Article 7

ART. VII. John de Lancaster: a Novel. By Richard Cumberland, Esq. In 3 Vols. cr. 8vo. pp. 884. London. Lackington.1809.

[pp. 337-348] [original article in PDF format]

  1. MR. CUMBERLAND has now borne arms in the fields of literature for more than half a century: the nature of his service has been as various as its date has been protracted; nor has his warfare been without its success and its honours. If he has never been found in the very van and front of battle, he has seldom lagged in the rear; and although we cannot find that he has on any occasion brought home the spolia opima, or qualified himself for the grand triumph, it must be allowed that he has often merited and obtained the humbler meed of an ovation. His dramatic pieces are those on which his fame will hereafter most probably rest. But the 'Terence of England, the mender of hearts', unsatisfied with having made more than one successful effort in modern comedy, perhaps the most difficult of all compositions, seemed determined to shew us that his vein though fertile was not inexhaustible, and that the friend of Garrick, of Goldsmith, and of Johnson, could write plays fit only to be prefatory to the more important matter of Mother Goose. These must be forgotten ere the author of the West Indian, the Brothers, the Jew, and the Wheel of Fortune, can enjoy his full honours; but we can comfort him with the assurance that the date of their memory is already nearly expired. As a periodical writer, Mr. Cumberland's classical learning and accurate taste, his beautiful and flowing stile, and the pleasing subjects on which he usually loves to employ himself, compensate in some degree for want of depth of thought, or novelty of conception. It is hardly possible to speak too highly of his translations from Aristophanes and the ancient Greek fragments, they are not only equal, but superior, to any thing of the kind in our language, and so great is our respect for the author of these exquisite versions, that we will not say a single word of his original poetry.

  2. But it is as a novelist that we are at present to examine Mr. Cumberland's literary powers. We cannot place Arundel and Henry on the same shelf with the works of Fielding or Smollet, and we are the less inclined to do so, as the latter novel, being a close imitation of Tom Jones, serves particularly to shew the wide difference between the authors. Yet Mr. Cumberland's novels rank far above the usual stock in trade of the circulating library, [337] are written in easy and elegant language, and evince considerable powers of observing generic, though not individual, characters. Excepting Smollet alone, whose sailors are, moreover, of a more ancient and rugged school, none has better delineated the characteristic and professional traits of the British navy, than Mr. Cumberland. The mission to Spain filled his portfolio with interesting sketches of that people, and of the persecuted Jews, who yet reside amongst them, which we often trace in his novels, tales and dramatic labours. The works of former authors he has laid liberally under contribution, and sometimes new-dressed their characters so well, as to give them an air of originality. Thus Ephraim Daw, in 'Henry', is a methodistical parson Adams, having the same simplicity of character, the same goodness of heart, and the same disposition to use the carnal arm in a good cause, qualified by the enthusiastic tenets and language of the sect from which the author derives him. It is therefore, we repeat, rather in delineating a species than an individual that the art of Mr. Cumberland consists, so far as it is original, the distinguishing personal features which he introduces being usually borrowed from others. Indeed we know but two remarkable peculiarities of taste in manners and incident which are completely his own, and run through all his works. The first is an odd and rather unnatural transfer of the task of courtship from the hero to the heroine of the piece. Mr. Cumberland seems to have found an inexpressible charm in exchanging the attributes of the sexes, so that the weaker may turn the chase upon the stronger, and the pigeon become the pursuer of the hawk. The frank and exacting manners of Charlotte Rusport, and his other ladies, (which, should they ever become fashionable, would be no slight inconvenience to our modish gentlemen) were carried to their height in the novel of Henry, in which the virtues of continence and chastity, which, ever since the days of Heliodorus, the first novelist on record, have been esteemed the indispensable and inalienable property of the heroine of the tale, were, vi et armis, transferred to the hero, leaving the unfortunate damsel to whom they rightfully belonged as bare of both as the birch tree of leaves upon Christmas eve. This singular taste seemed so deeply ingrafted in Mr. Cumberland's system of writing, that when we understood that he had selected a scriptural subject for his last poem, we never doubted for an instant that he had given the preference to the history of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. And though then mistaken, we find the present novel exhibiting symptoms too peculiar to be over-looked in a general view of [338] Mr. Cumberland's literary character. The second predilection to which we alluded, is the peculiar pleasure which this author finds in a duel with all its previous pomp and circumstance of gentlemanlike defiance, retort, and reproof valiant. A single combat, either commenced or completed, makes a part of almost all his narratives, and Doctor Caranza himself cannot be estimated a more perfect judge of points of honour concerning the distance, the arms, and all the punctilio of the duello. Of this there is enough, and to spare, in the following pages.

