Francis Coventry 1725-1754
English novelist, poet, and essayist.
In the mid-eighteenth century Coventry's only novel, The History of Pompey the Little; or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog (1751), was a great popular success. In an era when low literacy rates made for small potential audiences and high publication costs made books luxury items, Pompey the Little appeared in two authorized editions in less than a year and an extensively revised third edition in 1752. By 1800 at least eight authorized editions and two pirated editions had been printed. Pompey the Little is a text from a transitional stage in the novel's development—when the genre was regarded as the height of fashion, but at the same time individual novels were regarded as passing products of popular culture.
The nephew of William, the fifth Earl of Coventry, William Francis Walter Coventry was the son of a wealthy merchant from Buckinghamshire. Born in mid-July 1725, he was most likely educated at home by private tutors before enrolling at Eton in 1742, where he studied until 1744. In 1746 he was admitted to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he excelled, distinguishing himself with a B.A. in Comitiis Prioribus (among the best in his class) in 1749. While still at Cambridge, he made the acquaintance of Thomas Gray and showed the poet a comedy (now lost) he had written, parts of which served as the basis of Pompey the Little. Having been ordained as a cleric, he accepted the position of perpetual curate of the parish of Edgware, Middlesex, in 1751. A year later Coventry received his M.A.from Cambridge. He died, reportedly of smallpox, in January 1754.
Coventry's earliest published work was the poem Penshurst (1750), a text in the genius loci tradition (which strives to describe the atmosphere and spirit of a particular place) that owed something to both Ben Jonson's well known "To Penshurst" and the popular topographical tradition of mid-eighteenth-century poetry. It was printed by Robert Dodsley, a bookseller of some fame who was connected with Mary Cooper, the printer of the first edition of Pompey the Little. A pamphlet entitled An Essay on the New Species of Writing Founded by Mr. Fielding, which appeared in the same year as the first edition of Pompey, is commonly attributed to Coventry, as is an essay on the English garden that appeared in the periodical The World, also published by Dodsley, in 1753. Also in that year, Coventry edited and published Philemon to Hydaspes, a collection of dialogues written by his late cousin Henry Coventry.
Critical reception of Coventry's work has focused almost exclusively on Pompey the Little. Like many of the novels of its time, it first suffered from its reading public's ambivalence regarding prose fiction. Thomas Gray, who may have seen an early version at Cambridge, called the novel a "hasty production" in a letter to Horace Walpole. In contrast, the author John Cleland wrote that Coventry's novel was "painted with great humour, fancy, and wit" in his review for the February 1751 Monthly Review. More universally popular with readers, the novel was in print until the early nineteenth century, but following an 1824 edition, Pompey was not published again until 1926, and then only in a limited reprint of the fourth edition. Interest in the development of the English novel as a genre and in contemporaries of the early novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding has spurred new critical attention to Coventry in the latter half of the twentieth century. In general, critics have seen Pompey as largely derivative of Fielding's works, yet unique for its use of a non-human character, Pompey the lap-dog, to unify its otherwise disparate sections. Most commentators who have undertaken to study Coventry's novel in the twentieth century have been primarily interested in what the changes introduced in the third edition imply about the novel genre in the Augustan era.
Francis Coventry (essay date 1752)
SOURCE: Novel and Romance, 1700-1800: A Documentary Record, edited by loan Williams, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 176-79.
[In the following preface from the third edition of The History of Pompey the Little, Coventry attributes his contemporaries' disdain for prose fiction to an attempt by educated males to maintain their privileged place within society.]
To Henry Fielding, Esq.;
My design being to speak a word or two in behalf of novel-writing, I know not to whom I can address myself with so much propriety as to yourself, who unquestionably stand foremost in this species of composition.
To convey instruction in a pleasant manner, and mix entertainment with it, is certainly a commendable undertaking, perhaps more likely to be attended with success than graver precepts; and even where amusement is the chief thing consulted, there is some little merit in making people laugh, when it is done without giving offence to religion, or virtue, or good manners. If the laugh be not raised at the expence of innocence or decency, good humour bids us indulge it, and we cannot well laugh too often.
Can we help wondering, therefore, at the contempt, with which many people affect to talk of this sort of composition? they seem to think it degrades the dignity of their understandings, to be found with a novel in their hands, and take great pains to let you know that they never read them. They are people of too great importance, it seems, to mispend their time in so idle a manner, and much too wise to be amused.
