The Monthly Review (review date 1766)
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 his aerial flights, to 'Thebes, to Athens, or the Lord knows where.'—When, like one of the weird sisters on a broomstick, he scampers away over earth and seas, or desperately plunges into some horrible and untried gulph, we are nothing loth to mount behind and bear him company, though it were down to the centre, or 'beyond the visible diurnal sphere.'—What an amazing mortal is this Buncle! Never, surely, did his equal exist! Nat. Lee is nothing to him; nor even the fiery poet, Lord Flame, who kept the town staring, laughing and hollowing, for near a month together, with his Hurlothrumbo1. In fine, he is a perfect unique, and, certainly, as much an original, in his way, as Shakespeare or Sam. Richardson; though, possibly, with this difference, that their excellencies proceeded merely from native, uncultivated genius; while our Author's peculiar sublimities seem to be the produce of a genius and imagination over-heated and run to seed in the hot-beds of romance and religious controversy. In all his extravagancies, however, he appears to maintain, with strictest uniformity, the character of an honest man,—earnest in promoting the best interests of his fellow creatures, and zealous to the highest degree, for what he apprehends to be the cause of Truth.—Being, moreover, a scholar, a mathematician, a philosopher, a divine, a physician, an historian and a poet, his books may truly be stiled a most entertaining miscellany, in which Readers of every class will find something for their amusement; and no one, we believe, can be wholly displeased with so various a writer, except those who cannot bear to hear the church of Rome censured, and the doctrine of the Trinity called in question; for, indeed, Mr. Buncle is the warmest advocate for the Reformation, and for the unity of God, that we ever met with. But then he introduces these controverted subjects so often, that, although he frequently says very strong things upon them, yet even those who are in his own sentiments must naturally be tired out with the eternal repetition.
This volume opens with what the Author calls his 'apology for the married state;' and, verily according to his account few men have been better qualified to do justice to the subject: as he had no less than seven wives—but all in due succession to each other; for you are not to imagine, gentle Reader, that Mr. Buncle was a polygamist.
Happily, indeed, did our Author and his amiable (first) wife pass their time at Orton-lodge, where we left them at the close of our account of his former volume; but short as well as sweet was the term of their felicity! The 'soft transporting period' lasted but two years; when 'in came death, when they least expected him, snatched Mr. Buncle's charming partner from him, and (as he expresses it) melted all his happiness into air;' a fever, says he, 'in a few days, snapt the thread of her life, and made me the child of affliction, when I had not a thought of the mourner. Language cannot paint the distress this calamity reduced me to; nor give an idea of what I suffered when I saw her eyes swimming in death, and the throes of her departing spirit. Blest as she was in every virtue that adorns a woman, how inconsolable must her husband be!'—Not absolutely inconsolable, however; for in the very next section we find him in high raptures with a Miss Statia Henley; a delightful young lady, of whom he gives the following description. 'She was at this time just turned of twenty, and had such diffusive charms as soon new fired my heart, and gave my soul a softness even beyond what it had felt before. She was a little taller than the middle size, and had a face that was perfectly beautiful. Her eyes were extremely fine, full, black, sparkling, and her conversation was as charming as her person; both easy, unconstrained and sprightly.'—We give this short description of Miss Henley, as we shall do that of all his wives; because it may gratify the curiosity of the Reader to compare the several pictures with each other, and mark their different and distinguishing beauties: for beauties they all were, and peerless ones too, however extraordinary such a circumstance may seem,—and still more extraordinary that so many divine and glorious creatures (to speak in our Author's own style) should fall to the happy, seven times happy! lot of one man!
He met with this lady at a most delightful romantic spot among the fells of Westmoreland, the happy retirement of her grand father, Charles Henley, Esq; and here, too, he met with some other wonderful things, particularly a curious moralizing skeleton, leaning on a reading desk in the midst of a library.—But we feel ourselves rather attracted by the blooming lady, than by the scare-crow remains of her father: for such it seems were the extraordinary figure at the desk.
