Thomas Amory 1691(?)-1788
Amory is remembered for two highly idiosyncratic works: Memoirs: Containing the Lives of Several Ladies of Great Britain, and The Life of John Buncle, Esq. Although generally called novels, these works are quite different from the novel form as it is recognized today, and even departed from the novel form that was developing at the time of their appearance. Both works incorporate lively, informed discussion of philosophical, theological, scientific, mathematical, and religious thought within thinly developed, fanciful plots.
Amory was a reclusive figure, and much of what has been taken as biographical information about him was inferred from his published works. Born in England to an Irish family, Amory lived for many years in Ireland. He may have attended the University of Dublin, but this is not certain. He returned to England as an adult and settled in London. He married and had one son, who occasionally published letters in newspapers and magazines to correct extravagant suppositions made in the press regarding Amory. He died in 1788.
Memoirs: Containing the Lives of Several Ladies of Great Britain, published in two volumes in 1755, purports to be an account of the remarkable women whom the narrator—presumably Amory himself—met on his travels. Much of the book, however, is taken up with transcriptions of the "Ladies" discussing Unitarian theology. Is is assumed that Amory used this method to transmit his own religious principles. The Life of John Buncle, Esq. was also published in two volumes, the first in 1756, the second ten years later. The uncomplicated plot has the eponymous protagonist meeting and marrying a series of wealthy, beautiful, and scholarly Unitarian women in succession. The narrative is composed primarily of Buncle's descriptions of where and how he meets each woman, and of the long, intellectual talks that constitute their courtship. Amory drew widely, if sketchily, from such important thinkers of the period as John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Voltaire to create the sparkling, informed conversation of Buncle's wives, thus giving readers a selective, though necessarily superficial, overview of English Enlightenment thought.
Amory's contemporaries were confused by and hostile to the author's published works. The Critical Review, for example, called The Life of John Buncle "nonsense" and found the book "insufferable." Amory's reputation enjoyed a brief resuscitation during the English Romantic period in the early nineteenth century. Prominent critics such as William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Charles Lamb, reflecting the preoccupations of English Romanticism, were intrigued by the book's descriptions of natural wonders. Hazlitt even called Amory "the English Rabelais" because of his ability to create larger-than-life figures who fuse a life of the mind and spirit with that of the body. With the waning of Romanticism, however, Amory's reputation declined. In the twentieth century his books are little regarded except as curiosities. He has been compared with Laurence Sterne, the author of another eccentric, rambling novel, Tristram Shandy. But while Sterne successfully fused the novel's digressions into an overall narrative scheme, critics agree that Amory's books are little more than thinly disguised treatises on his theological and philosophical avocations Most commentators, however, acknowledge the humor and enthusiasm with which Amory created his improbable plots and unlikely characters.
Memoirs: Containing the Lives of Several Ladies of Great Britain. A History of Antiquities, Productions of Nature and Monuments of Art. Observations on the Christian Religion as Professed by the Established Church and Dissenters of Every Denomination. Remarks on the Writings of the Greatest English Divines: with a Variety of Disquisitions and Opinions Relative to Criticism and Manners and Many Extraordinary Actions (novel) 1755.
The Life of John Buncle, Esq.: Containing Various Observations and Reflections Made in Several Parts of the World and Many Extraordinary Relations (novel) 1756 (vol. I) and 1766 (vol. II)
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SOURCE: Review of The Life of John Buncle, Esq., Monthly Review, July 1766, pp. 33-43.
[In the following review of The Life of John Buncle, Esq., published in 1766, the reviewer finds the narrative absurd and improbable, particularly in comparison with Amory's earlier work. The reviewer, however, praises the book for its imaginativeness as well as its strong advocacy of the principles of Unitarianism.]
Many of our Readers, no doubt, remember the accounts we gave of this most extraordinary Author's former productions; his "Memoirs of learned Ladies," and the first Volume of his own life: for which see Review, Vol. XIII, and XV.
Mr. Buncle is still the same extravagant, visionary, romantic writer; and his adventures, recorded in this new publication, are not in any degree more consistent with nature and probability, nor a whit less absurd, than those which, in his former productions, have so greatly astonished and, we had almost said, confounded his Readers.
Yet, wild and wonderful as are the stories told by this strange adventurer, and monstrous, and even ridiculous as some of his narrations are, they are splendide mendaces; and we cannot help admiring the singular turn and capacity of the writer:—Who, whenever he soars above the limits of common sense, is generally elevated into so fine a frenzy, that we willingly suffer him to transport us, in...
