Wednesday 23 August 2023

Review: The Life of John Buncle Esq by Thomas Amory

 I’ve taken myself into the country for the summer and to save on space (so I can bring Clarissa with me) I brought my kindle. Honestly, I usually forget about it in my usual reading diet and I’ve had fun exploring the odd things I’ve accumulated on there. One of these is The Life of John Buncle Esq by Thomas Amory and first published in 1756.  Bibliophile, Edmund Gosse  said, “To lovers of odd books, John Buncle will always have a genuine attraction.”

Written by an eccentric shut-in, who’d only leave his house at night, John Buncle is a strange, unclassifiable work. Purporting to be an autobiography, it blends travel literature, amatory tale, general encyclopaedia and religious tract in peculiar ways. The young John Buncle has thrilling journeys through untamed wildernesses, where he finds highly intelligent women, frequently living in hermitages with their fathers, or in communes with other women. These women tend to be very knowledgable about some aspect of religion and lecture out hero for many pages before John Buncle moves on. Sometimes he marries these women, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does, their lifespan is precariously short.

The book begins with a very off-putting chapter where Buncle/Amory lays out his educational and dogmatic positions. He is an ardent Christian but a unitarian, he believes that the concept of the trinity was invented to by logic-chopping monks. He believes that there is a singular and all powerful God, who can reveal himself miraculously but does so more often through reason - that knowledge of the world and nature reveal more and more the existence and nature of this supreme being. He is ardently ant-catholic, seeing it as a religion based on man-made nonsense like saints and magic bread. Lucky for him, most people he meet already hold these views, or are easily convinced of them.

I wrote so many notes about this book, 24 pages in total, more than I have for the 1300 pages of Clarissa I have read so far. However, so many of those read the same, it’s quite a repetitive book.. 

After describing his educational positions, Buncle has a little wander around the countryside where he meets Miss Noel. She’s in a green, shell-lined grotto where she’s studying Hebrew. She invites him to see “the curiosities of my grot”, lectures him for many pages about shells and then many pages about the Hebrew language. She’s funny, clever, well read and incredibly hot. She was black hair. It’s something of his type. Alas, she does of smallpox before he can marry her.

After his wander round the countryside, he returns home to find, horror of horrors.. his dad has married the help. This evil stepmother, and his father’s dislike of Buncle’s Unitarianism, means he leaves home and goes wandering, practically a beggar (except for the £500 his dad gives him.. not exactly stingy). On the boat over, he meets Miss Melmoth. She’s extremely intelligent, funny and attractive, with long black hair. He also gets to save her in a storm - she’s sleeping in her bed naked when a wave sweeps in her cabin and he gets to pick her up, naked and save her, naked and hold her, naked - the book very much wants her nudity to be known.

Then Buncle wanders ‘Stanemore’. While I am aware there are peaks and fells up north, Amory describes the landscape like it consists of a huge mountain range and huge unexplored areas. He climbs mountains, pole vaults over cracks, journeys inside mountains, often describing them as alps. This allows for picturesque descriptions of landscape, especially the mountainous landscapes described by Burke as ‘the sublime’ in a publication the year after. It also allows him to talk about theories of geology - particularly a theory of underground seas that was described by Athanasius Kircher and a plot point in Simplicius Simplicissimus

It also allows Buncle to stumble across various grottos, hermitages and other countryside retreats where he meets, smart, funny, sexy women with black hair who can lecture him about religion. This happens so often, that it starts to feel like something of a fetish. One behaviour of people with specific fetishes is the need to perform, either in reality or role-play, the same set of actions again and again, and that seems to be what Amory is doing here. Despite being a book that is never-knowingly funny, when Buncle meets yet another of these women, it grows funnier each time.

One woman who does stand out is Azora. Described as being one of the most fascinating talkers, she lectures Buncle about fish for several pages, then moves on to the usual religious lectures. She is, however, the leader of a commune of fifteen intelligent, religious women, all with black hair, between the ages of 19-25 - you can almost hear Amory’s breech buttons ping off. Her father was a chemist who got sucked down an alchemist black hole, he made the mistake of thinking some men were ‘spagyrists’ but they unfortunately turned out to be ‘enigmatistinubiuagi’. (The first meaning alchemist, the second… a cheat, I suppose). Azora runs her commune along strict religious lines and the reader is treated to a nine page prayer and “because some readers may be pleased with a sight of another of Azora’s religious compositions, I have set it down,” so there follows another nine pages. 

