The Real Regency Reader: A World Without Souls

In 1805, John William Cunningham had the great fortune of marrying Sophia Williams, youngest daughter of a wealthy Hertfordshire merchant. She gave him nine children and her papa bought him the living of Harrow-on-the-Hill. As vicar, he could leave many duties to his curate, and concentrate on his Calling–sermonizing.

Sophia's father owned Moor Park. Photographed by Nigel Cox, Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

Sophia’s father owned Moor Park. Photographed by Nigel Cox, Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

Unfortunately, there was only so much sermonizing the people in the village could take.

To reach the faithful beyond Harrow-on-the-Hill, John was determined to publish a book of sermons. However, he must have realized his potential readers, like the villagers, might be put off by his message. He decided to put forth his evangelizing effort in the guise of a Novel. His publisher, the venerable Hatchards, evidently approved.

John wrote his novel after the fashion of a work he much admired, The Story of La Roche, which follows the travels of a Christian philosopher and his beautiful daughter, Madamoiselle La Roche. It was a French tale serialized in The Mirror (not the current tabloid, but a late eighteenth century magazine out of Edinburgh). Incidentally, the editor warned the readers of the Mirror in the preface to La Roche that the work had a religious theme.

Inspired, John dashed off A World Without Souls. In it, a young man, Gustavus, leaves his home and the girl he is much attached to and travels abroad (to a place very like Regency England) in the company of a wise mentor. They come to a place resembling Hyde Park where the ladies and gentlemen are in full promenade on Sunday:

“But have they no veneration for the Sabbath?”

“Yes..the females do their enforcing servants and horses upon unnecessary employments, to defraud two beasts of their lawful rest, and shut out two souls from heaven.”



Souls was well-received by some, but excoriated by others. Not because it was religious in nature, but that it sought to fool the reader into thinking it was a novel. And one should never try to fool the Regency reader:

“We cannot say that such flimzy disguises altogether please our taste. They remind us of a coarse and clumsy deception well known to and put into practice by Essex shepherds. When an ewe has lost a lamb by premature death, these men strip the fleece off the carcase, and fasten it on the young of some other ewe, in order to induce the mourner to suckle the substitute.

With the silly animal the imposture succeeds. Not so does it fare with man. We detect, we smile, we contempt, we are disgusted.”

The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle (1813)

John was completely unapologetic. Even in the epilogue of his novel, he disparages the notion his young male character be reunited with his love:

“If I marry Gustavus and Emily, it will be objected to me, that it is incredible a tale of truth like mine should terminate like a novel (!)”