Archive for March, 2012


Critic on the couch

So few people are really acquainted with the whole range of Romance (even in English), or with any large part of it, that one may without undue presumption set down in part, if not in whole, to ignorance, a doctrine and position which we must now attack. This is that romance and novel are widely separated from each other; and that the historian of the novel is really straying out of his ground if he meddles with Romance. These are they who would make our subject proper begin with Marivaux and Richardson, or at earliest with Madame de La Fayette, who exclude Bunyan altogether, and sometimes go so far as to question the right of entry to Defoe. But the counter-arguments are numerous; and any one of them would amost suffice by itself. In the first place the idea of the novel arising so late is unnatural and unhistorical. In the second place a pedantic insistence on the exclusive definition of the novel involves one practical inconvenience which no one, even among those who believe in it, has yet dared to face. You must carry your wall of partition along the road as well as across it; and write separate histories of the Novel and the Romance.

I spent some considerable time pondering the best way to attack The English Novel by George Saintsbury for this blog – and must finally confess that the word “attack” may be more apt than I’m quite comfortable with. There is, to be fair, a great deal to enjoy in this 1913 study of that much-cherished subject, “the rise of the novel”, and at first I thought that I was going to get along with Professor Saintsbury almost as well as I did with James R. Foster. And why not?—after all, he refuses to separate “the novel” and “the romance”; he doesn’t think the novel started with Daniel Defoe; and he despises Richard Head.

But finally there was a point where Professor Saintsbury and I parted company—and I need to be very clear about the nature of that point, so as not to end up being guilty of doing exactly what I’m about to criticise Saintsbury for doing.

Fairly late in his text, Professor Saintsbury confesses to being a political conservative—in fact, he prefers to call himself a Tory. I may say that by the time of this admission, it was entirely unnecessary, since the bent of his beliefs had been quite evident for some time. Now—those of you who have been regular visitors to this blog would not, I imagine, need telling that my own tendencies (I prefer not to regard them as “political”) lie in the other direction. Nevertheless, I do try not to let ideological differences intrude upon my assessment of the works I examine here, although obviously I’m going to end up more in sympathy with some than with others.

My objection to the tenor of The English Novel is that George Saintsbury does let his ideology intrude upon his literary analysis—and he’s not shy about it, either. The clearest illustration of this comes, not surprisingly, when Saintsbury considers the radical novelists of the late 18th century, to whom, since he disapproves of them as radicals, he gives extremely short shrift as novelists—refusing to look past the politics to the writing.

And this becomes increasingly Saintsbury’s approach to his criticism as he moves through the literature of the 19th century and into the publications of his own lifetime, to an extent that is both exasperating and disappointing; disappointing in particular, since the early stages of this study, dealing with times in the safely distant past, are both informative and entertaining; while Saintsbury’s idiosyncratic writing style, with its bizarre mix of the chatty and the lofty, and its habit of slipping into the first person, is an entertainment unto itself.

Here are a couple of early quotes, just to give you a taste. That passage quoted up above, arguing the impossibility of dividing the romance and the novel, concludes as follows:

The present writer can only say that, although he has dared some tough adventures in literary history, he would altogether decline this. Without the help of the ants that succoured Psyche against Venus, that heap would indeed be ill to sort.

Still more typical is an early statement bringing the argument into more modern times (and, by the way, giving an example of Saintsbury’s tendency to literary jingoism):

The separation of romance and novel—of the story of incident and the story of character and motive—is a mistake logically and psychologically. It is a very old mistake, and it has deceived some of the elect: but a mistake it is. It made even Dr Johnson think Fielding shallower than Richardson; and it has made people very different from Dr Johnson think that Count Tolstoi is a greater analyst and master of a more developed humanity than Fielding. As a matter of fact, when you have excogitated two or more human beings out of your own head and have set them to work in the narrative (not the dramatic) way, you have made the novel in posse, if not in esse, from its apparently simplest development, such as Daphne And Chloe, to its apparently most complex, such as the Kreutzer Sonata or the triumphs of Mr Meredith. You have started the “Imitation”—the “fiction”—and tout est là.

Yet for all its ability to amuse – and to bewilder – it must be said that George Saintsbury’s writing style has a tendency to distract from and even to overwhelm his content, to the point where I finally came away from this study feeling that I had learned infinitely more about “George Saintsbury” than I had about “the English novel”.