  3. The story of John de Lancaster is neither long nor complicated. The principal character and real hero of the novel is Robert de Lancaster, an ancient Welch Esquire, whose character is derived from that of Mr. Shandy, senior, chequered with the hundred attributes of Cornelius Scriblerus, father of the renowned Martinus. He is a great reader of all such learned works as convey neither instruction nor information, and in perusing the ancient historians, whether of the classical or Gothic period, 'holds each stranger tale devoutly true.' This humour is pushed into the regions of utter and raving extravagance, especially as, saving in points of learning or science, we are required to believe that the old gentleman is not only of a sane mind, but endowed with uncommon good sense and talents, as well as with an admirable temper and most benevolent disposition, the cast whereof we think he derived from a certain 'Squire Alworthy, of Alworthy Hall in Somersetshire,' who may not be utterly unknown to some of our readers. The credulity of this worthy person being seconded by no small quantity of family pride, he places implicit reliance on a pedigree which deduces his family in a direct line, not from Brutus or Howel Dha, but from Samothes, son of Japhet the third son of Noah; and believes that his ancestor acquired the family-estate sixty-six years after the taking of Troy, and eleven hundred thirty and two years before the Christian era. He credits another tradition, which affirms that his ancestor taught King Bladud to fly; and another concerning an island in Ireland where the natives are immortal. As if this burden were not sufficient for his faith, he believes with Mr. Shandy in the effect of Christian-names upon their owners, with Cornelius Scriblerus in the influence of the harp in appeasing insurrections, and contends that 'soft airs well executed on the flute, were found to be a never failing cure for the sciatica or hip-gout.'—p. 289, Vol. I.

  4. When the tale opens, Robert de Lancaster is residing quietly in his hereditary castle with his daughter Cecilia an amiable [339] old maid, his son Philip a sort of cousin german to the author's excellent Ned Drowsy, and his daughter-in-law wife of the said Philip, who is then just about to add an heir to Kray Castle, and a link to the lineage of Samothes ap Japheth ap Noah. This desirable event is hastened in a very undesirable manner by an awkward Welsh Baronet named Sir Owen ap Owen, who, in a fit of tumultuous gallantry, overturns the tea-equipage into the lap of Mrs. De Lancaster. While she receives the necessary attendance in her premature accouchement, the groupe below are left in circumstances which again fatally remind us of the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The elder De Lancaster on this occasion harangues his friend Colonel Wilson, a maimed officer on half-pay, the Uncle Toby of the tale, whose blunt, soldier-like simplicity is meant to contrast the absurd ingenuity of his patron.

    'So many things are assumed without being examined, and so many disbelieved without being disproved, that I am not hasty to assent or dissent in compliment to the multitude; and on this account perhaps I am considered as a man affecting singularity: I hope I am not to be found guilty of that idle affectation, only because I would not be a dealer in opinions, which I have not weighed before I deliver them out. Above all things I would not traffic in conjectures, but carefully avoid imposing upon others or myself by confident anticipation, when nothing can be affirmed with certainty in this mortal state of chance and change, that is not grounded on conviction; for instance, in the case of the lady above stairs, whose situation keeps our hopes and fears upon the balance, our presumption is, that Mrs. De Lancaster shall be delivered of a child, either male or female, and in all respects like other children—

    'I confess, said Wilson, that is my presumption, and I should, be most outrageously astonished, should it happen otherwise.

    'I don't think it likely, murmured Philip.