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"The Life of John Buncle," in Gossip in a Library, Heinemann, 1891, pp. 215-226.
[In the following essay, Gosse acknowledges the odd nature of The Life of John Buncle, Esq., but commends its picturesqueness, the wide range of learning Amory displays, the tenderness of its romantic passages, and the author's delight in the beauty and variety of the natural world.]
In the year 1756, there resided in the Barbican, where the great John Milton had lived before him, a funny elderly personage called Mr. Thomas Amory, of whom not nearly so much is recorded as the lovers of literary anecdote would like to possess. He was sixty-five years of age; he was an Irish gentleman of means, and he was an ardent Unitarian. Some unkind people have suggested that he was out of his mind, and he had, it is certain, many peculiarities. One was, that he never left his house, or ventured into the streets, save "like a bat, in the dusk of the evening." He was, in short, what is called a "crank," and he gloried in his eccentricity. He desired that it might be written on his tombstone, "Here lies an Odd Man." For sixty years he had made no effort to attract popular attention, but in 1755 he had published a sort of romance, called Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, and now he succeeded it by the truly extraordinary work, the name of which stands at the head of this article. Ten years later there would...
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Life and Opinions of John Buncle, Esq.,. George Routledge and Sons, 1904, pp. V-Xiii.
[In the following essay, Baker explores the source of the appeal that The Life of John Buncle, Esq., has for readers interested in literary curiosities: the book's vigor, frankness, and ability to unfold the title character's nature.]
The History of John Buncle has never been a popular book. It is hardly possible to imagine a period whose standard of taste and culture would render it popular. Yet it is safe to predict that it will always, as in the past, be an object of interest to the connoisseur, the explorer of curious by-paths of literature, and to all who have a liking for the eccentricities of human nature, when conjoined with strength and shrewdness, and with candour of expression. Thrice during the last century was the book disinterred from the obscurity that covered it, and on each occasion by a critic distinguished by this taste for originality. Charles Lamb, in The Two Races of Men, hits off the book with delightful humour when he says, "In yonder nook, John Buncle, a widower-volume, with 'eyes closed,' mourns his ravished mate." Hazlitt's enthusiasm led him, ill advisedly, to compare the author with a genius of a far superior order:—
"The soul of Francis Rabelais passed into John (sic) Amory, the author of The...
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SOURCE: Some Literary Eccentrics, Archibald Constable and Company, 1906, pp. 1-34.
[In the following essay, Fyvie contends that the purpose of The Life of John Buncle, Esq. was to explicate Unitarian religious principles.]
In one of his Round Table essays, Hazlitt makes some highly eulogistic remarks on a book which is scarcely known, even by name, to the present generation of readers; and, not content with describing it as one of the most singular productions in our language (which without a doubt it really is), this brilliant but paradoxical critic assures us that 'John Buncle is the English Rabelais.' Both Buncle and Rebelais, he contends, were enemies of too much gravity; both had 'the insolence of health'; the business of both was to enjoy life; and, if the one indulged his spirit of sensuality in wine, in dried neats' tongues, in Bologna sausages and botargos, the other showed precisely the same symptoms of inordinate satisfaction in tea and bread-and-butter; as Rabelais roared with Friar John and the monks, so Buncle gossipped with the ladies, with an equal and uncontrolled gaiety. Hazlitt's criticism of old authors is not usually very wide of the mark, and his praise especially is apt to be fine and felicitous; but in this case his comparison is, to say the least of it, peculiar. For the reader who, after much trouble and expense, has at length succeeded in procuring a copy of this...
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SOURCE: "The Real Thomas Amory," in Essays and Studies, Vol. XXVI, 1940, pp. 45-72.
[In the following essay, Esdaile offers an autobiographical interpretation of The Life of John Buncle, Esq.]
Readers of Lamb and Hazlitt know the name of John Buncle; his author, Thomas Amory (1691-1788), is ignored in no serious history of eighteenth-century literature and has his place in the D.N.B.; yet no one has troubled to disinter from his pages the autobiographical fragments which, as Leslie Stephen saw, are embedded in it, or to check his references to notable Englishmen or his reactions to the people and to literature of his own day. As his writings are the reflection of his own vivid personality, as his wildest adventures reflect his dreams if not invariably his experiences, it is worth while to attempt a full-length portrait, remembering that his own son equated Amory with his hero Buncle, and that there is nothing the least like his work in the whole vast field of English literature.
