by JOHN SHAND
IN Hamsterley Hall, a seventeenth-century manor house near Newcastle-on-Tyne that once belonged to Algernon Swinburne’s ancestors, hangs the portrait of Robert Smith Surtees. The painting is a half-length that shows Surtees seated at his desk, an open book lying unread before him — perhaps one of his own. The face is a sad one, stern, severe, with a touch of the old Roman in the brow and nose, but not less sensitive than handsome.
A stranger who studied that countenance might guess at first the man of action, perhaps a scholarly soldier or statesman, until he saw how the long, thin, delicate hands emphasized the highly-strung temperament already suggested by the fastidious mouth and melancholy eyes. He would then not be surprised to learn that the subject of the painting was an artist as well as a man of quality. Those who regard Surtees as a tiresome scribbler of comic sporting stories, as a novelist properly enjoyed by literate foxhunters and properly ignored by the world of letters, might well pause at sight of this line head to wonder whether their verdict was a just one.
Surtees has never been popular, nor is he ever likely to be. His main subject was sport, which does not attract the intellectual reader; he was a satirist and a cynic, and satire and cynicism are not enjoyed by the general English public. It is true that there is a national love of sport, and a select audience for satiric writing. But Surtees did not write of sport in a way to tickle the multitude, and chose the wrong subject to please the few who would enjoy his humor. He fell between two audiences, pleasing neither the barbarians of Horseback Hall nor the cultured of Heartbreak House.
Like his own Facey Romford, Surtees was “not a man of much blandishment.” He wrote in a “take it or leave it” style; and as his satiric strokes were often sharp enough to hurt, most readers chose to leave it. He did not choose his words with conscious care; but he expressed himself in a clear, colloquial English that leaves the reader in no doubt of his meaning and reflects his tart, taciturn personality; and for his comic characters, especially for Jorrocks, he found a torrent of racy, exuberant speech.
Readers who flatter themselves that they know something about English fiction are likely to nod agreeably (if vaguely) at mention of Jorrocks; but it cannot be assumed that they have read even Handley Cross, in which the Cockney foxhunter is developed with superb vigor and vivacity from the first faint sketches in Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities — a book that preceded and probably suggested the writing of The Pickwick Papers. Handley Cross is an ill-constructed masterpiece that lives only (but lives decidedly) because of Jorrocks and James Pigg; and it pet ers out in a couple of law t rial scenes that are dismally unfunny and, when contrasted with the magical comedy of Bardell versus Pickwick, seem painfully inept.
But Surtees’s novels as a whole, filled as they are with amusing characters and sardonic pictures of the Victorian scene, continue to be ignored by the critical mandarins — probably because he is pigeonholed as a sporting writer. Art connoisseurs long disdained English sporting pictures for the same reason. Surtees is also something of a “sport” among novelists as well as a novelist of sport. That may be another reason why he is neglected by the literary fancy. For he was not a literary gentleman with an odd taste for hunting, but a hunting gentleman with an odd gift, for writing. It is this that, gives to his tales an individual flavor and a valuable authenticity.
The English country gentleman, like Mrs. Battle, sometimes unbends his mind over a book when graver matters have been settled, but he so infrequently turns professional novelist that an exception should arouse interest if only because, in him, the mere fact of continuous authorship suggests that a special gift has demanded expression. It is true that Surtees was born a younger son and discovered he had a profitable turn for storytelling while he idled about London on the pretense of learning the law. But he early inherited the family house and acres; and though he had by then proved a notable apprentice to letters, he no longer needed to live by his pen.
Surtees had much to occupy him. He managed his estate with care and did all that was proper to his station. He married, begot children, looked after his tenants, supported agricultural improvement, helped the poor, and administered local justice not less patiently than he pursued the local foxes. He became deputy lieutenant and high sheriff of his county and escaped representing it in Parliament only because he refused to blarney the electors. It was a full life for one of normal energy. But he found time and spirit to go on writing; and having a keen eye and a retentive memory, he was able to use the rich material that surrounded him in a series of novels which, at irregular intervals, he published, completing what was in some respects his best book, Mr. Romford’s Hounds, just before his death at the age of sixty-one in 1864.