    'No, no, no, replied De Lancaster; but we need not be reminded how many preternatural and prodigious births have occurred and been recorded in the annals of mankind. Whether the natives of the town of Stroud near Rochester are to this day under the ban of Thomas a Becket I am not informed; but when, in contempt of that holy person, they wantonly cut off the tail of his mule as he rode through their street, you have it from authority that every child thenceforward born to an inhabitant of Stroud was punished by the appendage of an incommodious and enormous tail, exactly corresponding with that, which had been amputated from the archbishop's mule.

    'Here a whistle from the colonel (to the tune of Lilibulero, we presume) struck the auditory nerves of Philip, who, gently laying his hand [340] hand upon his stump, gravely reminded him that Becket was a saint—

    'De Lancaster proceeded—What then shall we say of the famous Martin Luther, who being ordained to act so conspicuous a part in opposition to the papal power, came into the world fully equipped for controversy; his mother being delivered of her infant, (wonderful to relate) habited in all points as a theologian, and (which I conceive must have sensibly incommoded her) wearing a square cap on his head, according to academic costuma. This, Colonel Wilson, may may perhaps appear to you, as no doubt it did to the midwife, and all present at his birth, as a very extraordinary and preternatural circumstance.

    'It does not indeed appear so, said the Colonel. I know you don't invent the fable; I should like to know your authority for it.

    'My authority, replied De Lancaster, in this case is the same as in that of Becket's mule; Martinus Delrius is my authority for both; and when we find this gravely set forth by a writer of such high dignity and credit, himself a doctor of theology, and public professor of the Holy Scriptures in the university of Salamanca, who is bold enough to question it?

    'I am not bold enough to believe it, said Wilson.' p. 25-29.

  5. During this learned discussion, which we produce as a specimen of the dialogue and manners, Mrs. Philip de Lancaster is disencumbered of a boy, who, after such absurd ceremony as suited an old humourist, that half expected his grandson's arrival with a tail at one extremity, and a doctor's cap at the other, is christened by the name of John de Lancaster. We are next treated with a long account of a visit actually achieved by the ancient De Lancaster to another old gentleman called Ap Morgan, the father of Mrs. Philip de Lancaster, and maternal grandfather to the infantine hero. Ap Morgan, it seems, had discovered (something of the latest) that when through paternal influence his daughter was induced to bestow her hand upon the descendant of King Samothes, she had sacrificed to filial duty a tender predilection in favour of a certain gallant young officer, by name Captain Jones. This circumstance he communicates to old De Lancaster, acquainting him at the same time, in very civil terms, that he was grieved to death at having conferred his daughter on so stupid a fellow as his son Philip, when she had made a so much better choice for herself. To repay this confidence, De Lancaster proves to Morgan, without the assistance of Delrius, that he was not responsible for the consequences of her obstinate silence, that their son and daughter were admirably matched, the lady being a religious hypochondriac, and the gentleman a mere cypher; and that their parental tenderness ought to overlook both as a blank in their lineage, fixing their only hopes upon the grandson, whom, under Providence, they had been the means of producing to the De Lancasters and Ap Morgans.—All which is admitted by old Morgan as 'a cure of the mournfuls;' his taste in consolation being at least as peculiar as that of his friend in history and philosophy.—Meanwhile, Penruth Abbey, the seat of Sir Owen Ap Owen recieves two important inmates. These are a Spanish lady, or rather a Spanish Jewess, widow to a brother of the baronet who had settled in Spain, and her son, the heir of the title and estate.

  6. The descendants of Israel were heretofore favourites with Mr. Cumberland. The characters of Abraham Abrahams in the Observer, of Sheva in the Jew, even of Nicolas Pedrosa in the lively tale which bears his name, are honourable and able testimonies of his efforts to stem popular prejudice in favour of a people degraded because they are oppressed, and ridiculed because they are degraded. Apparently, however, he hath repented of his inclination towards the Jews, for not only do this same Mrs. Ap Owen and her son exhibit characters the most base, malicious, and detestable, but their descent from the stock of Abraham is thrown at their heads by all who speak of them, and is obviously held out as one source at least of their enormities. There is a singular passage in Mr. Cumberland's Memoirs, from which it would seem that the guilt of negligence at least, if not of ingratitude, worse than witchcraft, has, in his opinion, attached to the synagogue.* Perhaps this may be one cause why he now spits upon their Jewish gaberdine.

