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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

III. Sterne, and the Novel of His Times

§ 10. Henry Brooke: The Fool of Quality

With Brooke, we return once more, in however loose a sense, to what may be called the sphere of influence of Sterne; and, like Mackenzie, he, too, has sat at the feet of Rousseau. To many readers, perhaps to most, the spirit of Brooke will seem much healthier, as his outlook is undoubtedly much wider, than that of Mackenzie. He writes in a far breezier spirit; and, as the picaresque model is more unreservedly adopted, there is far more variety in his incidents and his settings. The extreme looseness of structure which inevitably results from this is, no doubt, something of a drawback; but it is amply redeemed by the vivacity of the characters, and by the vividness of the everchanging scenes through which they are led. It is redeemed, also, by the unfailing zest with which the author throws himself into the varying fortunes of his hero—whose pugnacity is hardly less conspicuous than his overflowing benevolence—and of the motley crew among whom his lot is cast. Moreover, full of “feeling” as the book is, of the kind which leads as often to laughter as to tears. After a course of Mackenzie, we cannot but be grateful for this relief.

Henry Brooke (1703?–83) was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity college, Dublin; he lived in Dublin for the greater part of his life. In addition to his work in the novel, drama and poetry, he took some part in the political controversies of his time; issuing a warning against the Jacobite tendencies of the Irish catholics in the panic of 1745 (The Farmer’s Letters), and subsequently pleading for a mitigation of the penal laws (1761). He was deeply affected by the religious movements of his day, that of the methodists as well as that of the mystics; a fact which did much to popularise his most important work, The Fool of Quality.

For our purposes, two things in particular deserve notice in the work of Brooke. In the first place, The Fool of Quality (1766) is more deeply stamped with the seal of Rousseau—the Rousseau of the second Discourse and of Émile—than is any other book of the period. The contempt which Rousseau felt for the conventions of society, his “inextinguishable hatred of oppression” in high places, his faith in the virtues of the poor and simple, his burning desire to see human life ordered upon a more natural basis—all this is vividly reflected upon every page of The Fool of Quality. It is reflected in the various discourses, whether between the personages of the story or between the author and an imaginary friend (of the candid sort), which are quaintly scattered throughout the book: discourses on education, heroism, debtors’ prisons, woman’s rights, matter and spirit, the legislation of Lycurgus, the social contract, the constitution of England—on everything that happened to captivate the quick wit of the author. Clearly, Brooke had grasped far more of what Rousseau came to teach the world, and had felt it far more intensely, than Mackenzie. Before we can find anything approaching to this keenness of feeling, this revolt against the wrongs of the social system, we have to go forward to the years immediately succeeding the outbreak of the French revolution; in particular to the years from 1790 to 1797—the years of Paine and Godwin, of Coleridge’s “penny trumpet of sedition”; or, in the field of the novel, the years of Caleb Williams, of Nature and Art, of Hermsprong, or Man as he is not. There, no doubt, the cry of revolt was raised more defiantly. For, there, speculation was reinforced by practical example; and the ideas of Rousseau were flashed back, magnified a hundredfold by the deeds of the national assembly, the convention and the reign of terror. And this contrast between the first and the second harvest of Rousseau’s influence is not the least interesting thing in the story of the eighteenth century novel.

The second point which calls for remark is connected with the mystical side of Brooke’s character of which notice has been taken in an earlier chapter. Through the mystics, it will be remembered, Brooke was brought into touch with John Wesley and the methodists. It is, in fact, the methodistical, rather than the mystical strain which comes to the surface in The Fool of Quality—though, in the discourse on matter and spirit, mentioned above, the author boldly declares, “I know not that there is any such thing in nature as matter.” Such defiances, however, are rare, and, in general, the appeal of Brooke is of a less esoteric kind. He dwells much on conversion; and, as revised by Wesley, the book was long a favourite with methodists. The importance of this is to remind us of the bond which unites the literary with the religious revival of the eighteenth century. It is, of course, only in a small number of writers—Collins, Smart, Cowper, for instance—that the two strands are visibly interwoven. But it is probable that the emotional appeal of the religious revival was an awakening force to many writers, whether poets or novelists, who, in the outward ordering of their lives, were indifferent, or even hostile, to the “enthusiasm” either of the methodist or of the evangelical. And it is certain that, from the general change of temper of which the religious revival was at once the cause and the symptom, both poet and novelist found the hearts of men more ready to receive their creations than would have been possible at any earlier period of the century. The same thing holds good as to the corresponding movement in the literature of Germany and, to a less degree, as to that in the literature of France. If the pietists had not prepared the ground, Goethe, who himself owed not a little to intercourse with the “beautiful soul”—the Moravian sister—would have found it much harder to win a hearing for his youthful poems and for Werther. If, in his earlier writings, Rousseau had not roughly challenged the speculative creed of “the enlightenment,” La Nouvelle Hékïse and the Rêveries would probably have been written in a very different spirit; conceivably they might never have been written at all.

On the other novel of Brooke—Juliet Grenville or the History of the Human Heart (1774), it is not worth while to linger. His plays and poems may be passed by here. He lives, indeed, by The Fool of Quality, and by that alone.