My favorite local secondhand bookshop is blessed with a split personality; in the back there’s a tidy room of locked glass cases containing special expensive editions, but to get to it you pass through two small rooms turned into a short maze of dusty shelves that display anything the proprietors think they might sell to someone…anyone. At the foot of some private stairs (that you pass by to reach the second room) there’s even a disorganized paperback section where you can find the odd Catherine Cookson pressed tightly between Chaucer and Ian Fleming or some long dead Greek playwright. It’s a very egalitarian bookshop. I went in hope of finding a cheap anthology of middle English poetry, but I couldn’t find anything other than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which I haven’t yet desired to read). I kept browsing. In the second room, the far left corner holding European history is separated from the shelves of literature by a grubby stand with more paperbacks, most of them cheap editions of great literature published in the fifties and sixties. I spun it round and caught sight of a book with a cover portrait of a beautiful young man with intelligent eyes. I’d never heard of Robert Bage or his book called Hermsprong; Man as He is not. Flipping it open I found the novel was published in 1796. Reading the back it said it was funny (and as it only cost £1) so I bought it.
Yesterday I finally picked it up. I was enjoying the narrator’s voice, but being a curious wench, the footnotes drew me to the back of the book and I was soon taking notes on the explanatory notes. I was quite interested to learn that the author, a self educated paper mill owner, had radical viewpoints on women. I turned back to a noted passage in the middle and started reading and kept reading. It is funny (if you enjoy dry ironic English humor) and the characters burst off the page. The hero of the story, Mr Charles Hermsprong, is a truth-fairy (he speaks truth as he sees it) and he explodes into the polite society of the local gentry. Raised in America, the son of a an English father and a French mother, he has returned to England to claim his inheritance. It’s a romance, but woven around what would have been termed in 1796 as ‘radical politics’. I don’t think it has any long boring speeches (some writers can’t resist euphemistically using a pile their books as a soap box which I find dead boring), just a lot of witty dialogue that must have made more than a few of Bage’s contemporaries gasp. Women be considered rational creatures and allowed mental liberty and legally considered man’s equal? Shock horror! (In England this didn’t really come about ’till the 1960’s so he was ahead of his time.)
I’m surprised the BBC hasn’t been made Hermsprong into a television production. The book has so much dialogue that a good cast of actors would bring it to life by showing all the unspoken dialogue. The original readers were no doubt familiar with the socially accepted body language and the faint visual clues to distinguish the speakers meant exactly the opposite of what they were saying. Another great thing about watching an older story being performed is that the set moves a lot of unimportant details into the background and allows the tale to be uninterrupted (at least for people like me) with checking footnotes and the dictionary.
It turned out that the beautiful young man on the cover was Gainsborough Dupont (circa 1770-75) painted by Thomas Gainsborough (no doubt a relation). I’m now going to have to go back to where I left off at the beginning and read the first half of the book (after sitting up late into the night reading the latter part), because the characters and dialogue are that great. I wish I’d written it!
If you want to browse my favorite local bookshop I found their website. It’s actually much stranger than the shop tour in pictures. I’ll have to take some photos the next time I’m in town, but you get the idea…now if only I could figure out where room four is…I have a niggling feeling you need to know the magic words to make it appear…I suspect I look too weird to be trusted with the secret. Maybe if I go in my Miss Marple disguise they’ll miss the bright pink stockings?