  7. In tracing the crimes of the Ap Owens, Mr. Cumberland follows the maxim, 'Nemo repente turpissimus.' The mother sets out by entrapping the leisure, if not the heart, of Mr. Philip de [342] Lancaster, whose hypochondriac spouse is now expected to bid the world good night, under the influence of a slow decline. The character of David Ap Owen also opens gradually on the reader. He first pinches the tail of a lap-dog: secondly, he gallops past young John de Lancaster, in hunting, and maliciously bespatters him with mud and gravel, to the great damage of his clothes, and danger of his precious eye-sight: thirdly, this 'Jew-born miscreant,' as De Lancaster terms him, insults the youthful heir of Kray Castle at a festive meeting of the family harpers. But a darker scene is soon to open,—Sir Owen Ap Owen, worried out of his life by his sister-in-law and nephew, dies about the period when John de Lancaster, from an amiable and promising boy, has become a gallant youth. The baronet had bequeathed to Cecilia de Lancaster, a valuable diamond ring,—to young John, a favourite hunter. The ring is stolen by Mrs. Ap Owen, the horse hamstrung by her son, now Sir David. Their villainy and cruelty are detected. The gentlemen of the country, attached to the interest of the House of Owen, and members of a hunt over which the heir of that family presided, proceed to hold, what, for want of a better word, we shall call a grand palaver, upon this important occasion; and, after a solemn investigation of these delinquencies, transfer, in all form, their friendship and allegiance to the rival house of De Lancaster. Sir David and his mother are hooted from Wales, and obliged to retreat to Portugal. This dark picture is mingled with softer shades: John de Lancaster falls in love with a beautiful girl, the daughter of that same Captain Jones to whom his mother had been early attached. Mrs. Philip de Lancaster had placed all her earthly hopes on planning a match between her son and the daughter of her lover. Yet this seemed an untoward project, for at their very first interview, John, as he is usually and concisely termed, being so much struck with the young lady's beauty as to substitute an ardent embrace for the more formal salutation of a bow, alarms the discreet gouvernante, who, ignorant of Mrs. De Lancaster's views, secludes the young lady from so unceremonious a visitor. This occasions some slight misunderstandings and embarrassments, which we have not time to trace or disentangle, as we hasten to the conclusion of the novel.

  8. While Mrs. Philip de Lancaster was quietly dying at Kray Castle, her husband was suddenly seized with the fancy of setting out to take lodgings for her at Montpellier. Most people would have thought his company on the road more necessary to the invalid than his exertions as an avant courier. But this worthy poco curante was exactly in the situation of the [343] Jolly Miller, who cared for nobody and nobody for him, so he was permitted to execute his plan of travelling without remonstrance or interference. His evil destiny guided him to Lisbon, where he received news of his lady's decease, and immediately after fell into the society, and of course into the toils, of the Ap Owens. These Jewish—Spanish—Welch reprobates, by the assistance of a Portugueze bravo with long whiskers, compelled poor Philip to sign a bond, obliging himself, under a high penalty, to marry Mrs. Ap Owen before the expiration of three months. No sooner had he submitted to this degrading engagement, than he became anxious to evade the completion, and wrote a most dismal penitentiary letter to his son John, imploring him to hasten to Lisbon and rescue him from the matrimonial shackles about to be forcibly imposed on him. This epistle was delivered at Kray Castle by a Mr. Devereux, who had sailed for England to learn something of the characters of Sir David Ap Owen, ere he countenanced his addresses to his sister. He is soon convinced of the infamy of the baronet, and returns to Portugal with young Lancaster, who loses not a moment in flying to his father's assistance. He came, however, too late, Philip was doomed to lose his life through the only exertion of courage which its course exhibited. Sir David had urged the fulfilment of the bond, and, in a rencontre which followed, basely availed himself of the assistance of his bravo, to murder his intended father-in-law. When John arrived, he found his father mortally wounded, and his enemy in the hands of justice. The former dies—the latter commits suicide, and Mrs. Ap Owen throws herself into a convent or a synagogue, we forget which. The fair hand of Miss Devereux is conferred upon the son of Colonel Wilson, a gallant young officer, who had accompanied John on his Portuguese crusade. Her hand indeed he had proudly refused to solicit, and almost to accept; for we are told that her father's coffers overflowed with the gold of Brazil, and that his daughter was a rock of diamonds, while her lover was in all respects a soldier of fortune. But this difficulty is overcome, as is usual in Mr. Cumberland's plots, by the express solicitations of the fair lady. The return of the whole party to England is followed by the nuptials of Amelia and John de Lancaster. His grandfather, for their guidance, was pleased to compose pose a code of rules for domestic happiness in the married state, which are thus described:

    'They consisted chiefly of truisms, which he was at the pains of proving; and of errors so obvious, that examination could not make [344] them clearer. He pointed out so many ways, by which man and wife must render each other miserable, that he seemed to have forgot that the purport of his rules was to make them happy. So little was this learned work adapted to the object held out in the title, that, if it had been pasted up for general use on the door of a church, it may be doubted if any, who had read it, would have entered there to be married.'

  9. In John de Lancaster, although we cannot attach the importance to it which is claimed by the author, we find a good deal to praise. The language is uniformly elegant and well-turned, some of the repartees are neatly introduced, and the occasional observations of the author are in general pointed and sensible. Some scenes of pathetic interest arise from the death of a young woman, robbed of her virtue by the nefarious Sir David Owen. A Welch harper and poet is repeatedly introduced, and many of his lyrical effusions are not inferior to those of Mr. Dibdin. The following verses might be sung to advantage at a charity dinner when the subscription books were opened, provided a few bumper toasts had previously circulated.

    Let thy cash buy the blessing and pray'r of the poor,
    And let them intercede when death comes to thy door;
    They perhaps may appease that importunate power,
    When thy coffers can't buy the reprieve of an hour.

    Foolish man, don't you know every grain of your gold
    May give food to the hungry and warmth to the cold,
    A purchase in this world shall soon pass away,
    But a treasure in Heaven will never decay.—&c. &c.

    Of the skill exhibited in conducting the incidents, we cannot speak with much applause. The black and flagitious villainy of Owen is without any adequate motive, and is therefore inartificial and revolting. Besides, John and he squabble and affront and threaten each other through the whole book, without coming to any personal issue. They are constantly levelling their pistols, and alarming our nerves with the apprehension that they will go off at half-cock. We have, however, in this, as in all Mr. Cumberland's novels, the pleasing feeling that virtue goes on from triumph to triumph, and that vice is baffled in its schemes, even by their own baseness and atrocity. There is, we think, no attempt at peculiarity of character, unless in the outline of the grandfather, whose extravagance is neither original nor consistent. Mr. Cumberland assures us that he has turned over many volumes to supply Robert de Lancaster with the absurd hobby-horsical erudition diffused [345] through his conversation. No one will dispute Mr. Cumberland's learning, but the allusions to the classics might have been taken from any ordinary work on antiquities; and to black letter lore, he makes no pretence, almost all his hero's references being to imaginary authors, and the quotations devised for the nonce by Mr. Cumberland himself. This is the more unpardonable, as a display of ancient Welch manners, and appropriate allusions to the history, legends and traditions of Gyneth, Preslatyn, and Deheubarth, would have given his hero's character the air, if not the substance, of originality. The insertion of vague gibberish is a wretched substitute. Had Ritson been alive he might have rued his rash intrusion on this sacred ground. The invention (even in jest) of suppositious authorities and quotations, would certainly have brought down castigation under some quaint and newly furbished title, which had already served to introduce the satire of Nash, Harvey, or Martin Marprelate, such as 'Pap with a Hatchet, or a Fig for my Grannum;' or, 'A very merrie and pithie Comedie, intituled, The longer thou livest the more Fool thou art.'

  10. Mr. Cumberland has made an affecting apology for the imperfections of his novel, by calling upon us to consider his long services and advanced age. It is perhaps a harsh answer, that every work must be judged of by its internal merit, whether composed like that of Lipsius upon the day in which he was born, or like the last tragedy of Sophocles upon the very verge of human existence. We should, therefore, have listened more favourably to this personal plea, had we not been provoked by a strain of querulous discontent, neither worthy of the author's years, of his philosophy, nor of his real goodness of heart. We have, for example, the following doleful lamentation over the praise and the pudding, which, he alleges, have been gobbled up by his contemporaries.

