Dissent terms

‘Present my cumpliments to Mrs. Gwyllim, and I hope she and I will live upon dissent terms of civility.’ These words come at the end of letter, written in the mid-eighteenth century, from a servant, Winifred Jenkins, to her friend, Mary Jones. Winifred writes her words as she speaks them, so instead of ‘decent’, we find that we are faced on the page with ‘dissent’. The letter is one of many such letters that make up Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). Here is Winifred in full flow:

I have had trials and trembulation. God help me! I have been a vixen and a griffin these many days – Sattin has had power to temp me in the shape of van Ditton, the young ‘squire’s wally de shamble; but by God’s grease he did not purvail – I thoft as how, there was no arm in going to a play at Newcastle, with my hair dressed in the Parish fashion …

Given how much Smollett loved the theatre, it is tempting to view these words as a kind of play script. Spoken in the right voice or accent, they tell of Winifred’s ‘a-vexing and a-grieving’ about a Mr. Dutton; without that voice, an alternative world of grease, satin, vixens and griffins rises to the surface. We might think of this as one world layered precariously over another. Staying in the more decent version is not entirely straightforward. In an earlier novel, for instance, Smollett stopped halfway through his story in order to lament the part played by the central character: ‘thy crimes turn out so atrocious,’ he observed, ‘that I half repent me of having undertaken to record thy memoirs’. Winifred’s letters also risk getting out of control. One slip and you are moved from St James’s Palace to the ‘paleass of Saint Gimses’, from a pious sermon to a ‘pyehouse’, from not valuing Dutton’s departure one farthing to ‘vally not his going a’ – well, you get the idea. Put this way, what Smollett reveals, is an earthier, more chaotic, dissenting underside to the ‘decent’, ordered world of eighteenth-century Britain – and it is entrancing. More than this, he also reveals how to get into it. As with the novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, everything is about letters – both the epistolary and the alphabetical kind. Put one litter out of plaice and you will find yourself in enough a whirled.

(You can find these examples of Winifred’s words in her letters of 3 June, 18 July and 20 November in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). Smollett turns against the central character of The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) at the end of Chapter 49.)