The Harbottle Review

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

Category: Book review


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.

sir roger and spec

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.


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.



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 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.

werther's suicide

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.


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.

pump room

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.


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.



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.


CANDIDE by Voltaire


During his exile here from absolutist France some years ago, Voltaire was pleased to declare that, like the English, he thinks what he likes and says what he thinks. This advocacy of free expression seemed to wane one night round at Colley Cibber’s though, when he bore with very ill grace my suggestion that Frederick the Great was more of a Galba than a Trajan. To say truth, matters got warm, and I was forced to reduce him to order with a James Figg joint-lock; but I took into the accompt. his Gallicity, and the case of brandy he had in his locker, and it’s all water under the bridge now.

Voltaire is justly celebrated for his defiance of the French state, which continues to silence its dissentients with tortures, imprisonment, and death. When Candide, the eponymous innocent of this new work, leaves France in chapter twenty-two, we are told that he feels “like a man delivered from hell.” The judgement seems harsh; however it is not a judgement upon France alone, but the world, Voltaire’s assertion being that hell is everywhere around us. And while Candide merrily throws bombs at despotism, it is firstly and chiefly concerned with a deeper theme, this being how to comprehend the world, and live in it.

VoltaireCandide is an artless youth, raised in the philosophy of Leibniz, which teaches that God is both all-powerful and benign, and that his creation must therefore be the best of all possible worlds. He finds this an easy creed to swallow in his ambrosial boyhood, but when he is visited by torture, war, and the deaths of his loved ones, his faith flags. Crossing the earth and the oceans, suffering appalling horrors and witnessing yet more, he meets only with victims. Typical of these is the old woman who has endured the most wicked abuses, who reviles her own existence, who a hundred times has wanted to end herself, but who is somehow “still in love with life.” Time and again Candide’s companions are lost for dead and then resurrected; but only that they may suffer more. Or perhaps, like the old woman, they simply believe that hell is better than nothing, and refuse to give up the ghost.

At the midpoint of his journey, in South America, Candide stumbles upon the fabled Eldorado, a land of wealth and concord. There is no conflict in this paradise because “Everyone here is of the same mind.” Candide finds this insufferable. He can not wait to be on his travels again, to get back to his own world, with its strife and restlessness and aspiration; which ought not surprise us, him being European withal, and thus civilised.

Although Candide learns to doubt the goodness of his world, he never despairs of it, being sustained by three things: his native cheer; his incessant philosophising; and the hope of union with his love, Cunégonde. But at the end of his travails, he learns that only the first of these is of any value, the other two being merely the chasing of ideas: Philosophy, it turns out, is a poor substitute for getting on with a life; while the object of Candide’s love existed mainly in his own head.

candide_grafikVoltaire leaves us with this dictum: “We must cultivate our garden,” and Candide perceives it to contain more wisdom than all the works of Leibniz he was raised on. For if the world really is the best it can be, then it can not be made better, and man is condemned to paralysis, or at best, sitting around scratching his head for proofs of unknowable origins: a philosophy which, to Candide, has shown itself worthless. And even if God did create the world, he has left us alone in it now, so rather than crave his leading strings, we must get on with the business of living, with tending the plot, which is all we have; or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said to the Abbé Petit that time round at Baron d’Holbach’s salon, “Priest, your play is worthless.”

Candide is printed anonymously consequent to Bourbon oppression and will cost you a quick course in French.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift

2006ap7860_swift-gullivers_travelsJonathan Swift once termed the Harbottle Review, “Lilliputian in its perspicacity and Brobdingnagian in its folly,” yet knowing him as I do, it stirred no resentment. Whether in the pamphlets or at the dinner table, the Dean is a sparrer, who likes to test the mettle of his rivals through railleries and taunts. Or, as Pope once said to a tearful Burlington, “Take no notice of him, mate; it’s just his way.” Swift is a bully, a baiter, a sarcastic aggressor, who would have suited the Bench; and though he gives his fellow man a thorough drubbing in Gulliver’s Travels, this is not so much a work of misanthropy as a caution on its proper limits.

4Lemuel Gulliver, a blythe soul with a thirst to see the world, makes four voyages over sixteen years, and finds himself each time in some distorted version of England. The peoples he meets either represent the failings of mankind, or have virtues that stand in unforgiving contrast. The satire can be more sledgehammer than scalpel, with the tiny Lilliputians representing the pettiness of party faction and the triviality of religious schism. But the deeper message here is that, although their government is founded on a perfect constitution, it is inevitably corrupted by the involvement of men. This is the first of many roastings over coals that Swift gives to humankind. Another of Gulliver’s sojourns is among the giants of Brobdingnag, where the noble king listens to his account of the English and concludes them to be: “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” The judgement seems too harsh, but Gulliver makes no appeal.

Misanthropy of this order might look like the result of bitterness: the bitterness of a dean who thinks he ought to be a bishop; of a Tory whose party has been crushed by the Whigs; of a man exiled to Ireland, though his heart is English. Swift is all of these things; but what, by the end of Gulliver’s third voyage, appears to be the venting of a thwarted old bore, turns out finally to be something more purposeful.

gulliver-HouyhnhnmsGulliver’s last voyage takes him to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses governed entirely by reason. These insufferable creatures, unafflicted with passions, do not dispute, or love, or err, or aspire; thus they experience nothing of any note, and have no history, other than records of race winners. They live alongside creatures called Yahoos, a warped parody of humanity, more fantastical than anything Hobbes dreamed of, and possessed of less sentience than might be observed in mad dogs. Gulliver, already disillusioned, and bewitched now by the siren-song of Houyhnhnm rationality, identifies these wretches with humanity at large, thus losing all faith in his own race. When forced home, he responds to his family and fellows with disgust, and buys himself a pair of horses to talk to instead.

Of course, we prefer the Gulliver of sixteen years before, the naif, over the fanatical cynic he has become; and this is Swift’s crowning irony, in which his own misanthropic satire becomes the target of a further satire. Swift has elsewhere declared, “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.” Or in other words, however far you decry the vice and violence and venality of humankind, do not forget that you are of that breed yourself.

Gulliver’s Travels is printed by Benjamin Motte, at the Middle Temple-Gate in Fleet-street, and might cost you some of the wind out your sails.