Thomas Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax was arguably one of the most enduring characters to emerge from the so-called ‘golden age of British caricature’. He first appeared in print in an 1809 edition of Rudolph Ackermann’s Poetical Magazine before going on to star in three full-length literary adventures of his own. The three tours of Dr Syntax that were subsequently created by Rowlandson and the writer William Combe were hugely successful, running through successive editions and spawning a plethora of imitations and unofficial merchandise. The character’s popularity was to remain undiminished for several decades after its first appearance, with the original Rowlandson & Combe’s original Syntax adventures remaining in print into the Edwardian era.
While the public’s appetite for more Syntax adventures may have remained undiminished, Rowlandson’s enthusiasm for the project was waning. By the time work commenced on the third tour in 1821, he was providing fewer illustrations to accompany the text and relying heavily on recycled themes and imagery that could be dashed off with the minimum of effort. Although some of the plates for the final Syntax book betray flashes of Rowlandson’s comic genius, they are mostly rather uninspiring stuff that convey the impression of an artist who is going through the motions in order to secure a pay cheque. Pointedly, the third tour ends with Syntax’s death and burial, thus definitively ruling out the possibility of further installments.
While Rowlandson may have been happy to leave Dr Syntax quietly decomposing in his grave, many of his artistic rivals had other ideas. The commercial success of the series had prompted a rash of imitations featuring Syntax, or some other wandering cleric that looked remarkably like him, being catapulted into another unlikely adventure. Most of these books were published in the years between 1815 and 1825 and carried titles such as The Adventures of Doctor Comicus; The Tour of Doctor Syntax through London; The Rich Old Bachelor; The Tour of Dr. Prosody in Search of the Antique; and A Domestic Tale, in the Style of Dr Syntax. The quality of these copies is variable and there are no contemporary sources to verify how they were received by the public. The relatively large number that were produced over a period of several years suggests that they were not unpopular, however low survival rates and the fact that most of them never made it beyond the first printed edition indicates that they were nowhere near as successful as Rowlandson’s originals.
Doctor Syntax in Paris, or a Tour in Search of the Grotesque was another unofficial
addition to the Syntax canon, illustrated by Charles Williams and published by William Wright of 46 Fleet Street in 1820. It consisted of fourteen interminable cantos of rhyming text, accompanied by an illustrated frontispiece and 17 coloured plates. It has been suggested that the story was actually the work of William Combe, who presumably completed it in the six months or so that elapsed between the completion of the second and third ‘official Syntax tours during the autumn and winter of 1820. It is certainly possible that the perennially cash-strapped Combe could have been tempted to surreptitiously plagiarize his own work, although from what little we know of the man it seems difficult to believe that he would have penned the introductory poem trashing his own work:
Syntax in rapture soon exclaimed / “I am really quite ashamed /… To have my late peregrination / By folly yclept ‘Picturesque Tour’ / Entrusted to such a clumsy boor /… I often weep for very shame / Each time I read the awkward, lame, / And puling, puerile, thoughts, in sooth / The booby’s put into my mouth.
The story is a simple one – Dr Syntax and his wife journey to Paris, take in the sights of the city and get caught up in a few mildly amusing scrapes along the way. The humour is gentle, even by the conservative standards of Rowlandson & Combe’s original, and often derived from cultural faux pas or simply slapstick. The chapter in which the Syntaxs take a tour of the Paris catacombs for example, reaches its comedic climax when Mrs Syntax’s hat accidentally catches light on a nearby torch. The most interesting aspect of the book for the modern reader are not necessarily Dr Syntax’s escapades, but rather the surprisingly informative footnotes that contain snippets of information on life in restoration Paris. For example, while assuring readers that the standard of hotels in France is generally awful, the author states that they do posses one advantage over their English counterparts in that they allow guests to consume outside food on the premises. In another he recommends that visitors take a turn on the ‘Russian Mountain’ – a giant wooden slide at the funfair on the Rue de Faubourg de Roule – in order to enjoy the view of Paris from the top.
Ironically, the comparative scarcity of surviving copies of the pirated Syntax adventures often means that they are worth more than the originals. A good copy of Syntax in Paris may be expected to fetch something in the region of £150 – £250 at auction.