The Harbottle Review

Mr Justice Harbottle is an ageing gout-charged voluptuary and a judge at the Court of Common Pleas

TRISTRAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne

shandyLaurence Sterne’s inspiration for the Shandean spirit may have been his own father, a hare-brained but good-hearted army ensign, who married the daughter of a sutler he owed money to, and was run through the body at Gibraltar in a duel over a goose. All of this is truer and funnier than anything in Tristram Shandy, the outpourings of an obscure clergyman who appears to have been simmering twenty years in a stagnant Anglican bye-corner, where his only diversion consisted in a parochial dispute over the post of sexton & dog-whipper, worth three pounds a year, upon which head he wrote the satire, A Political Romance; which, to its credit, caused sufficient affront to have been burned wholesale by the Archbishop of York. It appears that this was encouragement enough for Sterne to embark on Tristram Shandy, the life and opinions of a gentleman, in nine volumes.

The word shandy, I am informed, is a north country provincialism for crack-brain; and the Shandean spirit, of which this novel serves as a declaration, is one of vain contrariness in the face of an inimical world. Thus, just as life has never wrought with his family in the accustomed way, so Tristram’s father Walter, as a point of principle, always sets his course straight across the grain of received wisdom. He insists that the possession of a long nose is a necessary requirement for greatness, as is having the right name; and is frustrated on both counts when his son gets his beak crushed flat by the obstetric forceps, and is then, due to an unhappy confusion, baptised not Trismegistus – meaning Thrice-Greatest – but TRISTRAM, which Walter holds to be the lowest and most contemptible name in the world.

tristramDespite being all but noseless, and losing his foreskin in an accident with a sash-window at the age of five, Tristram’s heart turns out to be Shandean to its bottom. Chief among his opinions is that, in writing, “one stroke of native humour” is worth more than the traditional process of selecting the proper elements and putting them into a right order. Thus he determines to tell his story in his own way, which is without any pretence at arrangement.

Tristram starts his life-story before it begins, claps his preface in the middle of Vol. III, and announces in Vol. IV that, “it is from this point properly, that the story of my LIFE and OPINIONS sets out.” But, the reader will find that it doesn’t. Instead, Tristram continues just as before, flying off from what he is about, ambling away on digressions, departures, apostrophes within diversions &c., so that the story gets told tardily, if at all. We are even denied some of the promised asides, chapters on pishes, button-holes, whiskers, and straight lines all being proposed, but never appearing; while the story of the King of Bohemia and his seven castles is begun and broken off five times by discourses on Montero caps, or giants, or England’s shameful withdrawal from the field of conflict in Europe in 1712, all which subjects are deemed by the author, in their turn, to take precedence, by virtue of them having occurred to him.

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Shandean arrangements

It is hinted that Tristram is not simply dodging the point – if there is one – but is, in truth, expressing Locke’s theory of the association of ideas, whereby chains of thought are created when one notion triggers another, and so on; and which, as Tristram understands it, is a licence to write about anything that pops into his head. The resulting un-navigable lump is leavened with a dash of cloying sentiment and a good sprinkling of cock jokes, and it has brought in the jingling guinea for the space of nine volumes over the last seven years, whilst annoying the Anti-Shandeans and thrice-able criticks Sterne has pointedly set himself up against – notoriety being in no way incompatible with commercial success.

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Laurence Sterne

My compeers over at the Critical Review have termed the work, “a humorous performance, of which we are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers,” and by “humorous”, they simply mean odd. But to this critic’s mind, while there is nothing so amusing as an authentic crack-brain, neither is there anything so tiresome as a calculated one, one that bawls its mad-cappery like a hawker, and weighs itself out in servings like turnips at the market. Though if it gets you reading Locke, fair enough; that may be more than Sterne has done.

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THE DE COVERLEY PAPERS by Joseph Addison

spectatorbyjosep01addiuoftIn common with every clubman and coffee-house juror ‘twixt Horse-ferry and the Minories, I dropped a quiet tear at the recent demise of the old shire knight Sir Roger de Coverley, who although fictitious, has lately been our very genial companion. In this age of party strife, impeachings, and riot, all accompanyed by savage maulings in the press, the gentle raillery of the de Coverley Papers has been a welcome balm, for which we must thank their author, Joseph Addison.

