A Journey Through the Nation’s Body: Tobias Smollett’s «The Expedition of Humphry Clinker»



Abstract


Il saggio offre brevi considerazioni sull’efficacia della metafora corporea per una lettura su diversi livelli di The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Nello specifico ci si soffermerà (i) sul fluido statuto generico del romanzo e sulla sua posizione all’interno del corpus del romanzo inglese settecentesco; (ii) sull’atto di scrittura e lettura del “corpo della nazione” considerato in relazione alla struttura complessiva del romanzo; e (iii) sulla relazione città/campagna per come si configura nella descrizione di Londra che, si suggerisce, può essere letta in relazione The English Malady di George Cheyne. Sia per la sua Scottishness sia per la pratica della «medicina per corrispondenza» (Wild 2006), Cheyne rappresenta un interlocutore privilegiato per comprendere diversi aspetti di The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.


In this essay, I will offer some brief considerations on how the bodily metaphor is particularly apt to a critical reading of Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker on several and diverse levels. More specifically, I will focus (i) on the fluid generic status of the novel and on its position within the corpus of eighteenth-century British fiction; (ii) on the writing and reading of the nation’s body considered in its relationship with the structure of the novel; and (iii) on the city/country relationship as it emerges in the description of London, which, I suggest, can be read in parallel with George Cheyne’s considerations in The English Malady. In fact, as I will argue, for both his Scottishness and his practice of «medicine-by-post» (Wild 2006), Cheyne is a key figure to investigate several aspects of Humphry Clinker.


Published in 1771, Tobias Smollett’s last – and most famous – novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker has recently prompted renewed critical interest. The new critical edition, edited by Evan Gottlieb and published in 2015 by Norton, bears witness to the multiplicity of critical responses that Smollett’s novel has continued to elicit, which have addressed issues ranging from Scottishness in a renewed perspective (Gottlieb 2005; Rothstein 1982) through the relevance of alternative geographies to transculturation (Sussmann 1994) and remediation as a way of addressing the peculiar epistolary form of the novel (Mann 2012-13). These interpretations all provide new elements to address the medical and bodily subtext of the novel, which remains a central issue in studies on Smollett and on Humphry Clinker more in particular, due to Smollett’s acquaintance with medical discourse and practice. In this essay, I will offer some brief considerations on how the bodily metaphor is particularly apt to a critical reading of the novel on several and diverse levels. More specifically, I will focus (i) on the fluid generic status of the novel and on its position within the corpus of eighteenth-century British fiction; (ii) on the writing and reading of the nation’s body considered in its relationship with the structure of the novel; and (iii) on the city/country relationship as it emerges in the description of London, which, I suggest, can be read in parallel with George Cheyne’s considerations in The English Malady (1733). In fact, as I will argue, for both his Scottishness and his practice of «medicine-by-post» (Wild 2006), Cheyne is a key figure to investigate several aspects of Humphry Clinker.


I. The corpus of fiction, the body of the novel


The fluid generic status of Smollett’s last novel has long been troubling critics.1 A kind of “strange body” within the corpus of eighteenth-century fiction, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker has been ascribed to diverse novelistic genres, as John V. Price has well summarized in his study on the structure of the novel: «Smollett has fused elements of the epistolary novel, the travel book or travelogue, the seventeenth-century “character sketch”, the spiritual autobiography, and even the expository essay» (Price 1973, p. 8). Furthermore, the novel has been labeled as “picaresque”, on account of the «device of a journey motif used as a vehicle for social satire» (Spector 1968, p. 128, quoted in Price 1973, p. 17). Yet, as Price objects, one is left to wonder who the pícaro is, since no character really qualifies as such. Loretta Innocenti ([1997] 1999, p. 201) has focused on the importance of Jery Melford’s function as both «point of view and of uttering», thus placing the novel within the humoristic 2 tradition. In more recent times, Wayne Wild has suggested that Humphry Clinker also be read as an instance of «medicine-by-post», which he defines as «the eighteenth-century practice of medical consultation through the exchange of letters between patient and physician» (Wild 2006, p. 7), whose main exponents were James Jurin, William Cullen and Bath physician George Cheyne.