As well as meeting hot, intelligent, witty women in their mid-twenties, Buncle also meets a group of male hermit-mathematicians who have a microscope that projects onto the wall. They treat him to a show, a fight between a louse and a flea, which is told anthropomorphically as a tough, personal battle where “the gallant louse did with a frown behold the flea”. Another thing he comes across is a farm with a skeleton. He was a man called Orton, who has left a note explaining that he used to be a rake but had taken himself into seclusion for penance. Buncle is very respectful to Orton’s memory, he carefully buries his body but takes his head as a momento mori and steals his house.

While religious disputes are Buncle’s primary interest, he is willing to lecture or be lectured about all sorts of other subjects, especially the mathematical, the geographical and the medical. He’s particularly interested when a few of these areas match up, with a particular interest in medical springs. He loves exploring the mineral make-up of various springs and listing the illnesses which they will cure. I made I note of the following recommendation;

     “If you have an ulcer in your anus, or in the neck of your bladder, go to Harrowgate and drink the stinking water.”

As the book continues, the lectures die down a little and he starts having adventures in towns, including London. There he meet legendary bookseller, demonised by Pope, Edmund Curll. He’s described as being tall and ungainly, with splay feet. Not a strictly moral man, he does keep his translators “three in a bed at the pewter-platter Inn in Holborn” (near Hatton Gardens). However, he is also presented as being “acquainted with more than just the title pages of books”, having a good knowledge and some goodness - though this may be just because of his willingness to publish Unitarian works.

Also, a different running gag emerges, not that it’s intended to be one. Buncle meets twelve or so women, he marries seven of them, not one of them lasts as his wife longer than two years. A few dies of smallpox, some of fever. One dies in a coach accident and another falls of a boat they are messing about in and drowns. While the first couple of wives make the cotton anniversary, most of them barely last six months. One woman missed the chance of marrying him, she lived for another twenty-years. Admittedly, she became a homeless prostitute, once he finds her and looks after her, she barely makes a fortnight. It was hard not to imagine a secretive under-story, where Buncle is a terrible mass-murderer, poisoning wives or pushing them off pleasure craft. 

What’s more, these deaths always benefit him. Destitute after being conned by card-sharps, he marries and buries three women in quick succession, giving him a pretty fortune, especially when one of their fathers dies quickly into the marriage and his own father swiftly afterwards. One wife dies two days before he’s going to marry her, is dug up by graverobbers and accidentally revives on the surgeon’s table and marries the surgeon. He then dies shortly after meeting Buncle, she marries Buncle and then dies a few months after that - leaving him the doctor’s fortune and hers. I does become hard to escape the notion that, just under the surface of the text, Buncle is murdering everyone and it becomes extremely funny when another name joins the hit-list. I’d say he murders about twenty-eight people in the book - he also knows how to make ants strip a corpse in a week.

The deaths in the book stem from that initial fetish-like structure to the piece. For Amory, the moment of meeting and ‘winning’ the beautiful, hot, intelligent woman with black hair is the fetish. Being married to them isn’t. So he’ll use pages and pages to describe the meeting, the initial conversations and the conquest but then the marriage is described in a paragraph, the death and burial in another and the mourning in another - that way, he can go hunting for a new woman.

You’d think, with seven wives, Buncle would have a lot of children, and you’d be right. However, because they don’t exist within Amory’s particular fetish, they don’t really feature in the book. Buncle writes off his whole progeny quite resolutely;

  “They never were concerned in any extraordinary affairs, nor ever did any remarkable things that I heard of; only rise and breakfast, read and saunter, drink and eat, it would not be fair, in my opinion, to make anyone pay for their history.”

One huge disadvantage with reading the kindle version of this book was that I didn’t realise the relationship it had with it’s own footnotes. Or that it had 150 pages worth of footnotes. On the ex-classics kindle version, they’ve been put at the end and so sneak up on a reader. On the whole, they don’t add much to the text, they add citations for the opinions characters lecture about, give biographies of divines, further the same interminable religious fiddle-faddling found in the main text. Generally, if there was something a little dull in the main text, Amory finds a way of making it longer and duller in the footnotes.

The Life of John Buncle, Esq is a truly peculiar book though a long one at over seven-hundred pages. There’s actually an abridgement called The Spirit of Buncle. I’m not sure if it cuts out the amatory elements or the religious polemic - either way, to cut out any of The Life of John Buncle, Esq, is to reduce the ridiculous, amusing, sometimes very dull experience of the whole thing. I recommend it.

There’s also a sort of sequel called John Buncle Jr, Gentleman written by a different author called Thomas Cogan.. I’ve read it and will review it in due course.

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