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.


15 Responses to “The Life And Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Bart.”

  1. ooh, this one was bad, you poor thing. When I saw the genealogical background of Sapskulls I thought it would be similar to Dickens’ background on Chuzzlewits (dining with Duke Humphries, my uncle’s interest is too high). But my hopes were dashed and ground into the ground.
    You deserve hazardous pay for this one.

  2. Yes, this one hurt – though I’m not sure I’ve really conveyed how bad it is. I should have copied out one of the twenty-page digressions. 🙂

    It does start out okay – mildly amusing, in a laboured sort of way – but then it just gallops downhill. I found it a real struggle to read; I kept ‘glazing over’ – getting to the end of a page with no idea what I’d just read, and forcing myself to go back over it.

    Apparently Tristram Shandy copies were quite common at this time, but this is the first I’ve encountered.

    Anyway – not a good way to end the year, after so many interesting random novels!

  3. Wow. Thank goodness indeed for the taste of the novel-buying public!

    (Not that I rate Tristram Shandy particularly high – it has its moments, but its virtue to my modern mind is mostly that it was the first of its ilk.)

    I don’t know why I find sexual humour of this period so unremittingly grim – perhaps it’s that the style of writing seems thoroughly joyless (I at least felt that the English Rogue went about his swiving more because it was something he had been told not to do than because he gained any particular pleasure from it), perhaps it’s knowledge of the state of disease and medicine at the time.)

    Meanwhile, my copy of History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England has arrived! Now I just need to find time to read the blighter. Life was so much easier before I worked from home – I had ten hours a week of commuting time when I couldn’t do anything except read…

  4. I had ten hours a week of commuting time when I couldn’t do anything except read…

    Heh! Now you sound like me. I can’t think why anyone would want to drive to work.

    I used to dream of working from home, but honestly, these days I don’t think I’d have the discipline.

    Of Tristram Shandy, I do find it fairly remarkable that while the structure and conventions of the novel were still being worked out, Sterne was already wreaking havoc with them. Must have suffered through one too many first-person narratives starting, Chapter 1: I am born… 🙂

    But I guess it can simply never be the book to us it was to its first readers, who didn’t need it explained via a book of annotations as long as the book itself!

    The spectre of disease is very prominent in many of the books at this time – it’s hard to reconcile that with the stories of casual sex they like to tell – the results are generally fairly queasy, ay least to our sensibilities.

    I hope you do emjoy HOTPRN – I always get very nervous when anyone acquires a book on my recommendation.

  5. Hey! I was researching into the Portuguese love letters and stumbled upon your interesting post Can you tell me where the Rousseau quotation on women authorships comes from? A detailed annotation would be very much appreciated. Thanks a lot in advance!

  6. Hi – thanks for dropping by! Rousseau’s remark is from his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles, also known as the Lettre sur les spectacles, published in 1758. I can’t honestly remember where I got it from, but most likely it was quoted in Miriam Cyr’s book, Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love. Hope that helps!

  7. Thanks a lot – it does help! Keep up the good work with the blog 🙂

  8. So I recently got a smart phone, with Kindle and GooBoo readers on it, and I found that despite the tiny screen, it’s a nicer way to read books than a desktop computer is. So I thought to myself, now maybe it’s time to slurp down some of those old A Course Of Steady Reading books. And I was thinking I’d read back through the blog for likely candidates, but then I realized… Aphra.

    I found a free edition of all her novels from 1903. It comes with a lengthy introduction by an Ernest A. Baker, who is constantly appalled at Aphra’s morals, and doesn’t seem to like her prose much better. Here’s his closing paragraph:

    “It must be confessed that, apart from Oroonoko, Mrs. Behn’s fiction is of very little importance in the history of our literature. Her best work was put into her comedies, which contain, not only much diversion, but also strong, and perhaps too highly coloured, pictures of the manners and morals of the pleasure-seekers of her time, in all classes. Unfortunately, it would be difficult indeed to compile even a book of elegant extracts that would give the modern reader any adequate idea of their merits, without either emasculating them altogether or nauseating him with their coarseness.”

  9. Nauseating him? Men are such wimps! 🙂

    I’m interested in what works are included in this little collection, because one of the things I keep being reminded of as I wander through “history of the novel” stuff from the first half of last century is that Aphra’s attributions were very late being sorted out – most likely because academia tagged her as “coarse” and “nauseating” and were content for decades to leave it at that. After she died at least half a dozen short novels by no-one knows who were published under her name, and it was only comparatively recently that serious attempts were made to sort that business out.

    On the other hand, and more importantly, it was also only comparatively recently that Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister was definitely attributed to Aphra – which I think explains many of the attenpts to leave her out of the timeline. It’s easier to dismiss her if she’s only being judged on the “aberration” of Oroonoko, but those two works together make it harder to contend that, Her fiction is of very little importance in the history of our literature.

  10. Love Letters is conspicuously absent. The table of contents reads:The Royal SlaveThe Fair JiltThe NunAgnes de CastroThe Lover’s WatchThe Case for the WatchThe Lady’s Looking-Glass to Dress Herself byThe Lucky MistakeThe Court of the King of BantamThe Adventure of the Black Lady
    The prose in Oroonoko, so far, reads surprisingly smoothly and modernishly. I wonder how much it was worked over by the editor.

    • Aw phooey, that was supposed to be a bulleted list of titles.

      • The Royal Slave
      • The Fair Jilt
      • The Nun
      • Agnes de Castro
      • The Lover’s Watch
      • The Case for the Watch
      • The Lady’s Looking-Glass to Dress Herself by
      • The Lucky Mistake
      • The Court of the King of Bantam
      • The Adventure of the Black Lady

  11. Interesting. The Royal Slave / Oroonoko is obviously hers, and so are The Fair Jilt, The Lucky Mistake and The Nun.

    Agnes de Castro is based on a real incident that happened in – Portugal? Around the same time there was also a French novel based on the same story and an English translation of that by Peter Bellon. No-one seems to know for certain whether Aphra went back to earlier accounts of the same story or re-worked the French version.

    The Lover’s Watch is a translation, but Aphra expanded it and added some of her own material.

    The rest were published posthumously, and there’s some doubt that any of it was really hers – possibly another case of a questionable bookseller and his questionable tactics.

    Apparently Germaine Greer (!) once wrote a thorough study of all this – I might see if the book that contains her chapter is available. (ETA: It is! Interlibrary loan ahoy!)


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