Therefore, as John V. Price notices, «one occasionally suspects that iconoclastic Tobias Smollett loaded his work with several literary forms and formulas in order to combat a process of labelling and categorizing» (Price 1973, p. 8). Yet, one also wonders how this “combat” is carried on and what kind of “narrative contract” (Rosa 2008) 3 Smollett offers his readers. While Smollett’s use of the “editor” is perfectly in keeping with the tradition of the novel in the wake of Defoe and Richardson (Mayer 1992), at the same time, in the very same way as he does challenge the novelistic tradition that associates the name in the title to that of the actual protagonist of the novel (Clinker, as we know, is not the main character, the book is not about him), Smollett also challenges the tradition of the single editor, the figure often in charge of laying out the narrative contract for the reader. In fact, Humphry Clinker features two editors: Reverend Dustwich, who has come into possession (although he will not say how) of the letters, which he has decided to edit and have published, and publisher Davis, who, after refusing Dustwich financial conditions and complaining that «Writing is all a lottery», that «The taste of the town is so changeable» voices his skepticism about publishing the letters as travel literature: «Then there have been so many letters upon travels lately published—What between Smollett’s, Sharp’s, Derrick’s, Thicknesse’s, Baltimore’s, and Baretti’s, together with Shandy’s Sentimental Travels, the public seems to be cloyed with that kind of entertainment» (Smollett [1771] 1984, pp. 2-3). The bookseller thus invites a reading beyond the most obvious one, suggested by the title of the novel and stresses the “openness” of Smollett’s last novel.


Beside the “doubled editor”, however, there is another relevant detail in the two letters that open the novel: for Reverend Dustwich, a Welshman like Matthew Bramble, has physically met the Scot Lismahago at a certain point, after the conclusion of the story narrated in the letters. In fact, he has had a violent confrontation with him during a dinner and does not hesitate to define him as a «vagrant foreigner as may be justly suspected of disaffection to our happy constitution, in church and state» (Smollett [1771] 1984, p. 1)4 . Thus, after the reference to a minor character in the title of the novel, in its the very first pages we are introduced to another minor character, and one who, just like Clinker, does not write any of the letters but is given, at least in these two letters, considerable attention. This fact undermines, right from the beginning, the “leading” voices of the character who actually get to write the letters, thus inviting the reader to question the relationship between the written (re)construction of a character and his/her physical existence, that is to question issues of embodiment connected to the representation of the nation’s body and it diverse “components”. As Sharon Alker observes, «Through the complicity of a Welsh clergyman, and a London bookseller, who appears to be Anglo-Welsh, the letters that explore reconciliation between the Anglo-Welsh and the Scots have been appropriated and transformed into a commodity» (Alker 2002, p. 99).



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NOTAS:


1. In the very same way, Smollett himself has often been a problem for historians and critics of the novel, who place him neither with the founding fathers of the novel nor with Sterne.

2. I am using the word “humoristic” as used in Santovetti 2004, p. 193 to account for the tradition of modern novel writing founded by Sterne. No coincidence that the adjective, seldom used in English literature on the subject, has become a sort of keyword in Italian scholarship through the work of Giancarlo Mazzacurati, author of Effetto Sterne: la narrazione umoristica in Italia da Foscolo a Pirandello (1990) as well as translator and editor of the Italian edition of Humphry Clinker (Smollett 1987).

3. Often strategically placed at the beginning of the novel and entrusted to the novel’s editor, the “narrative contract” presents the conditions under which the act of reading should take place. The narrative contract performs therefore a key function in terms of genre as shapes the reader’s horizon of expectations (see Rosa 2008, p. 11).

4. From his very first appearance, Lismahago is the “strange body”, both physically (he has been mutilated during his war days) and spiritually (both Dustwich and Jery define him as a Jesuit in disguise: Respectively «he is no better than a Jesuit», p. 1 and «Mr. Lismahago answered with a sort of Jesuitical reserve», p. 192). Dustwich’s definition of Lismahago as «vagrant foreigner», moreover, rings a Shakespearian bell to the reader’s ear, who is reminded of Othello, the «extravagant and wheeling stranger». In fact, this association is confirmed further on in the novel: when Lismahago tells his story, «Tabitha did seriously incline her ear; – indeed, she seemed to be taken with the same charms that captivated the heart of Desdemona, who loved the Moor for the dangers he had past» (Smollett 1984, p. 194).


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