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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 1. Thomas Amory: John Buncle

THE CONTENTS of the present chapter may seem at first sight, and that not merely to ill-informed persons, like those of a badly assorted omnibus-box. Indeed, unless the reader has at once fallen into the right point of view, the more he knows the more likely he is to see wrong. Amory, he may say, was born well within the seventeenth century. Peacock died when only the last third of the nineteenth had yet to run. Here are two centuries, or nearly so, to be covered in one chapter. Moreover, the characteristics of the various novelists to be noticed do not admit, at least in some cases, of any obvious classification of a serious and scientific kind. What has John Buncle to do with Belinda, or St. Leon with Gryll Grange?

It is not necessary to be very careful in order to answer these questions. In the first place, the remarkable longevity and the peculiar circumstances of the oldest and the youngest members of the group render mere chronology singularly deceptive. It appears to be true that the author of John Buncle was born (though the exact year is not certain) not more than two or three years after the revolution of 1688: and it is certain that Peacock died in 1866. But Amory did not publish (though he may have written them earlier) his Memoirs of Several Ladies till he was nearly sixty-five, or John Buncle till he was nearly seventy, while Gryll Grange, though it appeared only six years before its author’s death and has a wonderful absence of glaring Rip-van-Winkleism, is, in general conception, identical with its author’s work of forty years earlier. And so we at once reduce the almost two hundred years of the first calculation to a modest sixty or seventy at most.

But there is a good deal more than this. Not only do the authors here dealt with represent the work of a manageable and definite, if immature, stage in the history of the English novel, but they also, by the very absence of their contemporaries Scott and Jane Austen, represent a transition, of the highest historical interest, between the great “quadrilateral” of the mid-eighteenth century novel and the immense development of the kind which Scott and Jane Austen themselves were to usher in for the nineteenth century. Some of them, but by no means all, are, in a way, failures. All, or almost all, represent experiment, sometimes in partly mistaken kinds, like the terror novel of Mrs. Radcliffe and Lewis, sometimes in “sports” of individual and somewhat eccentric talent or genius, like the humour romances of Peacock. But, except in the latter case, and even there, perhaps, to some small extent, they all give evidence that the novel has not yet found its main way or ways—that it is, if not exactly in the wilderness, scarcely at home in the promised land. Hardly a single one of our company, with the possible exception of Maria Edgeworth, can be said to be purely normal: and even her normality was sorely interfered with by her father’s eccentricities, by circumstances of this and that kind and, not least, perhaps, by an absence both of critical supervision and of creative audacity in herself.

Although John Buncle, by name at least, has a certain notoriety; although it was made the subject, by a great critic, of a criticism quite as debatable as, and only less debated than, Lamb’s on Thomas Heywood; although it has been several times reprinted and has, at any rate, pleased some good wits mightily, it appears to be still very little known. And, as to its more than eccentric author scarcely any facts seem to be accessible except that he knew, or said he knew, Swift, that he was an Irishman and that, in his later years, at any rate, he lived in London. It is customary to call Amory mad; but, after repeated reading of his chief book and a fair study of his other work, the present writer has not been able to discover signs of anything more than the extremest eccentricity. He was, indeed, compact of “crazes,” in the milder and more usual meaning of that word; and he indulged them without stint and without mercy. A passionate unitarian, or, as he preferred to call it, a “Christian-Deist”; an eager student of several humane subjects, especially Roman antiquities, and of some sciences, especially those connected with medicine; by no means a bad critic of literature, who almost literally anticipates Macaulay, in his estimate of Rymer; devoted to “the ladies,” always in a strictly, though rather oddly, virtuous way; almost equally devoted to good food and good drink; a most imaginative describer of, and wanderer in, picturesque scenery—he composes his books by means of a succession of “screeds,” devoted helter-skelter to all these subjects, and to a great many more.