Marketed as satire, Hermsprong should be sold as an out-and-out comedy, it’s a very funny book written in a deft, playfully ironic tone similar to the one I love in Fielding.
I expected the book to start in the third person, telling the birth and childhood of the young Hermsprong amongst the natives of America. Then I expected him to get into some misunderstanding or romantic disappointment which sent him travelling into England, arguing with various representatives of the status quo. I thought the narration would be pretty straight-forward and a little flat, the highlights being the caricatures of stuffy English types. Instead, the book starts in the first person, told by the wonderfully ridiculous and ham-fisted Gregory Glen, who decides to settle down in the quaint village of Grondale. Then we are introduced to the key characters in Grondale, their quirks and flaws, before Hermsprong turns up and stirs the pot. As such, it’s structured a little more like a sitcom and rather than being tied to the slightly-dull Hermsprong, we spend more time seeing how he effects the other far more interesting characters.
I think the key to this book’s humour and pleasure is Gregory, the narrator. First, it unsettles the reader, learning of his own birth as a bastard and how he was paid to stay as far away from his noble father as possible, so he settles in Grondale with enough money to mooch about - he’s a sap and not the person the reader expects to meet first. When he is mildly unlucky in love, he plans to throw himself in the sea like Sappho but faints before he gets the chance, instead of this being treated sentimentally (or even mock-heroically) it’s treated ridiculously - the reader learns that this isn’t going to be a romance full of sighs and tears.
What’s more, Gregory’s tone is so wonderful. Early on, he has a go as a poet and, “produced some poetry which I thought sublime. I could not bring the booksellers to coincide with this opinion.” - If that’s not an accurate description of being an unsuccessful writer, I don’t know what is. The zingers keep coming, whether it’s describing “the agreeable garrulousness of a fretful woman” or a young man “with a sweet, pretty face and two well-enough shaped legs” which then goes on for a page describing how that young man’s sense of self is built on those legs.
Gregory also has Shandean moments where imaginary interlocutors from the readership mock and question him. One pesters him to get on with the story itself, there’s a small digression about digressions and, when he actually enters the story as a character, he awkwardly explains that he’s going to refer to himself in the third person and he actually does. I loved him as narrator.
My other favourite character was Miss Fluart. She’s the female protagonist’s funny, outrageous best friend - and she is. Indeed, she’s a little too vivacious and sometimes puts the meeker, more sensible female protagonist in the shadow. She’s an orphan taken in by the eccentric Mr Sumelin and his less eccentric family. She has personal wealth and doesn’t have the pressure of carrying on a family name, or marrying for stability, as such she is free to play and have fun. Her name sounds like ‘flirt’ and she does but not to climb social ladders or advance herself. She flirts to distract unwanted men away from her friend and to have fun. Never lost for a witty remark, she even manages to lead Lord Grondale on, without ever promising anything (even getting a peek into his pornovallion), as she also distracts the odious Lord Chestrum. She and Hermsprong have a fun, teasing relationship and it’s her that gets him to loosen up the most.
Lord Grondale makes a great villain, he’s vain, conceited and expects respect and love because of his wealth and titles. He’s a blustering, noisy baddie, yet there is a little sadness for him at the end of the book even as he brings the comeuppance on himself. He’s joined by the slimily upward mobile priest, Doctor Blixen and helped by the lawyer, Corrow. At one point this lawyer gives a speech where he tries to make Hermsprong look bad in court and so magnifies some small inconsistencies about him. Corrow’s speech starts, “At a time when the nation is so greatly, excessively, alarmingly alarmed, agitated and convulsed” and goes on in that thesauristical vein for two pages.
Another inconvenience is Lord Chestrum, a weak, mummy’s boy who applies to Lord Grondale to be his daughter’s husband. Grondale's daughter is Miss Campinet, who loves Hermsprong but is too dutiful to her father to marry without his permission. The chapter where Chestrum chats her up for the first time but is so ham-handed about it that she doesn’t realise, is very funny. Though Miss Campinet isn’t as lively as Miss Fluart, she’s not a total wilting lettuce and she gets some good lines in against Chestrum. When he declares that he’d die if he can’t marry her, she replies that she’d die if she did and if one of them must die, she’d rather it was Chestrum than herself.
But what about Hermsprong, the title character himself? He’s intended to be the ‘natural’ man, honest to a fault, full of benevolence and free of selfishness and vice - he’s rather dull. It’s a real merit to the book that his main role is to pop in and out, causing problems for our bad characters and benefits to our good ones. His playful, unserious flirting with Miss Fluart is fun though and he readily admits that his private wealth make things easier for him, “One lives well everywhere if one has money, and ill, if one does not.” (Is this a famous quote? I’m sure I’ve heard it before.) There’s also the interesting sting in the tail that Hermsprong wasn’t as impartial and disinterested as he made out.
All in all, this book was far more engaging and enjoyable than I expected and deserves to be better known.