The Life of John Buncle by Thomas Amory
"THE Life of John Buncle, Esq.; containing various Observations and Reflections made in several parts of the World, and many Extraordinary Relations," is a book unlike any other in the language, perhaps in the world. John's Life is not a classic: it contains no passage which is a general favourite: no extract could be made from it of any length, to which readers of good taste would not find objections. Yet there is so curious an interest in all its absurdities; its jumble of the gayest and gravest considerations is so founded in the actual state of things; it draws now and then such excellent portraits from life; and above all, its animal spirits are at once so excessive and so real, that we defy the best readers not to be entertained with it, and having had one or two specimens, not to desire more. Buncle would say, that there is "cut and come again" in him, like one of his luncheons of cold beef and a foaming tankard. John Buncle, Esq., is the representative of his author, Thomas Amory; of whom little is known, except that he was a gentleman of singular habits and appearance, who led a retired life, was married, was a vehement Unitarian, wrote another extraordinary book professing to be "Lives of Several Ladies" (in which there is a link with John), and died, to the glory of animal spirits, and of rounds of bread and butter (into which his good cheer seems latterly to have merged), at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. He is supposed to have been bred a physician. His father was a barrister, and is understood to have acquired considerable property in Ireland, in consequence of becoming secretary to the forfeited estates.
John Buncle is evidently Amory himself. This is apparent from the bits of real autobiography which are mixed with the fictitious, and which constitute one of the strange jumbles in his book. Hazlitt has called him the "English Rabelais;" and in point of animal spirits, love of good cheer, and something of a mixture of scholarship, theology, and profane reading, he may be held to deserve the title; but he has no claim to the Frenchman's greatness of genius, freedom from bigotry, and profoundness of wit and humour. He might have done very well for a clerk to Rabelais; and his master would have laughed quite as much at, as with him. John is a kind of innocent Henry the Eighth of private life, without the other's fat, fury, and solemnity. He is a prodigious hand at matrimony, at divinity, at a song, at a loud "hem," and at turkey and chine. He breaks with the Trinitarians as confidently and with as much scorn as Henry did with the Pope; and he marries seven wives, whom he disposes of by the lawful process of fever and smallpox. His book is made up of history, mathematics (literally), songs, polemics, landscapes, eating and drinking, and characters of singular men, all bound together by his introductions to and marriages with these seven successive ladies, every one of whom is a charmer, a Unitarian, and cut off in the flower of her youth. Buncle does not know how to endure her loss; he shuts his eyes "for three days;" is stupefied; is in despair; till suddenly he recollects that Heaven does not like such conduct; that it is a mourner's business ,to bow to its decrees; to be devout; to be philosophic; in short, to be jolly, and look out for another dear, bewitching partner "on Christian principles." This is, literally, a fair account of his book; and our readers are now qualified to understand the passages we proceed to extract.
The "Lives of Several Ladies," which preceded Buncle's autobiography, professed to be genuine lives, and were equally manifest fiction; mixed with a portion of truth. The ladies, like the wives, were all Unitarian; and all charming; and the writer, after a certain spiritual mode, fell in love with them. They partook of his zest for all the pleasures of life; had a great objection to ugly, as well as to Athanasian husband; and none in the world to a good supper. The lives are addressed to a friend of the name of Jewks—a name which is often apostrophized with an abrupt joviality of the most amusing kind, in the midst of theological disquisitions. As the opening of this work is no unfavourable specimen of the author, and furnishes a pretty thorough foretaste of his spirit, the reader is presented with a few pages of it.
Your letter, dear Jewks, I had the pleasure of receiving; and, that you should not suspect me of neglecting you, I postpone my journey to Chadson, to answer your questions. To the best of my power I will give you a monument of my friendship, though at present my condition is such, that I cannot subtract too much from the organs of the intellect, to give to those of 'notion. You shall have all I know relating to the lady you inquire after. You shall have, by the way, a few occasional observations.
