Lunacies

Ian Campbell Ross

  • Hermsprong; or Man as He Is Not by Robert Bage, edited by Pamela Perkins
    Broadview, 387 pp, £8.99, March 2002, ISBN 1 55111 279 5

In the summer of 1797, William Godwin set out on a tour of the Midlands. He had hoped to visit, among others, Erasmus Darwin, but finding the naturalist away from home, Godwin asked Darwin’s wife for a letter of introduction to Robert Bage instead. To his surprise, Mary Darwin said she could not properly provide one since, though Bage was her husband’s ‘very particular friend’, she wasn’t sure she had ever set eyes on him. Undeterred, Godwin determined to introduce himself to ‘the author of Hermsprong’. Travelling on to Elford, he found the paper-mill Bage had worked for almost four decades, only to be told that he’d moved to Tamworth five years previously. As the mill’s owner Bage returned to Elford three times a week, however, and Godwin was assured that if he continued towards Tamworth he would meet him on the road. At last encountering the 69-year-old author, walking book in hand, Godwin got down from his chaise and accompanied him on foot to his house, which he noted to be ‘like that of a common farmer in every respect’. Almost thirty years his junior, Godwin found Bage to be a man who had ‘thought much’ yet remained ‘uncommonly cheerful and placid, simple in his manners, and youthful in all his carriage’. It was, Godwin wrote to Mary Wollstonecraft, a ‘delightful’ day.

Robert Bage can still appear elusive. Hermsprong; or Man as He Is Not (1796) is the last of his six novels and the only one currently in print. Born near Derby in 1728, Bage was in his mid-fifties when he published his first novel, Mount Henneth, in 1782. The son of a paper-maker, he had acquired his own mill shortly after he married at the age of 23. Initially he worked it alone, then with his close friend William Hutton, the future historian of Birmingham. In 1765, Bage expanded his activities, investing in ironworks as part of a consortium that included Erasmus Darwin. When the ironworks failed in 1779, at a personal loss of £1500, ‘the result filled him with melancholy thoughts; and, to dissipate them, he formed the project of a novel, which he endeavoured to fill with gay and cheerful ideas.’

Mount Henneth enjoyed modest critical success and further novels followed: Barham Downs (1784), The Fair Syrian (1787), James Wallace (1788), Man as He Is (1792) and finally Hermsprong. Bage told Godwin that he believed ‘he should not have written novels, but for want of books to assist him in any other literary undertaking.’ Not that the reluctant novelist was uneducated. In his youth, he had been a good Latin scholar; later he taught himself French and Italian; when mathematics engaged his interest, he travelled once a week to Birmingham to study with a teacher there.

Bage brought to novel-writing a well-stocked mind and wide-ranging curiosity. The novel – that ‘new species of writing’ – had already lost much of what uncertain reputation it had once enjoyed and those qualities were much needed. By 1782, the masters of the mid-century were all dead: Fielding in 1754, Richardson in 1761, Sterne in 1768 and Smollett in 1771. Among his contemporaries, only Frances Burney was at the height of her powers. Neither Ann Radcliffe, whose Gothic romances would soon enjoy immense popularity, nor the younger radical novelists such as Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Holcroft – with whom Bage is most commonly linked – had yet begun to publish. In these circumstances, Bage’s fiction stood out, as can be gauged by contemporary reviews (a small selection is appended to this edition).

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