Francis Coventry Criticism - Essay

Francis Coventry (essay date 1752)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 1352 words.)

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (letter date 1752)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 anomaliesan 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...

(The entire section is 4857 words.)

Susan G. Auty (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 4627 words.)

Jerry C. Beasley (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 436 words.)