In the year 1739, I travelled many hundred miles to visit ancient monuments, and discover curious things; and as I wandered, to this purpose, among the vast hills of Northumberland, fortune conducted me one evening, in the month of June, when I knew not where to rest, to the sweetest retirement my eyes have ever beheld. This is Hali-farm. It is a beautiful vale surrounded with rocks, forest, and water. I found at the upper end of it the prettiest thatched house in the world, and a garden of the most artful confusion I had ever seen. The little mansion was covered on every side with the finest flowery greens. The streams, all round, were murmuring and falling a thousand ways. All the kinds of singing birds were here collected, and in high harmony on the sprays. The ruins of an abbey enhance the beauties of this place; they appear at the distance of four hundred yards from the house; and as some great trees are now grown up among the remains, and a river winds between the broken walls, the view is solemn, the picture fine.
When I came up to the house, the first figure I saw was the lady whose story I am going to relate. She had the charms of an angel, but her dress was quite plain and clean like a country maid. Her person appeared faultless, and of the middle size, between the disagreeable extremes; her face a sweet oval, and her complexion the brunette of the bright rich kind; her mouth, like a rose-bud that is just beginning to blow; and a fugitive dimple, by fits, would lighten and disappear. The finest passions were always passing in her face; and in her long, even, chestnut eyes there was a fluid fire sufficient for half-a-dozen pair.
She had a volume of Shakespeare in her hand as I came softly towards her, having left my horse at a distance with my servant; and her attention was so much engaged with the extremely poetical and fine lines which Titania speaks in the third act of the Midsummer Night's Dream, that she did not see me till I was quite near her. She seemed then in great amazement. She could not be much more surprised if I had dropped from the clouds. But this was soon over, upon my asking her if she was not the daughter of Mr. John Bruce, as I supposed from a similitude of faces, and informing her that her father, if I was right, was my near friend, and would be glad to see his chum in that part of the world. Marinda replied, 'You are not wrong;' and immediately asked me in. She conducted me to a parlour that was quite beautiful in the rural way, and welcomed me to Hali-farm, as her father would have done, she said, had I arrived before his removal to a better world. She then left me for a while, and I had time to look over the room I was in. The floor was covered with rushes wrought into the prettiest mat, and the walls decorated all round with the finest flowers and shells. Robins and nightingales, the finch and the linnet, were in the neatest red cages of her own making; and at the upper end of the chamber, in a charming little open grotto, was the finest strix capite aurito, corpore rufo, that I have seen, that is, the great eagle owl. This beautiful bird, in a niche like a ruin, looked vastly fine. As to the flowers which adorned this room, I thought they were all natural at my first coming in, but on inspection it appeared that several baskets of the finest kinds were inimitably painted on the walls by Marinda's hand.
These things afforded me a pleasing entertainment for about half an hour, and then Miss Bruce returned. One of the maids brought in a supper—such fare, she said, as her little cottage afforded; and the table was covered with green peas and pigeons, cream cheese, new bread and butter. Everything was excellent in its kind. The eider and ale were admirable. Discretion and dignity appeared in Marinda's behaviour; she talked with judgment; and, under the decencies of ignorance, was concealed a valuable knowledge.
This is the way in which Buncle meets with most of his ladies. They are discovered in lovely places reading books, and are always prepared for nice little suppers. Their fathers or other companions are generally people to match. Jack Bruce, Marinda's father, was an excellent good fellow, disinherited by his own father for refusing to sign the thirty-nine articles. He disappears in a solitude, marries a farmer's daughter ("an extraordinary beauty" with an "uncommon understanding"), and becomes a farmer himself.
'Religion,' would Jack Bruce say, as we passed an evening over a little bowl of nectar—for he never taught in the dry, sober method—'religion,' &c.
Then follows a picture of philosophic Unitarianism.
