I have recently finished reading Richard Graves’ The Spiritual Quixote: or, the Summer’s Ramble of Mr Geoffry Wildgoose; it’s often described as ‘engaging’, and that’s the perfect adjective.
As might be expected from the title, the plotline is based, as in a large number of of C18 novels, on Don Quixote, but whereas in Cervantes’ book the main protagonist is ridiculed because of his obsession with archaic chivalry, The Spritual Quixote (hereafter SQ) ridicules the activities of the early Methodists.
Geoffrey Wildgoose sets off on his ‘summer ramble’, with Jerry Tugwell, the village cobbler, as his Sancho Panchez, following a disagreement with his local incumbent. Leaving their home village they travel round the West Country (including the obligatory visit to Bath), south Wales, and the Midlands, in a misguided attempt at preaching religious reform. He has a series of misadventures, including being shanghaied, and he falls in love; he visits a number of people and places, many of which are real and some named – in particular William Shenstone, who was a friend of Graves’, is gently mocked (one night Wildgoose empties the tanks which fed the waterfalls in Shenstone’s early example of a landscape garden at The Leasowes).
Towards the end of the novel the journey becomes more of a scenic tour of the Peak District, including Dovedale, Ilam, and the ‘Devil’s Arse o’Peak’ (Peak’s Hole cave). The longest sojourn in the book is at Tissington Hall, the stately pile of Lord and Lady Forester, and they have been identified as the Fitzherberts, a family that Graves stayed with for several years. In the final chapters Wildgoose is brought back to reality by a blow on the head from a flying decanter at Warwick races.
The humour is sometimes at the expense of the Methodists, both George Whitfield and John Wesley appear in the novel – Whitfield is depicted as a hypocrite, whereas Wesley is shown with respect; some characters appear so Graves can satirise other aspects of C18 society. Often the humour is at the expense of Jerry, who is far more interested in beer and food than preaching; as in almost every C18 novel I’ve read there’s also some chamber-pot-emptying, cow-turd-throwing, slapstick humour, which usually involves Jerry being the recipient of the chamber pot contents or cow turds, normally while he has his mouth open.
Richard Graves (1715-1804) was a rural clergyman. He was born in the Manor House of Mickleton, Gloucestershire (the village meets the description of Wildgoose’s home in SQ). The second son in a family of landed gentry, he had to find a place in society suitable to his station; educated at Abingdon School, and then Pembroke College, Oxford (which is where he became friends with Shenstone), subsequently he was elected a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, which supplied him with an income. This was to change, however, as he fell in love with, and secretly married (shortly before their baby was born) Lucy Bartholomew, a farmer’s daughter; when his marriage became known he was stripped of his fellowship, and with it the income. He eventually became rector of Claverton in Somerset, living in rural isolation for fifty years with his wife and children.
In a longer one of the several interpolated stories in SQ (nearly all of Book VI), a character called Rivers recounts his life: he falls in love with a young girl, Charlotte, daughter of a yeoman, and wishes to marry her, but has to overcome various problems, including that of their differing social backgrounds; not least, he has initially to keep their marriage secret in an vain attempt to keep his Oxford fellowship and the income attached thereto; eventually, they retire to the country and live out their lives in happy matrimony and parenthood.
Perhaps the reason why Graves never wrote another novel as good as SQ is that it uses so much autobiographical material (although Columella also draws on his friends and acquaintances for some of the characters).
He was close to Charles Wesley while at Oxford – close enough for Wesley to refer to him in his diary as ‘Dicky’ – and knew quite a lot of the early Methodists. More to the point, his brother Charles Caspar was taken from Oxford as ‘stark mad’, to recover his sanity at Mickleton – it was probably the hysteric ‘change’ that conversion to Methodism often involved – and he had studied William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life on Charles Wesley’s recommendation – reading this book produced a profound depression in Samuel Johnson. Many were committed to Bedlam as ‘Methodically Mad’, there are many examples in SQ of Graves ridiculing such people, or rather, the Methodist preachers’ attitude towards them.
Charles Caspar subsequently became an itinerant Methodist preacher, and in 1746 he was shanghaied onto a man of war in similar fashion to that suffered by Tugwell & Wildgoose; John Wesley said he was a man of good heart and weak head, a description which also fits Wildgoose well.
Graves had a lifelong fascination with antiquities and archaeology, particularly Roman, and possibly wasn’t averse to a little self-mockery in the character of Mr Townsend in SQ.
It’s a shame he didn’t include versions of his own furtive expeditions to London to visit taverns; on one he ‘eat a jelly’ (!) with Betty Careless at Covent Garden. Betty was a well-known young prostitute who appeared in Fielding’s Amelia and was supposed to have been the model for the older woman in the third plate of Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode.
I’ve just started reading A Portrait of Richard Graves by Clarence Tracy, the only modern biography of Graves, so far as I can see. I’m also about to start on Graves’ later novel Columella: or, the Distressed Anchoret. A Colloquial Tale, which is much shorter than SQ, and is currently available in a French edition; I’ll be returning to Richard Graves in a future post, probably quite soon.
As promised, there’s a post about Columella here.
The picture of Tissington Hall is from Geograph: © Copyright David Stowell; Tissington Hall is © Copyright David Lally and both licensed for reuse under this Creative Common Licence.