Now, tho' many reasons may be given for this ridiculous and affected disdain, I believe a very principal one, is the pride and pedantry of learned men, who are willing to monopolize reading to themselves, and therefore fastidiously decry all books that are on a level with common understandings, as empty, trifling and impertinent.
Thus the grave metaphysician for example, who after working night and day perhaps for several years, sends forth at last a profound treatise, where A. and B. seem to contain some very deep mysterious meaning; grows indignant to think that every little paltry scribbler, who paints only the characters of the age, the manners of the times, and the working of the passions, should presume to equal him in glory.
The politician too, who shakes his head in coffee-houses, and produces, now and then, from his fund of observations, a grave, sober, political pamphlet on the good of the nation; looks down with contempt on all such idle compositions, as lives and romances, which contain no strokes of satire at the ministry, no unmannerly reflections upon Hanover, nor any thing concerning the balance of power on the continent. These gentlemen and their readers join all to a man in depreciating works of humour: or if they ever vouchsafe to speak in their praise, the commendation never rises higher than, 'yes, 'tis well enough for such a sort of a thing;' after which the grave observator retires to his news-paper, and there, according to the general estimation, employs his time to the best advantage.
But besides these, there is another set, who never read any...
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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (letter date 1752)
SOURCE: The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, edited by Robert Halsband, Clarendon Press, 1967, p. 2-7.
[In the following excerpt from a letter to her daughter, Lady Bute, Lady Montagu expresses her appreciation for Pompey the Little and draws parallels between the novel's characters and her contemporaries.]
… Candles came, and my Eyes grown weary I took up the next Book meerly because I suppos'd from the Title it could not engage me long. It was Pompey the Little,2 which has realy diverted me more than any of the others, and it was impossible to go to Bed till it was finish'd. It is a real and exact representation of Life...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Robert Adams Day (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: An introduction to Pompey the Little, by Francis Coventry, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. ix-xxiii.
[In the following introduction to his edition of Pompey the Little, Day argues that Coventry's novel was an anomaly among anomalies—an unusual novel in an era when the novel was a non-traditional literary genre.]
On 16 February 1752, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote from her Italian exile at Brescia to give her daughter, Lady Bute, the latest news and to thank her for a box of the latest books from London. Lady Mary had begun to read avidly, but was not entirely pleased with her first choices, Peregrine Pickle and The History of...
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Susan G. Auty (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Fielding's Followers" in The Comic Spirit of Eighteenth-Century Novels, National University Publications, Kennikat Press, 1975, pp. 55-65.
[In the following excerpt, Auty explores the differences between the first and third editions of Pompey the Little, demonstrating that Coventry was attempting to follow Fielding's example and differentiate the type of satire afforded by the novel from the satire of the earlier picaresque narratives.]
Admiration for the spirit of Joseph Andrews and the happy inventiveness of Tom Jones, along with a hearty contempt for those who scorned novels as being "empty, trifling and impertinent," led Francis...
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Jerry C. Beasley (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Fiction in the 1740s: Backgrounds, Topics, Strategies" in Novels of the 1740s, University of Georgia Press, 1982, pp. 1-2.
[In the following excerpt, Beasley notes that Coventry was among the first critics to argue that the novel genre had literary merit.]
During the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, the problem of public acceptance faced by the aspiring writer of fiction was truly a formidable one. In an age still under the powerful influence of Locke, Descartes, Newton, and the seventeenth-century Puritan apologists, an age which placed so much intellectual and moral emphasis on the value of empirically verifiable "truth," fiction was...
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Barbauld, Mrs. [Anna Letitia], ed. The British Novelists. London, 1810.
Includes a brief introductory essay on Coventry.
Booth, Wayne C. "The Self-Conscious Narrator in Comic Fiction before Tristam Shandy." PMLA 67 (March 1952): 163-85.
Important essay on narrative technique in mid-eighteenth-century novels which suggests that none of Fielding's followers equaled his expertise.
Cleland, John. Review of Pompey the Little. Monthly Review 4 (February 1751): 316-17.
An overwhelmingly positive review of Coventry's novel, approving its humor and uncritical satire.
del Re, Arundell, ed. The...
(The entire section is 271 words.)