Classism & Sexism in Volume III of Humphry Clinker

While I think that the attitudes toward gender and class portrayed in Henry Clinker were normal for the time, I found myself surprised at the prevalence of sexism and classism in the third volume. I’m not sure if the portrayal of class and gender actually changed toward the end of the novel. It may be that, due to a few early references, I expected the book to conclude with a moral message about the error of judging people by their appearance or station. In any case, I thought I would outline my observances and see what perspectives others might have.


In the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the characters as somewhat one-sided individuals:

Matt Bramble: An aging hypochondriacal patriarch “…his peevishness arises partly from bodily pain and partly from a… morbid excess of sensation” (Jery, page 15-16).

Tabitha Bramble: An unpleasant old maid “In her temper, she is proud, stiff, vain, imperious, prying, malicious, greedy, and uncharitable” (Jery, page 57).

Jery: “a pert jackanapes, full of college-petulance and self-conceit… hot and hasty” (Matt, page 11).

Lydia: “a poor good-natured simpleton, as soft as butter and as easily melted… deficient in spirit” (Matt, page 11).

Winifred Jenkins: An uneducated and presumably unintelligent servant. Jery describes her as attractive and pleasant by nature but far too impressionable, imitating and idolizing Tabitha (I couldn’t find the actual quote).

So, the book begins with an unfavorable description of all of the characters. Yet as the story progresses, the male characters become more complex. Matt is shown to be compassionate and loyal, even as he remains judgmental and a bit conceited. Jery shows that he can be open-minded, impartial, and observant, even if he sometimes has a bad temper. Humphry Clinker is introduced, and we see him as uneducated and possibly of below-average intelligence but highly moral, loyal, selfless, and religious. Lismahago is a very complex character: brave, argumentative, intelligent, unattractive, and maybe a little socially inept.

But what about the women? As the novel progresses, the women’s letters become increasingly less common. Their perspective is less represented. Does Lydia ever gain any depth of character? She seems almost like a simple plot device to support the mystery of Wilson. As for Tabitha and Winifred, the end of the book finds them pretty much the same as the beginning in terms of their character and perspectives. Do they gain depth?

Of course, the story of Mrs. Baynard seemed pretty problematic. Mr. Baynard marries her only because he wants her money. Yet when she wants nothing but money from him, he is seen as a victim and she is irredeemable. The old trope of the spoiled child is used to further defame Mrs. Baynard. The assumption is that if a mother is too kind to her child, he or she will become completely amoral or delinquent, entirely due to the mother’s over-indulgence, a product of her own selfishness. Eventually, she is solely responsible for ruining Mr. Baynard’s life (nevermind that he loves her… his enjoyment of her company only serves to prove his vulnerability and her own manipulation of him). When she dies, Mr. Bramble immediately attributes her death to an “act of Heaven” (312) which could not possibly be better news for her grieving husband. Mr. Baynard got himself into debt long before he met his wife, continued further in debt after having married her, and then was unable to manage his finances after her death. It seems pretty harsh to blame everything on her.


It was the issue of class that most surprised me at the end of the novel. Throughout the novel, there are examples of lower class individuals having merit or at least deserving compassion and respect. Mr Bramble gives money to a grateful lower-class mother of a dying child. A prodigal son returns from military service to rescue his father from debt prison, which is voluntarily subjected himself to in order to protect his other son. The whole company is profoundly moved by the scene and Mr Bramble invites the noble (if lower class) family to dinner. Humphry Clinker is as poor as one can be, yet shows greater morality than any other character.

So, I assumed Humphry would be accepted as a true son and there would be an implied message about the superficial nature of class. After all, Humphry saved Matt’s life, even before he knew Matt was his father. But the reception was cooler than I expected. Humphry is recognized but he doesn’t get full status as Matt’s son. Matt suggests that his friend find him a job. He is allowed to live at Brambleton for a while. And that appears to be the extent of it. He is not an heir and not entitled to an education, as Matt’s nephew is.

This re-assertment of class is again emphasized when Lydia marries George Dennison. Jery claims to be “mortified to reflect what flagrant injustice we every day commit, and what absurd judgment we form, in viewing objects through the falsifying medium of prejudice and passion” (page 304). Yet in that same paragraph, he tells his friend, “You may easily conceive what pleasure I must have felt on discovering that the honour of our family was no longer in danger from the conduct of a sister… that, instead of debasing her sentiments and views to a wretched stroller, she had really captivated the heart of a gentleman, her equal in rank and superior in fortune.”

