A Note on Smollett’s Lady Poet

by Mark Wallace

Recently I have been looking into that foundational work of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guber, as part of my general reading in literary theory and literary criticism. This book contends that the social construction of “creativity” placed it in opposition to femininity, citing the male mind as the mind which begats, and female efforts in that direction were unnatural, nay monstrous. The pen existed in various discourses explored by Gilbert and Guber as “a metaphorical penis”. This reminded me of a passage from Smollett’s Roderick Random, in which a middle-aged spinster is witnessed in the act of monstrous literary creation. Consulting Madwoman’s index, I found that this passage hadn’t been remarked therein, though another Smollett character, Tabitha Bramble from the (unread by me) Humphry Clinker, was mentioned in passing. It doesn’t seem to have been much discussed elsewhere, either (I could easily be wrong about that), but it is an interesting scene from a feminist point of view. That said, I must admit the reason it had stayed in my head in the first place was because it had made me laugh when I first read it, and it still does.

Tobias Smollett, 1721-1771

The lady’s appearance is unattractive, unfeminine, and her linen “never washed but in Castalian streams”. She is surrounded by clutter and disorder, and holds a stump of a pen, another indice of the impossibility of her task. She doesn’t note Roderick’s entry as she sits in a reverie of concentration; her movements are spasmodic, orgasmic, she bites her pen, contorts her face, and eventually says aloud, with an air of triumph:

Nor dare th’immortal gods my rage oppose!

This, it turns out is the closing line of a poem to be inserted into a tragedy she is composing, this poem the speech of a regicide as he stands over the body of his victim and haranges the crowd gathered thereabout. This lady-poet of Smollett’s then is dramatizing her Oedipal conflict, her desires to kill the father-king figure, and on a wider level her gender’s wishes to rebel against the patriarchal norms regarding creativity later identified in Madwoman. But it is all carried out with a stump of a pen, and recounted in tones that robs her attempts of any dignity. Nevertheless, Smollett was an early witness to  the discontent engendered by patriarchy, his acuteness not the less impressive even if he sees it only as an occasion for merriment.

As it happens, the whole poem, some 11 lines, is given later, and is, I believe, well worth reproducing:

Thus have I sent the simple king to hell,
Without or coffin, shroud, or passing-bell:—
To me, what are divine and human laws?
I court no sanction but my own applause!
Rapes, robb’ries, treasons yield my soul delight;
And human carnage gratifies my sight:
I drag the parent by the hoary hair,
And toss the sprawling infant on my spear,
While the fond mother’s cries regale mine ear.
I fight, I vanquish, murder friends and foes;
Nor dare th’immortal gods my rage oppose.

An “unnatural rhapsody”, Random calls it; or is it a primal howl of rebellion against the patriarchal norms Smollett is even within the poem upholding by its preposterous overstatement? We note again the “spear” reference, and are once more compelled to remark the phallicity of the image. This post is not the place for a more substantial reading of Smollett’s lady-poet (I’m not sure, but I don’t think her name ever appears. He refers to her as “my mistress”, as he has been employed as her footman), merely to note that this interesting personage has yet to receive her critical due.

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