The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son

“The End that I propose to my self in this little Book, is to render you wise by other Peoples Example; which is the surest and most commodious way of Learning for him who would know the Humours of the World. You may learn herein to precaution your self, by seeing my Negligence and little Care; and from my Infamy, you may reap Honour and Glory. For you are not ignorant that it is the first degree of Wisdom to begin by ones self to be wise; and the second, to listen to those who are wiser than we: and he who knows how to do neither the one nor the other, is in no consideration.”

If I’ve learned one thing from the research I’ve done to support my reading and writing  for this blog – other than that the England of the 1680s is a black hole of terrifying power, from which no-one ever escapes – it’s that you just never know what literary family tree you’re going to end up climbing next.

In his introduction to the Broadview Press edition of The London Jilt; or, The Politick Whore, Charles H. Hinnant suggests that its anonymous author was also responsible for another short novel published in 1683, The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son. Having read the work in question (and formed a few opinions of my own), I was hunting around for any trace of background information when I stumbled across a source that throws a whole new light on the genesis of both these works – namely, The Burgher And The Whore: Prostitution In Early Modern Amsterdam by Lotte Van Der Pol.

Although predominantly an historical and sociological study,  Van Der Pol also examines the flood of whore’s and rogue’s biographies that emanated from Amsterdam during the 1670s and 1680s. Many of these works were subsequently translated into English, and in some cases Anglicised as well – although without acknowledgement of their origin. Among the “English” works that Van Der Pol cites as having Dutch originators are both The London Jilt and The London Bully. The former is held to be an adaptation of D’Openhertige Juffrouw, of d’ontdetke geveinsdheid (The Outspoken Damsel; or, Hypocrisy Unmasked), which was originally published in two volumes over 1680 – 1681, and translated into both French and German. For The London Bully, Van Der Pol cites De Haagsche lichtmis (The Libertine Of The Hague), published in 1679.

Since my grasp of Dutch is limited to the word “Heineken”, I’m obviously not in any position to dispute Van Der Pol’s contentions – and nor, given what we have already come across in this study of translations, adaptations, borrowings and outright plagiarisms in the English literary scene of the late 17th century, do I feel that there is any pressing need to dispute it. Although Van Der Pol herself is somewhat aggrieved about the works in question being claimed as “English”, their European origins do not take away from their position within the history of the English novel, nor reduce their immediate influence.

While rogue’s biographies were popular in England at the time, so to were picaresque tales, most of them originating from Spain; and while there numerous translations of actual Spanish works, this revelation of the Anglicisation of Dutch works begs the question of how many “English” picaresques (most of which were set in Spain anyway) may have had a similar history. Since there is no disputing the influence of these forms of fiction upon a number of significant English novelists of the 18th century – Defoe, Fielding and Smollett in particular – all this throws an interesting light upon the development of the novel generally, and more specifically upon the stubborn insistence of writers of the day and subsequent literary historians alike on drawing a sharp distinction between the English “novel” and the European “romance”.

If we accept the Dutch origins of The London Jilt and The London Bully, this still leaves us with some unanswered questions, chiefly whether the broad similarities between these two short works of fiction existed prior to their Anglicisation (that is, if De Haagsche lichtmis and D’Openhertige Juffrouw, of d’ontdetke geveinsdheid were written by the same Dutch author), or whether they are the result of the two being Anglicised by the same anonymous Englishman – or both.

There is certainly more than a passing family resemblance between The London Jilt and The London Bully. Both tales have their protagonist offering up their own life as a cautionary tale; both follow them from childhood to independent adulthood; both include sequences in which real or perceived grievances are revenged with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness; both promise a second part in which the protagonist, after a series of casual sexual encounters, embarks upon a stable relationship – although only The London Jilt keeps that promise. There are also linguistic similarities between the two, particularly the reiteration of the tell-tale word “prancks”, used to describe the protagonists’ acts of revenge. It is also important to note that if these tales have been Anglicised, it has been done so thoroughly as to be undetectable. The geography and milieu of both works are detailed and convincing.

In spite of these parallels, The London Bully is in every respect an inferior work to The London Jilt. Merely by putting its narrative into the mouth of a woman, the latter instantly gains interest via the unfamiliarity of its perspective. More significantly, however, the obsessive focus upon the grim economic realities of female existence in The London Jilt give it an overarching dramatic tension, a pervasive sense of urgency even at its most seemingly light-hearted, that is entirely lacking in The London Bully, which rather than a fairly unified narrative consists of a string of unconnected episodes, and in place of a pragmatic heroine driven by her terror of impoverished old age gives us a protagonist who resorts to swindles and theft just because he doesn’t like working, and who commits acts of cruelty and violence simply because he can.

A feature of the purely fictional works of this time is the self-aggrandising preface; it’s as if, lacking a political agenda, these short works had to find some other way of justifying their existence. Curiously, although as with The London Jilt there is a gap between what is promised in the preface and what is delivered by the text, here it is in the opposite direction. The London Jilt‘s preface is scathing and ugly in its denunciation of prostitutes and other lewd women, while the narrative of Cornelia is for the most part understanding and matter-of-fact rather than condemnatory. Conversely, in The London Bully the horrifying antics of William*, although again offered up as a cautionary tale, are treated rather indulgently in the preface, being described as merely, “The Sallies of Impetuous Youth” – impetuous youth apparently being given to humiliating “prancks”, fraud, gambling, whoremongering, theft and highway robbery.