SQUIRE SURTEES, of course, published without his name, being conscious that his neighbors would tolerate but hardly applaud his peculiar private recreation. When his secret became in time an open one, he strictly maintained an ostensible anonymity. He stopped a novel that was being printed as a serial, and refused to go on with it, because the publisher, Harrison Ainsworth, broke contract by advertising him as the author. The attitude of some of his acquaintance to novel reading and writing is described perhaps without exaggeration in Hawbuck Grange: —
“What queer books you write!” observed our excellent but rather matter-of-fact friend, Sylvanus Bluff, the other day, who seeing us doubling up a sheet of paper in a rather unceremonious way, concluded we were at what he calls our “old tricks.” “I buy all your books,” added he with a solemn shake of his head, as though we were beggaring him — “ . . . but I don’t understand them. I don’t see the wit of them. I don’t see the use of them. I wonder you don’t write something useful. I should think now,” added he seriously, “you could do something better. I should say now you would be quite equal to writing a dictionary, or a book upon draining, and those would be really useful works, and your friends would get something for their money.”
Sylvanus Bluff is surely as real as a turnip, though his name, like the names of all Surtees’s characters, is deliberately artificial. He voices a genuine English attitude to the arts. Surtees perfectly understands Bluff’s point of view, and he puts it in words that suit the speaker, though in the context they have a dry, sly humor of which Bluff would not of course be conscious. There were moments, perhaps of laziness or of disappointment at public indifference, when Surtees must have been half inclined to agree with Bluff. In the same chapter he remarks that writing is at least a means to make oneself “tolerably independent of the world and the weather,” and serves “to beguile an idle hour.”
This would sav or of almost intolerable affectation were it not remembered that Surtees lived in what was then one of the wildest parts of England, and probably felt the need of a pastime that kept his intellect from rusting. No one ever wrote tales as good as Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour or Mr. Romford’s Hounds merely “to beguile an idle hour.” No one could create Sponge and Romford, Jorrocks and James Pigg, without paying the price demanded for creation. But Surtees might easily have written Hawbuck Grange while confined to the house by the weather, for it is so impudently casual that it scarcely passes the time agreeably for the reader, and perfectly illustrates the author’s confession that he sometimes wondered how he could write such nonsense and how anyone could be rash enough to print it or idle enough to read it.
It is easy to understand why Surtees’s novels failed to attract that important body of novel readers, the women of the English — of the Victorian English — middle class. They did not attract Surtees. He viewed them positively with distaste. He disliked their manners, despised their affectations, and laughed at their pretensions to gentility. His attitude towards them could not be better expressed than in the words of “Independent Jimmy,” a delightful Tyneside character in Mr. Romford’s Hounds, who drives a bus, delivers parcels, and knows all the gossip of the country. He is acidly giving an account of a local nabob who has just bought the old squire’s house and set up for a gentleman, and Jimmy, in the peculiar dialect of Tyneside, thus continues: —
“As to the darter , . . she’s just the impittantest, sarciest gal i’ the world, arlways tossin’ about and givin’ gob. Noo, there’s the Ladies Rosebud, Lord Flowerdew’s darters, when ar gang to the Castle, for any body there, they speak quite civil and plizant; ‘Good morning, Jimmy! How do ye do, Jimmy? Hoo are all the little Jimmys?’ (“for ar ha’ thorteen on ‘em,” added Jimmy, parenthetically) and so on, while this sarcy thing taks had of her stiekin’-out claes, and cries, ‘Now, man! get out of the way, man; see, man! look, man! mind, man!’ just as if I were a twoad. . . . Sink, but ar often wonders who these sort o’ fondies think they impose upon. It can’t be the likes o’ me . . . for we know all about them; it can’t be the gentlefolks, for they’ll ha’ nout to say to them. It mun just be their arn silly sels.”
This touches home. And though these “fondies” no longer wear crinolines, they are otherwise not much altered, and one is still permitted to wonder whom they think they impose upon.
