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by Brenda S. Cox

“I have seen nobody in London yet with such a long chin as Dr Syntax”—Jane Austen, Letters, to Cassandra, March 2-3, 1814. (p. 267 in LeFaye’s 4th edition)

Frontispiece, The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812), by William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson. Notice the chin! All of these images: Thomas Rowlandson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jane Austen and her sister apparently enjoyed the adventures of Dr. Syntax, hero of a series of popular illustrated books. Usually, the text of a book is written, then the illustrator adds pictures. However, Dr. Syntax was created the other way around.

One of the most popular cartoonists of the day, Thomas Rowlandson, drew a series of pictures of Dr. Syntax on a journey “in search of the picturesque.” A publisher commissioned William Combe to write the text of the story, in narrative poetry, and the text and pictures were published together.

Austen could only have been familiar with the first book, published in 1812, Dr. Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque. In 1820 and 1821 sequels were published, The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of Consolation, and The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax: In Search of a Wife.

Encyclopedia Britannica tells us, “All the Dr. Syntax books satirize the many 18th- and early 19th-century writers whose ‘Tours,’ ‘Travels,’ and ‘Journeys’ were vehicles for sententious moralizing, uninspired raptures, and sentimental accounts of amorous adventures.”  Satire: right up Austen’s alley!

I’ve read the first Dr. Syntax book and it’s a delight. You can find it on archive.org. (Which, by the way, is a great source for many old books.)

Doctor Syntax Tumbling into the Water. One of Dr. Syntax’s many adventures: Trying to get a good view, in order to sketch a castle, he falls into mucky water (Canto IX).

Dr. Syntax is a downtrodden, overlooked country curate, like Charles Hayter in Persuasion. Hayter, though, has connections to move him up in the church hierarchy. Poor Dr. Syntax does not. As a curate, he performs all the duties of a rector (like Mr. Collins and Henry Tilney) or a vicar (like Mr. Elton), but receives only a small portion of the income from the parish. An absentee rector elsewhere gets most of the money. On the first page, we see his responsibilities:

Of Church-preferment he had none,

Nay, all his hope of that was gone:

He felt that he content must be

With drudging in a Curacy,

Indeed, on ev’ry Sabbath-day,

Through eight long miles he took his way,

To preach, to grumble, and to pray;

To cheer the good, to warn the sinner,

And, if he got it,–eat a dinner:

To bury these, to christen those,

And marry such fond folks as chose

To change the tenor of their life,

And risk the matrimonial strife.

His income from these “weekly journeys” is only thirty pounds a year. (To get an idea of what this means, Mrs. Jennings thinks Edward Ferrars and his wife will have to live on a curacy of fifty pounds a year. She says, “Lord help ‘em! How poor they will be!”) Syntax complains that “that thankless parent, Mother Church” has overlooked his learning, giving jobs, as rectors and deans, to “fools.” The curate “feeds the flock, while others eat, the mutton’s nice, delicious meat.” Those others take the tithe income, while the curate serves the people of his parish.

Dr. Syntax also runs a school, to supplement his income, just as Jane Austen’s father did. Syntax laments rising expenses, though, saying the boys “delighted less in books than meat.” Even birch wood, used for caning disobedient boys, had gotten so expensive that often “To save the rod, he spar’d the child.” He did not punish them because he couldn’t afford to. (This is an inversion of the biblical advice in Proverbs 13:24, saying those who love their children will discipline them. It is often summarized as “spare the rod and spoil the child.”)

Dr. Syntax, Setting out on His Tour of the Lakes. His wife calls out “Good luck!” as his horse Grizzle awaits. The church that gives him a minimal income as a country curate is in the background (Canto I).

However, Dr. Syntax has a brilliant idea. He will go on a trip in search of the picturesque, drawing what he sees, and then write a book, making a lot of money–he hopes. His wife, dreaming of “silks and muslins fine,” happily sends him off on his faithful nag Grizzle.

Dreaming of “future treasure,” he finds himself lost on an empty plain, with only a defaced, useless signpost. However, he sits down to draw a picture of it, totally revising the landscape to make it look “picturesque.” He says, “I’ll do as other sketchers do, Put anything into the view.” He is proud that finally he has “made a Landscape of a Post.”

Dr. Syntax, Losing His Way. He finds a post from which to create a landscape picture of the “picturesque.”

The book parodies the “picturesque,” just as Austen parodied it in Sense and Sensibility. Edward Ferrars says,

I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower,—and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world.

Marianne, of course, is shocked.

Dr. Syntax, Stop’t by Highwaymen (Canto II). They leave him tied to a tree. Fortunately, his wife has sewn most of his money into his coat so they don’t get it.

Dr. Syntax, after creating his picturesque scene of a post, is attacked by robbers and tied to a tree—the first of his many adventures. Two passing women (whom he compares to Don Quixote’s Dulcinea) free him and give him a meal. While his horse roams, a jokester cuts off half its tail and ears, making it “a fit sight for country-fair.”

At an inn, Dr. Syntax copies down quotes from books (to use in his own book), while a dog runs off with half his breakfast. He has kissed the maid (by her invitation), but her jealous boyfriend pours boiling water into his shoes.

His adventures continue. He makes new friends along the way, one of which gives him a church living in the end. He draws many pictures, writes his story, and his book is published.

Dr. Syntax, Taking Possession of His Living. A friend met on his travels provides the connection he needs to get a good church living.

At the end, Syntax, now appreciated and with a good position,

“enjoy’d his hours of learned ease;

Nor did he fail to preach and pray,

To brighter worlds to point the way . . .

Thus the good Parson, Horse, and Wife,

Led a most comfortable life.”

Dr. Syntax Preaching. Doctor Syntax gets the opportunity to show off his skills along the way.

I can imagine Jane Austen reading this book, laughing at the absurdities of Dr. Syntax’s trials and tribulations. She may have enjoyed, as I did, his more serious poetical sermon about man being “born to trouble,” which prepares us for “better worlds and brighter skies” (Canto XXI). The satirical language throughout the book is great fun. And she probably appreciated the delightful Rowlandson illustrations. You will find many entertaining passages in the book, if you get a chance to read it.

Dr. Syntax’s long, sharp chin certainly made an impression on Austen, so that she even looked for someone with such a chin in London!

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She spoke on “Satirical Cartoons and Jane Austen’s Church of England” at the 2021 JASNA AGM. 

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