“It is neither to catch the admiration of the ignorant, nor to make proselytes of the more sensible, that I now lift my pen. To wish for the former, below the dignity of common sense, and to hope for the latter, would be downright vanity. Merely to expose error and falsehood, and to stand votarist for the truth, are I trust the motives which induce me to write and publish these letters…”
As I sit down to write this review, I must first give myself an admonitory smack on the hand. Using reading challenges to random up my reading is all very well—but I have, I think, an obligation to at least try to meet the spirit of the challenge. The intent of my latest, “read a book by or about or featuring a doctor”, was clear enough; and it was hardly an invitation to dig up an obscure epistolary novel from 1788 whose only authorial attribution is to “A Doctor of Physic, M.A. &c.”.
I’ll try to do better in the future, I promise. In the meantime, let’s take a look at this very odd publication entitled The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia; Being A Rational And Philosophical Enquiry Into The Nature Of Things. In A Series Of Letters, and consider what might be the significance of that ominous frontispiece motto: If Fiction persuades, what should Facts do?
And indeed, though it masquerades as one, The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia is not a novel at all: it simply uses the epistolary form as a vehicle for a series of bizarre rants by its anonymous author. As such, it isn’t possible truly to review this publication: what I’ll do instead is simply give you a taste of it via a series of excerpts.
So—the framework. Edwin is the illegitimate son of a noble father, who at his death leaves his “real” family to decide on Edwin’s fate, and whether he is acknowledged and/or inherits any money. The family’s response is to shun Edwin and cut him off essentially penniless, a reaction that for some reason takes Edwin by total surprise.
Julia, meanwhile, is the daughter of a man who contracts religious mania and ends up confined; her mother withdraws from all society, including that of her daughter. Julia is taken in by her uncle who, despite being a clergyman, is simply intent on getting his hands on Julia’s money via this act of “kindness”.
At some point, Edwin and Julia met, fell in love, and were separated; the “novel” never gives us details. When the “interesting story” opens, the two of them have been apart for four years. Edwin is in Paris for reasons that are never made clear (although he may be studying medicine), while Julia is travelling around England with her uncle and his family, also for reasons that are never made clear. The two of them correspond, which seems an unlikely concession on the part of Julia’s uncle – unless he’s keeping her hopeless love for Edwin alive with the aim of preventing her from marrying someone else and therefore taking her fortune out of his control. Amusingly, as we also saw in the roughly contemporaneous Valentine, the anonymous author has his correspondents telling each other their life stories, despite the fact that they’ve known each other for years. And also like Valentine, we are favoured with some hilariously jolting shifts from high pathos to simple commonplaces, without any sense that the author was aware of the incongruity of his tone.
For the most part, The Interesting Story… works itself out as follows: Julia will write a letter to Edwin in which she will relate an anecdote, or repeat a conversation. Edwin will respond with a lengthy lecture on the subject in question. Julia will thank him solemnly for his interesting / enlightening / touching letter, and beg for more of the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. At length, Julia is so overcome by Edwin’s brilliance, she begs his permission to have his letters published – the world must hear of this! Edwin kindly gives her permission, being equally convinced of his own brilliance and the world’s desperate need for his wisdom. The fact that Edwin has trouble constructing a grammatical sentence and spelling correctly is, of course, irrelevant. (And let me assure you: anything italicised below that looks like a typo, isn’t.)
The main topic of conversation is religion: Edwin is a firm believer in God, but a firm disbeliever in the church, and also in hell. He despises atheists, deists and Catholics equally. He contends that the bible has been misinterpreted, accidentally (through ignorance) or intentionally (through malice), and that the church has been using these mis-readings to increase its own power and to keep mankind, particularly women, powerless. (There’s almost a feminist subtext in this, but it gets drowned out by the floodtide of bile.) Furthermore, Edwin doesn’t believe in original sin. This particular revelation prompts Julia to ask why, in that case, mankind needed a Saviour? – a question which I don’t believe Edwin ever gets around to answering.
However, the two of them find many other topics on which to give their opinions pro and con – although mostly con. It’s remarkable, really, how much Edwin and Julia have in common: the enormity of the chip each carries on their shoulder; their endless dislikes and prejudices; and above all, their profound conviction that everyone in the world is stupid and wicked except for them. The publication’s attribution to “a doctor of physic” becomes rather interesting in retrospect, as members of the medical profession and medical opinions of the time attract a significant proportion of whatever vitriol Edwin has left over after dealing with organised religion.