At the outset, The English Novel seems like the rise-of-the-novel study to beat all rise-of-the-novel studies. Most of these works, as we have seen, open with a debate over where to draw their line in the sand—Richardson? Defoe? Behn? Not for George Saintsbury such timid stuff: his study plunges straight back into antiquity:

One of the best known, and one of the least intelligible, facts of literary history is the lateness, in Western European Literature at any rate, of prose fiction, and the comparative absence, in the two grwat classical languages, of what we call by that name. It might be an accident, though a rather improbable one, that we have no Greek prose fiction to a time long subsequent to the Christian era, and nothing in Latin at all except the fragments of Petronius and the romance of Apuleisus. But it can be no accident, and it is a very momentous fact, that, from the foundation of Greek criticism, “Imitation”, that is to say “Fiction” (for it is neither more nor less), was regarded as not merely the inseparable but the constituent property of poetry, even though those who held this were doubtful whether poetry must necessarily be in verse. It is another fact of the greatest importance that the ancients who, in other forms than deliberate prose fiction, try to “tell a story”, do not seem to know very well how to do it.

From here Saintsbury jumps from Apollonius Of Tye to The Vision Of St. Paul, and from there makes a series of leaps that take in Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval tales, the Arthurian legends and Malory’s choices, the rise of prose in Italy and Spain, and finally the Elizabethan romances of Philip Sidney and his ilk, and their 17th century descendents—eventually running up against the eternal question of where and when, exactly, “the novel” may be said to have begun. Saintsbury digresses here slightly in order to mention Henry Neville, and be nice to Aphra Behn and rude to Richard Head, then makes a strong case for John Bunyan’s place in the novel’s timeline, while classing him with Swift and Cervantes as an allegorist rather than a novelist per se. The most unexpected stroke here, however, is the introduction of a new player into the age-old debate, as he argues for the influence of the early 18th century periodicals, and the writing of Steele and Addison, over the subsequent development of English prose.

Saintsbury’s study of the novel proper starts with a consideration of Defoe (and he gets irritated with those who pass him over in the timeline and start with Richardson in exactly the same way that I get irritated with those who start with Defoe and pass over Aphra Behn [and, ahem, Francis Kirkman]). He concedes the ongoing difficulty of deciding how much of Defoe’s fiction actually is “fiction”; finally concluding that it doesn’t matter—and in my opinion, making a stronger case for Defoe than many of those who have written entire books on the subject:

But, apart from all these things, there abides the fact that you can read the books—read them again and again—enjoy them most keenly at first and hardly less keenly afterwards, however often you repeat the reading.

It is this re-readability that inclines Saintsbury to position Defoe as, sigh, “the father of the novel”; arguing that the art of the novel lies very much in its capacity to yield repeated pleasure, in spite of the reader’s familiarity with the text; that is, its ability to entertain in more than one way.

From here The English Novel plays out in a conventional manner, if not always a conventional style—though we must of course acknowledge that what we recognise here as “conventional” is a measure of how far Saintsbury’s approach was later copied. He was certainly the model for those critics who later chose to select a “Big Four” amongst the English novelists – in tandem with paying scant heed to those who didn’t make the cut; an approach to literary criticism that would dominate the field until late in the 20th century. For the rest, Saintsbury starts with The Usual Suspects – Fielding, Richardson, Smollet, Sterne – and also divvies them up in the usual way, tagging Fielding and Smollet as “masculine” and Richardson and Sterne as “feminine”, or at least “feminised”, and offering the latter two as the models for the later hordes of “scribbling women”. A note that will recur through much of the rest of this book begins to emerge here, which is something I shall return to shortly.

I’ve said before that my interest these days in the history of the novel lies in its black holes – the writers before Defoe, and those that lie between Defoe and Richardson, and between Sterne and Austen. Not surprisingly, then, I began to part company with George Saintsbury at this point in his study, as he gives a quick overview of quite a number of writers of the second half of the 18th century, but very much in the spirit of, I’m telling you this so you don’t have to bother with them. It is in this stretch that the radicals get their comprehensive dismissal, with Saintsbury obviously feeling than he has said all that needs to be said to turn us away from the works of Robert Bage and Thomas Holcroft when he tells us that they were not gentlemen. (So they weren’t; but on the other hand, they weren’t snobs, either.)

It soon becomes evident that Saintsbury’s eagerness to get out of the 18th century lies in the fact that two of the writers he considers the all-time greatest belong to the early 19th. We are probably not surprised to find Jane Austen on Saintsbury’s personal “Big Four” list, nor do I have the least inclination to argue with his analysis of her myriad perfections as a novelist:

