Bage, Robert (DNB00)

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BAGE, ROBERT (1728–1801), novelist, was born at Barley, in the parish of St. Alkmonds, Derby, on 29 Feb. 1728. He was educated at a common school at Derby. At the age of seven he was a proficient in Latin, and his talents were generally admired. On leaving school he was trained to his father's business of paper-making, but did not cease to study. At the age of twenty-three Bage contracted a happy marriage, and with the aid of his wife's dowry he was enabled to establish a paper manufactory at Elford, near Tamworth, which he carried on until his death. After marriage Bage taught himself the modern languages, becoming especially proficient in French and Italian; and being inclined (says Mrs. Barbauld) when about thirty to learn the more abstruse branches of mathematics, he engaged a teacher at Birmingham, where he spent an evening every week for the purpose of instruction. The reference to the science of mathematics put into the mouth of one of his characters probably refers to its influence over himself. 'He was obliged to this science for a correct imagination, and a taste for uniformity in the common actions of his life.'

Bage did not begin to write until late in life. Sir Walter Scott states, in the 'Novelists' Library,' that in the year 1765 Bage entered into partnership in an extensive iron manufactory, one of his partners being the celebrated Dr. Darwin. The firm was dissolved in 1779, and Bage found liimself a loser to the extent of 1,500l. In order to divert his mind from his losses he turned to literature. His first venture in authorship was made at the age of fifty-three. 'Mount Henneth,' a novel in two volumes, was purchased by Lowndes for 30l., and published in 1781. It is written in the form of a series of letters, and in a humorous preface the author anticipates the critics by reviewing the work himself. 'It puts us in mind of Dr. Johnson's sarcasm on Macklin's conversation — a perpetual renovation of hope, with perpetual disappointment. To say the least we can of it, it is bad in the beginning, worse and worse in its progress, but the end is heaven.' There were sins against decorum in this novel, but 'the strong mind, playful fancy, liberal sentiments, and extensive knowledge of the author are everywhere apparent' (Scott).

Novels quickly succeeded each other, 'Barham Downs,' 'The Fair Syrian,' and 'James Wallace,' appearing at very brief intervals. After the publication of the last-named work the author took a short respite of four years, and then issued, in 1792, 'Man as he is;' this was followed in 1796 by Bage's last and finest novel, 'Hermsprong, or Man as he is not.' All his works were produced within fifteen years, or between his fifty-third and sixty-eighth year. Their freshness and vigour greatly charmed his contemporaries, and the reputation of the author extended beyond the Channel, several of Bage's novels being translated into German and published at Frankfort.

From a correspondence with his friend William Hutton of Birmingham, Bage appears to have got into difficulties with the excise respecting the duty on his paper. But the fault lay with the officials, who seized large quantities of paper after it had left the maker's possession, and after it had been marked, stamped, signed with the officer's name, and the excise duty paid. In 1793 Bage left Elford and went to live at Tamworth, dying in the latter town on 1 Sept. 1801 . We have the testimony of Mr. Hutton, his most intimate friend, that in private life Bage was most amiable, but he adds with regret that 'he laid no stress upon revelation,' and was 'barely a chrstian. His friends were deeply attached to him, and they described his temper as open, mild, and sociable. He was very kind to his domestics, who lived with him till they were old, and even to his horses when they were past work. He had three sons, who manifested no small portion of his ability, but one of these died in early life.

Notwithstanding his friend's assurance that he was 'barely a christian,' there are signs in Bage's works that he retained a strong affection for the quaker religion, in which he was brought up. He was deeply impressed by the French revolution, and the effects of the new principles are clearly traceable in his later works. In 'Man as he is' the philosophy is that of the French revolution. The work has been described as that of 'a man whose mind has more strength than elegance, and whose opinions, often just, sometimes striking, are marked with traits of singularity, and not unfrequently run counter to received notions and established usages.' In reality, it was the keenness of his satire which was distasteful to the orthodox, and caused them to brand as dangerous works whose sparkling humour, genuine ability, and in the main generous and elevating sentiments, were not sufficiently recognised.

The writer in Chambers's 'Cyclopædia of English Literature' describes Bage's novels as decidedly inferior to those of Holcroft, with whom Bage had no little in common; and he expresses surprise that Sir Walter Scott should have admitted them into his 'Novelists' Library.' But the reader will feel inclined to applaud Sir Walter for granting them this distinction. As novels they may not interest strongly by their plot, but there is a distinct originality about them. They were chiefly intended to incidcate certain political and philosophical opinions. Not unfrequently, perhaps, the author's strong convictions betray him into exaggeration. But touching the literary power of his works there can scarcely be two opinions. Considered altogether apart from their moral and social bearings, the novels of Bage display an unquestionable power in drawing and developing character, while their style is always entertaining and frequently incisive.

Bage's novels are comparatively unknown, and have not been reproduced in a collective edition. Scott reprinted three of them in the 'Novelists' Library,' and Mrs. Barbauld a fourth in the 'British Novelists.' The full list, with the respective dates of publication, is as follows:

  1. 'Mount Henneth,' 1781.
  2. 'Barham Downs,' 1784.
  3. 'The Fair Syrian,' 1787.
  4. 'James Wallace,' 1788.
  5. 'Man as he is,' 1792.
  6. 'Hermsprong, or Man as he is not,' 1796.

[Ballantyne's Novelists' Library, edited by Sir Walter Scott; Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary; British Novelists, edited by Mrs. Barbauld; and the various works of Bage.]

G. B. S.