(*Towards the end, our author forgets that his protagonist’s name is William, and starts calling him Frederick – while at the same time introducing another character called William. It’s horribly confusing.)

William – or “William” – is born in London to upwardly aspiring parents, who consequently send him out to nurse in the first instance, and pack him off to school thereafter; so we can’t really blame him for his lack of filial affection, whatever we make of his absolute lack of any moral sense. William doesn’t learn much at school, but he proves himself a dab hand at practical jokes, nothing making him laugh so hard as a “pranck” that ends with a schoolfellow being caned to within an inch of his life. It is also at school that William begins to supplement his own income by stealing from his companions, his own discovery and vicious caning teaching him no better, but rather inspiring him to give more thought to how to cover his tracks. It is the thought of what his father will do when he learns of the theft that chiefly concerns him – although as it happens circumstances intervene:

“…with all my strength I ran thither accordingly, without asking the Masters Leave, but it was too late, for my Father was already departed, and my Mother was in so poor a condition, that there was no hopes she could escape Death; as indeed she accompanied my Father two days afterwards into the other world. My Youth, and my Libertine Humor did not allow me to shed tears upon the double Loss I had newly had, and I felt it in time more than I did then; for to tell you the truth, I did in some manner rejoyce at it, forasmuch as that it would have been impossible for me to have escaped the punishment of the Theft I had committed, if my Father had remained alive…”

Falling under the guardianship of an indifferent uncle, William is apprenticed out to first an apothecary, then to a a “chirurgeon”: a professional life that allows this novel to supplement the apparent compulsory chamber-pot scenes with an unhealthy fixation with “clysters”, or enemas. His first period of employment ends when he takes umbrage at the domestic work he is compelled to do, and revenges himself by pushing his master’s wife downstairs and seriously injuring her; the second, when he has an encounter of a different sort with his new employer’s wife. Compelled to sneak into bed with her so that she will not know her husband is spending the night with his mistress, William finds her in an amorous mood:

“…I took her hand away, but she imagining this was only some remnants of her Husbands Anger, fell again into handling and taking it by the Head: Said she, ‘How, my little Rogue, is it not better to love in good intelligence and repose, than to quarrel and be always in anger against one another?’ When I perceiv’d she found no alteration in that part, I took heart of Oak, and did the feat without saying a word, notwithstanding all the Caresses this woman made me. This first Course was performed with so much satisfaction on my side, that I renewed it four or five times, until that she was desirous to take her rest…”

When the chirurgeon returns, he finds his wife in a wonderfully complacent mood – which is William’s cue to exit.

And here already we have the pattern of the novel: cruel jokes, criminal acts, and lots of sex – and sometimes all at once, as when William and his friends waylay a lady and her footman and compel them to have sex for their entertainment before stealing the woman’s purse. One mystifying episode has William encountering a, “Nephew of Don Quixot”, an escaped lunatic whose delusions lead him to dress and behave like a character out of a romance, and who conceives a grand passion for the landlord’s frankly ugly daughter: an indication, perhaps, of how far Spanish fictions had infiltrated the English marketplace. Late in the novel, dangerously broke, William takes to the road – justifying his actions by blaming a cruel fate, rather than his own sloth and improvidence:

“…I immediately made ready my Pistols, and taking his Horse by the Bridle, and setting a Pistol to his Breast, I demanded his Money. He had a man along with him, but on foot, and coming on me as my Back was turned, he thought to have run me through the Body behind; but I perceiving him, fir’d a Pistol at him, which however had not the effect I desired; for it only touched his right Arm, and I thought to have depriv’d him both of Speech and Life… Thus mounted I the Horse, and taking leave of the old Gentleman, I said to him, ‘Sir, I beseech you to excuse this rash action, for Poverty and Despair have been the cause of it…’.”

Like Cornelia before him, William makes a practice of “revenging” any slights again himself, whether they be real or only perceived – a habit that takes this short novel into some deeply ugly territory, thanks to William’s tendency to go well beyond measure-for-measure.

A connoisseur of whores, William spends much time and money in pursuit of one called Isabella. This relationship is marked by “fondness” on Isabella’s part (inexplicable to the reader), which leads to jealousy, misunderstanding, and mutual violence. However, while Isabella does cause terrible things to happen to William, they are chiefly inadvertent, as we shall see; while William’s retaliations are absolutely calculated and deliberate.

