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).

From the beginning, some reviewers expressed anxiety about Bage’s work, for in contrast to the prevailing sentimentality, his novels advanced radical ideas on politics, religion and education. Long before 1789, Bage was a sharp critic of England’s own ancien régime. Mount Henneth’s satirical reflections on warmongering in North America show his sympathies to have been wholly with the colonists, curtly informed by the colonial power that no more is demanded of them than ‘implicit obedience – unconditional submission – and your money’. Nor was the satire he directed at the English class system and religion, especially the established Church, or at contemporary attitudes to women’s rights, universally welcomed. Still, readers appreciated his evident benevolence, allied to a humour that recalled Fielding, Smollett and Sterne.

The titles of Bage’s two last novels suggest he was falling into line with younger writers, whose thesis-novels, with their free-thinking views on politics and religion, took up the challenge thrown down by conservative reaction to the Revolutionary events in France. Bage, though, maintains a healthy distance from both the extreme optimism Godwin expressed in Political Justice (1793) and the profound pessimism of Caleb Williams (1794). And he did not share in the enthusiasm for war expressed on all sides as England embarked on hostilities in an attempt to root out the bases of contagious terror across the Channel. ‘Alas! half the actions of our lives are lunacies,’ Hermsprong laments, ‘and none more than those we reason ourselves into. War is lunacy, and we call in all the powers of reason to prove it wisdom.’

For Bage, the enemies of liberty were to be found closer to home. Hermsprong is set in Cornwall, whose rotten boroughs exemplified the unreformed Parliamentary system that stood in the way of proper representation of the manufacturing areas of the Midlands. The county had seen rioting by tin miners in 1795, and the threat of popular disorder finds its way into the novel, in which Hermsprong clashes with the despotic local magnate, Lord Grondale, and the grasping Church of England clergyman, Dr Blick. Without forsaking the facetious humour of his earlier fiction – represented most obviously by his Shandean narrator, Gregory Glen – Bage involves his characters in some of the most commonly debated political and philosophical issues of the day.

Hermsprong is the idealised product of a childhood passed among Native Americans whose simple virtues he absorbs before his father’s death leads him to return to Europe and a more conventional education in France, Italy and England. From the moment he arrives in Cornwall he is an object of suspicion, not least because of his preference for travelling on foot – an evident indication of poverty, social inferiority and probable seditious intent. (Bage’s own habit of walking between Tamworth and Elford places him in the company of his hero, as well as those much younger walkers, Wordsworth and Coleridge.) Hermsprong finally marries Grondale’s daughter – expelled from home by her father for refusing to accept a husband of his choice – after revealing himself to be the true owner of Grondale’s ill-gotten estates.

Little or nothing is made of the novel’s Cornish locations in a topographical sense (there is none of the proto-Romantic feeling for the sublimity of nature that animates, say, Thomas Amory’s John Buncle, partly set in Bage’s own county of Derbyshire). What is significant is the author’s resolute provincialism – few if any early English novelists had a more confident indifference to London. That revolutionary ideas might develop in the new manufacturing cities and provincial towns was a notion to which not everybody took kindly. Small wonder, perhaps: the growth of those cities that would soon provide England’s manufacturing and industrial base was a product of Bage’s own lifetime. He was not yet thirty when the poet John Dyer evoked the changing face of England in The Fleece (1757):

Th’increasing walls of busy Manchester,
Sheffield and Birmingham, whose redd’ning fields
Rise and enlarge their suburbs.

In Bage’s lifetime, the population of Birmingham rose from 15,000 to 70,000. The ironworks in which he had an interest may have failed but with his involvement Bage had taken a stake in the future. Older attitudes lingered, however. A reviewer of Joseph Priestley’s Memoirs claimed in 1806 that ‘there is something universally presumptuous in provincial genius.’ It wasn’t just conservatives who thought that way. The East Anglia-born Godwin evinced a suspicion of anything that happened outside of the capital on a par with Samuel Johnson’s. He noted that Bage had ‘very seldom’ travelled more than fifty miles from home, had never spent more than a week in London, and considered him raised ‘in the bosom of rusticity’.

The truth was rather different. Though not formally associated with any group, Bage had links through Erasmus Darwin with both the Lichfield circle centred on Anna Seward and the Lunar Society, whose members also included Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Day, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. William Hutton was also in touch with the ‘Lunatics’ and hence not merely with advanced scientific, religious, educational and political ideas but with a new sense of the shifting balance of social and cultural power in late 18th-century Britain.

If the cultural societies of the West Midlands appeared marginal to Londoners, Bage was marginal even to these. He remained largely indifferent. He may have regretted not having had a university education – ‘every man now has a mouthful of learning, but nobody has a bellyful’ – but knew his case was far from unique: Wedgwood, Boulton and Watt were all largely self-taught. So, unconcerned by the views of those who looked down both on the provincial and on the novel as a form capable of effecting or even imagining real social change, Bage continually engaged in his fiction in a critique of the world in which he lived. In a grimly amusing scene, Hermsprong is detained on a series of trumped-up charges. As a foreigner, brought up among savages, seeking asylum in England, he is considered a likely agitator and foreign spy. The dubious charges he faces include having read The Rights of Man, and having lent the book to at least one friend (‘which you know, my lord, is circulation, though to no great extent’). He has even been heard to suggest that the new French Constitution, while susceptible of improvement, is superior to that of England. Readers of 18th-century fiction will recall similar instances of misapplied law or the arbitrary power wielded by local justices of the peace in Joseph Andrews or Smollett’s Sir Launcelot Greaves. Those attuned to radical politics will think, too, of the 1794 treason trials, and of the members of the London Corresponding Society arrested in Birmingham in 1796 and tried for calling for annual Parliaments and universal male suffrage. Bage draws on both the fictional past and the political present.

