REVIEW OF JAMES WHITE'S JOHN OF GAUNT (1790)


The Adventures of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. By James White, Esq. Author of Earl Strongbow, Conway Castle, &c. 12mo. 3 Vols. About 250 Pages in each. 9s. sewed. Crowder, &c. 1790

We collect that the foregoing narrative of Earl Strongbow has attracted considerable attention, as the author of these adventures now declares himself, on the credit of being the writer of that work. In a preface, the style of which reminds us of the proeme to Gay’s Pastorals, we are conducted to the ruins of another ancient castle, said to have been a residence of Geoffrey Chaucer; where, in an old cupboard that had been plastered over, the author professes to have found a roll of vellum, on which these adventures were recorded in Latin. We are, moreover, prepared for farther publications of a like kind, by his declaring himself in possession of a small ancient MS. account of books of English chivalry, hidden in various places by the monks, and others, at the Reformation: so that, he adds, he is empowered, as it were by patent, to make discoveries of this nature. It is, indeed, a patent, the extent of which depends on the curiosity of the public; and if this curiosity does not tire, we may, in due time, be supplied with the whole history of England, loaded with fiction from his prolific imagination, into an enormous romance, that may turn the less amusing details of Rapin and Hume out of doors!
          These adventures of John of Gaunt, are confined to those which happened in one journey that he took in company with his three brothers, Edward the heroic Black Prince of Wales, and the Dukes of York and Gloucester, to whom the adventures were common. They are, indeed, more properly, the adventures of the Black Prince, since the journey was his, to the castle of Beauchamp Earl of Warwick, stimulated by his love to the fair Erminilda. In their way, they overtook Owen Glendour the Cambrian hero, who was posting to Caernarvon castle, to a grand tournament, at which, he added, the lady Erminilda was expected to appear; an article of intelligence that determined all their steps to that exhibition. They called on Chaucer at Woodstock, and the visit is thus described: [omitted] . . .
          The adventures are all in the style of heroic errantry, and consist of tilting, suffering from cruel beauties, succouring distressed damsels, punishing lawless caitiffs, and other events, of course, in the records of chivalry. Like Gil Blas, this illustrious company fell into the hands of a community of banditti, among whom they were detained until we are informed of their way of life and adventures; and then the princes and their friends recover their liberty, disperse the gang, and release their prisoners.
          As novelty seems to be the author’s aim, and will indeed prove the best recommendation to a revival of this species of composition, the following adventure is undoubtedly calculated both to surprize and amuse:

‘About half way between Aber and the foot of Pen Maen Mawr, we espied a knight upon the strand, who appeared to be in profound meditation. At a little distance from the beach lay a fishing-boat, in which were some sailors sleeping. At our approach the stranger discontinued his reverie, and, perceiving that we were knights, saluted us very courteously. We enquired whence he came, and what adventures had befallen him. That vessel, replied he, that lies at anchor, conveyed me from an island, which, if your eyes be faithful, ye may discern right before ye, extending its ridgy back from north to south. That, Sirs, is the isle of Man. To Britain am I come, in quest of knightly succours, against a cruel monster, (for, though of human form, he is in mind a monster,) who inhabits a prodigious fortress to the east of yonder island, where he enslaves and bitterly torments many dames and damsels of dignified condition, many knights and potent barons, and even some of princely station. For, know, valorous warriors, that this tyrant keeps armed vessels, in which his retainers scour the seas, and often make descents upon the neighbouring shores, carrying off whomsoever they meet, that is of honourable dignity, but sparing the meaner sort. For it is the atrocious maxim of the caitiff whom they serve, to collect, and confine within his castle the high-born and magnificent, and compel them to submit to the most ignominious drudgery: intending, as he saith, thereby to humble the pride of human kind, instruct them in the varieties of life, and season them with that philosophy which is the offspring of woe.
          ‘This audacious invader of the rights of men hath, at this instant, in his power five barons of England, and seven Scottish lairds, a king of Kerry, three abbots, two bishops, and divers knights renowned, with a cousin of the king of Norway, (a beauteous princess) many damsels also of the noblest lineage, and of transcendent charms, and (what grieves my heart full sorely) the daughter of Mac Sweyno, prince of the Orkney islands. I, gallant knights, am named Sir Allen Mac Fergus, heir of the Mac Fergus laird of Annandale, and was on the point of espousing this accomplished princess, when the rovers of that unknightly barbarian seized her as she walked upon the shores of her paternal island, and bore her away in triumph to the fortress already mentioned.
          ‘No sooner had the news of this disaster reached mine ears, than I took shipping for the isle of Man, and, having landed safely, disguised myself as a peasant who had fruit to sell, and straightway repaired to the castle. I readily found admittance, and was conducted by the domestics to the kitchen. I availed myself of the ill-breeding that was suitable to my feigned character, and, as clowns are always inquisitive, asked many questions concerning those whom I saw in various departments of this numerous household. There (sad vicissitude!) two damsels of an august house, and of incomparable beauty, were salting a rump of beef; the king of Kerry was gutting a turkey, the lord abbot of Conway, with a bib under his chin, composing a plumb pudding, and the bishop of St. Asaph’s spitting a neck of mutton.
          ‘At this cruel spectacle I trembled for the fate of the fair princess of the Orkneys. I enquired with faultering accents if such a person was in the castle. But oh! what was my chagrin, when they replied, that they believed she was washing in the scullery! My knees knocked together, and the power of vision very nearly forsook my eyes. At length I recovered myself sufficiently to approach the place which contained the beloved of my soul. There, valiant warriors, (I can scarce refrain from weeping as I tell it,) did I behold the unhappy princess, with an aged prioress, wringing a pair of sheets, which but a little while before she had taken out of the wash-tub. She, who from her infant years had never known what it was to labour, but, on the contrary, had flourished in that delicate composure befitting an illustrious maiden, was now in a deplorable perspiration; her unparalleled elbows were befrothed with suds, her night-cap tucked up from her ears, her apparel loose and sordid.
          ‘As I knew that the sight of me would but afflict the princess, and render her situation the more intolerable, I forbore to discover myself to her; contenting my eyes with such a mournful perspective of her injured beauty, as the place of my concealment, which was behind some drying garments, would admit of. In another part of the scullery was the cousin of the king of Norway, scouring some greasy trenchers, and mingling, ever and anon, her briny tears (which dropt like orient pearls) with the dish-water that steamed beneath her.
          ‘From this melancholy scene I repaired to the court-yard, where the abbot of St. Alban’s was wheeling out manaure. As for the laird of Glenco, and the chief of the Mac Intoshes, they were sweeping the stable, while two English barons were rubbing down the palfreys. I vow to the very heavens it grieved my heart to behold them: I was utterly overcome: I could not stand it, but retreated precipitately to the castle, where, as I passed by one of the rooms, I beheld a company of majestic and angelic damsels, some of whom were darning stockings, some clapping cloaths, some ironing; while a beldame of a hideous aspect stood over them, as task-mistres, and with inhuman taunts, and terrifying menaces, constrained them to attend to their respective occupations.
          ‘My bosom burned with fury for the wrongs of these noble virgins, but more especially for the indignities of the fair princess of the Orkneys. I quitted the castle with a firm resolution to attempt their delivery, or perish. But reflecting that the prowess of no single arm could atchieve an enterprize so arduous, I determined to set out in quest of succours, from the valiant knights and barons of this neighbouring isle of Britain. Having, therefore, hired a fishing-boat, I crossed over to these parts, hoping here to meet some warrior who was in search of high adventures.
          ‘Here ended Sir Allen Mac Fergus. Though Scotland and the Hebrides were our object for the present, an expedition to the isle of Man, for the relief of illustrious personages, was in all respects congenial to our ideas of knightly glory. The discomfiture of that caitiff was an exploit which no son of chivalry could despise. Accordingly we proffered to the Scottish chief our services, who esteemed himself most fortunate in having met with such auxiliaries. We alighted, and sat down upon the pebbled beach, expecting the ebb-tide with impatience. At length the water turns: we awake the sailors, and embark on board the fishing-boat. Luckily the wind proved as favourable to us as the tide; so that in a few hours we landed on the island.
          ‘Our first care was to consult concerning the method of attack. It was the opinion of Chaucer that we should borrow the jackets and trowsers of the seamen, and wear them over our armour; that, in this disguise, we should present ourselves at the castle, as seafaring persons arrived from foreign lands, and whose vessel was laden with choice productions of the Indies. For thus, continued Geoffrey, we shall gain admittance into a fortress, which to any forcible attempt will doubtless prove impregnable.
          ‘This counsel was adopted: we forthwith arrayed ourselves in the habits of the sailors, which concealed our coats of mail, and our weapons. This done, we proceeded to the castle of the caitiff, Sir Allen Mac Fergus being our guide. When arrived at the gates, we affected the jargon of voyagers, and were suffered to pass in. We marched forward to the great hall, where the tyrant himself was seated; then, scorning our disguise, astonished him with the sight of warriors clad in refulgent steel, and waving over his head their tremendous faulchions. Dismayed as he was, he yet shouted to his retainers, who rushed into the hall with such weapons as they could find. And now, my lord of Marche, a horrid combat ensued. The enemy, who out-numbered us, disputed the day with obstinacy, their caitiff lord encouraging them by his lion-like example. But a sudden reinforcement of abbots, bishops, lairds, and barons armed with their flesh-forks, spits, and brooms, appearing on our side, the impetuousity of the felons abated. At length a fatal blow from the faulchion of the Black Prince severed from his shoulders the head of the barbarian. Their captain slain, the rabble sued for mercy, which was readily granted to them, on their laying down their arms, and surrenduring the keys to the fortress.
          'A general muster of the captives (those high-born cooks and scullions, whose condition Sir Allen so lamented) was the consequence of this victory, and liberty was proclaimed through every chamber of the castle.’

          Were a taste for knight-errantry still prevalent, and were the other adventures here related of the same extravagant cast with that which we have just produced, we should have received this work as the production of another Cervantes: but to raise up dead writers from oblivion, for the sole purpose of killing them again, might suit the pretensions of Falstaffe, but was a motive certainly beneath the views of this writer. Sterne was credited with profundity, till the public were profoundly tired with the investigation of his hidden meanings; and whatever may be the drift of this composition, such of our readers as may have condescended to amuse themselves with the humour of Tom Brown, will, on reading the above extract, unavoidably recollect the droll letters of Joe Haines and Beau Norton, describing the old vicissitudes of rank that took place on changing this world for that beyond the river Styx. . . .


[SOURCE: Review of James White’s The Adventures of John of Gaunt, Monthly Review, 2 (August 1790), pp. 416–21]

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