Addison is the very embodiment of plump equability, as you will know if you have ever sat with him for his eight hours daily at Button’s in Russell-street; and his writings reflect this temperament. His prime creation, Mr Spectator, a sturdy mute who publishes his observations each morning, “to the diversion or improvement of the country,” shuns party rage and maintains a strict neutrality between the Whigs and the Tories. He is in no wise a participant in affairs, but a meer observer and reporter; and although his representations of his Tory friend, Sir Roger de Coverley, are certainly satiric, they are leavened with so much affection as to render them amiable to all but the rabid Sacheverells of the world.

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Sir Roger and Mr Spectator

The old cavalier Sir Roger is a Tory of the Queen Anne sort, by which I mean, his first concern is the safety of the Church of England. He counts off his tenants every Sunday in church, where he has railed in the altar, and he enjoins his parson to recite off-the-peg sermons from the great divines rather than risk of any preaching that may want the High Church stamp of approval. His chief hobgoblins are neither the French, nor the Dutch, but atheists, dissenters, and hassock-shy tithe-dodgers; his praises being reserved for the fifty new churches and the Act of Occasional Conformity.

But for all this Anglican bigotry, he is well loved by his dependents (at least on the face of it) for his policy of exercising not only the authority of a father upon them, but also the solicitude. He rewards his servants with tenancies, sends their boys off to prentice, and inclines rather to helping them to help themselves than dropping them scraps from his table. The impartial Mr Spectator avers that, “his orders are received as favours rather than duties,” and that upon returning to his estates from any absence, he is greeted with tears.

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Joseph Addison

Sir Roger’s usual manner of speech is to ramble aimlessly, without preface or purpose, and he makes a booby of himself talking out loud at the county assizes, and in London, where he offers up his opinions very volubly in the middle of The Distrest Mother at Drury Lane. Later, his custom of greeting all and sundry with a neighbourly halloo causes him to be smoked by wags on the Thames, yet he takes it little to heart.

The old knight ascribes his mild nature to a certain widow that neighbours him, whom he has loved since his youth, but who, being a reading lady, and having done with men, has only ever returned his rustic attentions with mockery. In breaking this spaniel heart she has rendered it not bitter, but softer than it would otherwise be; so we see in consequence a relenting sort of man, who goes about un-armed and un-armoured.

And this, along with the fact that he kicked Bully Dawson in a publick coffee-house, is why we forgive Sir Roger his faults, and wish there could be more like him, and why we mourn his loss now that Addison has sent him to his rest.

CAPTAIN SINGLETON by Daniel Defoe

singletonDaniel Foe, whose parents raised him up to the Puritan ministry, and who was out with Monmouth in the last English army ever likely to proclaim itself ‘Godly’, subsequently declined the pulpit, adorned his name with a prefix, and set out to make a fortune. And though he has lived since as a man of affairs, he yet remains devout; thus his new work, Captain Singleton, may be seen as an expression of his life, in its attempt to reconcile the spiritual with the worldly; or the securement of salvation with the getting of money.

Bob Singleton, of uncertain parentage, and scant education, goes to sea in his thirteenth year, and after several voyages falls in with a group of Portuguese mutineers. Although Bob deems these men “perfidious and debauched, insolent and cruel,” he sees that they are biddable, and wanting a leader; which part Bob takes up, and very soon suborns them into piracy. Events, however, dictate another course, as the crew find themselves cast on the hostile shores of east Africa, upon which they take the wild africaresolution to traverse the continent on foot. After seasons of hardship and horror, in uncharted lands and among savages who know not whether Singleton’s crew are devils or gods, (and neither does the crew care which they appear to be), they emerge upon the safety of the Dutch Gold Coast as rich men, having amassed a fortune in gold and elephants’ teeth in their way.

Bob’s boldness throughout these adventures is untempered by either religion or reflection; he has no notion of home, since all the world is alike to him; and he cares nothing for riches, since he can not conceive of how they might be used. His only thought for God arises in the presence of savages, and consists in an aversion to their superstitions rather than an inclination to religion. He seems, as yet, hardly born.