In the first instance, William gains access to Isabella only through a professional bawd, who demands in return that he service her – which he grits his teeth and does, even though she is a repulsive old crone (i.e. she’s thirty-five). The bawd, naturally in William’s estimation, also grows “fond” of him, which leads her to deceive Isabella as to the nature of their congress, provoking a terrible scene – with terrible consequences:

“…I embraced and kissed her, but she refused me also that small Favour, repulsing me very rudely, though this did not make me desist in the least; for I began to bear her a great affection. Seeing then that she could not get rid of me by that means, she rose from her Chair with intention to have gone out of the Chamber; but I withheld her, and took her by the Petticoat, when she strugling to get away, and I still holding it, made a great hole in it; seeing this, she fell into such a Passion, that she flung at my head a flaming Faggot-stick, when by chance there fell a spark into my Breeches…”

It is unlikely, by this point in the story, that the reader won’t get some grim satisfaction out of William’s injuries – “…I considered the miserable estate of my Instrument, which I found as black about the Head, as if it had newly made its escape with Aneas out of the Flames of Troy. My Thighs & Buttocks for company, had also received their share…” – but sadly, not only do they barely slow him down with respect to his sexual escapades, but the fact that Isabella is profoundly distressed by this accident has no effect at all upon his resolution to be revenged upon both her and the bawd, whose lies brought about the fight in the first place.

For Isabella, this means a series of escalating prancks that culminate in William luring her out of town, beguiling her into spending all her money on expensive suits of clothes, and then robbing her and leaving her stranded and penniless. As for the bawd, William’s revenge is rather more direct. Having first tricked her into sitting on an ant’s nest – “…which raised my Laughter to that excess, that I could no longer look upon the Sport…” – William then wraps things up:

“…I pusht her into the fire, insomuch that by this means the Pipe broke in her Body, whereupon she fell a crying so furiously, that I thought it time to be trooping; and accordingly I marched off, after having kicked her five or six times…”

There is,  I must stress, no sense at all of irony in any of this, no hint that we’re not supposed to be as delighted with William’s vengeance as he is himself. Once or twice in the novel he does express some regret for his actions, but these words hardly make a ripple in the flood of violence and ugliness that he leaves in his wake. The novel seems to take it for granted that we’re interested in his fortunes, and want to see him succeed.

This is certainly the tone of the novel’s major subplot, in which William falls in love with the Dutch wife of an Italian periwig-maker, although his pursuit of her is initially thwarted by the fact that her husband has recourse to a chastity belt. Here, however, William’s brief apothecarical studies come to the rescue. Sophia is given an opiate with which to drug her husband, allowing her to steal the key and have it duplicated, and thus to embark upon an affair with William. However, the duped husband’s business failing, Sophia is abruptly snatched away until the end of the novel. When she reappears, her unsatisfactory first husband has died, and she has married a man elderly but rich.

Sophia is, fittingly enough for the love of William’s life, thoroughly contemptuous of the fond old man who is keeping her in luxury; and having gathered up all she can by way of money and other valuables, she throws in her lot with William, who by this time has made England too hot to hold him:

“But all the Adventures I had since, and how Alexander behaved himself after having lost his Wife, I will give you an Account of in the Second Part of this Book. In the mean while I wish you, dear Reader, all sorts of Prosperities; and I’ll put a period to this First Part by this happy Adventure of Love which I have just now related to you.”

It is upon Cornelia entering into marriage with the tobacco-merchant that the first part of The London Jilt closes; only in that case, the second part followed in due course, tracing the later stages of her life, her change of career path, and her venture into authorship. Whether there was in fact a second part of this story in its original Dutch (that is, if we accept Lotte Van Der Pol’s account of its history) I’m not in a position to say – but there certainly isn’t one in English: The London Bully breaks off here, with no sign as yet (or not much) of a justifiably wrathful Providence catching up with William, still less of him undergoing any reformation. Personally, I like to think that by this time the Angliciser of William’s “happy Adventures” was as thoroughly sick of him as the reader is likely to be, and chucked the whole project in disgust.

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10 Responses to “The London Bully; or, The Prodigal Son”

  1. Update the language and you have next fall’s sitcom ready to go. Unfortunately. (starring Charlie Sheen?)

  2. Prancked – coming soon to Fox!”

  3. and it would still be more tasteful than most of the other shows.

  4. I must admit I find the contrast between the two books the most interesting thing about this one. It’s a failing in me that I need protagonists to be at least vaguely sympathetic or I don’t enjoy fiction; Head’s The English Rogue (at least as far as I’ve got with it, which isn’t very) seems to suffer from much the same problem as The London Bully.

    Is there at least some contemporary technical detail here? (The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale is made much more interesting than it might be by this, as far as I’m concerned…)

  5. The nearest modern equivalent might be [i]Youth In Revolt[/i]… its protagonist also pulls lots of spiteful acts of vengeance, sometimes on people who on balance have done him more good than harm. The difference is, he’s hilariously funny at it.

  6. I’m happy to do your editing for you – don’t sweat it.

    I can deal with an unsympathetic protagonist as long as I’m not being asked to sympathise, which…actually, I’m not sure I can accuse The London Bully of that. It’s fairly neutral in tone if anything, very matter-of-fact over, “I did this terrible thing, and then I did that terrible thing…” I didn’t particularly want to read any more, but I am curious over how it would have ended.

    The English Rogue draws ever nearer; I shall consider myself duly warned.

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