This was a glorious faith, Jewks. People may substitute inventive pieces in the place of true religion, and multiply their fancies into endless volumes; such as Revelation examined with Candour, the most uncandid thing that ever was written; the Life of David, &c., by the same author; Rogers's Discourse of the Visible and Invisible Church; Waterland's Importance, and other writings; the execrable dialogues called Ophiomaches; Trapp, Webster, and Vernon; the miserable Answers to the Bishop of Clogher; Dodwell, Church, and Brooks, against Middleton; Knowles against the Argument a Priori; and cart-loads of such religious lumber" (these italics are the author's); but, my dear Jewks, true Christianity lies in repentance and amendment.
Miss Bruce wins a husband by painting pictures of "Arcadia" and the "Crucifixion," and "playing on the fiddle." Divers charming young ladies come to her house by accident, and form extempore never-dying friendships, in the manner of the people in the Rovers—
"Come to my arms, my slight acquaintance."
Among others are Mrs. Schomberg and Miss West.
They were riding to Crawford Dyke, near Dunglass, the place I intended for, and by a wrong turn in the road came to Mrs. Benlow's house, instead of going to Robin's Toad, where they designed to bait. It was between eight and nine at night when they got to her door; and as they appeared, by the richness of their riding-dress, their servants, and the beautiful horses they rid, to be women of distinction, Mrs. Benlow invited them in, and requested they would lie at her house that night, as the inn they were looking for was very bad. Nothing could be more grateful to the ladies than this proposal. They were on the ground in a moment; and we all sat down soon after, with the greatest cheerfulness, to a fine dish of trouts, roasted chickens, tarts, and asparagus. The strangers were quite charmed with everything they saw. The sweet rural room they were in, and the wild beauties of the garden in view, they could not enough admire; and they were so struck with Mrs. Benlow's goodness, and the lively happy manner She has of showing it, that they conceived immediately the greatest affection for her. Felicity could not rise higher than it did at this table. For a couple of hours we laughed most immoderately.
But to quit the lives of ladies who married other men, and come to John Buncle and his own. John quits his father, as Jack Bruce did, on account of a religious difference, and goes about the world, seeking whom he may marry. His first wife is a Miss Melmoth. He had known her some time, when having been led one day into some particularly serious reflections on life and death by the sight of a skeleton, he considered that it would be a good thing to "commence a matrimonial relation with some sensible, good-humoured, dear, delightful girl of the mountains, and persuade her to be the cheerful partner of his still life." He thought that "nature and reason" would then "create the highest scenes of felicity, and that he should live, as it were, in the suburbs of heaven." And he concludes, in an ecstasy:
This is fine. For once in my life I am fortunate. And suppose this partner I want in my solitude could be Miss Melmoth, one of the wisest and most discreet of women, thinking a bloom and good-humour itself in a human figure, then, indeed, I must be happy in this silent, romantic station. This spot of earth would then have all the felicities.—Resolved. Conclusum est contra Manichæos<77>, said the great St. Austin; and with a thump of his fist, he (St. Austin) cracked the table."
Miss Melmoth, being one of the wisest as well as loveliest of women, accepts of course the hand that draws so convincing a conclusion from the fist of St. Austin. For two years they lead a life of bliss; but at the end of that time she dies of a fever, and John quits a solitude which he could not bear.
His second wife is the lovely Miss Statia Henley, "bright and charming as Aurora," daughter of John Henley, Esquire, of the Groves of Basil. She had some fugitive notions of celibacy, which our hero refutes on Christian principles; and, as in the former instance, they lead a life of bliss for two years. The "illustrious Statia" then dies of the smallpox, and is laid by Charlotte's side.
Thus did I again become a mourner. I sat with my eyes shut for three days; but at last called for my horse, to try what air, exercise, and variety of objects could do."
Air, exercise, and a variety of objects did very well; for Mr. Buncle misses his way into the house and grounds of the exquisite Miss Antonia Cramer, "a heaven-born maid" and "innocent beauty," whom he marries of course. But her, also, alas! he loses of the small-pox, at the end of two—no, three years. "Four" days, too, he sits with his eyes shut, which is a day more than he gave to Statia; and then he left the lodge once more, "to live, if he could, since his religion ordered him so to do, and see what he was next to meet with in the world."
