The Laugh That Failed

‘Pleasure is not a programme. It exists here and there, for me and for no one else, once and never again.’

— GEORGE SANTAYANA

I

ONE night in June, 1804, an English boy of sixteen asked his father to listen to a song. The lad was charming to look at, fair-skinned, dark-haired, with sparkling blue eyes. He sang a gay little dilly, and he sang it as though he were laughing. The father, a musical composer of merit, listened with manifest delight.

‘I have another,’ said the boy, and sang again; this time a plaintive ballad, the words dropping like sighs from his lips.

‘Who wrote the songs?’ asked the father.

‘I did,’ answered the lad.

‘And where did you find the airs?’

‘I composed them.’

The father leaped from his chair. This prodigy was his son. This lad, hitherto shut up with ordinary English boys in a schoolroom at Harrow, held potential music in his brain and lungs. Of course he should not go back to the school he hated. Of course he should stay at home, and develop his talents under parental supervision. The mother was dead. An older brother was away from home. There was no one to intervene, and at sixteen Theodore Hook’s fate was sealed.

The mischief so inauspiciously begun grew more perilous every year. At seventeen young Hook was earning fifty pounds a week by composing songs for comic operas. He was spending guineas when he should have been saving shillings. He was behind the scenes in the theatres, where he began to show his remarkable powers of mimicry, and where he was tolerated for the fun he made. His brother strove valiantly to stem this merry current of life, and succeeded in getting him entered for Oxford. This was as far as his education ever went. In place of the stiff course of studies laid out for him, he composed two musical comedies which enjoyed more success than they deserved, and wrote a novel which was published and read. The curse of easy success lasted until he was twenty-five. It was like one of the spells cast by the malign fairies of our childhood.

A natural result was a flow of animal spirits which made the fortunate young man engage in elaborate jests — jests which seemed to him worth perpetrating, and which by their very vastness have become historic. He began by gate crashing; not the common process of to-day, which means getting into a house only to be put out again. When Hook crashed a gate, he assumed a character and played a part. As the character was well chosen and the part well played, he was dined and wined and made much of by a flattered or an anxious host. It must be remembered that the kind of jokes which are now called ‘practical’ were then immensely popular. The Prince Regent loved them. They reached the level of his intelligence. When king, he played one on the old Duke of Norfolk — plying him with drink at table, driving him round and round the Pavilion lawn at Brighton when he thought he was returning to Arundel, and finally tucking him into a Pavilion bed where he wakened in the morning. Thackeray explodes with wrath over this exploit, which was ill-bred and unkind, but of no great consequence. It seems an unconsidered trifle when compared to Hook’s gigantic folly, commonly known as the Berners Street hoax.

So far as we are aware, there was no animating motive for this historic tomfoolery. The year was 1809, and the neat appearance of a house on Berners Street — the home, as it chanced, of a well-to-do and childless widow — presented the occasion. ‘I’ll lay you a guinea,’ said Hook to a companion, ‘that in one week that nice modest dwelling shall be the most famous in London.’ The bet was taken, and Hook went to work. Within five days he and his colleagues wrote letters (Lockhart says one thousand, Garnett says four) to tradesmen all over London. They ordered every kind of goods from coal and wood to books and prints, from potatoes and wines and brandies to jellies and cranberry tarts. All were to be sent at the same hour of the same day to the Berners Street address. Other letters of a more laborious character went to high officials, and revealed Hook’s marvelous powers of imposition. The Lord Mayor and his chaplain were summoned to take the deathbed statement of a dishonest councilman. The chairman of the East India Company, a cabinet minister, a bishop, and — incredible though it may sound — the Duke of York, Commander in Chief of the British army, were urged for reasons pious, patriotic, or personal to present themselves at the ‘modest’ house on Berners Street. Philanthropists, popular preachers, and hairdressers were not forgotten.

Happily there were cautious tradesmen who — harboring doubts about payment — ignored the call. But Hook was always convincing. Most of the people to whom he wrote responded, or endeavored to respond. They blocked the narrow lanes that led to Berners Street. The military promptness of the Duke of York brought him early to the widow’s door. With him and after him came carriages, wagons, and carts innumerable. As the hours wore on, the congestion became appalling. It was a field day for the rabble. Battles were fought at every corner. There was a general smashing of all that was breakable, a free distribution of everything that could be eaten or drunk. Cases of wine and kegs of beer refreshed the thirsty. Horses were killed and men were injured. When the streets were cleared they looked like a battlefield.

