Robert Bage (1728-1801)
The narrator, Gregory Glen, is the son of George Grooby, a hunting squire living on his manorial estate near Lichfield, England. His mother was a house-maid, Ellen Glen. Gregory was farmed out to a great-grandmother, then to several laborer’s wives in turn, and finally to Parson Brown, who undertook to educate and socialize him. The good Parson’s niece was residing in the same house and young Greg fell madly in love. When she married a local land-owner, he was devastated and left home to find the nearest ocean for the purpose of putting an end to his misery.
Stopping at an inn for refreshment, he drank too much ale, fell into more difficulties, but was rescued by Mrs. Garnett, a friend of the Parson. The latter expired, leaving Greg 200L, with which the young man walked to London and got a job in a counting house. Having no talent for numbers, he tried writing poetry with an equal amount of success. Running low on money, he traveled to the Grooby estate and was granted an annuity of 80L a year. Mrs. Garnett formerly lived in Grondale, so for no more sufficient reason, Greg moved there to live. He rented a small house and lived moderately, “exercising pen, pencil and fiddle” for five years.
Up to this point in his story, Gregory has narrated his own history in the third person. He now begins to tell the story of Hermsprong, a late arrival in the area. Hermsprong was an American, recently arrived from France, where he had spent four years touring the country, absorbing culture, and establishing a personal code of ethics, featuring honesty and truth as the beacons of his philosophy. One morning, while strolling through the bosky countryside near Grondale, a carriage passed him at full tilt, drawn by a panic-stricken team and headed toward the Lippen Crag, a fearsome cliff at the end of the road. Hermsprong rallied and, grabbing the reins of the leading pair, turned them from their deadly course and saved the lives of the passengers, Mrs. Merrick, the former house-keeper, and Caroline Campinet, daughter of Lord Grondale, master of the local manorial estates.
Mrs. Merrick had been retired from her position because of the emergence of Mrs. Stone, the girl-friend of the Lord; he was sixty-ish and in dubious health as a result of a life devoted to wine, women, and cards. He was a man of pride and vanity, proud of his possessions and a stolid adherent of the English class system. He regarded Hermsprong as a young worthless upstart, and frowned on his Caroline having anything to do with him. But they become friends anyway, cementing their friendship after both are invited to spend time with the Sumelins. Mr. Sumelin, a cousin of Mrs. Merrick, is in the banking business, and has daughters. One of the latter had fallen in love with Fillygrove, a clerk at the bank. They had run off to Belgium to get married; Ms. Sumelin soon discovered her sweetheart was a rake and fell out of love with him.
Subsequently, Hermsprong, who was traveling through the area on his way to England, rescued her and was material in returning her to the bosom of her family. While sojourning at the Sumelin’s, Hermsprong and Caroline meet the young widow Maria Fluart, a distant relation of the Grondales; the three become great friends. Meanwhile, the Lord hears of all the fun his daughter is having with the visitors at the Sumelin establishment, and insists on her returning home. Possessed of a biting wit and accompanying intelligence, Miss Fluart skewers Lord Grondale later in the novel.
Later, Mrs. Merrick dies, and her small country house falls into the hands of Hermsprong, who outbid the Lord for the property when it was auctioned off. Thus a social and moral struggle is begun between Grondale and Hermsprong, depicting the hypocrisy of the Lord in particular and the conscienceless class-system in general, and the egalitarianism, honesty, and veracity promulgated by Hermsprong. Clashes of varying intensity occur between the two, exercising the moral capacities of each, until, at the penultimate crisis, Lord Grondale imprisons his daughter and tries to have Hermsprong arrested as a French spy.
In the interim, we’ve learned something of Hermsprong’s background. He was born in France to an upper-class lady and German officer exiled from his country. The two emigrated to America and, through New York contacts, they became fur-traders with the Nawdoessie Indians; they flourished both financially and culturally in their association with the local tribe. Hermsprong learned truth and bravery, stoicism and honesty, from the tribal leaders, and established these qualities as the basis of his character, carrying them along in his travels and using them in his war with Lord Grondale. So, when Hermsprong is summoned before the village bar to answer to the charge of spying for France, he is able to deny the accusation both through his personal qualities and through his associations, one of whom was his old retainer, a servant who had accompanied Hermsprong’s father in Germany and America, and who knew the whole story of who Hermsprong actually was… In fact, we now discover that Hermsprong was the son of Lord Grondale’s older brother, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance!
I may have spoiled the ending for some potential readers, but that astonishing revelation is not the end of the book. How Caroline and Charles Campinet (AKA Hermsprong) get together, the ultimate resolution of Lord G’s dilemma, and what happens to all the ancillary personae are still to be described; and although they go through more trauma, the denouement is a happy one.
I liked this book: it was sort of what i imagined Jane Austen’s books to be like, except Hermsprong has more action. Bage (he was a paper manufacturer for fifty years, and an enlightened employer in a period during which such a creature was a distinct oddity), intended the story to be a description of what was wrong with the English social structure. Bage was termed a radical at the time, and, although he was in legal trouble for a while, he managed to stay out of jail, being a property holder and a person with contacts. His writing style was quite comprehensible and avoided a lot of the florid wordiness found in other 18th C. novels. In some spots, his descriptions of repartee were rather Shakspearean, both in language and entendre… He wrote more books, but none were as popular as Hermsprong, published in 1795. (i’m grateful to Mrs. M for help in editing and making some sort of sense out of this somewhat random post…)