It is the absolute triumph of that reliance on the strictly ordinary which has been indicated as Miss Austen’s title to pre-eminence in the history of the novel. Not an event, not a circumstance, not a detail, is carried out of “the daily round, the common task” of average English middle-class humanity, upper and lower. Yet every event, every circumstance, every detail, is put sub specie eternitatis by the sorcery of art. Few things could be more terrible—nothing more tiresome—than to hear the garrulous Miss Bates talk in actual life; few things are more delightful than to read her speeches as they occur here. An aspiring soul might feel disposed to “take and drown itself in a pail” (as one of Dickens’s characters says) if it had to live the life which the inhabitants of Highbury are represented as living; to read about that life—to read about it over and over—has been and is always likely to be one of the chosen delights of some of the best wits of our race. This is one of the paradoxes or art: and perhaps it is the most wonderful of them…

But the problem with this positioning of Jane is that it sets the tone for the next sixty or seventy years of English literary criticism—during which time the majority of critics seem to have concluded that, having said nice things about Austen, there was no need for them, and certainly no obligation upon them, to admire or even acknowledge any other female writer.

And indeed, Saintsbury himself finds precious little of merit in the works of Austen’s literary sisters either before her or after her – not even in those whom she admitted as an influence. He is extremely and, in my opinion, unjustly harsh about Frances Burney, who is dismissed as a mere mimic rather than a novelist, and not a very good one. He manages some tepid praise for Maria Edgeworth and Mary Brunton, while dwelling on their faults, and is kind to Ann Radcliffe (while misspelling her name) because she was obviously “a lady”. More typical of this section are his comments on popular novelists like Regina Maria Roche, second in success only to Radcliffe herself as a Gothic novelist, whose novels, “Should probably be read …in late childhood or early youth. Even then an intelligent boy or girl would perceive some of their absurdity…” Likewise, of Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan), we hear that, “Nothing she wrote can really be ranked as literature, save on the most indiscriminate and uncritical estimate“, while the works of Harriet and Sophia Lee, “Are not exactly bad; but also as far from possible from consummateness.” Furthermore, while explaining to us exactly what was wrong with novel-writing during the second half of the 18th century, he repeatedly illustrates his argument with reference to female writers, finally bookending this unsatisfactory era as running from, “The Female Quixote to Discipline” – or to put it another way, from Charlotte Lennox to Mary Brunton. Admittedly, Saintsbury does find plenty to criticise in most of the male writers of this era, too, but he doesn’t dwell in the same way, and generally the note of contempt is missing.

(I suppose I should be grateful that Saintsbury seems never to have come across Catherine Cuthbertson.)

But it is when Saintsbury begins to deal with women writers post-Austen that he really makes us open our eyes. First of all, he dismisses the Brontes collectively as just too weird; he struggles with Elizabeth Gaskell, and clearly thinks she should have stuck to domestic themes rather than venturing into social reform (although he doesn’t much care for her work even when she does); and then, in what from a modern perspective is probably this study’s most startling moment, he reveals an entire lack of enthusiasm for George Eliot—who he criticises roundly for, of all things, taking novel-writing too seriously. Indeed, Saintsbury passes over Eliot so swiftly that he offers little chance to come to grips with any specific objections to her writing – and finally we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that his personal conservatism may again have been intruding upon his literary judgement. For one thing, Saintsbury insists on using inverted commas all the way through this brief section – “George Eliot” – and at one point he refers to her as Mrs Cross, which is just spiteful. My impression here is that while Saintsbury may have been able to treat the misbehaviour of, say, Aphra Behn with indulgence, as being a safe two hundred and fifty years in the past, he was unable to overlook the transgressions of Mary Ann Evans, which must have been ongoing in his lifetime.

Anyway—you can probably appreciate that by this point in The English Novel, I was starting to feel a slow burn creeping up the back of my neck. This is not to say I ever lost interest in it, though, since its very iconclasm keeps you hanging on—and shows itself again in Saintsbury’s revelation of Fielding and Austen’s companions in his Big Four: Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray, neither of whom have figured very prominently in any of these “ranking” contests since Saintsbury put pen to paper. Of Scott, indeed, Saintsbury is almost unstinting in his praise, and he has very little time for those who find fault with him:

    Not here, unfortunately, can we allow ourselves even a space proportionate to that given above in Miss Austen’s case to the criticism of the individual novels… The brilliant overture of Waverley as such, with its entirely novel combination of the historical and the “national” elements upon the still more novel background of Highland scenery; the equally vivid and vigorous narrative and more interesting personages of Old Mortality and Rob Roy; the domestic tragedy, with the historical element for little more than a framework, of The Heart Of Midlothian and The  Bride Of Lammermoor; the little Masterpiece of A Legend Of Montrose; the fresh departure, with purely English subject, of Ivanhoe and its triumphant sequels in Kenilworth, Quentin Durward, and others; the striking utilisation of literary assistance in The Fortunes Of Nigel; and the wonderful blending of autobiographic, historical, and romantic interest in Redgauntlet
    That he knew what he was doing and what he had to do is thus certain; that he did it to an astounding extent is still more certain; but it would not skill much to deny that he did not always give himself time to do it perfectly in every respect, though it is perhaps not mere paradox or mere partisanship to suggest that if he had given himself more time, he would hardly have done better, and might have done worse. The accusation of superficiality has already been glanced at: and it is pretty certain that it argues superficiality, of a much more hopeless kind, in those who make it…

