British Fiction, 18001829

HAMILTON, Elizabeth. Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800)

Contemporary Reviews

Critical Review, 2nd ser. 29 (July 1800): 311–13.

The shafts of lively and ingenious satire have been frequently leveled at the paradoxical metaphysics of Mr Godwin, and of his brethren of what is called the new school of philosophy. In the present work, some leading principles in the writings of that eccentric author are represented as influencing the conduct of Julia, an amiable and accomplished female, and of Bridgetina, a compound of garrulity, ignorance, and affectation. The vehicles of this new light are Glib, a shallow and loquacious apothecary; Myope, a speculative metaphysician; and Vallaton, a low and unprincipled adventurer: the last, by the jargon of the new philosophy, obtains an ascendancy over the romantic mind of Julia, whom he persuades to elope from her parents, and to enter into a connexion superior to the contemptible formality of marriage. Julia is soon abandoned by her philosophical protector to infamy and distress, and expiates her errors by repentance and a premature death. Vallaton, who, among other villanies, had supplied the French revolutionary tribunal with an innocent victim, is finally, with due dramatic justice, conducted to the guillotine at Paris. Myope, whom we suppose to be intended as the type of Mr. Godwin, recants many of his metaphysical doctrines, as in some aspects too pure for the present condition of mankind, and as calculated in other points to interfere with the practice of the social and domestic virtues which constitute so large a proportion of the happiness of the species.

The satirical part of this novel is, upon the whole, conducted with ability; but we think Vallaton too deficient in talents and deportment for the place assigned to him by the author. The character of Bridgetina might have been made the vehicle of an agreeable vein of satire on the female converts to the new philosophy; but it is grossly and farcically overcharged.—The following circular letter from the Hottentotian committee affords a favourable specimen of the humour of the work. [311/312]

“To Citizen of

“Who is there deserving of the title of philosopher, that does not feel the aggravated evils which the present odious institutions of society impose on its wretched victim? Who is there among the enlightened, the men without a God, that does not wish to escape from this world of misery, where the prejudices of mankind are ever preparing for him the bitter draught of obloquy and contempt. Are not all our energies wasted in the fruitless lamentation irremediable evils; and our powers blunted, and rendered obtuse, by the obstacles which the unjust institutions of society throw in the way of perfectibility.

“Who is there among us, whom the unequal distribution of property does not fill with envy, resentment, and despair? Who is there among us, that cannot recollect the time when he secretly called in question the arbitrary division of property established in society, and felt inclined to appropriate to his own use many things, the possession of which appeared to him desirable? And yet for these noble and natural sentiments, (when reduced to action), the unjust and arbitrary institutions of society have prepared prisons and fetters! The odious system of coercion is exerted to impose the most injurious restraints on these salutary flights of genius; and property is thus hemmed in on every side.

“Nor is the endeavour to get rid of the encumbrances by which we are weighed down, less abortive, or attended with consequences less deplorable.

“Has any of us, in the ferment of youthful passion, bound himself by marriage? In vain does he struggle to throw off the yoke; he is bound by the chains of this absurd and immoral institution, and refrained from seeking in variety the renovating charm of novelty, that rich magazine from which the materials of knowledge are to be derived.

“Who would not gladly escape from this scene of misery? Who would not rejoice to anticipate that reasonable state of society, with all those improvements which true philosophy will, in the course of a few ages, generate throughout the world?

“Is he at a loss where to fly? Does he fear that the debasing restraint imposed by religion, and laws, and notions of government, will meet him in every direction, and pursue him to the farthest corner of the world? Let him rejoice to learn, that there is yet a refuge for philosophy; that there is now a region where the whole of our glorious system is practised in its full extent. In the interior parts of Africa an exalted race of mortals is discovered, who so far from having their minds cramped in the letters of superstition, and their energies restrained by the galling yoke of law, do not so much as believe in a Supreme Being, and have neither any code of laws, nor any form of government!

“Let us join this pure and enlightened race! Let us hasten to quit the corrupt wilderness of ill-constituted society, the rank and [312/313] rotten foil from which every finer shrub draws poison as it grows. Let us seek in the philosophical society of the Hottentots that happier field and purer air, where talents and sentiments may expand into virtue, and germinate into general usefulness.

“Does any female citizen groan under the slavish and unnatural yoke of parental authority, or wish to shake off the chains of the odious and immoral institution, to which so much of the depravity of the world may be traced? Let her embrace the opportunity that is now offered, to obtain the glorious boon of liberty: let her hasten to become a member of that society, where her virtues will be duly honoured, and her energies expand in the wide field of universal utility.

“Is any philosopher thoroughly convinced of the truth of these gloomy representations of the present virtue smothering state of society, which he has been at so much pains to propagate? In the bosom of the Gonoquais horde, let him seek an asylum from the oppressive hand of political institution, and from all obligations to the observance of that common honesty which is a non-conductor to all the sympathies of the human heart.