Finally, the novel ends with Winifred’s reminder to her former companions that now that they are her “lower sarvents,” they can expect her protection as long as they “behave respectful” and “keep a proper distance” (323).

Is this attitude of the party members a contradiction, an appropriate response to social norms of the day, or is Smollett purposefully showing their hypocrisy in order to make a point?


2 thoughts on “Classism & Sexism in Volume III of Humphry Clinker

  1. I’m not certain which attitude in particular you’re asking is a contradiction, BUT I will add the following for context:
    In the C18:Marriage
    – The rights of wives:
    According to the law, the wife did not exist as an individual and therefore did not legally enjoy any rights. As William Blackstone demonstrates in Commentaries on the Laws of England: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”
    – The issue of adultery:
    Adultery was a very serious legal issue that could be prosecuted by the husband: “The criminal conversation …action allowed a husband to sue his wife’s lover in a civil suit for recovery of damages sustained to his property, an action which could be abused if the husband deliberately prostituted his wife in order to profit in court” (Wilputte 447).
    o As Samuel Johnson states, “The chastity of women is of importance, as all property depends on it”
    – A changing marriage model:
    o The 18th century in many ways represents a transitional period in the model of marriage formations. Stephanie Coontz in Marriage a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, locates the 18th century as the reemergence of love, rather than solely a sense of filial or social duty, as the center of marital decisions in the Western world.
    o By the end of the century, Mary Wollstonecraft would encourage that individuals would “calmly let passion subside into friendship” supporting the model of marriage
    based on the commensurate nature of men and women
    Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1979.
    Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2006.
    Wilputte, Earla A. “Wife Pandering in Three Eighteenth-Century Plays” SEL1500-1900. 38.3 (1998): 447-464.

    With regard to bastard children (as Humphry is) here is an excerpt from a book review on the text titled _Bastards and Foundlings: Illegitimacy in eighteenth century England_
    “The slippage between the labels of “bastard” and “foundling” is considerable, for people often assumed that foundlings were bastards, as illegitimacy was a primary motive in abandoning a child. Parent-lessness left children open to the stigma of bastardy, so that orphans also were often presumed to be illegitimate. That the assumption of illegitimacy was not necessarily true (for there were legitimate orphans and foundlings) allows Zunshine to analyze status as a construct, which leads her to a spectrum of illegitimacy: illegitimate children, legitimate children presumed illegitimate, illegitimate children presumed legitimate, and so on. Zunshine identifies four socioeconomic narratives of illegitimacy in the period: the bastard as a threatening pretender to the legal family’s property; the illegitimacy of children of common law parents, such as the rural poor, whose status has little effect on their lives; the narrative of tolerated illegitimacy among the upper classes; and narratives of the illegitimate children of serving women, featuring seduction, abandonment, and, in some cases, infanticide. Class is the primary discriminator here, for while the poor and the wealthy accepted illegitimacy, the middle class’s identity was threatened by it. The affluent could afford to support all of their children, legitimate and illegitimate, as fiscal responsibility for sexual behavior largely mitigated moral concerns. The poor and the working classes often were not bound by legal marriages, so the illegitimacy of their children was commonplace and not stigmatized. But middle-class concerns about the acquisition, retention, and secure transmission of property were accentuated by the status of illegitimate children, who could diminish and disperse family property, and thereby undermine the fiscal and social status of the family.”
    Francus, Marilyn. “Virtuous Foundlings and Excessive Bastards”, _The Eighteenth Century_ (49.1) Spring 2008.

  2. I think you make a strong point involving both instances of class and sexism throughout the novel. I too noticed the slow but consistent removal of many of the female voices towards the end of novel and mentioned it briefly in my post. To me, I think this also had the effect of giving authority to the men over the women, but I am not sure as to whether this was intentional by Smollett or not. Lydia seems as though she is one of the few who is able to maintain her authority of her voice by becoming one of the people who passes judgment on others. In a way, I think she starts to become more similar to Matt. A transformation of character, or the side effect of being more “experienced,” if you will.

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