The Life of John Buncle, Esq, by Thomas Amory, and edited here by Moyra Haslett, is to the modern reader a remarkable book. Although not as famous as Irish eighteenth-century novels such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, it is nonetheless a brilliantly eclectic offering of Enlightenment possibility, and, in its eccentricity, an exemplary piece of eighteenth-century fiction. Before Ezra Pound tricked the world into believing that it was twentieth-century modernism that was “making it new”, there were novelists such as Amory, whose range of styles, experimentalism and literary reference – to the point of whole-scale plagiarism – points to the great formless democracy that is the early novel.
The book is a carnival of voices, registers and media – aptly described in the introduction here as “by turns that of pastoral, sermon, romance, learned disquisition, theological debate, experimental science, poetry, travelogue, eulogy and prayer”. A sort of journey through the consciousness of the mid-eighteenth century, the novel is ostensibly a memoir of one John Buncle, who, after leaving Trinity College and becoming alienated from his father and exiled from home, travels to England to seek out a friend with whom he can live. Along the way we are treated to Buncle’s extravagantly unusual encounters with, among other things, a woman-only society of mathematicians, and a range of religious communities through which Amory advances what Haslett describes as “Whig, libertarian politics”.
The novel in the eighteenth century was a dynamic arena where issues of social, moral and religious concern were championed and refuted; the power of the new genre in the intellectual and political life of Britain cannot be underestimated. Though little is known about Amory, something of the novel’s crazy experimentalism and the typically contemporary affection for learnedness it shows surely points towards a mind disposed to human intellectual possibility and progress, those fêted hallmarks of the Enlightenment thinker. As Haslett remarks in the excellent introduction, that Amory’s work is part of a growing celebration of female learning can be read as a sign of a culture that was thinking of itself as progressive and modern, and importantly, capable of such a controversial discourse. And this is no ornamental female education: Mary Wollestonecraft would later argue in the 1790s precisely what Buncle remarks upon here – that the reason women were considered inferior is because both men and women had been educated to believe them to be so. Critics may laugh at the thought of female genius, says Buncle, but in an ingenious appeal to rationalism, he counters that “facts are things too stubborn to be destroyed by laughing and doubting”.
Such nuggets aside, the novel may nonetheless prove a challenge for the casual modern reader. The frequent digressions into everything from mathematics to descriptions of caves make for an unconventional artefact of literary history, not to mention Amory’s apparently inexhaustible supply of footnotes on his text. It is a bravura performance of the unashamedly learned man. But it is a challenge worth taking up. The Life of John Buncle is not only a corrective to restrictive definitions of the eighteenth century novel, it is a refreshing reminder of the great unlimited potential that the novel once had. Yet there is humour here also – the novel is, in both the mold of Swift and Sterne, a critique of the limits of knowledge and Enlightenment folly.
As editor, Moyra Haslett has done superb work here. Edited to the very highest standard, complete with richly informative and impressive notes on the text, a helpful glossary and a comprehensive bibliography, The Life of John Buncle is a triumph in the already excellent Early Irish Fiction 1680 – 1820 series. Buncle tells us that “things in print must stand by their own worth”. Haslett’s edition does Amory’s novel a great service – she has rendered this wonderfully compelling and forgotten piece of Irish fiction compulsory reading for scholars, devotees and the merely curious of early Irish and British fiction.