Mr. Buncle, though an entire stranger, who had by mere chance rambled to the rural groves of Basil, presently got into the good graces of both the old gentleman and his grand daughter. The former soon made him the offer of living with them till Miss Henley should be of age; when she, with a good fortune, might be at our adventurer's service, provided he, in that time, could make his assiduities acceptable to the young lady. This offer was as readily accepted as made; and Mr. Buncle is now superlatively happy with his new friends at Basil groves: where he delightfully passed the winter and spring following. 'The mornings, says he, I generally spent in the library, [a very noble one] reading, or writing extracts from some various MSS. or scarce books; and in the afternoons Miss Henley and I walked in the lawns and woods, or sat down to cards. She was a fine creature indeed, in body and soul—and charmed me to a high degree. Her conversation was rational and easy, without the least affectation from the books she had read; and she would enliven it sometimes by singing, in which she was a great mistress—as to her heart, I found it was to be gained'—
His two years apprenticeship to love, was, however, cut short by the death of the good old Mr. Henley; on which event, the lady somewhat surprized our amorous Author with a declaration in favour of a single life, and a civil intimation that he was at liberty to retire from the groves of Basil. This stroke Mr. Buncle had the dexterity to parry; and with what weapon do you think, gentle Readers, did this young gallant ward off the impending flow? Why—with a strange dry speech about baptism, the Abrahamic covenant, and circumcision;—however, he wound up his oration with an earnest persuasive to marry—for the sake of keeping up a succession in a regular and hallowed way.—What a method of courting a fine, delicate young lady!—But this was one of Mr. Buncle's oddities.
Yet, odd, and uncouth, and rather suitable to the character of some old scholiast, as was our Author's mode of address to Miss Henley, on her intimated resolution to live single, it had power enough to make her change that resolution, and to declare in favour of a succession. They were married, lived happily for two years, and then poor Statia died also, and was laid by the side of her predecessor.
Mr. Buncle's sorrow for the loss of his excellent second was too violent to last long: he bewailed himself—as long as his grief would hold out; sat with his eyes shut for three days; and at last called for his horse, 'to try what air, exercise, and a variety of objects, could do.'
In the third section, we find our wandering knight on his way to Harrogate Spaw; and of his journey thitherward we have a most romantic account. In a wonderfully pleasant valley in Westmoreland, surrounded by mountains of stupendous height, he met with a religious society of married people; with whom he spent some days: and gives an ample account of their institution; the regularity of their lives; their antipathy to the doctrine of celibacy, and some other popish absurdities; their exemplary devotions, and their rational studies.—Proceeding on his route to Harrogate, he misses his way, (as he generally does wherever he goes, for his horse usually has the direction and choice of the road) and arrives at a beautiful country seat in the northern extremity of Stanmore. Here, without seeing any human creature, he passes the night in a curious sleeping parlour, built in a most enchanting grove: while his servant, O Fin, stays without to take care of the horses, and under a great tree takes as comfortable a nap as his master. Next morning he receives, from a countryman, some account of Miss Antonia Cramer, a charming young lady, Mistress of this delightful abode; and immediately falling in love with her character, he forms a scheme for obtaining her, to fill up the vacancy made at Orton-lodge, by the death of his second wife. Unluckily, however, she was then absent, on a journey, and was not to come home again till the end of twenty days; but this circumstance was nothing to Mr. Buncle, who resolving to wait her return, took up his quarters, at a neighbouring cottage, where he gains intelligence of an extraordinary man, an hermit, whose dwelling was not far off, and to whom our rambling philosopher instantly repairs, to pass away, in the conversation of this Solitary, some of the tedious hours which slowly crept along, during the absence of the divine Antonia. And now comes the episodical story of Mr. Dorick Watson the hermit. He was an English gentleman, who had been bred a Catholic in France, and there married a sister of the famous Abbe le Blanc,—with whose letters concerning the English nation we suppose most of our Readers are acquainted.—In Mr. Watson's narrative of his own life, we have a curious detail of his reasons for renouncing the errors of the Romish church; the conversion also of his wife; her death; and his motive for turning Anchorite. In this part of our Author's work, the celebrated notes of Cardinal Bellarmine are smartly attacked and exploded. Here, also, is introduced an account of Abbe le Blanc, with some notable strictures on Monsieur de Voltaire: 'That wonderful compound of a man, says he, half infidel, half papist; who seems to have no regard for Christianity; and yet compliments Popery, at the expence of his understanding2; who writes the history of England with a partiality and malevolence almost as great as Smollett's, and pretends to describe the Britannic constitution, tho' it is plain from what he says, that he has not one true idea of the primary institutions of it, but taking this nation to be just such another kingdom of slaves as his own country, rails at the REVOLUTION, &c. &c.'—Doubtless Voltaire has given but too much cause for this charge of inconsistency—but to...
(The entire section is 5016 words.)