Between Scott and Thackeray, Saintsbury spends a little time with the likes of Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, before offering up a peculiar analysis of Charles Dickens, in which he seems unable to make up his mind whether he considers Dickens a genius or a mountebank. (Both, would be the short answer.) The overriding sense here, however, is that it is not Dickens himself who is the problem, but rather that Saintsbury grew up having Dickens’ genius dinned into his ears until he was sick and tired of it. But there may have been another factor in his dislike:

The remarkable originality and idiosyncrasy of Dickens have perhaps, to some extent and from not a few persons, concealed the fact that he was not, any more than other people, an earth-born wonder… There is probably no author of whom really critical estimates are so rare. He has given so much pleasure to so many people…that to mention any faults in him is upbraided as a sort of personal and detestable ingratitude and treachery. If you say he cannot draw a gentleman, you are told you are a parrot and a snob, who repeats what other snobs have told you; that gentlemen are not worth drawing; that he can draw them; and so forth… If you intimate small affection for Little Nell and Little Paul, you are a brute; if you hint that his social crusades were quite often irrational, and sometimes at least as michievous as they were beneficial, you are a parasite of aristocracy and a foe of “the people”…

We have, of course, learned enough of George Saintsbury by this time to suspect that his views on “gentlemen” and “the people” may indeed have coloured his opinion of Dickens; although that said, I confess I’m in sympathy with his stance on “Little Paul and Little Nell”…

However, Saintsbury’s consideration of the “unrealistic” Dickens is merely his way of paving the way for his section on Thackeray, who he considers the true heir of Fielding, a novelist in whose works:

…the problem of “reality, the whole reality, and nothing but reality” is faced and grasped and solved—with, of course, the addition to the “nothing but” of “except art”… [It is] the scheme of the realist novel in the best sense of the term—the novel rebuilt and refashioned on the lines of Fielding, but with modern manners, relying on the variety of life, and relying on these only. There is thus something of similarity (though with attendant differences, of the most important kind) between the joint position of Dickens and Thackeray… Both wrote historical novels: it is indeed Thackeray’s unique distinction that he was equally master of the historical novel and of the novel of pure modern society… Thackeray takes sixteen years of experimentation before he trusts his genius, boldly and on the great scale, to reveal itself in its own way, and in the straight way of the novel.

In the last section of his study, Saintsbury focuses on the mid- and late-Victorian novel. It is here that George Eliot – sorry, “George Eliot” – receives her congé, although on the whole Saintsbury is more indulgent with the writers of this period, perhaps because he is dealing with the books that were so important in his own formative years. Anthony Trollope is kindly treated (though generally viewed as a Thackeray wannabe), and Elizabeth Missing Sewell and Charlotte Yonge are actually the recipients of a few kind words, although chiefly the latter (probably because her conservatism makes Saintsbury look like a radical). 

A plethora of minor novelists then flit past our consciousness before  Saintsbury steps back to consider the changing world of writing and publishing in the late 19th century, and indeed the changing face of literary criticism, prior to wrapping things up with a look at the two most determinedly original novelists of the time—George Meredith and Thomas Hardy:

The chorus of praise, ever since it made itself heard, has not been quite quite unchequered. It has been objected both to Mr Meredith and Mr Hardy that there is in them a note, perhaps to be detected also generally in the later fiction which they have so powerfully influenced—the note of a certain perversity—of an endeavour to be peculiar in thought, in style, in choice of subject, in handling of it; in short in general attitude… There is truth in this, but it damages neither Mr Meredith nor Mr Hardy on the whole; though it may supply a not altogether wholesome temptation to some readers to admire them for the wrong things…

Translation: they both wrote about sex.

George Meredith, whom Saintsbury obviously admired greatly in spite of, or because of, his “peculiarities”, died while this book was being prepared for publication; and here Saintsbury segues into an odd sort of obituary in which praise and exasperation struggle for supremacy.

(Since our mutual opinion of George Meredith is one of those rare points at which Saintsbury and I are in agreement, I’d like to be able to say that this is a typical reaction to Meredith, but the truth is that these days, exasperation tends to reign unchallenged. I regret it, but I’m hardly surprised.)

