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.