J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The Secret of Sir Barrington Beaumont

While reading about Count Axel von Fersen for yesterday’s posting, I saw some intriguing anecdotes in his Wikipedia entry, quoted from The Reminiscences of Sir Barrington Beaumont, Bart., published in 1902.

I followed those up, finding a text with a lot about Von Fersen and a little about Horace Walpole, Charles James Fox, Marie Antoinette, and other famous figures that was much too good to be true.

Indeed, the reviewers of 1902 quickly caught on to that book as a fictional memoir of the eighteenth century.

The Irish Monthly reviewer wrote:
It pretends to be a real diary, the writer of which arranged that it should not be read till seventy years after his death; but one perceives at once that it is in reality a novel, bringing in such real persons as George Selwyn, Horace Walpole, Count Fersen, Marie Antoinette, and others. The writer has evidently studied the period well, though we suspect that Macaulay or Abraham Hayward would detect sundry inaccuracies and anachronisms. There is plenty of incident, lively conversations, epigrams original and selected, and a clear and correct style that is never dull.
Other readers, however, were not so pleased with the book. The Spectator stated:
No one, we imagine, is likely to be deceived by Memoirs of Sir Barrington, which profess on the title-page to be “now, by permission of his great grandson, published for the first time.” In spite of a serious preface, some notes by an editor, and the information that the names of the writer and the two chief personages have been altered, the imposture (if it deserves such a grave title) is so crudely and clumsily carried out that one scarcely thinks the writer or his publisher can expected it to be taken seriously. . . . [These pages] tell us little which was not well known, and that which is not well known in them is of little interest. The truth is they do not bear even upon the surface the stamp of genuineness.
And the critic in The Academy and Literature groused:
If the public greedily swallowed bogus love letters, the author probably argued, why should it not revel in bogus reminiscences? And we can only echo, Why not? The taste would not be more remarkable than that which finds savour in the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy. But to be successful the literary practical joke requires to be played with a nice combination of dash and dexterity. The creator of Sir Barrington Beaumont is not wanting in audacity,…but his attempt to imitate the style and reproduce the atmosphere of his chosen period is almost ludicrous in its inadequacy. . . .

This biographical joke might have been amusing if it had been better played, but unfortunately the author had no qualifications for his self-imposed task beyond a superficial knowledge of his period, and he has neglected to use use such simple devices as might have given his work external resemblance to a genuine memoir. He should have clothed the volume in imitation calf, and provided an elaborate index, copious foot-notes, and an appendix.

If a conscientious attempt had been made to imitate the style of 1812, and if the wits had been made to discuss contemporary tittle-tattle instead of paraphrasing their printed witticisms, the work might have mystified a section of the public. As it is, the author will probably fall between two stools, for his book is not a sufficiently good imitation of a last-century memoir to appeal to lovers of biography, nor a sufficiently good imitation of a novelette to appeal to lovers of light fiction.
The British Library now credits the book as a novel by Michael J. Barrington, a name that doesn’t appear anywhere in the printed volume.

Of course, some copies of this book got into larger library collections. Google Books scanned them. The Hathi Trust and Internet Archive took up one of the imperfect Google scans. Automated publishers of “classic” (i.e., public-domain) literature have vacuumed up the files and offer the book through online retailers.

As a result, The Reminiscences of Sir Barrington Beaumont, Bart. is more widely available today than it’s ever been, and most forms of the text carry no warning that it’s fiction. It is not and has never been a historical source about the eighteenth century.

No comments: