A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain 
by Daniel Defoe, edited by P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens.
Yale, 423 pp., £19.95, July 1991, 0 300 04980 3
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James Thomson: A Life 
by James Sambrook.
Oxford, 332 pp., £40, October 1991, 0 19 811788 4
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This new issue of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain is very pretty. It is a glossy book, lavishly illustrated with 18th-century maps, portraits, landscapes, prospects of towns and representations of buildings, markets, ships. This is obviously meant to function as a coffee-table book, or as a book to put in the back of a car (along with the National Trust’s guides). It’s the sort of book that would look much more at home in a BMW or Mercedes than a Mini. This production breathes an odour of ‘England’s Heritage’: one can imagine it in a bookcase beside works with titles such as ‘Roman Highways of Old Britain’ or ‘Our Cathedral Towns’.

That’s a pity, for Defoe’s book, the product of his many travels on business (including spying business), was intended to challenge the ‘Heritage’ notions of his time. It was a startling and unorthodox guidebook. Defoe rejected the Tory and Anglican interests, proclaiming that he was not going to bother much with Medieval monuments – such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This is a guidebook for now – the 1720s – and its central interests are economic and social. ‘The situation of things is given not as they have been, but as they are; the improvements of the soil, the product of the earth, the labour of the poor, the improvement of manufactures, in merchandizes, in navigation, all respects the present time, not the time past.’ When he comes to a new place, Defoe wants to know what the people live on; he quickly sights flourishing commerce, and he is fascinated by roads and communications. He notes how slowly the giant timbers are moved on the bad roads to Chatham, and tellingly illustrates the state of the roads around Lewes: ‘I saw an ancient lady, and a lady of a very good quality, I assure you, drawn to church in her coach with six oxen; nor was it done in frolick or humour, but meer necessity, the way being so still and deep, that no horses could go in it.’

How people and things get from place to place is important: Defoe fully recognises the relation between valuable products (grain, coal, timber, manufactures) and means of transportation. He makes us feel the nature of the road, at times appealing to the reader’s sensual imagination, even to the fascination of discomfort. ‘From this town of Guilford, the road to Farnham is very remarkable, for it runs along west from Guilford, upon the ridge of a high chalky hill ... This hill being all chalk, a traveller feels the effect of it in a hot summer’s day, being scorched by the reflection of the sun from the chalk, so as to make the heat almost insupportable; and this I speak from my own experience. This hill reaches from Guilford town’s end to within a mile and half of Farnham ... and at the top of the ascent from the town stands the gallows, which is so placed respecting the town, that the towns people from the High-Street may sit at their shop doors, and see the criminals executed.’ In this passage (brought to my attention by Lincoln Faller, who uses it effectively in his forthcoming book on Defoe), the reader is invited to share the pain of travel, including seeing too much, the eyes strained and tired. The seeing which is seeing too much is then picked up in the surprising image of the gallows at the apex of the hill. Is this a difficult sight to the citizens of Guilford? Or is it an added luxury of their town that they can attend executions, see the spectacle, without having to stir from their shop doors? Defoe is full of such teasing moments.

Alas, the passage is not present in full in this version of Defoe’s Tour. (I have just quoted the Penguin version of the Tour edited by Pat Rogers, also an abridgment, which does not cut death out of this description.) The Yale editors let us know about the chalky hill, but they have omitted the gallows. Why? Not, surely, because readers would find the information boring. This edition seems to desire a constant stream of good cheer (suitable for all ‘Heritage’ ventures). There must be nothing that can disturb us about our ancestors, or ourselves, or the history of the places we live in. There is a vague but perceptible desire for some intellectually refined version of the cute, an estrangement by domestication of a revolutionary book. Defoe was writing a travel book for businessmen and for Dissenters. He is quick to notice where an Anglican church is dilapidated or little attended, and he gives warm notice to flourishing meeting-houses – including Quaker meeting-houses. This is in an era when there were still penalties imposed on Dissenters, who could not attend the universities or hold any public offices. In his own unorthodox guidebook, Defoe was providing a new style of guide for the use of middle-class Whigs. It is of course fitting that his Tour should come into prominence again now, for Margaret Thatcher has taught us to ‘think Whig’, and the present so-called Tory Party is really a throwback Whig (not Liberal) party, with a fringe of puzzled Tories. However, this presentation of Defoe combs away much of the rebelliousness, adventurousness and cantankerousness of the author, and provides us with a smooth bland face, in keeping with our present modern Whiggery. In the words of Dickens’s Mrs General, ‘nothing disagreeable should ever be looked at ... A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant.’ Defoe’s Tour has been turned into a pretty illustrated book dealing with that endearing notion, a simpler past. It arouses the sort of nostalgia that Defoe himself treated with scorn. Defoe alerts us in his Preface to the possibility that there may be a satirical edge to at least parts of the book, and it is evident that some of the energy of the writing springs from a desire to show up those wrongful powers (placid companies, exclusive civic corporations, Anglican clerics, rich and idle gentles and the idle poor) who impede the work of others. He is, however, respectful of the work of the labouring poor, and here, too, the modern editors do not accompany him in his interests. The vitality of early Whiggery has been ingested into the world of the CEO, the Whiggery of the Sunday cottage, and the Sunday drive to the quaint village pub.

Defoe would, I think, encourage us to write our own Tour. Some individual, not directed by the Government or funded by Big Business, might undertake such a survey, examining the state of manufacture, transport facilities, commerce, as well as the life of the labouring poor. But the conclusions to be drawn from such a ‘1990s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ would probably be much more sobering than Defoe’s. In reading this new version of Defoe’s tour, we are merely escaping – borrowing the flush of economic hope from the 1720s, revelling at once in the period’s quaintness and its sense of opportunity.

At the same time that Defoe was travelling on the muddy highways and muddier byways of England and Scotland, a young poet, James Thomson (b. 1700), was roaming the cold hills of Scotland. Defoe, who toured through the area where James Thomson was born, thought little of it: agriculture in Roxburghshire was in a pitiful state, the people suffering a terrible famine from the effects of bad weather in 1709. The first poem which made the young poet’s name – and marked him for life – was, not surprisingly, to be entitled ‘Winter’. After attending the University of Edinburgh, James Thomson turned to that noble prospect, the highroad to England, and came to London to seek his fortune. His fortune did not come at once: he had, at first, to take on the somewhat humble task of acting as tutor to a four-year old child. He later wrote in Augustan enthusiasm at the idea of education, about the ‘Delightful Task ... To teach the young Idea how to shoot’, but the shootings of the little sprig of Scots nobility were not particularly interesting to Thomson: he described his job to a friend as ‘teaching Lord Binning’s son to read, a low task you know not so suitable to my temper’. He even remembered the idea of following his father’s wishes and becoming a minister – a fate he left Scotland to escape. But his employment and the attention of the Scottish circle in London gained him friends and patrons, and he had sufficient leisure to write. The first version of ‘Winter’ was published in April 1726: it was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, Speaker of the House of Commons, a highly-placed Whig.

When Compton failed to respond to this compliment with any valuable acknowledgment, Thomson, Aaron Hill and David Mallet prepared satirical verses on unsatisfactory patrons to preface the second edition of ‘Winter’. Compton stepped in in time (with civility and 20 guineas), and Thomson judiciously persuaded his friends to tone down their verses, or at least to leave Compton’s name out of them. ‘Winter’ was having a huge success. Having seen what one season could do for him, Thomson resolved to give the world his thoughts on all, and wrote ‘Summer’ (published 16 February 1727) and ‘Spring’ (published 5 June 1728). The publication of ‘Autumn’ was an event marked by a complete revision of the entire set: ‘Autumn’ emerged with the completed, altered and amplified Seasons in 1730. As Sambrook notes, by the time he wrote ‘Spring’, Thomson had seen the potential resemblance and rivalry of his large four-part work to Virgil’s four-part work on agricultural tasks and rural life, the Georgics The new British Georgics was extremely popular; one of its advantages was that these poems could be read by those who did not believe in fiction, as a factual description of the wonders of God’s creation and the blessed combination of British landscape with British industry. The Seasons in its final form promoted the right of Britain to colonise and tame inferior lands.

Thomson was praised by almost all discerning lovers of literature and won accolades from his fellow poets, including Pope. His capabilities as a powerful voice in favour of the Whig policies had not been lost on powerful Whig worthies, including George Bubb Dodington, Lord Melcombe, to whom ‘Summer’ was dedicated. Elizabeth Rowe brought Thomson’s poetic achievements to the attention of the Countess of Hertford, Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess of Wales. Thomson was to enjoy visits to Marlborough Castle with the Earl and Countess of Hertford, and at Dodington’s estate in Eastbury. He gravitated into the orbit of the Prince of Wales. A number of the younger or more intellectual (or more crafty) of the Whigs pinned their faith on young Frederick as a livelier prospect than his father George II, who in any case was going to listen to Walpole rather than themselves. It was less risky, perhaps, than it would be for a group of conservative Americans to group themselves around Dan Quayle, the prospects of a Vice-President being shakier than those of an Heir Apparent: but in the sad event Frederick (‘poor Fred’) died before he could reach the throne, and it was his son George III who was long to reign over us.

Thomson had powerful and rich friends, a circle of patrons who could give him practical assistance. He no longer had to tutor four-year-olds. In 1730 he set out on what was in effect a subsidised Grand Tour, as the companion of Charles Richard Talbot; Thomson was to be paid a handsome salary. Sambrook notes: ‘As a “companion” he enjoyed a higher status than a tutor; also, his allowance of £200 a year was more than a travelling tutor would ordinarily have received.’ Thomson had every reason to look forward to this excursion, as a conscientious poetic artist consecrated to the ideals of Roman grandeur – as interpreted by educated Whigs of the first half of the 18th century. He wrote with conscientious enthusiasm to Dodington: ‘I long to see the feilds [sic] whence Virgil gathered immortal honey, and to tread the same ground where men have thought and acted so greatly! If it does not give, it must at least awaken some what of the same Spirit.’

In the event, however, Thomson proved one of that large army of Britons who find Abroad disappointing, and even pointless. True, Italy had art – but what was the use of that? We have heard of the ‘Stendhal syndrome’, in which the patient finds himself, as Stendhal did in Florence, dazed and feverish upon the ingestion of so much rich art. Thomson suffered from whatever is the opposite of this condition:

The Enthusiasm I had upon me with regard to travelling goes off, I find, very fast. One may imagine fine things in reading of antient authors, but to travel is to dissipate that vision. A great many beautiful antique Statues, where several of the fair Ideas of Greece are fixed for ever in marble, and the paintings of the first masters are indeed most inchanting objects. How little however of these suffices? how unessential are they to life? And surely not of that Importance as to set the whole world, man woman and child a-gadding. I should be sorry to be Goth enough not to think them highly ornamental in life, when one can have them at home without paying for them an extravagant price; but for every one who can support it to make a trade of running abroad only to stare at them, I cannot help thinking something worse than a public folly.

With the jealousy of the poet, he disdained the visual arts and exalted his own: ‘I who have no taste in the least for smelling to an old musty stone look upon these other curiosities with an eye to poetry.’ He has to admit that he has not been at all inspired on the Continent: ‘should you enquire after my Muse, all that I can answer is that I belive she did not cross the channel with me.’

If he had wanted to recharge his Muse, Thomson would have done better to return to Scotland, to travel over the craggy hills where he had early gathered his own immortal honey. But he did not like to go back to Scotland. The Grand Tour dutifully resulted in a grand opus, a great work in five parts called Liberty (1735-36). Liberty sets out to prove that the present Britons – and the Whigs among them – are the true heirs of Athens and Rome, and that history can be seen as the progress towards Whig patriotism and mercantile capitalism, against such temporary obstacles as wild tribes, the Medieval era, Catholicism, and so on. Such a progressivist idea had come to be orthodox – Pope calls upon it in Book Three of the Dunciad. But Thomson not only outlines the general progress, he makes particular political sympathies absolutely clear. He praises the Patriots – meaning not only British men who loved their country but the particular happy band of Whigs around Frederick. The poem has some good moments, but it conducts itself largely in pompous generalisations, tall opaque words lacking the sensuousness of the language of the The Seasons. Liberty is an ambitious dead work. None of Thomson’s biographers and critics has been able to say much in its favour. Sambrook, who has edited numerous poems and is alive to all of Thomson’s poetic excellences, cannot say much in favour of it either. He calls it ‘this heavy hectoring poem’ and quotes Samuel Johnson, who said that Liberty’s ‘praises were condemned to harbour spiders’. Johnson, of course, held a political view very different from that of Thomson, but even ardent Whigs seem to have felt fatigued by the endeavour to get through it. Certainly, no reader can have wished it longer.