Let’s listen in on a few of the opinions of Edwin and Julia, shall we? This opening passage, in which Edwin airs his views on the state of the world, essentially sets the tone for everything that follows:
“My only friend is dead, which loss has pressed very heavy upon me; Heavens grant you and me the necessary fortitude, for two of the most unfortunate mortals that ever trode the stage of life; and may the faults which we have committed, be as barriers against us in future, when we would slide from the path of virtue. Let us rather than reproach our relations for their follies, learn to correct our own errors. You know the world is made up of caprice and vanity; the ignorant thinks the wise foolish, and the rich hold the poor in despite; the wife betrays her husband, the father often ushers the child to destruction, and the son frequently brings his parents and himself to a morsel of bread. Thus you see the inhabitants of the earth destroying one another, and doubtless will continue so doing till they are totally extirpated from it…”
And here’s Edwin on himself (a favourite topic):
“According to your request, I must now begin to give you a short but faithful account of myself. I believe you know that my pride and ambition may be put into a small circle. I am not very ill-natured, not very severe, although I have the misfortune to be sanguine. I hate flattery and lies; I detest the rogue and despise the villain, but have severely suffered by them. Ever since Nancy S*****, the midwife, whirled me into this ill-advised world, I have been treated not as one of my own species, but as a monster, and will probably not be used as a human creature, till death whirl me out of it…”
And now Edwin on adultery, of which he has evidently made quite a study (I’m glad, by the way, that Edwin helpfully categorised himself as “not very severe” in his opening remarks on himself; otherwise, there might have been some confusion on that point):
“Adultry and seduction are two of the most heinous sins that man can be guilty of.—Moses both in his livitical and civil laws, rewarded the former by death, and the wisest among the ancients followed his example, and looked on the adulterer and seducer to be equally wicked. The Babylonians, Arabians, Tartars, Javans, Brazilians, and Mexicans, made adultry a capital offence. Among the Turks the offending woman is sentenced to be drowned, and the man still put to greater torture.—The Hungarians force their daughters, their husbands, their wives, their sisters, and their brothers to the place of execution, as soon as found in this abominable crime, or rather the crime of crimes, of which none will be guilty, but those who are actuated by satan, to destroy the peace and happiness of all around them…”
Edwin again, on how a dignified silence is the most powerful weapon:
“…yet I must own, it is below the dignity of Innocence to wage war, or even to defend herself against the unmanly attacks of her enemies; because she can quench the most malignant reproaches of the wicked, and is that good which cannot be taken away even in the time of torment. Silence is the most defensive weapon with which an injured man can defend himself, and is generally the child of innocence, keeping consolation and quiet in the breasts of the good, and an outward peace amongst the bad…”
It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that this paean to Silence comes at the beginning of 200 pages of Edwin’s ranting, and about 150 before he admits to Julia that he always intended publishing his “private reflections”. The publication of Edwin’s various pearls of wisdom will of course be of great benefit to the world, unlike most of what passes for literature and learning in this degenerate day and age; and as for the men who write it – !—
“How they rejoice in evil, and delight in folly; and how anxious they are to raise vice to the dignity of virtue. How they drink, how they blaspheme, how they consume the tobacco, and take away their neighbour’s good report. They have called your sex women, but they ought to have called themselves women-woe and their own! They have jumbled a parcel of lumber and worthless things together, which they call learning, but I would advise you Julia, not to meddle with it, because it is real nonsense; it can neither refine your imagination, nor elevate your understanding; and indeed you may be convinced of what I say, when ever you associate with those who deem themselves of the true literati. They are disagreeable in their manners and conversation, and are often at a loss what to do with their own legs and arms. They are diffident and mistrustful, and delight in saying ill-natured things…”
And could Edwin have had anyone in particular in mind? Like, oh, I don’t know…
“…the late Dr Johnson, whose harsh and rude manners proved him to be a mere pedantic churlish clown, in his heart and principles; altho’ he was stuffed up with verbs, nouns and pronouns, and a quantity of other such rubbish, which his disciples, especially Mrs P— and Mr. R— call learning!…Should education make us disagreeable, ill-natured and hoggish? Or can we deem a man who is so, properly educated?…”
And such is the blighted character generally of the men credited with “learning” that Edwin feels it is his duty to warn Julia away from anything resembling an “education”…among other things:
“The politics of men are such an effusion of nonsense, their philosophy such an unintelligible jargon, and their religious tenets so absurd and contradictory, that one would really think they had not a single grain of judgment or good sense left them. Therefore Julia, I earnestly entreat of you again, to study neither Latin or Greek; laugh at their politics, and scorn their philosophy; avoid the pedant and detest the fop, as also the rigidly religious, be sure to mark them down in your pocket-book…”