Women readers — indeed, most readers — also prefer a novel to have a story. Surtees never bothered himself much about a plot. This was a fault; but he laughed at love, which was fatal. It was perhaps only a misfortune that he lacked sentiment; but he failed to be sentimental, and that was not to be forgiven. His men (except for one ancient nobleman) never attempt seduction. They can hardly be said to fall in love. His women quite lack romance. The Victorian virgin and her matchmaking mama he depicts entirely without reverence. The one woman in his fiction for whom he exhibits any admiration (and to emphasize his interest in her he brings her into two of his best novels) is an actress from the minor London theaters, and only “tolerably virtuous.” The one love scene that has a touch of passion (and it has an oddly convincing quality) is that between her and that rogue, Soapey Sponge.
Generally, Surtees shows his couples courting strictly with a view to a profitable alliance, and if they look foolish, they act with prudence; if one eye fills with feeling, calculation stares from the other, and the lawyer must consent before the priest is asked to bless. “Oh, you needn’t be afraid of me, Mr. Ballivant! You needn’t be afraid of me, I’m not one of the sentimental sort,” remarks Miss Rosa, the heroine of Plain or Ringlets? when after a grand inquisition on the hero’s funds and property the family attorney advises her mother “to keep Miss back a little for the present” — as if Miss were a good horse whose sale could await a better bid.
This is typical, and shows clearly how Surtees offended every canon of the circulating library. He sees the women as snobs and tuft-hunters of the first degree, and he describes what he sees with masculine vigor and almost feminine relish for detail.
IF SURTEES offended women readers, surely he pleased the foxhunters of his day? Doubtless he delighted some of them; but as many in proportion ride to hounds because it is the thing to do as go to the opera or travel abroad, and Surtees spared them not. As a foxhunter himself who delighted in the sport, Surtees saw nothing to ridicule in Jorrocks, the Cockney grocer whose passion was hunting. Jorrocks is comical enough, to be sure, but he holds his own in any company because his enjoyment in hunting foxes is as genuine as his love of money, because he hunts for fun, and because he is completely lacking in a sense of reverence for his social superiors. He is completely at home with everybody because he sees no reason why everybody should not feel at home with him.
Surtees reserved his sarcasm for the pretentious Jawleyford, the dandy Puffington, and all that sort of gentry who attend the meet only to speak to his lordship or to show off to the ladies. Surtees with tactless clarity showed his preference for Sponge and Romford, who cheated in order to hunt, to the respectable snobs and toadies whose very presence in the hunting field was a cheat.
As for the earnest intellectual readers of his day, it was hopeless to expect them to approve a writer who had no gospel to preach, who showed no zeal to reform the world, and in whom the pleasures of the chase, the courage of a rider, the cunning of a fox, the sagacity of hounds, obviously raised a warmth of feeling that strongly contrasted with his cynical attitude toward society. Society, indeed, only engaged his unloving attention. Surtees had sharp eyes for faults and follies. He reports details of dress, manners, meals, speech, furniture, transportation, so minutely that his descriptions are sometimes tedious for casual reading, though probably of enormous interest, to the social historian.
But though Surtees disliked much of what he observed, he had too much vitality merely to yawn; and as he is never bored, he is not often dull reading. If he has no taste for the ideal, he at least enjoys the real without bitterness. If he does not see his fellows as angels walking, he does not in disappointment call them devils. If his lovers never believe the world well lost for love, it is also true that they do not believe the world well lost for any consideration. The way of the world perfectly suits all his characters. They are completely selfish, and they view unselfishness in others with high suspicion. They adore riches and despise poverty. Altogether they imitate humanity pretty closely.
Being country born and bred, Surtees views field and forest with the practical eyes of a farmer. He is quite unable to be “enthusymusy” about scenery. He takes for granted the enjoyment of fresh air and good food and the changing beauties of the seasons, and leaves to Jorrocks such a truly Cockney cry as: “Dash it, wot a mornin’ it is! Wot a many delicious moments one loses by smooterin’ i’ bed!” It is true that when the scene shifts occasionally to London or to a holiday town, Surtees seems also perfectly at home — his London episodes are particularly amusing; but he is at his best in the country, and views its inhabitants with the penetrating knowledge of an old friend. He is “country,” too, in his solid, stolid good sense, his stoical acceptance of things as they are. He never attempts pathos; neither is he ever maudlin. His characters are interested only in everyday matters. As in life, though not in fiction, money is an object of anxious solicitude. Dress is also a serious problem, and an essay on Victorian costume might be written from Surtees’s exact descriptions.