With Liberty, however, Thomson fully paid his dues to the leading Whigs of the Patriot circle, and they appear to have felt bound to look after him subsequently. He made some money in writing plays – three serious heavy plays of political sentiment. He made some money, he lost some money, he helped his sisters set up in the millinery line in distant Edinburgh while he lived in a modestly elegant house in Richmond, near the Prince of Wales. It looks as if the house in Richmond was a present. Otherwise, Thomson’s finances were and continued to be in a confused unsatisfactory state, in which ‘long credit’ figured largely. The more one looks at Thomson’s career, the more one appreciates and admires Pope’s decision to get free of patronage by the long labour of the Homer translation.

Thomson’s career – but what career? As a poet he winds down. He produced a great deal early in his life, and the productions of his early life were good. The Seasons is not a ‘great poem’ if we restrict that category by severe standards; it is not ‘great’ in the way the Aeneid is great, or the Georgics or The Faerie Queene. Given the standard of wide appeal, it is not as ‘great’ in our eyes as Pope’s Moral Essays. Yet it is a good poem, at times a very good poem, with some wonderful things in it, and it has been of importance in inspiring other poets, directly and indirectly. The ‘Poem to Newton’ is still important in tracing the intellectual history of scientific ideas – finding out how men saw the world around them in the light of the new science. When Augustan poetry was less well thought of than it is getting to be now, it was customary to set Thomson among the ‘pre-Romantics’. Certainly he was to have an effect on the Romantics. The story was told that when Thomson heard that Richard Glover was planning to write an epic poem, Thomson exclaimed: ‘He write an epic poem, a Londoner, who has never seen a mountain!’ The idea that a poet is one who looks upon mountains was an idea that got established in Thomson’s own time, and partly by himself. Yet Thomson never returned to the mountains of Scotland, and he produced a Georgics but no epic. The later part of his life is the story of the indolence that engulfed him – a story that Sambrook appears to find a little dull. A poet who stops writing is something of a challenge to his biographer.

Every biographical subject has what might be called a ‘tame’ side and a ‘wild’ side. The ‘tame’ side of a subject is easy to delineate. School, college, degrees, contracts, dates of publications, opening nights, public lectures, prizes and awards – these things, the substance of the public curriculum vitae are the facts, the biographical material substantiating the ‘tame’ historical personage. Dates of marriage, names of spouse(s), dates of birth of children and their names – these things, too, materials of public record, are facts for the ‘tame’ side. Titles, backgrounds, places of residence, occupations of distant relatives – all these respectable things the biographer may or must discover in order to give the subject standing in our eyes. Ah, but the ‘tame’ side is not enough. Every subject of a biography has a ‘wild’ side too – the ‘wild’ side referring not only to sexual affairs, or more or less hidden habits such as alcoholism or drug-taking, but also to the thoughts, aspirations, fantasies, bitter doubts, depressions, emotional confusions of the subject and his/her angers, elations, abrupt whims or unpractical connections. Changes of direction are found on the ‘wild’ side, the making of decisions which cannot be justified by reference to events and prospects appearing on the ‘tame’ side. If a biographer deals with the ‘tame’ aspect alone, we may applaud the prudence but we think the work ‘dull’. If the biographer emphasises the ‘wild’ side, the biography is labelled ‘sensational’. This is no new problem: it was one confronted by Johnson in the Lives of the Poets and by Boswell in his Life of Dr Johnson. Sometimes our idea of a certain person already establishes in the public’s mind some relations between wild and tame: with Byron, for instance, or D. H. Lawrence, we are prepared to accept the wild elements as an important part of the picture. With Jane Austen, the public is much less eager or even inclined to imagine ‘wild’ elements. Yet Austen has her ‘wild’ side, and there is a ‘tame’ side to the life of D. H. Lawrence.