    'If in the long course of my literary labours I had been less studious to adhere to nature and simplicity, I am perfectly convinced I should have stood higher in estimation with the purchases of copy rights, and probably been read and patronized by my contemporaries in the proportion of ten to one. To acquire a popularity of name, which might set the speculating publishers upon out-bidding one another for an embryo work (perhaps in meditation only) seems to be as proud and enviable a pre-eminence as human genius can arrive at: but if that pre-eminence has been acquired by a fashion of writing, that luckily fails in with the prevailing taste for the romantic and unnatural, that writer, whosoever he may be, has only made his advantage of the present hour, and forfeited his claim upon the time [346] to come: having paid this tribute to popularity, he certainly may enjoy the profits of deception, and take his chance for being marked out by posterity (whenever a true taste for nature shall revive) as the misleader and impostor of the age he lived in.

    'The circulation of a work is propagated by the cry of the many; its perpetuity is established by the fiat of the few. If we have no concern for our good name after we have left this world, how do we greatly differ from the robber and assassin?—But this is nothing but an old man's prattle. Nobody regards it—We will return to our history.' Vol. ii. p. 176.

  11. By our troth, Mr. Cumberland, these be very bitter words. We are no defenders of ghost-seeing and diablerie.—That mode of exciting interest ought to be despised as too obvious and too much in vulgar use: but, when the appeal is made to nature, we must recollect that there are incredibilities in the moral, as well as physical, world. Whole nations have believed in daemons and witches; but who can believe that such a caricatura as Robert de Lancaster ever existed out of the precincts of Bedlam?—There is no one that has not, at some period of his life, felt interested in a ghost-story; but it is impossible to sympathise with a character who pins his faith to figments as gross as if in his respect for green cheese he had conceived the moon to be composed of that savoury edible. Mr. Cumberland's assumed contempt of public applause we cannot but consider as an unworthy affectation. In fact, few men have shewn more eagerness to engross the public favour, of which he now grudges his contemporaries their slight and transitory share. His papers have come flying abroad on the wings of the hawkers. He has written comedies at which we have cried, and tragedies at which we have laughed: he has composed indecent novels and religious epics. He has pandered to the public lust for personal anecdote, by writing his own life and the private history of his acquaintances.

    At length he took his muse and dipt her
    Full in the middle of the Scripture:
    What wonders there the man grown old did,
    Sternhold himself he out-Sternholded.

    Popularity we own to be a frail nymph, and far too free of her favours; but we cannot see her lashed by an author, who has strained every nerve to gain a share of them, without recollecting the exclamation of Lear:—

    'Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
    Why dost thou lash that whore?—Strip thine own back, [347]
    Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
    For which thou whip'st her—'

    Neither can we offer Mr. Cumberland much consolation on the other topic of his complaint. He seems to think of this predilection of the public as Trinculo did of losing his bottle in the pool, and grows doubly indignant at the pipe and tabor of the deluding Dæmonologist—'There is not only dishonour in it, but an infinite loss—yet this is your innocent goblin!' The gentlemen of Paternoster-row we are afraid, notwithstanding Mr. Cumberland's diatribe, will continue obstinately to prefer discounting drafts on the present generation, payable at sight, to long-dated bills on posterity, which cannot be accepted till both the drawer and holder have become immortal in every sense of the word.

  12. Upon the whole we rejoice that an old and valued friend has, at the advanced age of seventy-six, strength and spirits to amuse himself and the public with his compositions; and we think it will conduce greatly to both, if he will cease to fret himself because of the success of ballad-singers, ghost-seers, and the young Roscius. If they flourish at present, let him console himself with the transitory quality of their prosperity. We dare not soothe him too much by assenting to the counter-part of prophecy: for, although the hopes of future glory have been the consolation of every bard under immediate neglect, yet, experience compels us to confess that they are usually fallacious. Contemporary applause does not once, perhaps, in an hundred times, ensure that of posterity: few names are handed down to immortality, which have not been distinguished in their own generation; and least of all do we anticipate any splendid accession to the posthumous fame of an author, whose talents do not in the present day rank him above a dignified and respectable mediocrity.