Saintsbury is unwontedly gentle during this stretch of his writing. However, he recovers his spirits at the end, when he reflects on what he views as the inverse relationship between novel quality and novel sales:

Yet whatever faults there might be in the supply there could be no doubt about the demand when it was once started. It was indeed almost entirely independent of the goodness or badness of the average supply itself. Allowing for the smaller population and the much smaller proportion of the population who were likely to—or indeed could—read, and for the inferior means of distribution, it may be doubted whether the largest sales of novels recorded in the last century have surpassed those of the most trumpery trash of the “Minerva Press” period—the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth century. For the main novel-public is quite omnivorous, and absolutely uncritical of what it devours. The admirable though certainly fortunate Scot who “could never remember drinking bad whisky” might be echoed, if they had the wit, by not a few persons who never seem to read a bad novel, or at least to be aware that they are reading one.

There’s more—but the tone of that is so entirely representative, I think we’ll leave things here.


The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Bart.


You are mistaken, pedant (answered the baronet with precipitation) my name is know and revered by every body of the least degree of fashion… The prettiest and best dress’d men in the army are Sapskulls…the bravest and most desperate men at Arthur’s are all Sapskulls…and Bath, which for ages went upon crutches, and wept at every pore for the affliction of mankind, is now supported in dancing and uproar by an association of Sapkulls…










It’s been a long time since I played Reading Roulette; or, to put it more correctly, it’s been a long time since I reviewed anything for Reading Roulette. In fact I read The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Baronet, Nearly Allied To Most Of The Great Men In The Three Kingdoms last December, on the back of finally wrapping up the fourth and fifth parts of The English Rogue; indeed, as a reward for wrapping up The English Rogue; feeling that something like normality could then be resumed.

The discovery that I had stumbled into something that was, in its own way, worse than The English Rogue was a blow I was not, at that vulnerable moment, able to withstand. And it’s taken me until now to steel myself to look the book over again, in order to review it.

Although its title-page lists this publication as being only “By Somebody”, Sir Bartholomew Sapskull is the work of one William Donaldson, of whom very little is known beyond the fact that, in 1775, he also authored a little thing called Agriculture Considered as a Moral and Political Duty: in a Series of Letters inscribed to His Majesty and Recommended to the Perusal and Attention of Every Gentleman of Landed Property in the Three Kingdoms, as they are Calculated for the Entertainment, Instruction, and Benefit of Mankind – a fact surprisingly relevant to this present work.

Sir Bartholomew Sapskull is many things, all of them bad, but what it is predominantly is a simply awful imitation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, the final volume of which had been published the year before, in 1767. Imagine, if you can, a version of Tristram Shandy stripped of its erudition, its good-humour and its humanitarianism, and you’ll have a reasonable mental picture of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, whose author clearly understood nothing of the work he was copying except that it had sold a lot of copies and attracted a lot of critical attention.

Sterne digresses, so Donaldson digresses; but his digressions lead nowhere. Sterne punctuates with numerous dashes; Donaldson includes endless series of dots. Sterne tells the story of a man who spends half of his own written history getting born, so Donaldson gives us a first-person marrator who doesn’t make an appearance in the flesh until well into his second volume. Sterne opens his work with a description of the moment of his hero’s conception, so Donaldson gives us that of his narrator’s father. Sterne scatters sexual innuendo through his text, so Donaldson resorts to scatological humour that recalls Richard Head at his worst—although, that said, I imagine the immediate inspiration was Tobias Smollett. Indeed, fittingly enough, the single most interesting thing about Sir Bartholomew Sapskull is probably its revelation that during the 18th century, people bought their toilet paper from the stationery shop:

    Talking of Bath, Sir, would you believe it…Mr Leake the stationer protested to me, no longer ago than last week, that the waters of Bath are so little used, that is, so much out of fashion in these days of wantonness and frolick, that he loses one hundred pounds every season in the single article of soft paper.
    Pray, Sir (interrupted the doctor) permit me to ask…Did the ladies filter the water through the paper then, to occasion that vast consumption?
    No…you blockhead…they wiped their… Zounds, Sir, if I had not been upon my guard, your ignorance would have hurry’d me into such an indecency…

This particular exchange occurs towards the end of a forty-page conversation between Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, namesake grandfather of the narrator of this stirring tale, and a clergyman called Mr Sciolus, tutor to Sir Bartholomew’s heir, Simon. Sciolus secures this position, after being informed that his main duty will be…inspiring his boy with nobility of thought (as he term’d it) putting him constantly in mind of the great and ancient family from whence he deriv’d, that his actions might never lesson the dignity of his name, by announcing his attention of tracing the Sapskull family tree to its very roots:

    I crave your worship’s pardon (repeated the cringing, fawning tutor) I mean to trace it even beyond the creation.
    At these words the storm immediately subsided, and my grandfather appreared again in smiles…He reply’d very calmy, Aye, aye, to be sure, you learned men make strange discoveries…but I believe you are perfectly right…there appears some truth in what you advance; don’t let me interrupt you…pray proceed…satisfy me instantly in this particular…I find myself mightily uneasy until I am clear in this important matter.
    The artful pedagogue, obedient to his impatient request, continued; Why, Sir, our first parents were of your name…Adam and Eve were only poetical appellations, given to them in order to harmonize the language of the sacred history…we have many testimonies to prove it beyond a doubt, that Adam and Eve were Sapskulls.