Hook and a couple of friends had secured for themselves lodgings opposite the Berners Street house, and they watched in safety the development of the hoax, which exceeded their expectations. If there were any amusement to be derived from the performance, that amusement was theirs. They had worked hard enough for it, Heaven knows. They had pursued laughter so furiously that only a sense of exhaustion was left. ‘Somebody,’ says Hazlitt, ‘is sure to be the sufferer by a joke.’ Judged by this standard their joke was a good one, for the sufferers were many, and much indignation was aroused. Hook fell under immediate suspicion, and slipped out of London for a few weeks; but his secret was kept until he chose to divulge it, and two years later we find him again engaged in providing discomfort for others. This time the jest consisted in forging a facsimile of the cards which invited the Prince Regent’s guests to a magnificent fête at Carlton House. The card was sent to Mr. Coates, an amateur actor who was then squandering his money by renting the Haymarket and playing Romeo on its boards. Coates repaired to Carlton House, where the Private Secretary spied him, suspected what had happened, and slipped him discreetly from the royal presence. The Regent, though his taste in jokes was not impeccable, was deeply displeased when he heard what had happened. He said he regretted that a man who had come to his doors in good faith should have been expelled from them; and he sent his Secretary to Mr. Coates the next day to express his regret and offer apologies.

II

All this time Hook, while admittedly a brilliant talker and the delight of the theatrical world, had never aspired to enter that other world of rank and fashion which stood sorely in need of entertainment. But the time was at hand, and the occasion was a dinner given by the Drury Lane Company to its ‘brilliant proprietor and irregular paymaster,’ Mr. Sheridan. Hook, a young man of twenty-three, was at hand, and was called on to improvise some verses descriptive of the feast. It was an art in which he excelled, and in which he had no English rival. In the gayest mood and with perfect ease he rattled off his rhymes, praising or satirizing the distinguished guests, and weaving into his stanzas anything of a diverting nature that had happened during the dinner, or had been said by the diners. This tour de force stunned Sheridan, and enraptured his son, Tom. The two young men struck up a friendship which was destined to have serious results.

Hook’s method of entertaining was certainly unique. Lockhart describes an evening in the house of a gay bachelor who lived near Highgate. Coleridge was one of the guests. All had dined, and all were apparently drunk. Hook at the piano sang bacchanalian songs of his own composition in which Coleridge figured largely. The room was full and stiflingly hot. Hook suddenly rose and sent his empty glass crashing through a windowpane. Coleridge rose in turn, and with an aspect of solemn benignancy sent his glass hurtling through another pane. Guest after guest followed suit. It was a grand night for the glaziers. The host was farthest from the windows. His goblet smashed the chandelier. Hook sat down again, and rattled off an improvised ballad about the goodness and badness of the shots. Coleridge, overcome by admiration and by punch, pronounced him a genius, as great as Dante, only different.

The rise of this genius in the social world was rapid. Tom Sheridan presented him to the Marchioness of Hertford, who in turn brought him to the notice of the Prince Regent; and that august arbiter pronounced judgment in his favor. At the first meeting he said: ‘Mr. Hook, I must see and hear you again.’ At the second he said: ‘Something must be done for Hook.’ At the third or fourth he was so richly entertained that the favorite’s fortune was assured. In November 1812, he was appointed Accountant General and Treasurer to the Colony of Mauritius, a much coveted post, which carried a salary and allowances amounting to two thousand pounds a year.

Hook was not yet twenty-five. His qualifications for public service were a ready wit, a good tenor voice, a sweet temper, a talent for improvisation, and an unstinted enjoyment of every form of pleasure. He was fairly intelligent, but imperfectly educated, with no experience of, or aptitude for, business. Of course he was delighted with Mauritius, and of course Mauritius was delighted with him. The island was an earthly Paradise; ‘every hour seems happier than the last.’ The Accountant General may have known nothing of accounts; but he was a charming host, a good sport, a lover of the turf, and friendly to all classes. Be it remembered to his credit that he paid off his English debts within two years; but he could not grow rich in a place where the cost of living was so unevenly distributed. ‘Fresh butter at ten shillings a pound, and fifteen shillings for a pair of gloves; but good claret at tenpence a bottle, and pineapples a penny apiece. Necessities are exorbitant, luxuries dirt cheap, and a pretty life we do lead.’

How this life managed to run on for more than four years, Heaven alone knows. It came to an abrupt close in January 1817, when William Allan, a mulatto clerk in the Treasury Office, wrote to Lieutenant Governor Hall, reporting a deficit of twelve thousand pounds. This was an announcement too startling to be disregarded, and an investigation followed. The books were found to be in great disorder, which might have been expected; but there was absolutely no evidence to show that Hook had appropriated the money. There was, in fact, no evidence to show anything. The twelve thousand pounds had disappeared, and nobody — least of all the Accountant General — knew what had become of them. The ‘haughty vagueness’ of his replies to all inquiries was not helpful; and when, three weeks after writing his letter, Allan shot himself, the last clue was lost.

