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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

§ 2. Memoirs of Several Ladies

This method, or contempt of method, Amory applies, in his two books, with the most extravagant faithfulness. In the case of the earlier, indeed, Memoirs of Several Ladies, it is applied in such a fashion that all but the most exceptionally equipped readers had very much better begin with the second, John Buncle itself. There is enough of amusing matter, and of positive, though most eccentric, quality befitting a novel, to induce one to go back to the Memoirs; it is more than probable that a first introduction to the Memoirs might effectually prevent the reader from going on to the rest of the work, or from ever taking up anything else written by its author. Amory’s announced, and, probably, quite serious, intention was to give biographies of eighteen ladies, as well as of “the beautiful Isyphena and Judith the charming Hebrew,” with “occasional accounts” of others. He has actually devoted a stout volume of more than five hundred pages almost wholly to one person, Mrs. Marinda Benlow or Bruce, or, rather, to Mrs. Marinda and all the other subjects described or adumbrated above, including a voyage to the Hebrides, continual raids on “the destructive theology of Athanasius,” a long introduction to “Mrs. Monkhouse of Paterdale” [sic] “on the banks of the river Glenkroden” [sic] and a large postscript of an even more miscellaneous character. The French phrase about a book “letting itself be read” is sufficiently familiar: it is scarcely extravagant to say that these Memoirs absolutely refuse to submit themselves to reading, except in the fashion of the most dogged taskwork.

In John Buncle itself, Amory shows himself able to talk, or write, a little more like a man, if not of this, yet of his own eccentric, world. The hero becomes less nebulous: in fact, he is, at least, of the world of Dickens, when he sits down in the highest state of contentment, and, in fact, of positive carol, to a pound of steak, a quart of peas, another (or several others) of strong ale and divers cuts of fine bread. There has to be more and swifter handling to enable him to get through his allowance of more than half-a-dozen wives, all ravishingly beautiful; all strictly virtuous and rigidly Christian-Deist; most of them learned in arts and sciences, sacred and profane, and capable, sometimes, at least, of painting “at the same time” pictures of Arcadia and of the crucifixion. They are generally discovered in some wild district of the north of England, where the hero, after perilous adventures, comes upon a perfectly civilised mansion, usually on the shore of a lake; introduces himself; is warmly received by both fathers and daughters (it is noteworthy that mothers rarely appear); argues on points human and divine; marries; soon buries his wife; and proceeds to console himself, after an interval more or less short, in circumstances slightly varied in detail but generically identical.

And yet, though it is impossible to give any true description of it which shall not make it seem preposterous, the book is not a mere sandwich of dulness and extravagance. There is no doubt that the quality which recommended it to Hazlitt, and made him compare it to Rabelais, is his own favourite “gusto.” One might almost think that Amory had set himself to oppose, by anticipation, not merely the school of “sensibility” which was becoming fashionable in his own time, but the developments, nearly a century later, which produced Jacopo Ortis and Obermann. Buncle has his sorrows, and, despite his facility of self-consolation, neither mood appears to be in the least insincere, still less hypocritical. But, sorrow is not his business in life, nor, despite his passion for argument, introspection of any kind. It is his business to enjoy; and he appears to enjoy everything, the peas and the antiquarian enquiries, the theological discussions and the beautiful young ladies who join in them, the hairbreadth escapes and the lovely prospects, nay, even the company of a scoundrel with some character, like Curll. Hazlitt was perfectly right in selecting the passage describing Buncle’s visits with his friends the Dublin “bloods” (some of them, apparently, greater scoundrels than Curll himself) to an alehouse on the seashore. This display of mood is one of the most remarkable things of its kind, and the wonder of it is not lessened when we remember that it was published, if not written, by a man of seventy. That there is, practically, nothing—either real or factitious—of the sense of regret for the past is less surprising than that the gusto is itself not factitious in the least—that it is perfectly fresh, spontaneous and, as it were, the utterance of a fullblooded undergraduate. In none of the four great contemporary novelists is there this absolute spontaneity—not even in Fielding; and Amory ought to have due credit for it.