“As in the dark and gloomy wilderness which we at present unfortunately inhabit, there is no possibility of moving without money, a sum must of necessity be raised to freight a ship, and lay in requisites for the voyage. Contributions for this purpose will be received by citizen Vallaton, who has generously undertaken the conduct of the important enterprize. As it is probable that many philosophers may not be provided with specie, from such as have it not in their power to contribute their quota in cash, any sort of goods will be received that can be converted into articles of general utility. As an example worthy of imitation, we here think it necessary to inform our fellow citizens, that citizen Glib has bestowed the whole of his circulating library upon the society. The superfluous books, such as history, travels, natural philosophy, and divinity, are to be sold for the benefit of the fund. The novels and metaphysical essays are reserved for the instruction of the philosophers.

“By order of the Hottentotian Committee, Ben. Myope, Sec.” Vol.ii. P.36.

Some domestic scenes in this novel are delineated with the pencil of truth and nature; and, while the characters of captain and Mrs. Delmond gratify the penetration of the sagacious reader, those of Dr. Sydney and Harriet Orwell will delight the amiable feelings that sympathise with the progress and the reward of virtue.

Notes: Format: 3 vols 8vo; price 15s. Boards. Publisher: Robinsons.

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 34 (Apr 1801): 413–16.

From the title of this publication, the reader might be inclined to expect memorials of those men who have extended the boundaries of natural science, in our days, beyond the dreams of antient wisdom; or of those who have thrown unexpected light on the doctrines of mind, and the principles of philology. Where such an idea has been excited, some disappointment will ensue, when it is found that the modern philosophers here celebrated are only heroes of Grub-street, deluding their followers with the ignis fatuus of Godwinism, and deserving the fate of Stephano and Trinculo in the Tempest;—that is, to conclude their adventures in a horse-pond.

In remarking on the futility of this method of exposing the principles of a writer, we are not espousing the cause against which the shafts of ridicule and satire are here directed: but it must occur to every impartial reader, that the crimes of a hypocrite cannot be fairly imputed to the nature of any moral or religious system, under the mask of which he endeavours to conceal his villainy. The Christian religion itself has been too often and too dangerously attacked by infidels, on this very plan. In the volumes before us, the pretended philosophers are a set of miscreants, who would equally disgrace any opinions to which they might pretend an attachment; and they are only represented as seducing two females, whose characters are marked with the strongest traits of folly: for even the character of Julia Delmont must incur this censure in the most important circumstances of her story. Indeed, her history approaches too closely to that of the penitent prostitute in Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling: she is ruined by the same inattention to religion in her education; and her confession in [413/414] the last volume reads as if it were copied from the former work, which was published before the name of philosophy was degraded by misapplication, and vilified by mis-representation.

The author’s design might have been better conducted, if she* had shewn, by the practical application of certain of Mr. Godwin’s principles to the usual business of life, that they constitute a system of arrogance and selfishness. Let an admirer of them be introduced to a society, which should take the trouble of enlightening him by treating him, in all respects, according to those maxims; and we apprehend that his ‘energies’ would soon be directed to rid himself of such companions, even by the decried assistance of the laws of his country.

After these considerations on the serious tendency of the present publication, we must observe that it nevertheless reflects great credit on the intentions and abilities of the fair author, who uniformly appears as a friend to liberal principles of religion and morality. In support of this cause, she has thus laudably exerted her pen, in a work which is on the whole agreeably written, and the characters of which are well supported, with a sufficiency of incident and plot to excite interest:—but some exuberances of portraiture and of situations might have been usefully removed; and the quotations from Mr. Godwin’s writings are often too long. We extract the following passage, as a specimen:

“You are fond of the country, I presume, Madam;” said Mr. Sardon, placing his chair by Bridgetina. “I am greatly mistaken, if you will find the society of London at all congenial to your feelings.”

‘Why so, sir?’

“Because it is seldom agreeable to a person of refined sensibility.”

‘Bridgetina drew up her head, with a look of much approbation. Mr. Sardon continued: “In shady groves and purling streams there is something so soothing to a susceptible mind, so—”

‘A mind of great powers. Sir,’ said Bridgetina, bridling, and interrupting him, ‘is superior to the operation of physical causes. It is in no case to be influenced by surrounding objects. A person of talents, in the midst of the most crouded street, can give full scope to his imagination. I make no doubt you, Sir, who appear to be possessed of no common abilities, have experienced the truth of this. Have you not laughed, and cried, and entered into nice calculations, and digested sagacious reasonings, and consulted by the aid of memory the books [414/415] you have read, and projected others for the good of mankind, while taking a walk from Charing-Cross to Hyde-Park Corner*; and done it too as much at your ease as in the middle of your study?”

“Really, Madam, I cannot say that I have.”

‘No! Then I am mistaken in your character.’

“Perhaps,” rejoined Mr. Sardon with a smile, “the mistake is mutual; but I should be glad to know from what instance you do me the honour to infer me capable of such compleat abstraction?”