This exchange is about as good as it gets. From this point (on page 73), the narrative becomes an unwanted revelation of the various fixations of William Donaldson, only occasionally interrupted by what we might loosely call “the plot”:

I have once more taken you out of the common path, but believe me it is as much for your security as my own reputation; for I boldly confirm, there is as much danger in travelling through an ordinary romance, than in exploring the North-west passage; for in the first the heart is often corrupted , and the head, obedient to its dictates, wanders after vanities…In the journey now before us, I am your guide and answerable for your safety.

We might consider this Donaldson’s keynote address. The implication that he despises light literature, and is only resorting to it purely as a means of reaching an audience otherwise inaccessible to him, explains quite a lot about what follows. Donaldson is, in fact, quite incapable of simply telling a story. Almost every small advance in the narrative turns into a lecture, and since any real attempt at humour mostly fades away with the conversation between Sir Bartholomew and Mr Sciolous, the result is essentially four hundred pages of finger-wagging. Evidently, Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby isn’t the only one with a HOBBY-HORSE to ride.

For example, upon Simon reaching young manhood, Sir Bartholomew accepts the necessity of him completing his education by means of the Grand Tour, and places him in the care of another clergyman, Mr Schism, who…was of that pliant turn of mind, that he easily reconciled the modes of religion to his particular interest; for at different periods of time, in different countries, he was by turns a Protestant, Papist and Mahometan…which prompts a lengthy reflection upon the dangers of religious tolerance:

    The increase of sectaries must encourage the growth of atheism; for when the mind of man is so divided upon the precepts of religion, he will settle to no one; for if either should chance to disapprove his predominant passion, he will the easier depart from all, and doubt the existence of a deity who will suffer his word to be misunderstood, and explained to the motives of self-interest, and all the subtleties of the most refined policy; to be an instrument in the hands of an arbitrary prince, to prepare the mind for the slavery of the body; or, in a more confined view, to gratify the avarice or resentment of private apostates.
    The Christian religion wants no champion to defend it; it is strong enough of itself, and wants only proper officers to maintain the discipline of it.
    The too common complaints exhibited against the Protestant clergy might be corrected, if the dignitaries of our church would, at their visitations, eat and drink less, and enquire more into the conduct of those subordinate to them; they would then be convinced that the service of God was neglected, and the people running wild for want of a shepherd to guard their morals, and keep them within the fold of truth and righteousness…

And so on, for another four pages; the Christian religion wanting no champion.

We do eventually rejoin Simon and Mr Schism, just setting out on their tour of the Continent; a journey upon which they get as far as Canterbury before Mr Schism insists upon stopping at a certain public-house, famous for its food and drink, but which holds another attraction for the clergyman; although we don’t find out what that it until after a seventeen-page-long digression on the state of art in Great Britain. When the story eventually resumes, it is in the shape of a conversation that reveals exactly what form Simon Sapskull’s continental education is likely to take:

    Food which should be serv’d up only at the table of princes, or les gens comme il faut, men of equal rank with yourself…and then for women!…mon Dieu!belles comme les amours!…Lord, Mr Sapskull, your personal accomplishments…your consequence in life may command the embraces of madame la duchesse.
    At this insinuation, my father, with eager speech, and words half utter’d, enquir’d…What…the French king’s mistress…indeed!…are you serious?…What a noble acquisition!…and do you really think…is it your sincere opinion, I could cuckold the grand monarque?…egad, how future histories will speak of me!…

Lost in dreams of glory, Simon makes no objection to stopping as Schism suggests. The clergyman immediately inquires after a certain chambermaid, Margery, with whom he retires to a private chamber:

It was some time before the doctor return’d, when he declared it was an arduous task to bring a virgin (obstinately bashful) to the humiliating attitude of prosternation, that is, to her cubicular devotion; that for his part he had left no stone unturned to tempt her to compliance, and thereby to penetrate her secrets…that he had prevail’d at last, and by the force of some weighty fundamental arguments, he brought her to a plentiful emiss— Aye, emission…sure no person can be base enough to think I mean other than the emission of her sins.

