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Smollett's Women - The Epistolary Novel

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June 20th, 2005


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sam_t
01:18 pm - Smollett's Women
Descending from Patristic mysogynists like Tertullian and St Augustine through Renaissance and Restoration literature ... the female monster populates the works of the satirists of the eighteenth century, a company of male artists whose virulent visions must have been particularly alarming to feminine readers in an age when women had just begun to "attempt the pen." These authors attacked literary women on two fronts. First, and most obviously, through the construction of cartoon figures like Sheridan's Mrs Malaprop and Fielding's Mrs Slipslop, and Smollett's Tabitha Bramble, they implied that language itself was almost literally alien to the female tongue. In the mouths of women, vocabulary loses meaning, sentences dissolve, literary messages are distorted or destroyed.
pp30-31, Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination.

Any thoughts on the women in Humphry Clinker?

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From:elettaria
Date:June 20th, 2005 02:22 pm (UTC)
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What, like "they're all crap writers" or "the characterisation is less than flattering"? Possibly Lydia does show backbone/interesting character at some point, but if so I've forgotten it. He just seemed to be bored with the traditional figure of the young lady in love, and while I know it's a cliche, plenty of writers have managed perfectly well with it. As for the others, well, it's a satire in general, after all, though I haven't looked closely enough to see whether the women are more viciously satirised than the men. They're certainly less likeable.

Does anyone know what literacy was like in that period, and how it compared amongst the classes and genders?
[User Picture]
From:sam_t
Date:June 20th, 2005 02:36 pm (UTC)
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Lydia is a better writer than the other two, though - you couldn't say that language is alien to her. She is also ultimately right about Wilson.

What is it about the Highlands that makes the women become silent? Do women only exist in towns?

I'll look up literacy once I get home.
[User Picture]
From:elettaria
Date:June 20th, 2005 03:19 pm (UTC)
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I admit that I didn't pay as much attention as I should have, but I remember Lydia as being terribly dull. At least she could write correctly. Winifred's poor spelling wasn't a surprise considering her status, but Tabitha's was. I'm sure I remember various snarky comments about the way women write from authors of this period, isn't there something about how the Lilliputians write diagonally "like our ladies in England" in Gulliver, and no doubt something bitchy in Johnson's Dictionary?

Is Lydia right about Wilson because she's in love and just wants him to be right for her (and how much of the attraction is forbidden fruit?), so it's just luck that it turns out as she desires, or because deep down she has an unerring sense of class and spots signs the others miss? It's a genuine question, I can't remember from the novel, though I could probably find it fairly quickly, especially with the help of an e-text.

Search me, but the Scotswomen I know are far from being shrinking violets. Smollett was a Scot himself, he shouldn't have been under any illusions.

Let's see, what is it about towns which could be more conducive to female chatter. Shopping? The social whirl?
[User Picture]
From:sam_t
Date:June 21st, 2005 10:31 am (UTC)
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I did look up literacy, and found that I didn't actually have much that was relevant. There was some information on literacy among the lower classes which I'm afraid I can't remember - I'll go back and take notes if you want - but not a lot on middle- and upper-class women in general. There was certainly an expectation that women should be able to read (there were magazines aimed at women from at least the 1740s, for example) but not a lot on writing skills. There were definitely some women writing, translating and so on but I don't think that there was much worry about how well most women should write.

Liza Picard, Dr. Johnson's London
Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd ed.
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From:movingfinger
Date:June 20th, 2005 07:24 pm (UTC)
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Errrr... spelling and grammar were still pretty fluid (this was the impetus for Johnson's Dictionary, in part), and education in spelling and literature and fine writing was the last thing considered important even for upper-class women in the 18c. The comic servant and the pretentious person who gets words wrong are far older ideas than Gilbert and Gubar seem to think and they were not limited to women in the 18c. Malaprop, for example, is a female version of Dogberry. "Comparisons are odorous." Barking up the wrong tree, I believe.
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From:elettaria
Date:June 20th, 2005 10:43 pm (UTC)
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And the artisans in Dream, they get "odious" and "odorous" muddled up too. And Gobbo senior (and Lancelot too?) in Merchant. Good point.
[User Picture]
From:sam_t
Date:June 21st, 2005 10:48 am (UTC)
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Good point, although I'm not sure that Dogberry is the best comparison in Humphry Clinker. Is there someone of an equivalent social class to Tabitha? I'm drawing a blank at the moment, although that's more likely to be my ignorance/forgetfulness than anything else.

