary or extravagant, even detrimental. …

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