Meanwhile, Simon has been left to his own devices, and sets out to find an adventure of his own. After a four-page digression on honour, we follow him into a theatrical entertainment, performed by a company led by one Captain Thunderbolt, whose history gets a ten-page chapter to itself, and whose choice of Julius Caesar for the acting troupe brings on seventeen pages of head-shaking over the English taste for scenes of bloodshed and barbarity, and the Englishman’s general capacity for cruelty.

His clerical duties at length completed, a rather drained Mr Schism wanders downstairs to discover that his charge has done a runner on him. His search eventually brings him to the theatre, where he learns that Simon has eloped with the lead actress—which causes him to do a runner himself.

Donaldson chooses to end his first volume at this point; which is to say, he follows Mr Schism’s departure with a postscript, in which our narrator breaks “a mere man of fashion” down into his component parts—True animal spirits, a drachm; The heart…much contracted, one-half ounce; Bowels, little or none; but as there is much wind in the ventricle, we will put down six ounces—and then lectures the reader for fifteen pages about the growing gap between rank and honour, the qualities that make a good school-master, and the degradation inherent in having tradesmen elevated into the position of magistrates.

The second volume begins much as the first ended, only worse, with nineteen pages of blather I can’t even be bothered trying to decipher, and a six-page outline of Donaldson’s views of what’s wrong with the army, and his plan for keeping the peace and improving the morals of the armed forces.

When the next chapter makes an immediate reference to Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, it is almost shocking.

Following his runaway marriage, Simon brings his bride home to the parental roof, and we learn that he has mistaken the lady’s stage-character for her actual one and believes he has married an empress. However, Sir Bartholomew’s incredulous joy is short-lived, as the household is invaded by several emissaries of the law acting on behalf of the manager of the acting troupe, Mr Whim, who the lady saw fit to rob before departing on her honeymoon. She—Penelope Weepwell by name—makes her escape and returns to Canterbury, where:

…we shall find the merry lady…in a tête-à-tête party with her old master Mr Whim, whose furious resentment she had calmed, and effectually reconciled him to her friendship, by politely yielding without reserve to his desires, and substututing him in the place of her poor husband, to be the consummator of her nuptials.

This reconciliation has certain dire consequences for Penelope, which make themselves felt as she is playing her namesake in Ulysses:

In that particular scene, where Penelope is going to the altar to make her vows of chastity during the absence of Ulysses, Madam Sapskull was suddenly seized with the most excruciating pains, and in the severity of her distress, too delicate to sustain the sudden shock, fell to the ground; but before the audience could be informed whether the strange emotion was real or imaginary (for players, and great ones too, frequently make use of violent methods to extort applause) the crying of a child convinced them that madam was in labour, and (thank heaven) was likely to have a very good time.

Reaction to this remarkable public display varies from hilarity to outrage; the forces of the latter band together, and insist upon Penelope’s immediate departure from Canterbury. The situation wins the sympathy of the Mayor – one “Mr Ipecacuanha”, more notable for his kind heart than his wisdom – and as he is about to set out for London on business, he offers Penelope a seat in his carriage. The two – or rather, three, our narrator being bundled disregarded into a corner of the conveyence – set out, the journey being enlivened [sic.] by the narrative’s dual fascination with the history and current conduct of the acting profession, and the consequences of Penelope having taken a cordial with diuretic properties. So pass some thirty-eight pages. Upon arrival in London, Penelope takes decisive action:

…my mother ordered the coachman to drive to a certain house in Spring-Gardens, at that time a house of gay resort, where the voluptuary used to riot on the sweet destruction of innocence, and cruelly to exult in the unmanly conquest. Here my mother alighted, not with a vicious design of making a perquisite of some sallacious citizen, or debauched rake, but to take the benefit of a backdoor, which opened very commodiously to Charing Cross, through which she escaped, leaving me to the mercy of Mr Ipecacuanha, and him (poor gentleman) to the violence of his own reflections.

The bemused Mr Ipecacuanha turns for advice to his cousin, Mr Emetic – these are the jokes, people – who sends for a local woman who takes children to nurse for a fee, and fills in the intervening time by telling a fourteen-page story about a professional fraud called Trimalchio. The baby is handed over, but not before being serendipitously labelled with the name “Bartholomew” – it being St Bartholomew’s Day. We are given very little direct information about the boy’s childhood, its place being filled by a twenty-page outline for a recommended mode of children’s (that is, boys’) education, which segues into Mr Ipecacuanha’s reflections upon – and I quote – The present scarcity of provisions, and the means to promote industry and commerce, by giving encouragement to the partiality of providence.

