Wednesday 4 October 2023

Review: The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde- Moore Carew: King of the Beggars and Dog-Stealer

 I was extremely excited to read The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde- Moore Carew: King of the Beggars and Dog-Stealer, chiefly because it is called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde- Moore Carew: King of the Beggars and Dog-Stealer. I was also excited about the life of a real life Cock Lorrell, a beggar king with scrapes and shenanigans. I was left disappointed.

Bampfylde was a real person, born to an affluent and influential West Country family who decided not to become a lawyer of a clergyman but to turn ‘mumper’ instead. This was a person who dressed up in various costumes to con marks into giving money. He was forcibly transported to the Americas and escaped back, where he settled down and lived a more respectable life. He then wrote a set of memoirs in 1745.

These were revised in 1749 by William Owen and Robert Goadby. They added some elements to the book, such as the title ‘King of the Beggars’ and his dealings with ‘gypsies’. Indeed, the book is always obfuscating the Romani and beggars, whom the book usually refers to as mendicants. The chapters where Bampfylde grows closer to their king, before being voted the next king are largely for satirical purposes. Here are these ‘gypsies’, who live off begging and other assorted tricks, having a freer, fairer election than the United Kingdom. This element rarely comes up again, Bampfylde doesn’t seem to have to do much to be king, except be a skilled beggar, nor does he seem to get much from it. The fact is, Owen and Goadby added a lot of fiction to the text and the flavour of the real man and his adventures have been washed very thing by the later additions.

For the most part, the book tries to make a life begging seem to be a joyous thing, full of larky good fun but it just doesn’t work. For a start, there’s a stifled sameness to much of the book. When we’ve seen him in one costume conning one person, there isn’t much cunning or joy to be had in seeing him do it to another. I think we’re supposed to be impressed with Bampfylde’s skill at thinking on his feet, an exciting life of improvised tomfoolery - but the joy is somehow missing.

What’s more, there is something unpleasant about the whole ‘mumping’ game. The reader is told that “A real scene of affliction moves few hearts to pity: dissembled wretchedness is what most reaches the human mind.” As a result, the beggars in this book take money that could be given to real people in distress and even make it harder for the genuinely distressed to get help because of the suspicion the fakes have created. What’s more, Bampfylde doesn’t hear of a disaster, a house fire or shipwreck, that doesn’t awake his greed. As soon as something genuinely terrible happens, he’ll be there in a flash, dressed appropriately and taking money intended to genuinely help someone.

At one point, Bampfylde is captured and transported to America. There’s a note about a fellow transportee called Griff, who is a Welsh tailor transported for “making too free with the neighbour’s sheep.” Given it’s his wife who dobbed him in this is probably is a sheepshagging joke.

Whoever added the American parts clearly knew the place. Not only are there a few chapter of regurgitated history of those places, but a lot of small details that can only come from knowing a place. It’s also a more exciting part of the book, Bampfylde can’t just dress up and pretend to be a destitute soldier, he has to sneak past people looking for him, wade in swamps whilst weighed down by irons, and contact the right group of natives for help. Of course he escapes, and finds his way back to England before the captain who had imprisoned him.

There are some other variations on the theme. There’s a haunted house story, where Bampfylde gets money for spending a night in a haunted house. There’s an attempt at atmosphere and buildup but it mostly leads to a fart joke, where the smell of terrified farting is blamed on the decomposing ghosts. There’s also a test of Bampfylde’s famous skill with dogs, something that makes him a fantastic dog-napper. He’s challenged to test this skills on a particularly recalcitrant dog and succeeds, the test dog is called Roger.

I wanted to write a big, fun piece about this book, but I put it off for a month and am literally finding myself falling asleep as I write about it. The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde- Moore Carew: King of the Beggars and Dog-Stealer fails to have the directness and freshness of an eighteenth century work and instead feels inert and lifeless. So I think I’ll stop there.

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