by Edmund Gosse
In February 1751 the town, which had been suffering from rather a dreary spell since the acceptable publication of Tom Jones, was refreshed and enlivened by the simultaneous issue of two delightfully scandalous productions, eminently well adapted to occupy the polite conversation of ladies at drums and at the card-table. Of these one was The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, so oddly foisted by Smollett into the third volume of his Peregrine Pickle. This was recognised at once as being the work of the frail and adventurous Lady Vane, about whom so many strange stories were already current in society. The other puzzled the gossips much longer, and it seems to have been the poet Gray who first discovered the authorship of Pompey the Little. Gray wrote to tell Horace Walpole who had written the anonymous book that everybody was talking about, adding that he had discovered the secret through the author's own carelessness, three of the characters being taken from a comedy shown him by a young clergyman at Magdalen College, Cambridge. This was the Rev. Francis Coventry, then some twenty-five years of age. The discovery of the authorship made Coventry a nine-days' hero, while his book went into a multitude of editions. It was one of the most successful jeux d'esprit of the eighteenth century.
The copy of the first edition of Pompey the Little, which lies before me, contains an excellent impression of the frontispiece by Louis Boitard, the fashionable engraver-designer, whose print of the Ranelagh Rotunda is so much sought after by amateurs. It represents a curtain drawn aside to reveal a velvet cushion, on which sits a graceful little Italian lap-dog with pendant silky ears and sleek sides spotted like the pard. This is Pompey the Little, whose life and adventures the book proceeds to recount. "Pompey, the son of Julio and Phyllis, was born A.D. 1735, at Bologna in Italy, a place famous for lap-dogs and sausages." At an early age he was carried away from the boudoir of his Italian mistress by Hillario, an English gentleman illustrious for his gallantries, who brought him to London. The rest of the history is really a chain of social episodes, each closed by the incident that Pompey becomes the property of some fresh person. In this way we find ourselves in a dozen successive scenes, each strongly contrasted with the others. It is the art of the author that he knows exactly how much to tell us without wearying our attention, and is able to make the transition to the next scene a plausible one.
There is low life as well as high life in Pompey the Little, sketches after Hogarth, no less than studies à la Watteau. But the high life is by far the better described. Francis Coventry was the cousin of the Earl of that name, he who married the beautiful and silly Maria Gunning. When he painted the ladies of quality at their routs and drums, masquerades, and hurly-burlies, he knew what he was talking about, for this was the life he himself led, when he was not at college. Even at Cambridge, he was under the dazzling influence of his famous and fashionable cousin, Henry Coventry, fellow of the same college of Magdalen, author of the polite Philémonto Hydaspes dialogues, and the latest person who dressed well in the University. The embroidered coats of Henry Coventry, stiff with gold lace, his "most prominent Roman nose" and air of being much a gentleman, were not lost on the younger member of the family, who seems to paint him slyly in his portrait of Mr. Williams.
The great charm of Pompey the Little to contemporaries was, of course, the fact that it was supposed to be a roman à clef. The Countess of Bute hastened to send out a copy of it to her mother in Italy, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did not hesitate to discover the likenesses of various dear friends of hers. She found it impossible to go to bed till she had finished it. She was charmed, and she tells Lady Bute, what the curious may now read with great satisfaction, that it was "a real and exact representation of life, as it is now acted in London." What is odd is that Lady Mary identified, with absolute complacency, the portrait of herself, as Mrs. Qualmsick, that hysterical lady with whom "it was not unusual for her to fancy herself a Glass bottle, a Tea-pot, a Hay-rick, or a Field of Turnips." Instead of being angry, Lady Mary screamed with laughter at the satire of her own whimsies, of how "Red was too glaring for her eyes; Green put her in Mind of Willows, and made her melancholic; Blue remembered her of her dear Sister, who had died ten Years before in a blue Bed." In fact, all this fun seems, for the moment at least, to have cured the original Mrs. Qualmsick of her whimsies, and her remarks on Pompey the Little are so good-natured that we may well forgive her for the pleasure with which she recognised Lady Townshend in Lady Tempest and the Countess of Orford in the pedantic and deistical Lady Sophister, who rates the physicians for their theology, and will not be bled by any man who accepts the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
Coventry's romance does not deserve the entire neglect into which it has fallen. It is sprightly and graceful from the first page to the last. Not written, indeed, by a man of genius, it is yet the work of a very refined observer, who had been modern enough to catch the tone of the new school of novelists. The writer owes much to Fielding, who yet does not escape without a flap from one of Pompey's silken ears. Coventry's manner may be best exemplified by one of his own bright passages of satire. This notion of a man of quality, that no place can be full that is not crowded with people of fashion, is not new, but it is deliciously expressed. Aurora has come back from Bath, and assures the Count that she has had a pleasant season there:
"'You amaze me," cries the Count; 'Impossible, Madam! How can it be, Ladies? I had Letters from Lord Monkeyman and Lady Betty Scornful assuring me that, except yourselves, there were not three human Creatures in the Place. Let me see, I have Lady Betty's Letter in my Pocket, I believe, at this Moment. Oh no, upon Recollection, I put it this morning into my Cabinet, where I preserve all my Letters of Quality.' Aurora, smothering a Laugh as well as she could, said she was extremely obliged to Lord Monkeyman and Lady Betty, for vouchsafing to rank her and her Sister in the Catalogue of human Beings. 'But, surely,' added she, 'they must have been asleep, both of them, when they wrote their Letters; for Bath was extremely full,' 'Full!' cries the Count, interrupting her; "Oh, Madam, that is very possible, and yet there might be no Company--that is, none of us; Nobody that one knows. For as to all the Tramontanes that come by the cross Post, we never reckon them as anything but Monsters in human Shape, that serve to fill up the Stage of Life, like Cyphers in a play. For Instance, you often see an awkward Girl, who has sewed a Tail to a Gown, and pinned two Lappets to a Night-cap, come running headlong into the Rooms with a wild, frosty Face, as if she was just come from feeding Poultry in her Father's Chicken-Yard. Or you see a Booby Squire, with a Head resembling a Stone ball over a Gate-post. Now, it would be the most ridiculous Thing in Life to call such People Company. 'Tis the Want of Titles, and not the Want of Faces, that makes a Place empty.'"
There are indications, which I think have escaped the notice of Goldsmith's editors, that the author of the Citizen of the World condescended to take some of his ideas from Pompey the Little. In Count Tag, the impoverished little fop who fancies himself a man of quality, and who begs pardon of people who accost him in the Park--"but really, Lady Betty or Lady Mary is just entering the Mall,"--we have the direct prototype of Beau Tibbs; while Mr. Rhymer, the starving poet, whose furniture consists of "the first Act of a Comedy, a Pair of yellow Stays, two political Pamphlets, a plate of Bread-and-butter, three dirty Night-caps, and a Volume of Miscellany Poems," is a figure wonderfully like that of Goldsmith himself, as Dr. Percy found him eight years later, in that "wretched, dirty room," at the top of Breakneck Steps, Green Arbour Court. The whole conception of that Dickens-like scene, in which it is described how Lady Frippery had a drum in spite of all local difficulties, is much more in the humour of Goldsmith than in that of any of Coventry's immediate contemporaries.
Strangely enough, in spite of the great success of his one book, the author of Pompey the Little never tried to repeat it. He became perpetual curate of Edgware, and died in the neighbouring village of Stanmore Parva a few years after the publication of his solitary book; I have, however, searched the registers of that parish in vain for any record of the fact. Francis Coventry had gifts of wit and picturesqueness which deserved a better fate than to amuse a few dissipated women over their citron-waters, and then to be forgotten.