Sambrook seems very reluctant to confront the wild side of James Thomson. In the earlier chapters things seem to move smoothly on the level of the ‘tame’; Thomson’s poems are published in regular order, dates and exchanges can be acknowledged, and the poet’s new friends fit in the scheme of practical life-politics. It is in the later chapters that Sambrook begins, reluctantly and cautiously, to edge closer to Thomson’s ‘wild’ side – if only because the ‘tame’ story begins to run out, to strike upon shallows, with Thomson’s increasingly evident inability to produce sustained and interesting works. Sambrook has to mention Thomson’s fat figure and his over-eating – a matter more disgusting to poetic fame than over-drinking. Thomson was coarse-looking and slovenly: Sambrook (or an earlier source) prissily censors the rude remarks about Thomson’s figure once made by a female fellow passenger in a coach. The poet was happiest drinking with cronies at local inns. All these qualities Sambrook covers in the peculiarly unhelpful phrase ‘a man’s man’.

Love of conviviality does not necessarily accompany a lack of production. Thomson’s well-known dislike of getting up in the morning may have been owing to constant hangovers, but Thomson’s own multiple references to ‘indolence’ would indicate that he felt moral and psychological pressures to inactivity. A poem by a friend urges him:

Shake from thy fatty Sides the slumbrous Fit,
In which alas! Thou art so Woe-begone!

Some of Thomson’s ‘Woe-begone’ behaviour appears to have been the result of real depression. The ‘slumber’ seemed hard to shake off.

In 1743, Thomson engaged in a peculiar courtship of Elizabeth Young. Sambrook says ‘hardly anything is known about Elizabeth Young’; her brother-in-law thought her ‘a fine sensible woman’. Lady Philippina Knight left the following description: ‘Thomson was a very passionate man. It has been told me that his amiable Amanda ... and him one evening disagreeing, she pulled off his wig and threw it on the ground, and he threw a glass of punch at her; that she was a woman of great natural sense and quick repartee, and, though violent and harsh in expression, yet had as strong humanity as any woman I ever was acquainted with.’ According to this same source, Elizabeth spoke in a strong Scots ‘dialect’ and would not marry Thomson until he proved he could support her. Nothing came of this courtship interlude. Thomson was not well able to support a wife, since he was always deep in debt and drew an uncertain income.

The reported quarrel scene has a good deal of verve. Perhaps Thomson felt that this energetic Scotswoman would not only understand him better than an Englishwoman, but might also be able to galvanise him with her energy and self-confidence as well as her humanity and sense. Perhaps his turning to Elizabeth was the result of homesickness, or just the reflex of a somewhat Boswellian desire to imitate more assured male friends, such as his old friend William Robertson, now a successful court physician and the husband of Mary Young, Elizabeth’s sister. In his early forties, Thomson was at the age when one has to do something quickly about marrying, or recognise singleness as a permanent state. The matter came to nothing – and this ‘courtship’ is the only occasion of Thomson’s serious interest in any identifiable woman. He was evidently able to talk bawdy effectively at table, and was genially accused of whoring. In rewriting The Seasons, Thomson introduced some mildly erotic moments, and had represented the poet as addressing his beloved, ‘Amanda’. Sambrook takes at face value the professions of hearty manliness, and believes that Thomson was a more or less jolly bachelor, with many strong friendships with other men.

The strength of Thomson’s friendships is certainly in evidence. In ‘The Castle of Indolence’ he combines and reflects upon the elements of his own later life in a manner both witty and poignant. In this underrated poem in the Spenserian style, the poet conveys to us the attractions of the life he was (in some sense) living – a life of genial ease, men friends, pipes and ale. It is a masterly evocation of the realm of dinners, gown, slippers and the unmade bed, a deeply pleasurable and unregulated world that can remind us of Badger’s house in The Wind in the Willows. The life of perfect physical and emotional ease is not, however, allowed to continue: the Castle of Indolence is overthrown by the zealous Knight of Industry, who virtuously wrecks the shameless creation of the Wizard of Indolence. The wizard has charmed men with ‘Nepenthe’. As Sambrook says, ‘in one aspect the Castle represents the poet’s own self-absorbed, self-justifying, capricious, insatiable, irresponsible, creative imagination.’ If that is so, Thomson could not trust that imagination. The pleasures of the Castle are improper, unvirtuous, and must be exorcised. A good bard is required, as Sambrook says, to assert ‘the higher value of socially responsible art’.