What followed was a compromise. Hook was not accused of peculation, but was declared to be a debtor to the British Government for the money which had been supposedly under his guardianship. His property in Mauritius was seized, and there is a touching story of a Negro slave who boarded the ship on which the deposed Treasurer was returning to England, and begged his acceptance of his own writing desk, which this humble friend had bought at auction for ten shillings that he might have the happiness of restoring it. Back in London with only two gold mohurs in his pocket, and a mountain of debt (which did not weigh very heavily, because not a shilling of it was ever to be paid) hanging over his head, Hook, with the dexterity of a cat, landed squarely on his feet. The Tory periodical John Bull, devoted to the interests of the King and the vilification of the Queen, was started in 1820. To him was assigned the editorship, with permission to be as ribald as he chose.

It was a large order amply fulfilled. If the royal consorts were hard to praise, they were easy to censure. John Bull stopped at nothing in the way of insult; but its blazing audacity of invective never degenerated into dull abuse. In fact it was never dull at all: —

Tous les gens sont permis hors les gens ennuyeux.

If its swift prose and rattling rhymes carry little meaning to us to-day, that is because dead issues cannot be reënlivened. In its time the paper was of real service to the King; and incidentally it yielded its editor — who did all the work — an income of two thousand pounds, as much as he had received at Mauritius, and with no attendant expenses.

Of course this could not last, but while it continued Hook was at the height of his fortune. When he first returned to England he was held in custody, and forced to reside within the precincts of the sheriff’s office. When freed from this restriction (apparently because there was no earthly use in holding him) it was with the warning that he was still a debtor to the crown — a circumstance which he was not permitted to forget. He took a cottage at Putney, and gradually regained his old position in the social world.

His perversity in living with a woman whom he would neither marry for the sake of his children (he had five of them), nor abandon for the sake of himself, closed his own doors to the polite world, but left him free to enter the doors of others. His debt made it impossible for him to hold property, but permitted him to spend an ample income. He was a hard and a quick worker, publishing thirty-eight books in sixteen years, which was far too many. They sold well, the three series of Sayings and Doings being the most successful. As he grew too fashionable for Putney, he moved to what he called ‘real London’; became a member of exclusive clubs, and was deeply appreciated in all of them. When he made a habit of dining at the Athenæum, scores of members dined there on the chance of hearing him talk. When he disappeared from his accustomed corner, the attendance dropped.

III

Strange to say, this consummate actor had a fixed and rooted aversion for the stage, and a contempt for the profession of acting. Yet he was a thing of unreality, playing a part which became more distasteful every year. Garnett calls him a ‘hired jester,’ but it is a question how a man who is unpaid can be said to be hired. It was precisely because he did not have to be paid that he was for some years the most popular diner-out in London. The hostess who sent her little daughter around the table at the second course to beg Hook to ‘ begin to be funny ’ took this shameless liberty because she was getting, or hoped to get, something for nothing. The jester who was not jesting must be reminded of his task. He went his way to the sound of laughter; but his inborn gayety of heart was growing faint. His personal debts were beginning to threaten his daily bread, and his debt to the crown forever shadowed his honor. There was no dignity in his life, and no just cause for self-respect. Sydney Smith also went laughing — half against his will — through the world; but Sydney Smith stood on firm ground, the equal of his associates, an independent churchman and a very admirable English gentleman. Hook was an air plant. He had no roots. He had no sure income. He behaved like a man of wealth and a man of pleasure when he was neither, and every year his position became more untenable.

There were good traits in this drifter with the tide. He is said to have been the original of Mr. Wagg in Vanity Fair and Pendennis; but if this be true, Thackeray went wide of the mark. Hook was never contemptible, and Wagg was never anything else. Hook was capable of sustained kindness that to Wagg would have seemed preposterous. When an old theatrical friend, Michael Kelly, put together some odds and ends of reminiscences, he asked Hook to help him in getting them published. Hook made sure of this consummation by rewriting every chapter, infusing into each vitality and fun. The book was received with amazement (Kelly had never been considered a wit), and Hook kept his own counsel. If a more generous deed than this was ever done, the world should be ringing with its fame.

Byron spared a kind and wise word anent Hook’s early flights. He mocked in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers at the absurd and melodramatic Tekeli,

Puns and a prince within a barrel pent;

but he recognized its author as a man of talent engaged in wasting his powers. No one knew better than Byron the peril of success that is won too soon and too cheaply. He, too, had flashed meteor-like across the world of letters.

