I recently read the novel Columella by Richard Graves (1715-1804), author of The Spiritual Quixote. Clarence Tracy, Graves’ biographer wrote: “It has been said that one of the finest achievements of the Church of England was the maintenance of one well-educated man in every English community. Such a man was Richard Graves.” For someone who essentially led the life of a rural parson, he was a very interesting person, and over his long life he did encounter some unlikely events, either in person, or by proxy (his brother was shanghaied, foe example). He was a very moral man, although some of his ideas of morals may chime more with the modern person than his contemporaries.
The novel proceeds thus: Cornelius Milward (who has the nick-name of Columella, after the Roman writer of De Re Rustica) has a small family estate and has ‘retired immediately from college to the solitude and inactivity of a country life ; and is now become a prey to low spirits, spleen, and … an incurable melancholy.’ A reverend Divine (a Canon) has drawn up a narrative of his case to illustrate the moral, ‘That an active life is generally attended with more happiness than an indolent or a retired one’, and is recounting it on a coach journey.
Columella has three college friends, Atticus, Hortensius, and the eponymous Columella, in later life. Atticus has become Head of a College; Hortensius gone into law; and Columella retired to his country estate, dividing his time between reading and ‘improving and adorning his place’. This Triumvirate of college friends has certain similarities to the three friends of Graves, Shenstone, and William Blackstone. Had things taken a slightly different tack Graves might well once have become Master of a College; Blackstone went into law; and Shenstone spent most of his life, effort, and money, on The Leasowes, his landscape garden.
Columella has deluded himself that he is happy – in reality he is lonely and bored. Graves believed that Shenstone, although professing contentment in his rural indolence, was actually unhappy; Graves believed that happiness was found in productive activity (this idea is an even stronger plot device in another of his novels, Eugenius).
The Triumvirate visit and describe a recognisable Stourhead (although certain features of the landscape garden, such as the Turkish Tent, are no longer extant, having been made from painted canvas). They return home via Maiden Bradley and Longleat, placing Columella’s habitation somewhere on the Wiltshire/Somerset border (I wonder what Richard Graves would have made of the Marquess of Bath?).
Later they are visited by an aged fellow who applies to be Columella’s hermit, to sit in the door of his hermitage with a book when company came. He is sent away, as Columella says he is ‘an hermit himself, and lived in his own wood’. Hortensius comments: ‘this is a new species of luxury and expence which you men of taste have got into ; though perhaps keeping an hermit may be cheaper than keeping a wh-re or even than a pack of dogs.’
One of the more entertaining events is a visit the three friends make to the neighbour Mr Nonsuch’s seat. Hortensius and Atticus are attracted to the two attractive young daughters of the household; unfortunately, on arriving at the house they are caught in a sharp shower, and Mr Nonsuch has provided a serpentine walk to the hall-door. Hortensius, ‘partly to make more dispatch, and partly perhaps to display his activity to the ladies … leapt over a little hedge of rose-bushes and sweet-briers … This insult upon Mr Nonsuch’s chevaux-de-frise, however, was not made with impunity ; for a sprig of the sweet-brier had made a considerable rent in one of Hortensius’s fine thread stockings.’
Miss Matilda mends his stocking, but after the three have left, virtuous Aunt Sacharissa ‘wondered at her officious forwardness in taking up a gentleman’s leg into her lap to mend his stocking … and suggests that Hortensius “must despise such a forward girl, and think you an absolute prostitute.”’
An interesting sub-plot is Columella’s ‘improper connection with his house-keeper’ – even Pomfret the parson (probably modelled on Graves himself) knows of it, as ‘whenever I have gone thither of late, she has always made the tea … which indeed is the reason that I could not in decency go thither as a visitor any longer.’ Mary Cutler, Shenstone’s housekeeper, caused problems after his death in contesting the decisions of the executors; some thought she had been his mistress or possibly his wife.
It’s rather sad that while Graves was writing Columella his wife died, and during the latter part of the book Pomfret’s wife Lucia dies suddenly. Towards the end of the novel the canon who is recounting the story recalls visiting Pomfret and reads out an elegy that the parson has composed: On the Death of a much-loved Wife. This is, of course, Grave’s elegy for Lucy, his own wife.
On the whole, Columella has more in common with Rasselas than The Spiritual Quixote, as the episodes of the novel, and stories recounted within the novel, debate the acquisition and retention of happiness. The latter two novels involve the characters travelling a long way, whereas Columella is more leisurely, much of the novel consisting of either conversation or interpolated stories, it’s still quite funny in parts, but doesn’t have the plot momentum of SQ.
It’s not as good as SQ, and would appear not to have been reprinted since its original publication in 1779, apart from a 1989 edition from Presses Universitaires du Mirail in Toulouse, edited by and with an Introduction in French by Cassilde Tournebize. SQ was issued in the Oxford Novels series in the sixties, and is in print from Nonsuch (as well as an interminable list of POD copies).