Magazine article The Spectator

Donnish Hoax Involving Five Hasbands

Magazine article The Spectator

Donnish Hoax Involving Five Hasbands

Article excerpt


by John Fuller

Chatto, L14.99, pp. 212,

ISBN 09701172053

This book is full of trickery. The story of how John Fuller's wife's stepfather 'almost at a whim' purchased a Venetian cabinet for L1,200 in 1966 is a delightful canard. The hidden drawer which remained undiscovered till 1997 when it was opened, quite by chance, by antiquarian restorers is a glorious tale of serendipity; and the 82 rolled sheafs of papers concealed within, which Fuller retitled The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole, are fine examples of 18th-century trompe l'oeil. Fuller has an antiquarian's relish for provenances and appendices, and his list of 34 paintings and drawings, housed in such august institutions as the Barnstaple Athenaeum, Jesus College, Cambridge and the National Gallery is so exact that one can imagine the editor agonising over whether Piping Aboard can really be as early as 1766, and lamenting the Allied bombers which destroyed the fresco of Madagascan wildlife in the Palazzo Chiavari in 1944. The footnotes to the text, in several languages from Du Fresnoy's Latin ('evidently inserted at a late stage in the MS's composition') to Shelley's rough drafts ('never ... incorporated into a published text') are subtle, and their learned apparatus is elegantly managed. Not recalling Swift's short verses on 'Letty Connell', I happened to consult The Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams (2nd edn. 1958) whither I was directed, and found, as I expected, page 682 to be a blank. The poems, like the paintings, and like The Memoirs themselves, are a delightful donnish hoax.

This hoax contains many delights, not the least of which are Mrs Horsepole's five husbands. Perry Crowther, the first, taught her the rudiments of 'running Errands' (her term for the intimacies of marriage) but quickly perished from a surfeit of whisky, the drink 'of cowards and bullies'. James Horsepole, the second, was a naval gentleman with two small children; he was cautious with respect to 'Errands', but unfortunate in his ambitions, perishing of maggots in the brain, having accidentally collided with an oar just south of Madagascar. Ramboasalama, the Madagascan prince whom Mrs Horsepole loved the best, gave her sight of the giant egg of a vanished elephant bird which inflamed her with desire to paint the wonders of this land which she called 'her Eden'. …

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