Nota bene, (says our author at this place) as I mention nothing of any children by so many wives, some readers may perhaps wonder at this; and therefore, to give a general answer, once for all, I think it sufficient to observe, that I had a great many to carry on the succession; but as they never were concerned in any extraordinary affairs, nor ever did any remarkable things, that I ever heard of;—only rise and breakfast, read and saunter, drink and eat, it would not be fair, in my opinion, to make any one pay for their history.
This kind of progeny, by the way, hardly does credit to our hero's very exquisite marriages. But as extremes meet, and fair play must be seen to the mass of the community, we suppose the young Buncles were dull, in consideration of the vivacity of the parents.
Mr. Buncle having laid his beloved Antonia by the side of his Charlotte and his Statia, now goes to Harrogate; and while there, "it is his fortune to dance with a lady who had the head of an Aristotle, the heart of a primitive Christian, and the form of a Venus de Medicis." This was Miss Spence, of Westmoreland.
I was not many hours in her company, before I became most passionately in love with her. I did all I could to win her heart, and at last asked her the question. But before I inform my readers what the consequence of this was, I must take some notice of what I expect from the Critical Reviewers. These gentlemen will attempt to raise the laugh. Our moralist (they will say) has buried three wives running, and they are hardly cold in their graves before he is dancing like a buck at the Wells, and plighting vows to a fourth girl, the beauty Miss Spence. An honest fellow, this Suarez, as Pascal says of that Jesuit, in his Provincial Letters.
To this I reply, that I think it unreasonable and impious to grieve immoderately for the dead. A decent and proper tribute of tears and sorrow humanity requires; but when that duty has been paid, we must remember, that to lament a dead woman is not to lament a wife! A wife must be a living woman.
He argues furthermore, that it would be sinful to behave on such occasions as if Providence had been unjust. The lady has been lent but for a term; and we must bow to the limitation. Besides, she is in Heaven; and therefore it would be senseless to continue murmuring, and not make the most of the world that remains to us, while she is "breathing the balmy air of Paradise," and being "beyond description happy."
Miss Spence, however, is a little coy. She is a very learned as well as charming young lady. She quotes Virgil, discourses with her lover on fluxions and the Differential Calculus, and is not to be won quite so Cast as he wishes. Nevertheless, he wins her at last; loses her in six months of a malignant fever and four doctors; and in less than three months afterwards, marries the divine Miss Emilia Turner, of Skelsmore Vale—alas! for six weeks only. A chariot and four runs away with them, and his "charmer is killed." She lives about an hour, repeats some consolatory verses to him out of a Latin epitaph, and bids him adieu with "the spirit of an old Roman."
John's next "intended" (for the marriage did not take place in due order) was the enchanting Miss Dunk, famous for "exact regularity of beauty, and elegant softness of propriety." This elegant softness of propriety does not hinder the fair Agnes from running away with him from her father's house; but she has scarcely arrived at the village where they are to be married, when she falls sick, is laid out for dead, and is buried in the next churchyard. Not long afterwards the unhappy lover meets her, alive, laughing, and taking no notice, in the character of the wife of Dr. Stanvil, an amiable anatomist. The word will explain the accident that brought the charmer into the doctor's hands. Buncle, vexed as he owns himself to lose her, could not but see the reasonableness of the result and the folly of making an "uproar;" so he gallantly imitates the lady's behaviour, and rides off to fall in with that "fine creature" Julia Fitzgibbons, as charming for a bewitching negligence, as Miss Dunk was for a divine self-possession.
John studies physic under her father; marries her in the course of two years; and at the end of ten months loses her in a river while they are fishing. He sits with his eyes shut ten days (so highly do his wives increase in value); and then calls his man "to bring out the horses," and is off, on Christian principles, for wife the seventh.
