The danger (and joy) of politics in the novel

The Napoleonic Wars (1803 to 1815) had been raging for some time when PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was first published in 1813. But you sure wouldn’t know it from reading the book. In fact, you wouldn’t know anything about English politics of the time. Jane Austen just doesn’t go there.

But papermaker and novelist Robert Bage did. Radicalized by the French Revolution, Bage advocated the abolition of the peerage as well as the banning of institutional religion – and it is all lurking in his best-known work, published in 1796, HERMSPRONG OR MAN AS HE IS NOT.

Possibly, you are all but sick of hearing about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and have never heard of HERMSPRONG.

Hermsprong, the eponymous hero of Bage’s book, is an American brought up entirely by native Americans without formal education. (Think Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the natural man.) Hermsprong, who walks everywhere, falls for the daughter of the despicable Lord Grondale. Yellow and living in sin with his housekeeper, Grondale embodies the corruption of the upper classes.

The book also embraces the rights of women in an independent, free-thinking character called Maria Fluart, who packs a pistol:

“His lordship (Grondale) now began to bawl out for his servants. The butler ran, the cook and two footmen.
‘Stop this woman,’ said his lordship; ‘Stop her, I charge you.’
‘Let me see who dare,’ said Miss Fluart, producing a pistol, and almost overturning his lordship as he passed.
‘Seize them I command you,’ said the enraged Lord Grondale.
No one obeyed; and the intrepid Miss Fluart walked on to the hall door, which she opened by herself unimpeded even by the porter.”

During his lifetime, Bage was admired for his radical views and his books were held in high esteem by such people as William Cowper, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sir Walter Scott, and yes, Jane Austen, who may have taken a certain book title from him. This sentence of Bage’s describes two minor characters: “But the tender interest they had in each other was torn asunder by pride and prejudice…”

As soon as the Napoleonic Wars started and patriotism ran high, Bage’s reputation suffered. Less than 10 years after his death in 1801, he was being referred to as passé. Today, he merits only a few sentences in Wikipedia.

So this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of including politics in novels. But HERMSPRONG is in print, as well as on Kindle – and it is a delight to read 200 years later.