‘From no particular instance, but merely because such employment of the mind is common to every man of talents in walking the streets. The dull man, indeed, goes straight forward; he observes if he meets with any of his acquaintance; he enquires respecting their health and their family; he glances at the shop windows; and sees shoe-buckles and tea-urns. But a man of genius observes none of his acquaintance, makes no enquiries respecting their health or their families, looks at no shop-windows, nor sees either buckles or tea urns, should they be ever so much in his way.’

“Bravo!” cried Mr. Sardon; “What an excellent criterion by which to judge of genius! But did you not say something about laughing and crying?”

‘Oh yes,’ returned Bridgetina, ‘I said the man of talent, in walking the street, gives full scope to his imagination. He laughs and cries. Unindebted to the suggestions of surrounding objects, his whole soul is employed. In imagination he declaims or describes; impressed with the deepest sympathy, or elevated to the loftiest rapture*.’

‘Mr. Sardon was astonished at the fluency of her expression. He began to consider her as a very extraordinary character, and willing to pursue the conversation, expressed himself highly satisfied with her very accurate delineation of the different ways in which a dull man and a man of genius employed themselves while walking the streets. He then begged to know how they were to be distinguished in the country. Here, alas, Bridgetina was soon run aground. She had gone to the very end of her lesson; and was running away from the subject in a very unaccountable manner, when it was taken up by a lady near her, who had attentively listened to the conversation.

‘I know not how to account for it,’ said Mrs. Mortimer, ‘but I have generally remarked that men of distinguished talents, who have always resided in the country, seldom deign to be agreeable in conversation; while in town, one daily meets with men of the first-rate abilities, who seem so totally unconscious of their own superiority, that one is neither pained by their reserve, nor mortified by their condescension.’

“You do not consider, my dear Madam,” said Mr. Sardon, “that the value of a commodity rises in proportion to its scarcity. The greatest scholar in the parish is too extraordinary a personage to demean himself after a common manner. When he deigns to speak, every word is a law, and every sentence the ipse dixit of infallibility. And would you expect such a sage as this to descend to chit-chat with a lady?” [415/416]

‘Oh, it is when he descends, that he offends me most,’ rejoined Mrs. Mortimer. ‘I could bear the most pompous display of his learning far better than the arrogance of his stupid and affected reserve, or the conceited air with which he lets himself down to the level of a female understanding.’

“The observation of Mrs. Mortimer, (severe as it is) may, perhaps, be often applicable to mere scholars,” said Mrs. Fielding; “but I believe it will seldom be found deserved by men of refined taste, or real genius, however remote their situation. The cultivation of taste bestows a polish upon the mind, that seldom fails to form the manners to urbanity; but upon the whole, I must allow, that men of superior talents or information are generally much improved by mutual collision.”

‘I never mind the learned bears, for my share,’ said a young lady who sat by Bridgetina. ‘What I detest in the country is, the coterie of censorious old maids, established in every little town, who are everlastingly making their ill-natured remarks upon all that passes.’

“Permit me to rectify your mistake,” said Bridgetina; “and to inform you, that the censure of which you complain is the very perfection of human reason; and the persons who exercise it are the enlightened friends of the human race. When laws are abrogated, and governments dissolved, these old maids, whose censures are, from the depraved state of a distempered civilization, rendered unpalatable to a multitude of the present race of mankind, will keep the whole world in a moral dependence upon reason. Nor will old maids be then permitted to make a monopoly of censoriousness. A censure will then be exercised by every individual over the actions of his neighbour; a promptness to enquire into and judge them, will then be universal*; and every man will enjoy the advantage of deriving every possible assistance for correcting and moulding his conduct, by the perspicacity not of a few solitary old maids only, but of all his neighbours. Oh, happy time! Oh, blessed æra of felicity!”

‘Oh wise, judicious, and enlightened maidens!’ cried Mr. Sardon, ‘who have given the world such convincing proofs of the efficacy of censure, as have enabled the philosopher to make an estimate of its value! How greatly are mankind indebted to the accuracy of your observations, and the curious minuteness of your research!’

‘Though Mr. Sardon spake this in a tone sufficiently ironical, Bridgetina, totally unconscious of the irony, was much delighted with having such a champion to support her; and was taxing her memory for another harangue, when looking up, she observed Henry Sydney slipping out of the room.’

In this style, our illuminated compatriots are exposed; and readers who have a relish for satire of this kind, particularly those whose acquaintance with the objects of it enables them to appreciate its justice, will be abundantly gratified in the course of these volumes.

[Note to p. 414:] *A second edition of these volumes has lately appeared, with the name of the writer, Miss Eliza Hamilton, author of Letters of a Hindoo Rajah. See M. Rev. vol. xxi. N.S. p. 176.
[Notes to p. 415:] *See Godwin’s Enquirer. *Ibid
[Note to p. 416:] *See Political Justice, vol. ii

Notes: Format: 3 vols crown 8vo; price 15s. Sewed. Publisher: Robinsons.

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