A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Henry Fielding

What Is The Origin Of (132)?…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

This is a curious expression and when used, it is intended to convey an admonition – in your haste in getting rid of something unpleasant and undesirable, don’t mistakenly eject something that is of value. Harassed parents of infants may demur, but, of course, the baby is what is valuable. The development of internal plumbing and fixed bathroom fittings make this warning somewhat otiose these days but it makes for an entertaining figure of speech.

The phrase appears to be German in origin and first made its printed appearance in 1512 in Thomas Murner’s Narenbeschworung which translates as Advice to Fools. Whether this was a hazard facing Teutonic tots or not is not clear but the title of Murner’s meisterwerk and the fact that it is a satire suggests that he was writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Whatever the rationale behind using the phrase, it became popular, its most usual formulation being das Kind mit dem Bade ausschutten.

A variant appeared in Sebastian Franck’s book of proverbs, Spruchvorter, published in 1541. He illustrated the proverb by citing someone sending an old nag to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take the saddle and bridle off first – an unexpected bonus for the knacker. The astronomer, Johannes Kepler, wrote in his Tertius Interveniens, published in 1610, “this is a caution, lest you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The phrase didn’t appear in Blighty until the middle of the 19th century when Thomas Carlyle used a rather clumsy rendition of the proverb in his article in the Fraser magazine in December 1849 which then became a pamphlet four years later. “The Germans say you must empty out the bathing-tub”, he wrote, “but not the baby along with it….How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy”. The precious thing in this instance is the slave – hardly a statement which would resonate with our sentiments today.

In the English speaking world the phrase didn’t reach a degree of popularity until the early 20th century and this may well be down to George Bernard Shaw’s usage in the preface to Getting Married, published in 1911. There he wrote, “we shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath”.  And there we have it.

I may be accused of casting aspersions about Carlyle’s attitude to slaves and slavery. When we cast aspersions we criticise someone or something, their ability and there is a sense that the allegations may not be entirely fair and are certainly made by innuendo rather than directly. What is interesting about this phrase is the word aspersions whose root comes from the Latin verb aspergere, meaning to sprinkle. An aspersion was the ritual sprinkling of water and in the Roman Catholic Church was a form of baptism.

By 1749, however, there had been a complete volte-face in its meaning. Instead of sprinkling something beneficial, the sense is that we are showering someone with damaging statements or, possibly, false accusations. It appears in this sense Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; “I defy all the world to cast a just aspersion on my character; nay, the most scandalous tongues have never dared censure my reputation”.

Is it too fanciful to think this change in meaning is a consequence of the Reformation and the consequent fall from grace of all things Catholic? I wonder.


Book Corner – August 2016 (3)


Golden Hill – Francis Spufford

Everybody has a novel in them, they say, and often that’s where it should stay, in my experience. It might be seen as a bit of a gamble for an accomplished writer of non-fiction – his debut account of the Scott polar expedition, I May Be Some Time, won him literary prizes – to turn his hand to a novel but Spufford has produced an astonishingly impressive and highly entertaining piece of work.

In November 1746, a young adventurer, Richard Smith, lands in Manhattan with a money order for £1,000, a stupendous amount of money, backed by a reputable City of London firm, which he immediately presents to the owner of a counting house on Golden Hill Street, Mr Lovell. The bill is to be paid in sixty days and the absence of any corroborating evidence and Smith’s reluctance to reveal much about himself or what he proposes to do with the money provokes suspicions that he might be a trickster.

The novel recounts the various adventures that befall Smith during his stay which include a roof top escape, a duel, the killing of his only associate, Oakeshott and being caught in flagrante delicto with the local trollop and actress, Euterpe Tomlinson . The protagonist finds himself in and out of a debtors’ prison and in grave danger of dancing the hemp jig ie being hung. In this book Spufford recreates the feel and pace of a Fielding or Smollett novel of the era.

