Comic Maid-Servants in Swift and Smollett: The Proverbial Idiom of Humphry Clinker

By Rogers, Pat | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Comic Maid-Servants in Swift and Smollett: The Proverbial Idiom of Humphry Clinker


Rogers, Pat, Papers on Language & Literature


The letters written by Win Jenkins in Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker (1771) have certainly not gone without scholarly comment. Until now, however, attention seems to have been directed entirely toward linguistic vagaries narrowly conceived rather than toward the broader stylistic and representational mode that these eccentricities of idiom serve. In particular, an exchange between W. Arthur Boggs and Arthur Sherbo raised the issue as to whether Win's fractured word-forms could properly be seen as coinages. (1) I wish here to widen the discussion a little and propose that the mode of writing Smollett uses for Win's letters is modeled directly on Swift's poems composed, wholly or partly, in the voice of a serving maid. In fact, the evidence suggests that Smollett may have taken some of his particular usages and expressions quite openly from this source.

The best known of Swift's exercises in the vein described here is "The Humble Petition of Frances Harris," written c.1701, first published in 1709, and included in Swift's Miscellanies of 1711. A second and equally effective use of the mode comes in "Mary the Cook-Maid's Letter to Dr. Sheridan," written c.1718 and first published in 1732. A number of Swift's later poems on Irish subjects incorporate similar versions of the "cook-maid" theme, however, especially within the so-called Market Hill group of poems. The most relevant of these for our purposes is "The Grand Question Debated," which includes passages written in the voice of Lady Acheson's waiting woman, Hannah. This poem, composed c.1729, was first published in 1732. All three of these works were included in George Faulkner's canonical edition of the Works in 1735, the basis for subsequent collections of Swift throughout the eighteenth century. All were therefore available to Smollett. It should be added that scholars have observed minor raids on Swift's work on previous occasions, including a possible recollection of A Modest Defence of Punning in one of Win Jenkins's verbal distortions. (2) This suggestion is made in the standard edition of Humphry Clinker; no reference is made there to the poems, except in a single case where the editor, Thomas R. Preston, glosses the expression "Hail fellow, well met" by citing an instance in one of Swift's other Market Hill poems, "My Lady's Lamentation and Complaint against the Dean" (Smollett 332). (3)

The characteristics that define the mode under review and that point toward Smollett's imitation of it might be listed under several headings. Swift employs what is fundamentally a trope of garrulity: a single voice is allowed to soliloquize at length. In the cases of "The Humble Petition" and "Mary the Cook-Maid's Letter" we have a complete monologue. In "The Grand Question Debated," the maid-servant rattles on, with only a brief interjection by her mistress; we are led to understand that Lady Acheson feels she ought to stop her tattling maid but enjoys the gossip too much to be able to do so. The first two poems employ an unusually long line, spilling over from about fourteen to sixteen syllables; the third poem manages to convey a similar air of garrulity with a basic eleven-syllable line. All three use a headlong syntax, exemplified by these lines in "The Humble Petition of Frances Harris": "Now you must know, because my Trunk has a very bad Lock, / Therefore all the Money, I have, (which God knows, is a very small Stock,) / I keep in my Pocket ty'd about my Middle, next my Smock" (5-7). (4) The essence of the style is found in a racy demotic language, including dialect forms--here Irish, of course--along with distorted word forms (as when Hannah uses "creter" for "creature"), colloquial cliches of the sort Swift collected for Polite Conversation, below-stairs slang, and many proverbial or folk expressions. There is no use of malapropism in the narrow sense, although Mrs. Harris produces a kind of malapropist proper noun when she converts Lord Drogheda into "Lord Dromedary" (l. …

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