Thursday 30 January 2020

The Miseries of Human Life (1806)

The Reverend James Beresford (1764-1840) was an English cleric, better known for his popular satirical volumes than his work as a clergyman. An obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine gives a long list of his books and a begrudging acknowledgement that; `In his clerical capacity Mr. Beresford was highly and universally respected'
Beresford was born in the small village of Upham, Hampshire in 1764. His father, Richard Beresford Esq., was a wealthy landowner and barrister from South Carolina who had been a delegate in the Confederate Congress of 1783. After attending Charterhouse school, James Beresford attended Oxford university, graduating with his bachelors degree in 1786. The next year he was elected a fellow of Merton College. Beresford successfully avoided any administrative roles that would disturb his scholarly work until 1812, when he became rector of Kibworth Beauchamp, a small village in rural Leicestershire. He lived as an unmarried rector at Kibworth until his death in 1840.

This volume, The Miseries of Human Life (sub-titled or The last groans of Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive, with a few supplementary sighs from Mrs Testy, in Twelve Dialogues) was written by James Beresford and published anonymously in 1806 by William Miller. It was an immediate bestseller, it went through eight editions in a year (this is the fourth edition) and provoked numerous imitations; The Pleasures of Human Life, The Comforts of Human Life and An Antidote to the Miseries of Human Life. Sir Walter Scott reviewed the book and says that, `… on the whole we strenuously recommend this work to all who love to laugh'.

In the sixth edition, Beresford's name was accidentally included on the title-page as the author. By September 1808, he was well known enough to appear in a coloured etching that appeared in the Satirist magazine. The image, titled Miller's Asses, shows a procession of asses and donkeys entering the Albermarle Street shop of the bookseller and publisher William Miller. Beresford is shown as an ass with the head of a parson saying: `Oh! Ah! alack aday! alas! / What burden for a reverend Ass'.
Some of the miseries described in the book are typical of Beresford's time and social class;

The harrowing necessity of asking a person to dine in your house, who is in that critical class of life which makes him not quite a proper guest at your own table, and at the same time, a few grades too high for that of the servants:- no second table. 

Others are recognisable even today; `Finding that the person with whom you thus claim acquaintance has entirely forgotten you, though you perfectly remember him’.  

The Oxford English Dictionary has nearly five hundred quotations from this book, including quotations to illustrate the following words;

abominable, blister, cat-o'-nine-tails, dead man's fingers, embranglement, ferret, gawky, harrow, jargon, keep, limp, mizzle, nickname, overdressing, pantaloon, quaggy, ringleader, slabby, throttle, unutterable, villainous, waxwork, yerk, zigzag. 

For mizzle (very fine misty rain), it quotes Beresford as; `A mist, which successively becomes a mizzle, a drizzle, a shower, a rain, a torrent'. Each of these progressively heavier forms of rain would no doubt have been recognised by his readers as some of the miseries of their daily lives.


The coloured frontispiece cartoon engraved by W.H. Pyne for the first edition. It shows Mrs Testy, Mr Testy and Samuel Sensitive suffering some of the common miseries of life. The latin phrase being spoken by the gentleman on the right; Sunt lacrimae rerum, is the first half of a famous line from The Aeneid by Vergil. This had been translated by James Beresford from Latin into English blank verse in 1794. This line is subject to many and varied interpretations and translations, but the sense of the line that was proposed by Arthur Keith in 1922; Here are tears for man's adversities, seems somehow appropriate for the subject matter of Beresford's book.


Keith, A.L. (1922). `A Vergillian Line'. The Classical Jnl. Vol 17, No 2, pp. 398-402.
Roberts, S.C. (1958) Doctor Johnson and Others. CUP, Cambridge.
Scott, W. (1806). `On The Miseries of Life'. Edinburgh Rev. October 1806.

The Book is HERE.