As a newcomer to the nascent Manhattan – it has just 7,000 inhabitants and is more of a village than a city where everyone knows each other’s business – Smith is able to compare and contrast what he finds with what he left behind in London. The streets are clean, there are no beggars and the dread marks of smallpox are remarkably absent from the visages of the inhabitants. But it has its own set of horrors – slavery, a gruesome tableau of rotting scalps of Frenchmen presented annually by the Mohawks as a gesture of friendship towards the English and Dutch – and is riven by factions.

The language Spufford deploys is intoxicating. It has just the right mix of archaisms to maintain the pretence of being written in the mid 18th century without making it a chore for the modern reader. Whilst the paragraphs and the sentences can be long with multiple subordinate clauses, they proceed at a pace and do not get bogged down by their intricacy. And his metaphors are brilliantly evocative, painting a crisp, clear image in just a few words. To take just one example in describing the forming ice on the river he writes, “reaching fingers of ice growing out from each shore met in the middle and locked ..rigid as in the heart of a child’s marble”.

A mix of narrative and epistolary style, a melange of real and imaginary characters, a tale of trust and doubt interspersed with the complexity of relationships, Spufford has produced a thoroughly entertaining read. Smith, though, is a frustratingly mysterious character. We don’t know what makes him tick and so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him as he lurches from crisis to crisis. And the ending with its double climax is as unexpected as it is bemusing.

A good holiday read.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixteen


Robert James (1703 – 1776)

Of course, quackery wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the Americans as this series, I trust, is amply demonstrating. The latest person to come under our microscope, Robert James, in many ways could be called a pillar of society. He was an eminent English physician, although the level of anatomical and physiological knowledge at the time meant that this wasn’t really a great claim to fame, and a friend of the eminent lexicographer, Samuel Johnson. James was the author of a standard work of reference entitled A Medicinal Dictionary.

But James’ greatest claim to fame was the development of a powder known as Dr James’ fever powder, patented in 1747, and, in accordance with the modesty that goes hand in hand with quackery, was supposed to cure fevers and various other maladies, from gout and scurvy to distemper in cattle. The marketing and sale of panacaeas backed up with implausible claims as to their efficacy was already such a feature of mid 18th century life that the practice was lampooned by the novelist, Henry Fielding, in his novel of 1749, Tom Jones. “As to Squire Western, he was seldom out of the sick-room, unless when he was engaged either in the field or over his bottle. Nay, he would sometimes retire hither to take his beer, and it was not without difficulty that he was prevented from forcing Jones to take his beer too: for no quack ever held his nostrum to be a more general panacea than he did this; which, he said, had more virtue in it than was in all the quack physic in an apothecary’s shop”. Is it too fanciful to suppose that Fielding had Robert James in his sights when he wrote that passage?

The powder attracted a cast of illustrious users, including George III who was prescribed it when he was suffering from cataracts, rheumatism and dementia towards the end of his life, the novelist, poet and playwright, Oliver Goldsmith, and the politician, Horace Walpole. Indeed, so taken was Goldsmith of the powder that the heroine’s father in his book Goody Two-shoes dies when he is seized with a violent fever in a place where Dr James’ Powder was not to be had.

Of course the burning question was what was in the powder. James caused consternation by applying for a patent – it wasn’t the done thing in those days for a gentleman to sully their hands in matters mercantile in this way – and endured further criticism by falsifying the list of ingredients in the patent application on the grounds that he didn’t want his competitors to replicate his powder.

After James’ death scientists sought to establish the ingredients and George Pearson in 1791 determined that it was a mix of antimony and calcium phosphate. Of course, antimony is a toxic substance and regular exposure to the powders is likely to have done more harm than good. Some attribute antimony poisoning as a major contributor to the early demise of Goldsmith. Notwithstanding concerns about the safety of its ingredients and there being no obvious and incontrovertible proof of its efficacy, the powder was used until well into the 20th century.

One other feature of note about the powder was that it was one of the first medicines to be distributed in a multi-dose bottle.