Back in the early '60s, when I was just beginning to learn about literature, I enrolled in a course on the eighteenth-century English novel. I diligently worked my way through an ambitious syllabus. There were more than twenty novels, some of them monumental, like Clarissa and Tristram Shandy and others blessedly brief, like Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield and Mackenzie's Man of Feeling. Diligent lad that I was, I read every single word, every syllable. In addition to the required reading, there was also a extensive compendium of recommended works. On this intimidating list was Robert Bage's Hermsprong, which, forty-five years after the fact, I've at last read. Better very very late than never at all.
It's a good book -- not a masterpiece, but very fine, very enjoyable. The plot is unoriginal. An heiress falls for a fortune-hunter, elopes to the continent, but is rescued just before the threatened deflowering; a domineering wicked old guy forces his unwilling daughter into marriage with an idiot aristocrat; a man of mysterious origin turns out to be the estate's true heir -- that sort of thing. But other elements are less cliched. Charles Hermsprong, raised among Indians on the banks of the "Powtomack" is a plain-spoken 'merican radical; Maria Fluart is as witty and defiant and independent as Benedick's Beatrice -- sometimes it seems as though her lines could have been composed by Oscar Wilde himself. Maria is by far the most vibrant character in the novel. If Bage were as advanced a thinker as he sometimes pretends to be, he would have let his hero marry her. It's disappointing that Hermsprong falls for a conventional dutiful young simperer, while Maria, too strong for any man in the novel, is left on the shelf.
Here's a passage that jumps out at the reader. It's from a description of two of the novel's minor characters:
But the tender interest they had in each other was torn asunder by pride and prejudice, and this pride and prejudice, she feared....
Whoa, daddy! Jane Austen's novel was originally named "First Impressions" and only borrowed its familiar title from Bage late in the game. It is apparent that right there on Jane's bookshelf, next to Sir Charles Grandison and Tom Jones and the novels of Frances Burney, was a copy of Hermsprong, which she (unlike your dilatory '60s student) was smart enough to read in a timely manner.