I was born in London and carried as an infant into Ireland, where I learned the Irish language, and became intimately acquainted with its original inhabitants; I was not only a lover of books from the time I could spell them to this hour; but read with an extraordinary pleasure, before I was twenty, the works of several of the fathers, and all the old romances; which...
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SOURCE: History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England, Modern Language Association of America, 1949, pp. 94-100.
[In the following excerpt, Foster examines Amory's Memoirs and The Life of John Buncle, Esq., emphasizing that both works reflect the author's strong belief in the tenets of eighteenth-century deism.]
Thomas Amory (1691 or 1697-1788) was less of the mountebank but much more the eccentric. In fact, impartial observers, and at times even his friends, strongly suspected that he was disordered in his intellect. Amory had some Irish in him. His father, who had come to Ireland with William III, owned property in County Clare and was prosperous enough to give his son a good education. Young Amory was sent to Dr. Sheridan's school in Dublin, spent some time living with a family in France to pick up the language, and studied at Trinity College, Dublin. Some of the most inspiring hours of his youth were spent in the parlor of Constantia Grierson, who as a girl of seventeen studied obstetrics under Letitia Pilkington's father, and after dazzling the Dubliners with her brilliance and beauty, died at the age of twenty-seven. She made a deep impression upon Amory; in fact, she was the model for more than one of his fine learned ladies who were so wonderful but so perishable. He promised in his Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (1755) to tell about his relations with Constantia...
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SOURCE: "Lessing and Amory," in German Life and Letters, Vol. 20, 1966-67, pp. 298-306.
[In the following excerpt, Jones presents an overview of The Life of John Buncle, Esq., in the context of a larger discussion of German dramatist Gotthold Lessing's interest in Amory's theological thought.]
Lessing's interest in Thomas Amory's novel, The Life of John Buncle, Esq. (1756, 1766), can be traced back to his early months in Wolfenbuttel. In a letter to his brother Karl, dated November 11th, 1770, he writes that it was Mendelssohn who first drew his attention to this work:
Vor alien Dingen bitte ich Dich, Herrn Moses zu ersuchen, dass er mir die zwei versprochenen Bicher schickt. Wenn er nicht Zeit hat, so lass Dir sie nur von ihm geben, und sende sie mir mit der ersten fahrenden Post. Es ist John Bunckel [sic], oder wie er sich schreibt, und Ferguson. Auf den ersten hat er mich gar zu neugierig gemacht, und den andern mbchte ich auch gem lieber englisch als deutsch lesen.1
Although there are five further references to Amory's novel in Lessing's letters, its significance for him has never been fully considered. Reasons for this neglect are not difficult to find. The fact that Lessing's first reference to John Buncle occurs in the same sentence as a reference to Ferguson has probably led many critics to...
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SOURCE: "Thomas Amory, John Buncle, and the Origins of Irish Fiction," Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1983, pp. 71-85.
[In the following essay, Ross suggests that The Life of John Buncle, Esq. derives from traditional Irish oral storytelling, noting particularly the work's reliance on anecdote, elements of fantasy, and its distinctive, eccentric narrator.]
At the centre of Irish fiction is the anecdote.1
Thomas Amory's The Life of John Buncle, Esq., published in two parts in 1756 and 1766, has for two centuries held an uneasy position on the fringes of the English literary tradition. Never widely read after its initial success, it has never lacked admirers either. Early reviewers responded uneasily, at once amused and bemused. Even the novel's subtitle, promising "Various Observations and Reflections, Made in several Parts of the World, and many extraordinary relations," does little to prepare readers for the story to follow. John Buncle is the tale, told by himself, of an Irish Unitarian, eight times married, who leaves Ireland to travel the north country of England and who, during the two decades of exploring and celebrating the sublime landscape he discovers there, meets with a bewildering array of Irish friends—many living in Utopian communities—to whom he...
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Auty, Susan. "Perpetual Mirth." In The Comic Spirit of Eighteenth-Century Novels, pp. 180-83. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1975.
Comments on the reasons for the popularity of The Life of John Buncle during the Romantic period in nineteenth-century literature.
Mulvihill, James. "Amory's John Buncle and Wordsworth's Excursion." Notes and Queries, Vol. 235, No. 1, n.s. vol 37, March, 1990, pp. 25-6.
Suggests that the character of the recluse Dorick Watson encountered by Buncle in his travels may have served as the literary source for "the figure of the Solitary" in Wordsworth's poem.
Additional coverage of Amory's life and career is contained in the following source published by The Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 39.
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