It is only in dealing with Thomson’s conflicted poem that Sambrook himself is at all able to touch upon the possibility of conflict within Thomson: ‘The characters of the Wizard and the Bard, the Castle and its destroyer, articulate very clearly and bring into head-on collision the two poets inside Thomson ... the retired dreamer whose object is pleasure and the active teacher whose object is moral instruction.’ Perhaps it would be truer to imagine, not just two poets inside Thomson’s poetry, but two or more Thomsons. The phrase ‘retired dreamer’ is too Shelleyan a phrase to convey an impression of the life of congenial pleasure of ‘The Castle’. The enchantment of the Castle is a dream of pure masculinity in companionship: ‘No Dogs, no Babes, no Wives to stun your Ear’. As readers other than Sambrook have also perceived, it is the Abbey of Thélème without women. The inhabitants of the Castle are free to obey the command ‘Do What You Like’. Masculinity here becomes fully itself in becoming fully passive, sensuous and dreamy. This is, of course, a forbidden state of things. Thomson was quite right in believing that society could not countenance it. But he began this poem while writing the lofty, pompous, didactic, socially useful and moral Liberty – and ‘The Castle of Indolence’ would seem to be a reaction against all that Liberty officially stood for.

Was Thomson not always longing for another Liberty which all the Whiggism in 18th-century England could not allow him? I am here departing far from Sambrook, who is content to leave us with the bluff, bawdy, hearty Thomson, a ‘man’s man’. Sambrook does, however, notice on two occasions those two puzzling males in Thomson’s household; he calls them each ‘kinsman’ on their first appearance, although he adds: ‘there is some doubt as to their exact relationship to the poet.’ William Robertson called them Thomson’s nephews and said ‘they did not live with him, but they lived upon him.’ Later in the century members of the family denied they were relatives. Sambrook is content to call these ‘Brother-Gardeners’, as Thomson styled them, ‘parasites’, and to leave them. But their unexplained presence on Thomson’s grounds contributes to the ‘wild’ side of Thomson’s life, the unexplained, unofficial aspects.

Thomson seems, as one looks at this biography, to have been in some ways a deeply unhappy man, caught by the middle of his career in some trap of impotence and dissatisfaction that he could hardly define. Once he was able to write about his feelings and wishes (in Canto One of ‘The Castle of Indolence’), he had immediately to counteract and destroy these feelings and desires in the name of public virtue. Nepenthe, after all, is a dangerous substance. It was the drug offered at the table of Helen of Troy, when she was stuck back in her dim marriage to Menalaus. Its chief effect, as described by Homer, is to relieve one of affect. Your family could be slaughtered before your eyes, Homer says, and you would not weep – if you had taken nepenthe (see Odyssey 4: 220-32). The desire for a deadening of emotional pain tells us that there is a considerable emotional pain to deaden.

In ‘The Castle of Indolence’ Thomson talked about his own wild side, and tried to tame it, tried to pretend the answers that 18th-century brisk enlightened thought supplied were going to work for him. But they did not. He was dead by the time ‘The Castle of Indolence’ was published, dead at age 48. He died of what his contemporaries called ‘a putrid fever’; William Robertson thought he had little will to live, an attitude which Robertson attributed to pining for Elizabeth Young, who married another. But perhaps Thomson had come to a point where it was easier to lay down the burden of living than to pick it up and go on, because he could not any longer explain himself to himself in ways that made for mental ease.

In ‘The Castle of Indolence’ he had given away his mental state and his wishes: but in order to succeed in utterance he had felt compelled to go through the motions of destroying his own inclinations, his dreams and emotional refuge. Perhaps the destruction that the moral Thomson wrought upon his lovely castle was a desecration of himself. He paid the price for the official voice he had first begun to adopt in The Seasons – the voice of the moralist who tells others how to live progressively and usefully, pushing on and developing a world just waiting to be colonised and developed. He himself was imaginatively invaded in ‘The Castle’ by the intrusive Whig colonising force represented in the Knight of Industry, his estate plundered, taken over by superior and worthy energetic Englishmen who flattened his little shelter. There is a tragedy here, though the tragedy I have narrated is not the story told by Sambrook.

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