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  • Reconstituting the National Body in Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy
  • Terence Bowers

...there can be no natural way of considering the body that does not involve at the same time a social dimension.

— Mary Douglas 1

In 1763, shaken by illness, family tragedy, and political misfortune, Tobias Smollett exiled himself to the Continent where he spent two years restoring his health and writing his Travels through France and Italy (1766). Though the Travels sparked great initial interest, it has often since been dismissed as a crude, misanthropic, jingoistic diatribe—the perverse product of a splenetic valetudinarian obsessed with dirt, smells, prices, and bodily ailments. 2 That Smollett should worry about his health is natural; but that others should wish to follow the minutiae of his corporeal problems (which includes learning about what he ate, where he slept, how he bathed) is less clear. Such self-absorption combined with intense francophobia has, for many critics, undermined both the book’s reliability as reportage and its status as literary art. 3

Yet to regard the Travels as an exercise in solipsistic jingoism misconstrues what is significant and daring about Smollett’s enterprise. As Scott Rice has shown, the idiosyncrasies of Smollett’s narrator (his crankiness, obsession with hygiene, and odd reactions to Rome) are consciously deployed elements designed to create a persona that unifies the Travels into a satire directed against the rise of luxury. 4 Building on Rice’s insights, I want to look at Smollett’s corporeal concerns further—something Aileen Douglas has done in her study of Smollett’s novels 5 —but offer a very different understanding of the Travels, one that both revises our view of Smollett as a ferocious Tory and probes a central problem of the eighteenth century: how Britain as a recent political invention should be understood as a social entity. Specifically, I wish to explore the sociopolitical dimension of Smollett’s body and argue that matters of the body in the Travels are political matters, and that his efforts to rehabilitate his declining corporeal condition underpin a larger project of re-forming Great Britain as a national body. 6

Underlying my analysis is not only the view that the body serves as a metaphor of society (as in body-body politic analogies), but also the theory that bodies are themselves social constructs that help maintain a particular [End Page 1] kind of social order. As Mary Douglas reminds us, there is “no natural way of considering the body.” The body personal and body social are mutually constitutive. The body, in this view, constitutes the base upon which collective cultural categories and social axioms are inscribed and functions as a medium for the production of practices that structure social relations. 7 To quote Douglas again, “the physical experience of the body...sustains a particular view of society” (p. 65). Given the primacy of the body as a means of instilling sociocultural principles, it is not surprising that in times of transition, when such principles are not stable, small details pertaining to the body loom large.That is why, according to Pierre Bourdieu, societies “that seek to produce a new man...set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners” (p. 94; italics his). For it is in such details that larger ordering systems—including social and political systems—are made “natural” to those who must conform to them.

Such an understanding of the body puts Smollett’s corporeal concerns in the Travels in an entirely new light. Far from being odd deviations into minor, merely personal matters, Smollett’s bodily problems become central to what I claim is the book’s primary aim: reconstituting the nation. For in rehabilitating his own body, Smollett is creating a foundation for a new model of the social order, one that is opposed to the social order founded on what I call the aristocratic body. The radicalness of Smollett’s body politics emerges when we place his attack on the aristocratic body and his effort to construct a new bodily norm within the historical context of the Seven Years’ War, the cultural context of the Grand Tour, and the broad...