Such scenes as that of the Duke of Tergiversation’s ball ( in Plain or Ringlets?) are a panorama of rural society. A shrewd sardonic pen traces all the social reverberations created by this grand local spectacle. The delicious comedy of the ducal couple drawing up the list of guests is accompanied by that of some receiving the coveted cards. The Duke and Duchess are seen including or excluding guests with all the calculation of politicians forming a government; and the complex diplomacy needed to get all the right people into the castle ballroom is balanced by that which goes on in the kitchen to get them fed. The butler must patronize the local shops if the castle credit is still good; if not, the London tradesmen— “terribly obnoxious to the influence of rank” — can always be tapped.
The fuss and bother of the guests is equally good fun. The pleasure of being invited (and of knowing who is not invited) is countered by the expense and fatigue of finding dress and carriage suited to the occasion, and the disgust of discovering that the castle has asked neighbors who ought to have been left out. (Surtees acidly observes that the ducal hall would be excessively exclusive if the guests could issue the invitations.) And at the ball itself, the spectacle of the Duchess “measuring affability” is not less amusing because her star guest is not the Italian prince she supposes him to be, but a dancing master.
Or take, for the sake of the dialogue, Surtees’s report of a more ordinary country party from the novel he refused to complete, Young Tom Hall, at which the disagreeable rector and his wife are the most distinguished guests. The parson, Mr. Pantile, who despises hunting, decides to annoy one of the guests whose pleasure in the chase has not declined with the growing disabilities of age; but the burly farmer behaves rather like a bull refusing to be irritated by a yapping terrier. Mr. Pantile begins the attack in a “drawling, sneering tone”: —
“Well, Mr. William Bedlington,” drawled he— for he did not care to come the familiar “Billy” — “well, ... I see you still pursue the chase.”
“Whiles, Mr. Pantile, whiles,” replied Billy, sucking away at an orange.
“Well, but don’t you think you might employ your time more profitably, more beneficially, than scampering about the country after a poor timid hare? ”
“No, I don’t, Mr. Pantile,” replied Billy firmly.
“Life was given us for a nobler purpose, surely!” exclaimed Pantile.
“P’r’aps it may,” replied Billy carelessly.
“Besides,” added Pantile, “a man of your size and weight can never hope to ride up to hounds as he ought.”
“P’r’aps not,” replied Billy; “but ar can glower at ’em all the same.”
Defeated on this tack, the parson begins to criticize Bedlington’s great brown horse: —
“They say he’s not good in the shafts,” observed Pantile.
“Good in anything!” exclaimed Billy, adding, “That horse can draw anything.”
“Can he draw an inference?” asked Pantile.
“He can draw a ton and a half,” replied Bedlington, with a shake of his head.
ONE hesitates to give examples of Surtees’s scenes of high farce, such as those which enliven the “Jorrocks books,” because the infectious laughter of good farce depends on the mood of the reader and his sympathy with the general tone of the author. But it is difficult for an admirer of Surtees not to believe that a far larger audience would enjoy his books if they were better known, and it is difficult not to accuse the critics — who so thoroughly omit to recommend them — as guilty of dereliction of duty.
Saintsbury, of course, had read Surtees, as became a professor once described by Arnold Bennett as “a perfect Albert Memorial of learning,” and in The English Novel he gave Surtees a curt “nearly always readable — and sometimes very amusing — even to those who are not exactly Nimrods.” Faint praise — fainter, indeed, than at first it seems, for Saintsbury compares Surtees to his disadvantage with Kingsley’s sporting novel, Yeast, which he praises for its “most fascinating and real heroine” and its “accurate and real dialogue.”
But Saintsbury’s brief tribute might pass had he not added — like Winkle in the witness box — just those few words that made him put his foot in it. In contrast to Kingsley’s “real heroine” and “real dialogue,” he remarks that Surtees’s “characters and manners have the old artificial-picaresque quality only” — an observation that makes one wonder if even dimly he appreciated the astonishing reality of Sponge and Romford, and of many other of Surtees’s characters, and the fidelity with which he records “manners.” Jorrocks and Pigg are another matter: they are “art ificial,” as all great comic (or tragic) characters are “artificial.”