Who should this be but Miss Dunk? His friend, Dr. Stanvil, her husband, drops down dead of an apoplexy on purpose to oblige him. The widow lets him know that her reserve had not proceeded a bit from dislike; quite the contrary. She marries him; they lead a blissful life for a year and a half, during which he is reconciled with his father, who has become a convert to Unitarianism; and then the lady goes the way of all Buncle's wives, dying of his favourite uxoricide, the smallpox; and John, after diverting himself at sea, retires to a "little flowery retreat," in the neighbourhood of London, to hear purling streams on the one hand, and news on the other, and write verses about going to Heaven.
The reader is to bear in mind, that all these marriages are interspersed with descriptions, characters, adventures of other sorts, natural history, and, above all, with polemics full of the most ridiculous begging of the question, and the most bigoted invectives against bigotry. A few specimens will show him what sort of reading he has missed:—
"The History of Miss Noel.
"A Conversation in relation to the Primævity of the Hebrew Tongue.
"Of Mrs. O'Hara's and Mrs. Grafton's Grottoes.
"Miss Noel's Notion of Hutchinson's Cherubim.
"The Origin of Earthquakes—of the Abyss, &c.
"An Account of Muscular Motion.
"An Account of Ten Extraordinary Country Girls.
"A Rule to Determine the Tangents of Curved Lines. "
"What a Moral Shekinah is.
"Of Mr. Macknight's Harmony (of the Gospels).
"Description of a Society of Protestant Married Friars.
"The Author removes to Oldfield Spaw, on account of Indisposition occasioned hy Hard Drinking; and his Reflections on Hard Drinking.
"A Discourse on Fluxions between Miss Spence and the Author.
"Of the Athanasian Creed.
"What Phlogiston is.
"Picture and. Character of Curl, the Bookseller." (He says he was " very tall, thin, ungainly, goggle-eyed, white-faced, splay-footed, and baker-kneed; very profligate, but not ill-natured.")
It is impossible to be serious with John Buncle, Esquire, jolly dog, Unitarian, and Blue Beard; otherwise, if we were to take him at his word, we should pronounce him, besides being a jolly dog, to be one of a very selfish description, with too good a constitution to correct him, a prodigious vanity, no feeling whatever, and a provoking contempt for everything unfortunate, or opposed to his whims. He quarrels with bigotry, and is a bigot; with abuse, and riots in it. He hates the cruel opinions held by Athanasius, and sends people to the devil as an Arian. He kills off seven wives out of pure incontinence and love of change, yet cannot abide a rake or even the poorest victim of the rake, unless both happen to be his acquaintances. The way in which he tramples on the miserable wretches in the streets, is the very rage and triumph of hard-heartedness, furious at seeing its own vices reflected on it, unredeemed by the privileges of law, divinity, and success. But the truth is, John is no more responsible for his opinions than health itself, or a high-mettled racer. He only "thinks he's thinking." He does, in reality, nothing at all but eat, drink, talk, and enjoy himself. Amory, Buncle's creator, was in all probability an honest man, or he would hardly have been innocent enough to put such extravagance on paper. What Mrs. Amory thought of the seven wives does not appear. Probably he invented them before he knew her; perhaps was not anxious to be reminded of them afterwards. When he was in the zenith of his health and spirits, he must have been a prodigious fellow over a bottle and beefsteak.
It is hardly necessary to say, that by the insertion of passages from this fantastical book no disrespect is intended to the respectable sect of Unitarians; who, probably, care as little for Buncle's friendship as the Trinitarians do for his enmity. There is apt to be too little real Christianity in polemics of any kind; and John is no exception to the remark. He contrives to be so absurd, even when most reasonable, that the charms of Nature herself and of animal spirits would suffer under his admiration and example, if readers could not easily discern the difference; and even the youngest need scarcely be warned against overlooking it. Our volumes are intended to include all the phases of humanity that can be set before them without injury; and among these were not to be omitted the eccentric.