And here we launch into a twenty-page dissertation upon crop-growing, the landed gentry’s selfish pursuit of short-term profits instead of long-term, more general prosperity, and above all else the ruinous practice of enclosing common lands:

    The present furor of enclosing common fields, is very injurious to the public, and very oppressive to the industrious poor…the many thousand acres, which not only found bread for these contented people, but labour to purchase it, is now laid down with feeds for the feeding of cattle, or breeding of horses, and that let out, as I before observed, to enrich three or four, which formally maintained forty families.
    This dishonourable method of proceeding, amongst gentlemen of large fortunes, is attended with the most calamitous consequences to those who have none…it depopulates the country…fills the metropolis with involuntary vagabonds, and the parishes with deserted objects…over-charges our manufacturies with handicraftsmen, who, not finding employment in the field, are compelled by the pangs of necessity, to take up any manual occupation, however insignificant to themselves, and useless to the public…

We can only assume that Agriculture Considered as a Moral and Political Duty did not, in its author’s opinion, reach a sufficiently wide audience; because, reading this outburst in context, it becomes very hard to believe that Sir Bartholomew Sapskull exists for any other reason but to provide William Donaldson with another forum for airing his views on his favourite topic. Though I have no opinion on the rights and wrongs of Donaldson’s beliefs, there is certainly no mistaking his sincerity; which makes me wonder whether he actually stopped to think through the implications of putting this diatribe into the mouth of Mr Ipecacuanha

It is, again, almost a shock when Donaldson picks up the thread of his narrative—and when his high-flown, impassioned declarations about the proper management of English agriculture give way to cheap jokes, as the young Bartholomew finds himself apprenticed to yet another member of his foster-father’s family, Mr Cathartic, who works with the assistance of Mr Carmanitive:

who, though but a servant, made more noise in the world than his master…he was better calculated for the entertainment of [private parties] than [public], as he was bashful to a fault…for though loud and significant with his intimates, he was always low and suffused when a stranger was in company…In his prescriptive character he was a friend to a vegetable diet…spoke often in favour of seed cake, and was never known to be silent when peas-soup was the topic…

Raised in the apothecarial business, Bartholomew soon realises that there are fortunes to be made in the successful treatment of venereal disease, and devotes himself to this study; though he does not hesitate to look down upon – and lecture on the subject of – his customers. We are threatened with the biography of one such, a young man whose father has provided a live-in whore for both their uses, but who has contracted a disease after straying from his home paddock; but instead Donaldson stops for another of his postscripts, this one a lengthy, defensive reflection upon the office of the literary critic, critics generally (professional and amateur), and finally the people who disagree with his – or rather, Mr Ipecacuanha’s – views on agriculture:

Mr Ipecacuanha’s thoughts upon the present scarcity of every necessary of life, will meet with opposition…it is the fate of the best system…christianity was rejected…

Excuse me?

And if this were not sufficient proof that Mr Donaldson’s hobby-horse has carried him into the realm of delusion, here is the passage that closes the second volume:

Some, from a knack of finding fault, will object to the smallness of the volumes…I thank those gentlemen for the involuntary compliment…Books of classical importance should figure away in the pomposity of a quarto…things of titular consequence are distinguishable from their size…Shakespeare describes his Justice “in fair round belly”…and Court of Aldermen are compehended in folio perfonae.

Yes, that’s how it ends – and how it ENDS.

Clearly, this is not where the putative tale of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull was supposed to conclude; but in spite of considerable research, to my relief I can find no evidence that more than these two volumes were ever written. Only two exist electronically, and only two comprise the Garland Press edition that was published in 1975 – whose frontispiece declares, Two volumes reprinted in one.

But we don’t have to seek too far for an explanation. It was a common publishing practice during the 18th century to put books out piecemeal, to test the waters of the first volume’s reception before proceeding to the release of the others. We are safe, I think, in assuming that the reception of the first two volumes of The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Bart. was such that the second and third volumes, if conceived, were stillborn.

Readers of 1768, I thank you.


Footnote: Bizarrely, the first volume of my electronic version includes a copy of an article published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of May 31, 1917, penned by Edward S. Dodgson of Oxford, which comments of this work:

…[it] is a novel which is chiefly valuable as having supplied quotations for some words in “The Oxford English Dictionary”, e.g. “fat-headed, fornicatrix, galenical, immutual, meadowing, perspicience, thermantic.” There it is ascribed to William Donaldson. The Bodleian Library possesses the second volume only. The Keeper of the Printed Books in the British Museum wrote that volume 3, which is promised at its end, never saw the light. Has it survived in manuscript? He wrote “Agriculture” (London: 1775), dedicated to King George III, and probably also “North America” (London: 1757).

Five pages of examples of Donaldson’s odd vocabulary follow, with definitions.

I’m glad someone got some value out of this thing.

You should hide your face.