But Sponge and Romford, though amusing, are not in the technical sense comic characters; they are perfectly ordinary masculine creatures boldly and vigorously drawn. They are exceedingly lifelike portraits of men moderately “on the make” who see their fellows as much like themselves — “anxious to look after Number One.” But if their conduct is below that expected of English gentlemen of independent income, it is well above what is base, cruel, or criminal. They are both rather pleasing rogues (not those horrible creatures of fiction, “adorable rogues”), and though willing to deprive rich fools of surplus cash and to marry any female with money, they ruin no man and, in the special sense, “no woman neither,” for as fortune hunters in fact they do not shine, because their genuine ambition is to hunt foxes.
Sponge and Romford both lavish on the chase all the cunning, courage, and concentrated purpose which, devoted to the drawing room, would have caught them an heiress in any county; devoted to business or burglary, would have made them rich; or, had they been born to the rank and wealth they pretend to, devoted to foxhunting would have made them celebrated Masters of Hounds. Being poor, but not patient, they gratify their taste for hunting at the expense of the wealthy—which, though reprehensible in those who are not friends or relatives or social superiors of those they make use of, can hardly be described as deeply villainous. Sponge and Romford are “real” because their creator had an enormous preference for what was true to life to what was likely to be popular; and they are likable because — perhaps in spite of himself—Surtees could not help making them excellent sportsmen as well as superb critics, by implication, of social hypocrisy.
Surtees in his own day was inevitably overshadowed by the genius of Dickens. Where he resembled Dickens, the odds were heavily against him; and where he differed, it was a difference that did not attract Victorian taste. There was a touch of the raffish Regency in him that was not likely to appeal to the respectable reader, and a masculine attitude toward life that would have been better appreciated by the age of Fielding and Smollett. A comparison between the tours of Sponge and Romford and those of Pickwick and Weller would suggest, perhaps, that the books resembled each other only in the seeming ability of their authors to continue the stories indefinitely; they end only because an end must be made.
While the people in Pickwick are all transfigured by the golden radiance of good humor, so that Stiggins and Jingle, even Dodson and Fogg, delight no less than Pickwick and the Wellers, in Surtees one is reminded how Stiggins and Jingle and Dodson and Fogg would appear in the cold light of day. Compare Sponge going out shooting with Jogglebury Crowdey, with Winkle exhibiting his supposed prowess at Dingley Dell. The scene in Dickens is farce divinely genial; the scene in Surtees, equally ludicrous and not less well written, is farce humanly ungenial.
Winkle is a gorgeous lunatic; Crowdey is as Winkle would look to a real sportsman seriously out for game. The pompous Crowdey, with his undisciplined spaniel anywhere but at heel, who cannot hit a haystack except by accident, is seen through the cold, jeering eyes of an expert shot, who is at once spitefully amused by the absurd spectacle and intensely irritated that he is wasting his time with a fool. It is farce decidedly less pleasant than that of Dickens, but it is excellent fooling, and some palates will always relish its pungent flavor.
SOME of Surtees’s tales have already passed their hundredth birthday — Handley Cross was published in 1843 — and now have a larger audience than they ever enjoyed in his lifetime. This alone suggests that they have a sturdy vitality. It is an audience small enough compared with that of Surtees’s great contemporaries, Dickens, Thackeray, and Scott; but he has had to find it, keep it, and increase it without help. Collectors seek for early editions of Surtees only because of the hand-colored Leech engravings. Books and essays on Surtees are very few. Literary histories and cyclopedias briefly dismiss or do not mention him. Though it is easily discovered that he was born in Northumberland of an ancient North Country family and lived most of his time as an important landowner in County Durham, he is described in the latest literary reference book — The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature — as a Yorkshireman, a blunder that only a Yorkshireman mistaken for a Lancastrian could properly appreciate.
