Memoirs of a Coxcomb (John Cleland)


Did you know that there is a proper word for a vain, conceited man?

Until taking ENG322: Fiction before 1832, I didn’t either.

In Memoirs of a Coxcomb, John Cleland explores masculinity and femininity. His protagonist, William Delamore (the coxcomb), is a part of the 18th century European elite. William has very few and very superficial interests: women, pleasure, and entertainment.

Although the beginning of the story sets you up for a typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-are-reunited plotline, Memoirs of a Coxcomb fills the audience in with what the “boy”, William, experiences in his boy-loses-girl phase. When the budding coxcomb heads into the city, he finds other ways to spend his time than in looking for his love, Lydia.

I kid you not, the novel follows William and his rich male friends on their excursions to bars, brothels, parties, and other women’s houses. These excursions of young, vain, rich men are what Cleland refers to as “coxcombry”.

The book deals with gender roles and gender identity as William discovers what it means to be a “man” and what it means to be a “woman”. Often, traditional gender roles and stereotypes are slightly skewed, which is progressive for a book written in 1751.

William encounters women who are independent, confident, and sure of themselves, and he is all the more attracted to them for those traits. It is implied that William even sleeps with many of them. On the other hand, he is usually concerned about his appearance, his and others’ emotions, and about gossip.

This novel serves as a social critique of the elite in the time period. Coxcombs did not have jobs. Instead, they would live off their inheritances that preserved their spot as a part of the upper class, and use that money to partake in pleasurable activities—very bourgeois.

Though the book was written in 1751, William and Lydia’s romance seems pretty modern to me. When they reunite at the end of the novel, all of his coxcombry is set aside. They don’t talk about the fact that William spent his time without Lydia sleeping with other women, they just get back together.

This is all well and good, but what I wonder is, does a modern form of coxcombry exist today? And nowadays are only men susceptible to coxcombry, or women, too?