Debate concerning the place of women in contemporary society takes up a good deal of his final novel. Arriving in England, Hermsprong is informed that it is a ‘breach of politeness’ to talk politics in front of ladies. He objects: ‘I think no subject improper for ladies, which ladies are qualified to discuss’ – and if they are not always so qualified then the restricted nature of their education is responsible. Women themselves cannot be blamed if they have ‘minds imprisoned’, which, ‘instead of ranging the worlds of physics and metaphysics, are confined to the ideas of these routs and Ranelaghs’. Alluding to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Hermsprong remarks that ‘Mrs Wollstonecraft . . . affirms that the mode of [women’s] education turns the energies of their minds on trifles.’ Wollstonecraft was happy to return the implied compliment: reviewing Hermsprong in the Analytical Review, she noted that Bage had ‘a happy mode of recommending mental improvement to a sex he loves, which,’ she added, ‘the dear creatures can scarcely find displeasing.’

Bage’s representation of women embodies arguments for sweeping changes in female education and behaviour frequently met with in the 1790s – if just as frequently resisted. The wider question of human nature and education – predictably examined through the story of the central male character – draws on different literary sources. In detailing the upbringing of Hermsprong among the Nawdoessie, close to Fort Michillimackinac, the main trading post linking the eastern and western Great Lakes region, Bage gives evidence of familiarity with several of the principal contemporary accounts of Native Americans by European travellers. These covered a wide spectrum of opinion. In fiction, they ranged from the facile optimism of John Shebbeare’s account of the Onondagas and Cayugas in Lydia (1755), through the tempered sympathy of Charles Johnstone in Chrysal (1760-65), to the harsh relation of Lismahago’s captivity among the Miami in Humphry Clinker (1771) and the ambivalence of Charlotte Smith in The Old Manor House (1793). (Writing about these matters in Captives, Linda Colley underestimates the extent to which British perceptions of Native Americans in the period were mediated through fiction.) Among non-fictional accounts, Bage draws on Pierre de Charlevoix, Jonathan Carver and John Long.

He borrows material selectively, transforming it in the process. Chief among his sources were Voltaire’s L’Ingénu (or The Huron) and Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Remarks concerning the Savages of North America’. So, while Hermsprong’s ‘savage’ simplicity and mixed education might suggest a debt to Rousseau, Bage – like Voltaire – isn’t interested in a straightforward idealisation of his hero. From Franklin, he adapts an account of the conflicting responses of Native Americans and Europeans to the others’ religions. While the former listen politely and with apparent respect to a retelling of the biblical narrative from Eden onwards, the latter are shocked by the self-evident untruthfulness of the Great Beaver’s account of a debate between the Native Americans and the White Bear they encounter north of the Great Lakes. The episode is one of the sharpest examples of Bage’s mistrust of metaphysics and of his commitment to the religious toleration he, like many contemporaries, supposed one of the most appealing features of North America. So, Hermsprong reports his parents’ differing responses to Native Americans: ‘“I shall never be easy amongst them,” said my mother. “You will indeed, my dear,” answered my father. “When you don’t think of converting them.”’

The exchange tells us a lot about Bage himself. Though his work is often linked with Jacobin fiction of the 1790s, the humour and scepticism of his novel put it at odds with, for example, Caleb Williams, or Wollstonecraft’s Mary (1788) and The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (1798). There, authorial pessimism manifests itself most evidently in the failure to find endings adequate to narratives of relentless oppression. Though she argues for Bage’s merits as a novelist more strongly than even such perceptive predecessors as Gary Kelly or Marilyn Butler, Pamela Perkins balks at the novel’s romance ending. Walter Scott, who distrusted Bage’s politics, grudgingly praised the depiction of Hermsprong while asking: ‘But did such a man ever exist?’ – which suggests he had forgotten Hermsprong’s subtitle. Bage’s pat ending, however, does more than evade the political issues he raises, for it poses the question of what the novel – as a literary form – might do, how it might do it, and for whom (like its immediate predecessor, Hermsprong was published by William Lane’s Minerva Press, much ridiculed for producing clichéd, sentimental Gothic fiction):

‘And pray,’ say a thousand of my fair readers all at once, – ‘pray . . . can you think of closing your book without giving us compleat satisfaction respecting [the hero and heroine]. Many things fall out between the cup and the lip. They might marry, or they might not. Are we at liberty to suppose which we please? For what END then did you write your book?’

Pardon me, dear ladies. I knew, or thought I knew, that there must be a total conformity of conclusion in your minds respecting this great event; and my hopes were, that you would have the goodness to marry them, when and where, and how you pleased. But since otherwise is your pleasure, I, as in duty bound, submit.

It was in the 5th month after the death of Lord Grondale that the happy Hermsprong . . . led his blooming Caroline to the altar.

With his reassurance that all outstanding financial as well as sentimental matters are happily resolved, Bage calls to mind the Jane Austen who was then, or would shortly be, writing Northanger Abbey. Like Hermsprong, that novel, too, turns away from its more extravagant Gothic possibilities to present readers with a provincial tale of domestic English tyranny, rounded off with an ending whose ironically proffered reassurance has been eagerly clutched at by generations of readers. Austen – who owned a copy of Hermsprong – was writing from what was, in many respects, a very different political viewpoint. Yet in her reclamation of the novel as a means of engaging in political debate with wit and humour, she has more in common with the elusive Bage than she, or modern readers, might suspect.