Surtees’s admirers are used to this offhanded treatment of their favorite and are content to remember that at least a few good judges have highly praised him. Of his contemporaries Thackeray, for example, enjoyed his tales and found Jorrocks worth stealing from — as he himself acknowledged to Surtees; and of Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour Thackeray remarked that “the Flat Hats are delightful; those fellows in spectacles divine; and Scamperdale’s character perfectly odious and admirable.” Lockhart delighted in Jorrocks, reviewed him at length in the Quarterly, and encouraged his creator to continue. Later, William Morris, not an easy person to please, considered that Surtees’s comic characters were as good as those of Dickens.
Kipling, who sacrificed a story to each of his literary gods, wrote one for Jane Austen, one for Keats, and two for Surtees. Kipling clearly thought that Surtees so well understood and so precisely drew English rural types that any countrymen today may find their own friends and acquaintances in his pages. Surtees also has his American friends. According to Sir Frederick Watson, who wrote an excellent book on Surtees, there is extant a letter from the White House from Theodore Roosevelt to an English admirer of Surtees, in which the President writes: “Mrs. Roosevelt and I are both as fond as you are of the immortal ‘Soapey Sponge’ .... We have read it until it has practically tumbled to pieces.” What higher praise could an author desire than to hear that a copy of his book has been read into tatters? Squire Surtees would surely have warmed to this sincere American compliment.
Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour was the first novel of Surtees to be illustrated by John Leech. It was a lucky coincidence that Surtees’s most popular tale had the additional entertainment provided by these excellent drawings. Thackeray brought the two men together. Surtees had invited Thackeray to illust rate Mr. Sponge, a proposal Thackeray politely declined on the grounds that ho could draw well enough for his own but not for anybody else’s stories. He added: “You would find my pictures anything but comical, and I have not the slightest idea how to draw a horse, a dog, or a sporting scene of any sort. My friend Leech, I should think, would be your man — he is of a sporting turn, and to my mind draws a horse excellently.”
Thackeray was right: Leech was the very man for Surtees. The partnership proved as fortunate as that of Carroll and Tenniel. They became warm friends, and thereafter, without any of the usual bickerings between author and artist, Leech illustrated the three novels that followed — Ask Mama, Plain or Ringlets? and Mr. Romford’s Hounds. Luckily, Surtees also persuaded Leech to provide drawings for Handley Cross, though the novel had already been published without illustrations. In his preface to this new edition the author proudly announced: “Mr. Jorrocks, having for many years maintained his popularity, it is believed that, with the aid of the illustrious Leech, he is now destined for longevity.”
Some have maintained that but for Leech the novels of Surtees would be dead. The artist himself is not in agreement with them. When he saw a proof of the preface to Handley Cross, he protested. “The ‘illustrious’ is a leetle too strong,” he exclaimed in a letter to Surtees. “It looks as if you attributed J’s longevity to the illustrations, which I for one cannot on any account admit.” That Leech’s drawings are the most valuable part of these books is a point of view to be excused only in bibliophiles who collect early editions of Surtees chiefly for the sake of the hand-colored plates; as literary criticism, it is merely stupid.
Leech, by the way, would be surprised at the modern passion for woodcuts colored by hand. He might even prefer a good mechanical reproduction of his drawings in the colors he designed for them. This may sound like heresy to the connoisseurs; but Leech complained more than once to Surtees that he was at the mercy of these journeymen colorists, who altered his color schemes as they pleased. “I assure you,” he wrote, in a letter quoted by E. D. Cuming, in his book on Surtees, “the colourers are troublesome customers — a green horse or a blue man would not at all shock them if they imagined that there ought to be, for the sake of variety, those colours in a picture.”
Surtees had equal cause to complain, for he was meticulous in describing costume, and it cannot have pleased him to find that a lady he had dressed in green appeared in blue on the plate. But he was always delighted, and with good reason, with Leech’s pictures. The artist was a man after his own heart, who loved hunting almost as much as he did. When Leech modestly required Surtees to correct him if, through his imperfect knowledge of the sport, he made any mistakes of detail, Surtees answered that he had never seen anything he could amend. Nor can we. Leech and Surtees are an ideal pair; and our only complaint can be that Leech did not illustrate all Surtees’s novels.