Like many other men who arc compelled to write ceaselessly for a living, Hook devoted his spare moments to filling up pages of a diary. Scott, who every morning held a pen until it slipped from his numb fingers, sat down at night and scrawled passages as gay and as poignant as any in his novels. They were meant for his own delectation and solace; but we could no more spare his description of himself as a ‘pebble-hearted cur’ parting dryeyed from the susceptible Madame Mirbel than we could spare The Heart of Midlothian. Hook’s diary is as bleak as if it had been written in a Siberian prison. It tells the story of his losses at play, his losses in lotteries, the pressure of his unpaid bills. It tells of visits to the houses of peers, where he flung about his last guineas, and had nothing to show for them but his name in the ‘fashionable intelligence.’ It affords material in plenty for a moral essay or for a sermon; but from first to last it is innocent of gayety. Its author never wasted a joke upon himself.

And this brings us to the consideration of a problem. What has become of all the jests, all the witticisms, all the brilliant repartees and laughterprovoking comments with which we are told Theodore Hook strewed his social path? A formidable volume has been compiled of Sydney Smith’s best — and worst — sayings. A lesser volume might be compiled of Sheridan’s. But Lockhart, in fifty-five closely printed pages tells just one well-known and amusing story which relates to Hook’s early youth. When he was seventeen his clerical brother escorted him to Oxford to be matriculated. The Vice Chancellor asked him if he were prepared to sign the Thirty-nine Articles. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the boy. ‘Forty, if you like.’ The jest all but cost him his matriculation, not being to the taste of the authorities, and only his brother’s ample apologies saved the day. But there is a quality of wit, and a quality of sense, about it. Forty has always seemed a natural, and thirty-nine an unnatural, number of anything. ‘Ali Baba and the Thirty-nine Thieves’ would never have been the deathless story that it is.

Hook’s novels were overrated in their day, and have perished since. Lockhart, whose literary perspective was a bit ‘early,’ risked saying that he was the only male novelist of his time, except Mr. Dickens, who had drawn portraits of contemporary English society destined for permanent existence; and made no doubt that the best of his work would ‘go down’ with Miss Austen and Miss Edgeworth. It is a curious circumstance that the critics of the early nineteenth century, who all knew that Jane Austen’s novels were good, never recognized them as supreme. They felt that they honored their author when they placed her by Miss Edgeworth’s side.

IV

Hook died, a prematurely old man, at fifty-three. Only in London, where tradesmen do not expect, and apparently have never expected, to be paid, could his debts have multiplied so enormously. A student of life’s ironies should be aware that the father of John Horne Tooke, the philologist, was a decent poulterer who once accommodated Frederick, Prince of Wales, in the matter of a right of way. The gratified Hanoverian appointed him poulterer to his household, and, dying some years later, owed him several thousand pounds, which the tradesman was never able to collect. The sale of Theodore Hook’s library and effects brought twenty-five hundred pounds, which went to the crown as preferred creditor. He had always hoped that this debt would be wiped out in consideration of his services to the King’s party, which was a not unreasonable expectation. On the other hand, he had never, when in possession of a large income, made any effort to lessen his indebtedness, which would have been the natural action of a man who held his honor high. The Lords of the Treasury, hardened by his unconcern, absorbed the twenty-five hundred pounds, and his family, like the tradesmen, went bare.

A subscription was opened for them to which the King of Hanover (Ernest, Duke of Cumberland) sent five hundred pounds; but it never reached an adequate sum. The British public has always entertained a prejudice against illicit relations. Charles the Second was aware of this circumstance when he said, ‘Let not poor Nelly starve!’ and so was Nelson when he made his dying appeal to his country to be generous to Lady Hamilton. It is true that both these light-o’-loves were reduced to poverty by their own absurd extravagance; but neither of them had been brought up wisely and well. Nell melted her plate, and James the Second paid her debts, and she learned to live thriftily, and left money to the poor when she died. But Lady Hamilton had no friend at court. England cordially disapproved of her; but the fact remains that, although she was fat and foolish (qualities fatal to romance), she was—next to this same unforgiving England — the thing that Nelson held most dear. By virtue of this circumstance she counted for more at Trafalgar than did his clerical brother upon whom were lavished all the undeserved rewards — a peerage, a pension of five thousand pounds, and ninety thousand pounds to purchase an estate.

With these shining examples before their eyes, the friends of Theodore Hook could not have hoped for a generous response to their subscription. The entries in his diary show that in the last years of his life he was deeply concerned over the youth and helplessness of his children; but it is characteristic of such men that they begin to grieve when it is too late to do anything else. Hook must have looked back bitterly upon his own merry, careless, and absurdly affluent boyhood, when he sent his elder son, a lad of fifteen, to India, to fight his way with a cadetship, the gift of an old friend. He must have remembered that life, which promised hardships in plenty for this young adventurer, had for him dawned too brightly. He had dared to frame a programme of pleasure, only to find, without the aid of philosophy, that pleasure has its own law of being. He had stirred the world — his world — to laughter, and, like Grimaldi, he had no other method of approach. Pope saw us moving angels to tears by our absurdities. Horace Walpole saw us moving them to laughter. The absurdities are ever the same. Only the audience differs.