But Julia is, after all, just a girl, so much of this is too high-flown for her. But being just a girl, she is able to give her opinion on such topics as the “pernicious” effect of novel-reading on young women (not that this is a novel, heavens no!):
“…their minds are tainted by the pernicious, but insinuating poison of novels and romances.—The imagination heated, and the passions excited in the most pernicious of all schools, the Circulating Library, the man of gallantry makes an easy conquest; and perhaps it may be some extenuation of his guilt, that the object he has devoted to ruin, is ready to surrender on the first summons…”
And indeed, I don’t want to give you the impression that the perverse entertainment value of this thoroughly eccentric polemic lies entirely with Edwin and his ranting. Julia contributes too, as with this rather marvellous example of her habit of going abruptly from the sublime to the ridiculous:
“Do we think that the Son of God came down in vain, or that he ever wished to enforce laws and duties on his creatures, which they are unable to keep or perform? Surely, if we think so, we are mistaken: and I trust, nay, am confident, that the eternal and incomprehensible Being, who is the fountain of all goodness, and the source of love and mercy, can have no respect of persons, or desire for revenge.—But let me finish this letter, by giving you a short description of Southampton…”
Not that Julia has things all her own way in this respect. Here is how Edwin’s rant on adultery, which goes on quite some time after the conclusion of the quotation above – and which runs four full pages, beginning to end – actually finishes:
“…to live with an adulterous woman, is to live with the devil’s companion; and I should think it is much better for one to be happy than too be miserable, or at least I am of opinion that every man should leave his wife when she loves another better than himself. But if I go on in this way, I shall never give you a description of Paris…”
But a talent for anti-climax isn’t all that Edwin and Julia have in common. As it happens (no wonder the two of them fell in love!), Julia also shares Edwin’s opinion of Samuel Johnson…
“…the former of whom I have been repeatedly informed, was so loaded with ill-nature and sarcasm, that he could scarcely speak a good word even of his own poor father and mother… I have read the greatest part of Dr Johnson’s works, and must confess myself totally at a loss to see in what he surpassed the common class of authors. ‘Tis true, I am but a weak judge of literary productions, however, I am inclined to think, that the public, who too often judge wrong of things, have raised Mr Johnson to that dignity which his merit never justly entitled him to…”
And is there anything stupider than “the public”? Hardly. Just look at its habits—
“Julia, although I have sent you the above lines on a tobacco-pipe*, be assured I do not wish you should carry a box, or call for a pipe. Snuff is not such a harmless thing as many take it to be, and I believe we owe a great number of of our disorders to it, and that cursed plant Tea, which you ought never to drink above twice a week, and then eat a great deal of bread with it… One half of the people in England are dead years before they are buried, and seldom or never enjoy life!—Gouts, rheumatisms, nervous complaints, scurvies, declines, consumptions, &c. &c. are their continual attendants, all which I attribute, with many more, to the irregularity of diet. They drink such quantities of tea…”
(*And yes, Edwin does send Julia a poem on tobacco – the romantic devil!)
But even more than in its general habits, just look how stupid the public is when it comes taking medical advice (and this is probably a good moment to remind you of this pseudo-novel’s attribution to “a doctor of physic”):
“Physic is surely the most difficult and intricate science under the sun… When I was at the colleges of Edinburgh and Paris, I knew numbers of dunces, especially students in physic…who ought to blush in putting any initial after their names, except F.R.S. which I believe may signify a fellow remarkably stupid, or the foolish remains of a simpleton… Our quack medicines, our brewers, our bakers, and a set of men who pretend to have arrived at a competent knowledge of physic, only from making pills, filling bottles, and running through the town with bladders and gallipots, send us to the grave in multitudes; and we composedly say, The will of the Lord Be done!…”
And if mankind’s willingness to trust these medical frauds with its health is criminally stupid, what are we to make of its religious practice? – in particular, how it allows itself to imposed upon by that set of scoundrels known as “the clergy”!—
“Man must be a stupid being indeed to suppose than the Almighty, who wanteth no counsel, hath established a parliament of popes, liars, arch bishops, arch rogues, bishops, villains, deans, drunkards, poor curates, whore-mongers, and other such imposters, as the judges of his creatures…”
BUT—I don’t want to send you away from this abbreviated version of Edwin and Julia’s Theories Of Why The World Sucks (and believe me, there are many, many more things that they despise, which I haven’t mentioned here) thinking that there is nothing whatsoever of which they do approve. There is one thing…and so I’ll leave you to ponder the following:
“I have not the honour of being personally acquainted with Mr. C—, and therefore I am not at liberty to say much about him; only tell you that I coincide with the greatest part of the sentiments laid down in his letter…especially that respecting woman’s milk, in which I believe there is a something divinely good, though very seldom prescribed by our physicians. It is the softest, the most light, and nourishing fluid that exists, and according to my humble opinion, the most sovereign balsam in the world, and the greatest restorative in nature…”