I’ve just finished writing a short biographical piece about Francis Coventry, a writer and clergyman from the eighteenth century I had never come across before. Coventry was born in 1725, but between leaving Cambridge in 1749, and his death from smallpox in 1754, he produced a little-known novel that I found very amusing. Pompey the Little is a picaresque tale of eighteenth-century London society very much in the vein of Henry Fielding, the twist being that the ‘hero’ is a lap-dog. It was published anonymously, probably because many of the characters in it would have been recognisable to anyone reading it, and as a result there was much speculation about who the author might be. Fielding was one suspect. Coventry’s novel is funny, lively, and often coarse: a “modish” marriage descends into mutual violence because the wife goes to the theatre to see Hamlet; Pompey pisses on his master’s breeches and “performed a much more disreputable action on a rich Turkey carpet” before being rewarded with a large breakfast.
In his dedication to Fielding in the second edition, Coventry laments the low status of the novel, which was then still a novel literary form:
Scholars and men of learning have a reason to give; their application to severe studies may have destroyed their relish for works of a lighter cast, and consequently it cannot be expected that they should approve what they do not understand. … People whose most earnest business is to dress and play at cards, are not so importantly employed, but that they find leisure now and then to read a novel.