After quickly running through his money, Singleton goes back upon the cruise, or upon the account, as pirates term their business, in full earnest, and with his own command, as Captain Bob. Plying the waters from Cuba to the Spice Islands, he steadily acquires another fortune and an infamous name. His unlikely lieutenant is the Quaker, William, a man of enterprise and courage, who yet refuses to raise his hand in violence, in accordance to the injunctions of his Society. He begins to lead Bob out of his ignorance, showing him that there is more to the world than sensation and the moment at hand. As might be supposed, given his collusion in rapine and robbery, William’s morals are trickily contorted, yet they constitute some manner of a code; enough at least to institute him as Bob’s spiritual counsellor, or ghostly father.

frigate_skirmish_by_janborutaBob thinks on God once more when his ship is struck by such a force of lightning as terrifies him to the last degree and sends his men deaf; but it is his limitless regard for William, who is never wrong in any matter, that finally draws Bob into the Christian fold. William calls upon him to consider death, and what follows it, which Bob is first very loth to do; and he maintains that now they have made their fortune, they must break off their wicked course and repent; though in the manner of St. Augustine, he does not think they should do it yet. The prudent Quaker notes that certain transactions are pending which will top up their accounts; and that they must then arrange how to give their crew-mates the slip and make off with the money; but this done, they may, and certainly will, repent with all their hearts.

All is accomplished in due course, upon which Bob settles snug into domesticity, in household with William, whose sister he has married. For a time, he is troubled by his conscience in living on the lucre of crime; but William, who is wise enough for both of them, assures him that since they have thrown themselves on God’s mercy, and professed their willingness to atone, the rest is in His hands; and in the interim, they may give to charities.

Captain Singleton is printed by J. Brotherton, at the Black Bull in Cornhill, and costs a measure of idle scruple and superfluous guilt.

THE RECRUITING OFFICER by George Farquhar

1The play-wright George Farquhar was among the besieged at Londonderry; fought for William at the Boyne; took to the boards, whereupon he accidentally killed his opposite in a stage duel at Smock Alley, Dublin; then repaired to London, where his first play, Love and a Bottle, was well received at Drury Lane, and all this before turning of twenty-one.

The precocious Irishman now presents us with The Recruiting Officer, being a comedy on love and war, as well as a portrait of a dubitable profession, in which “a bold step, a rakish toss, a smart cock, and an impudent air,” are said to be the chief constituents of a captain; while “canting, pimping, bullying, swearing, whoring, drinking and a halberd” are solemnly attested as amounting to his sergeant.

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Colley Cibber as Kite

By way of confession I should say that some years ago, to escape the consequences of a youthful imprudence, I listed my self for a grenadier in the War of the League of Augsberg, so the frauds perpetrated by Captain Plume and Sergeant Kite in beating up recruits for Queen Anne are nothing new to me. The Drury Lane company presents them here in riotous comic fashion, with that dependable treader Colley Cibber keeping his audience on the grin in the part of Kite. In one knee-slapping scene, he dons the garb of a fortune teller to dupe the innocents of Shrewsbury to forsake their trades and families for an illustrious martial future. Elsewhere he coaxes and flatters, bribes and misleads, to list his men, some of whom, we hope, might return from their campaigns as lucky as Captain Plume, having “lost neither leg, arm, nor nose.”

Plume has one eye on the drum-head and another on the spirited young Silvia, a local heiress too rich for his station. His old friend Mr Worthy similarly pursues Melinda, another lady of fortune, and there is a deal of Elizabethan flim-flam, mistakings and cross-dressing to be endured before the gallants are satisfactorily paired off. The women are more engaging than the men in this part, fully as scoffing and scheming as their opposites deserve. The young Anne Oldfield particularly, in the part of Silvia, carries all before her in a performance that will be the envy of her rivals Barry and Bracegirdle over at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Nothing rouses men to battle, nor audiences to applause, like the drum and fife and a good round at song, and I took part heartily myself at some of the old ballads, with a tear in my eye upon recalling the warrior renown of the russet-coated recruit:

recruiterWe all shall lead more happy lives,

By getting rid of brats and wives,

That scold and brawl both night and day;

Over the hills and far away.

All that are willing to see the comedy call’d The Recruiting Officer, let them repair by six o’clock to the sign of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and they shall be kindly entertained, excepting there be fire, riot, or raid from the Lord Chamberlain.

THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

wertherOur current Age of Reason has been driven by its writers, and not only in the compass of theory, but in fiction too, as exemplified by the likes of Smollett, whose recent Humphry Clinker, reviewed elsewhere in these pages, is an outward looking book, that concerns itself with the world; and a forward looking one, that extols mankind’s progress.

Now, we can all have too much of a good thing, but it seems unripe for the pendulum of fashion to reverse its course and swing back, if not towards superstition, then heart-driven folly, or ‘sentimentalism’, as critics have termed the new humour. I understand that Herr Goethe, who here gives us The Sorrows of Young Werther, is a practising lawyer of Hesse, but if this offering is a guide, he seems not only to lack the clear-headed perspicacity enjoined by his profession, but to positively celebrate the failing.

His hero, Werther, is a charming and gifted youth who is yet incorrigibly idle. He drifts through the world as though in a dream, enabled by his privileged station in life to idealise all around him, including the grind of rural labour; or as he sees it, “the joys of the man who brings to the table a head of cabbage he has grown himself.” The world as it really is, with its attendant strivings and lacerations, does not exist for him because it does not impinge upon him. The sufferings of his fellow creatures mean nothing to him, because he cannot feel them himself. The world, in fine, is as idyllic as the bubble he inhabits. This is a tale that could never have been written about a poor man.

wolfWhen he forms an attachment to a woman who is promised, and later wed, to another, he refuses to countenance life without her. His parts and connections render him very likely in any of the spheres of public affairs, but rather than cultivate himself, by which process he might also make a difference to the world, he succumbs to self-pity. Gulled by Rousseau’s Gospel of Nature and the fraudulent drivel of Ossian, he sees only virtue in giving his emotions free-reign over his being, believing that such a passion as his cannot be wrong.

Glorying in torment, he wails on his cross to the deity, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”; to himself, “No one has ever suffered like you!”; and to the unfortunate reader, “Oh, has any human heart before me ever been so wretched?” Finally, he makes an end of himself, though not before talking about it, over and over, and at some length.

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Werther – finally! – tops himself

This new literary mode may find favour with the public taste for gaudy emotion, but I, ad meliora, cannot celebrate the inability to see beyond one’s own passions, or the refusal to give way to reason, these being among the causes of all those vicissitudes visited upon us during the previous century. Though I have been accused of having a long memory.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is printed in Liepzig, in der Weygandschen Buchhandlung, and will cost you nothing if you want my copy; Lincoln’s Inn Chambers, first come first served.

THE RAPE OF THE LOCK by Alexander Pope

page5-220px-The_rape_of_the_lock.djvuThe frail body of young Alexander Pope is inhabited by an heroic spirit. A warping of the spine has consigned him to a life of pain and the stature of a child, yet he rides and walks daily with the support of stays, buckram and native grit. The little all of schooling he has had came only from priests and “extended a very little way,” but his own application has raised him to the high table of letters where he now sits equal to Gay, Congreve and Swift, who love him; and to Addison, who envies him. Nor do I begrudge Mr Pope and his compeers their cosiness in the Scriblerus Club, in which I have yet to be welcomed, by reason, assumably, of an Arbuthnot black-ball.

This new edition of The Rape of the Lock, an heroi-comical poem in five cantos, is Pope’s call to his fellow Catholics to pocket up their quarrels and face injustice four-square. When he was in his infancy, Pope’s family was among those forced out of London by the Ten-Mile Act and he has grown into manhood barred from schools, the universities and public office. Yet he is, like most of his faith, as patriotic as any low-church Whig, and I believe Daniel Defoe to be in the right about the Romish confessional having become “the universal scare-crow, the hobgoblin, the spectre with which nurses fright the children,” and that we have no cause to be so fearful of our own neighbours.

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Alexander Pope

The Rape of the Lock is a delicate satire of manners based on a recent true-life scandal. The Petres and the Fermors, two prominent Catholic families, were lately set at odds when the young Lord Petre snipped a lock of Belle Fermor’s hair, without prior leave, or a subsequent offer of marriage. Though it seems a trifling matter, yet “mighty Contests rise from trivial Things,” especially where a young heiress’s pride is at stake, and resentment spiralled to the point at which Mr Pope was called upon by mutual friends to interpose his wit.

Fresh from his translation of The Iliad, Pope employs the grand devices of Homerian epic, giving us portentous dreams and protecting spirits, sacrifices to gods, and a sojourn in the underworld, all related in dazzling heroic couplets, in which medium Mr Pope proves himself a master. This epic treatment serves to highlight the frivolous nature of the dispute, dousing the coals of enmity with gentle laughter, and reminding the antagonists that they ought not fall out over a storm in a tea-dish.

4frontIn the re-telling, the disputed lock of hair takes its place in the milky firmament, where it can do no more harm; but this new heavenly body is finally claimed by Pope for himself,  as the rising star of his own talent, and he can have it as far as I’m concerned, since modesty gets you nowhere amongst these ‘writerly’ grubs, and you can take that from me, and I didn’t want to join the Scriblerus anyway.

The Rape of the Lock is printed by Bernard Lintott, at the Cross-Keys, between the two Temple Gates in Fleet-Street, and it cost me a brief and involuntary excursion of spleen.

