BOOK REVIEW / Off the shelf: A noble savage in Cornwall: Kenneth Baxter on the mixture of playful plot and liberal instruction in Robert Bage's Hermsprong

THE SELF-EDUCATED son of a Derbyshire paper maker, Robert Bage (1728-1801) was middle-aged before he took to writing. He produced half a dozen novels in which Sir Walter Scott found 'a strong mind, playful fancy and extensive knowledge', though he deplored some of Bage's ideas, especially his tendency to defend unorthodox female behaviour. Hermsprong, his last, has survived - as a curiosity and period-piece.

Hermsprong is a noble savage, nurtured Hiawatha-like by American Indians though not one of them, who travels to these shores. The story demands patience: Bage is in no hurry to unfold his tale. Rather, he insinuates himself into it by degrees and sprinkles over it a light dressing of irony. His style is pleasantly formal; his balanced sentences fall gratefully on ears unaccustomed to such usage. There is something of Sterne's apparent casualness, something of Peacock in the conversational exchanges; but Bage is very much 'his own man'.

His characters are sharply drawn: Lord Grondale, an arrogant political peer; Blick, an obsequious pluralist parson with an underpaid curate; Maria Fluart, an articulate early feminist who nowadays would style herself Ms; Caroline, the peer's delectable but ill-treated daughter; Sumelin, a salty-tongued Falmouth banker; and the author-narrator, Gregory Glen. All of them serve to advance Bage's liberal views and provide occasions for Hermsprong to demonstrate his combination of generosity, New World altruism and detestation of injustice and hypocrisy:

'I cannot learn to offer incense at the shrines of wealth and power, nor at any shrines but those of probity and virtue. I cannot learn to surrender my opinion from complaisance, or from any principle of adulation. Nor can I learn to suppress the sentiments of a freeborn mind, from any fear, religious or political. Such obduracy has my savage education produced.'

The action takes place - unhurriedly - against a Cornish backdrop, though there is no scene-painting: the time was not ripe for it. The nicely contrived plot contains all the ingredients that go to the making of what a less 'sophisticated' age found an entertaining story - as it still is. Or, as its author said: 'If the careless writer of a novel closes his book without marrying or putting to death, or somehow disposing of all who have acted a part in the drama, he creates an unsatisfied want in the minds of his readers, especially his fair ones, and they hardly part friends.'

Though one sometimes finds Bage a little irritating, one certainly parts friends with him.

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