Tabitha is definitely an ignorant woman rather than an ignorant person, though: the only comic spellers in this novel are women, she is a nag (is the word 'termagent' used? I can't remember), and her authority over her brother is set up as an extremely undesirable (unnatural?) relationship until she is tamed by marriage to Lismahago.
[User Picture]
From:elettaria
Date:June 21st, 2005 12:02 pm (UTC)
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I've just checked through the e-text (link on the user info page for this comm), and "termagant" is used twice but not of Tabitha.
[User Picture]
From:sam_t
Date:June 21st, 2005 12:50 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, I thought I remembered it coming up somewhere.
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From:movingfinger
Date:June 21st, 2005 11:00 pm (UTC)
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But it was normal for an unmarried sister to keep house for an unmarried brother at that time. Tabitha doesn't really have authority over Matthew; he allows her the traditional mistress-of-the-house's perquisites (poultry, dairy, brewing). Farm wives were generally considered entitled to keep any profit they could make from the dairy and the fowl, and Tabitha is only exceptional in that she's been able to accumulate four thousand pounds of her very own money that way. Her fault lies in being grasping and greedy. Her being unmarried is in fact not entirely her fault, as her family (Matthew) has pretty obviously failed to make shift (i.e. traveled and broadened their acquaintance among families of a suitable class) to get her married when she was still young, and much of the evil done to her character can be attributed to that. With only her own savings to rely on for certain---Matthew's estate will not go to her, although he may leave some provision for her---Tabitha is forced to plan for a future when she will not be entitled to live in that house and will have to provide entirely for herself. She is prudent. Again, she is graspingly prudent, but she is indeed prudent. A very roughly analogous character is Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park.

A good percentage of the women's "comic spelling" and/or malapropism jokes, by the way, are Welsh-derived. Wales at that time was remote. Drovers and some of the uppermost classes traveled; the Brambles, local squires, are not the uppermost classes (by whom I mean the Wynnes, the Colt Hoares, etc.). We do see that Matthew has traveled (in his youth) and had the advantages of an outside-the-home humanist education and of exposure to a wider and better set of people than his sister. If Lydia were to remain unmarried, she and Jery could easily replicate the Matthew-Tabitha situation in their generation. Lydia's boarding-school education leaves her very nearly completely unsuited to fend for herself in the world.

I cannot blame a person for ignorance who has not been given an opportunity for education.
[User Picture]
From:elettaria
Date:June 22nd, 2005 11:11 am (UTC)
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Wonder what the Scots thought of the Welsh in Smollett's time, was it the nation everyone had a go at?
[User Picture]
From:movingfinger
Date:June 21st, 2005 01:33 am (UTC)
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Thinking further on this, it seems to me that considering the characters in Humphry Clinker as characters, that is as inventions of the author, is going to be more rewarding (to me...YMMV, of course) if they are viewed in the light of the structures (and strictures) of the eighteenth-century stage, something in which Smollett was very well versed. The people in this story are types---they are a little more nearly three-dimensional than many stage characters of the period---but they are first and foremost types that would have been comfortingly familiar to the audience/readership of their time and that should be still recognizable by us. One could easily turn much of this novel into a Sheridan play without straining.

Caveat: I am not a literary critic...nor an English major...
[User Picture]
From:elettaria
Date:June 21st, 2005 12:06 pm (UTC)
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(Don't worry about not being a critic or an English major; I'm an Eng Lit student but I've never studied this period, apart from a handful of plays which were on a course where the guy never actually taught us a thing.)

Very interesting, go on? Any particular Sheridan play I should nip out and read while I'm on work avoidance from whatever I'm currently on? They definitely seem to be types, we're not talking realism here, but I'm now trying to figure out which types and how to read them.

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