HUMPHRY CLINKER by Tobias Smollett

clinkerSince making his name and fortune with Roderick Random, Tobias Smollett has been a generous benefactor to the brethren of the quill, among whom I count myself, however modestly. His largesse, which consists in beef dinners at his Chelsea town-house, tends to attract the sort of Grub that spends the rest of the week avoiding creditors and living on sheep’s trotters up three pair of stairs backward in Butcher-row. These knavish understrappers eat Smollett’s pudding, drink his punch, traduce him in the papers, and steal his poney. They are bad men, as well as being bad writers; indeed I have known a number of them professionally; yet they are lively company, and Smollett exercises tolerance upon them, only resorting to his cane in extremis.

This new offering, Humphry Clinker, a comedic-epistolic picaresque in three volumes, puts the seal on Smollett’s reputation and ought to keep his pot-companions in neck-beef for a gross more Sundays. It may be read in part as a manifesto of old Roman virtue, an impassioned cry of O tempora! O mores! – yet far from being backwardly gloomy, it stands first as a hymn to the Union, and the future of this, our new nation, Great-Britain.

Our principal correspondents are Matthew Bramble, a Monmouthshire squire, and his ward and nephew Jery, who, accompanied by family and attendants, make an eight-month long circuit of the British island, recording their impressions along the way. Although these gentlemen are hewn from the same kind of wood, one represents the solid trunk of tradition, the other the searching, budding branches of progress.

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The Pump Room at the Bath

Bramble confesses to misanthropy, but in fact is just averse to crowds. He pours forth rhapsodies of disgust at those concentrations of humanity we call cities, in which each is obliged to rub up against the other, and breathe in his filth. Thus follow passages on stercoraceous effluvia, imposthumated lungs, scrophulous ulcers, and dreck, dirt and dandriff that may disturb delicate dispositions. Bramble is no man for the mob then, nor for the collapse of station in towns such as the Bath, where lords and esquires are obliged to contend for elbow-space with hob-nails and hoydens. But although he abhors men in the lump, Bramble, like Swift, loves them in the particular. Friendship is his sovereign cordial, generosity his leading spirit, and just as you would do well not to provoke his choler, him being ready to leap to the cudgels, or the pistols, at the first slight or knavery, you would be fortunate to count him among your friends.

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Several Originals

He is moreover perfectly outgoing and curious, and at every stage of his journey makes keen observations on the amenities and conveniences, the food, the water and the air, the governing bodies and the institutions. His letters constitute a factual survey of the nation, and will serve foreign visitors and future historians handsomely.

Young Jery is of an equally inquisitive nature, his field of scholarship being principally characters, or originals as he terms them, and he faces no dearth of material for his studies, being surrounded by as many unlikely specimens as would fill out a Hogarth engraving, his own family not least among them. Jery is brighter in outlook than his uncle, seeing urbanisation as progress rather than perversion, and revelling in the social fluidity that enables him to drink with anyone he likes. He is the embodiment of Whiggish confidence, that the future will be better than the past, unlike his stout Tory uncle, who believes that change is generally synonymous with decay.

But not even Bramble can bemoan the marriage of South-Britain and North-Britain, of John Bull and his sister Moggy, and it is in Scotland that he truly seems to discover his country. He proclaims Edinburgh and Glasgow to be hotbeds of genius, recognising there a spirit of enterprise that will see us fair into the nineteenth century. Mean while he celebrates the Highlands for their Arcadian beauty, a mere twenty-five years after Culloden, when they would have represented nothing but primordial savagery to men of his stamp. But the Sawnies have given way to the Humes and the Smiths now, and it is in Scotland that Bramble finds the wholesome rusticity he craves, combined with the industry and learning he esteems as progress.

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Smollett

The eponymous Clinker is a servant, a handy half-wit, thrown in by Smollett for comic relief and as the hinge for a climactic plot device that was hackneyed when Fielding was a lad. The humour in the novel turns upon Clinker being weak in the head, and on the other servants, and the women-folk, being ill-lettered. Abusages and mis-spellings abound in their correspondences, eliciting groans rather than laughter from this reviewer; though Smollett may yet keep his public on the grin if they think it mirthful to refer to a quarter-penny as a ‘farting’, or to spell ‘country’ without the ‘o’.

Humphry Clinker is printed by W. Johnston in Ludgate-Street, and B. Collins in Salisbury, and costs somewhere ‘twixt a toom poke and a sack o’ siller.