Thomas Hood (1799-1845) is a shamefully overlooked 19th century literary great – for whom a renaissance must surely beckon. His obscurity is all the more surprising when we consider how immensely popular he was throughout the Victorian era. Try Googling him and you will find scant reward. During his own short lifetime Hood overcame debilitating illness and grinding poverty to become a national treasure. He contributed humorous articles to popular magazines such as Athenaeum and Punch & also single-handedly ran his own magazine The Comic Annual (1830-42). He wrote just one novel – Tylney Hall (1834) – which I will be discussing in this blog, but poetry was his real forte.
Hood’s Sonnet to Vauxhall – illustrated by Rowlandson
Hood’s output was created at great cost to his health. In his early days he was a talented engraver working alongside artists such as Thomas Rowlandson (a man with whom he later often collaborated), but was compelled to abandon this profession and seek an outdoor life to recover his strength. It was a tough existence for by 1841 when Hood became an invalid he was only saved from financial ruin thanks to the intervention of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, who was a great fan of his works. When Hood eventually died his family were granted a state pension – and the public continued to adore him. A memorial was later built by public subscription in Kensal Green cemetery. As the century progressed Hood’s poetry and witticisms remained familiar enough to be often quoted in ordinary conversation. As late as 1903 William Rossetti (of Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood fame) described Hood as ‘the finest English poet between the generations of Shelley and Tennyson’. However, since these heady heights of appreciation Hood has quietly slipped into obscurity, and has long-since vanished from the modern-day English literature curriculum.
Hood wrote Tylney Hall whilst living in Wanstead Park
Yet one bastion of recognition for Thomas Hood still remains intact, and it can be located in the environs of Epping Forest, and most particularly Wanstead. After his marriage in 1824 Hood lived in Islington but made frequent visits to the countryside beyond London, especially to Epping Forest, and he formed a deep affinity with the area. I have already described how Hood encapsulated the rough and tumble tradition of the Epping Hunt (1829), recording for posterity the rituals of that annual cockney jamboree. He was also fully cognisant of the scandalous loss of Wanstead House, ironically benefitting from its destruction by renting the Lake House in Wanstead Park from ‘Wicked’ William Long-Wellesley.
Wicked William – Hood’s shady landlord (1832-35)
Hood’s arrival in Wanstead in 1832 coincided with Wicked William’s enforced exile – so it is unlikely that landlord and tenant spent much time together. Though he was always a feckless waster, William was notoriously generous and probably offered Hood terms well below the market rate. Perhaps Long-Wellesley’s vanity was sated by Hood’s eulogy to the Epping Hunt – because the men were already acquainted. This unlikely friendship endured, for it is recorded that William regularly visited Hood’s sickbed in 1837, when both men were living in Belgium.
This scene from The Epping Hunt shows Hood preferred whimsy to satire
Hood was active during a time of great social and technological change – as the long 18th century drew to a close and young Queen Victoria assumed the throne. From the outset of his career Hood purposefully rejected the brutality of late Georgian satire which sought to undermine its subject, preferring to adopt a kinder and more affectionate style. His whimsical humour presaged the rising sense of decency and respectability throughout society, foreshadowing the sentimentality and mawkishness which defined popular Victorian literature. Hood’s style is very like Thackeray’s early writing, light-hearted and amusing – never over-analytical.
Despite his comic reputation, Hood was capable of portraying the biting hardship of contemporary poverty. For example, Song of the Shirt (1843) highlighted appalling working conditions of the era – where Hood showed remarkable foresight in writing from a female perspective – describing a needleworker’s daily struggle for existence and the cruelty of her employer
Despite being penned by a man, Song of the Shirt ought to be considered one of the most important proto-feminist works of literature ever written. It was based on a contemporary court case involving a woman who was forced to sell her employer’s equipment simply to put food upon the table – a decision that led to prosecution. The case is long forgotten but this poem became a standard-bearer for highlighting the effect of inequality upon humanity, inspiring a generation of mid-Victorian artists
Opening stanzas of Bridge of Sighs
Another poem Bridge of Sighs (1844) again draws on real life by recounting the tale of a homeless young woman who committed suicide by throwing herself from Waterloo Bridge in London – At a time when suicide was frowned upon Hood declares that whatever sins she may have committed are cleansed by the sadness of her death
Hood’s poem inspired Found Drowned by Frederick Watts (1852)
Were it not for Hood’s own untimely demise he may have further developed his talent for social commentary. But in death as in life Hood has been unlucky, for the gentle observational humour of his earlier years has become his posthumous trademark.
I will be turning to Hood’s only novel Tylney Hall in the second part of this blog. Written in 1834, whilst he was living in Wanstead, the title is a very thinly veiled reference to Long-Wellesley’s once great mansion, Wanstead House. But attempting to cash in on Wicked William’s story was an unwise move because it raised expectations that Tylney Hall would reveal the truth about Wanstead House, and satisfy public curiosity as to why it was demolished. – This led to criticism and affected sales, forcing Hood to add a note in the preface explaining that ‘Tylney Hall’ alluded to the topography of Wanstead Park, but not its disreputable owner.
Tylney Hall – not about Wanstead House
It is easy to see why a desperately poor artist with young mouths to feed would use any means possible to promote his work. But by choosing ‘Tylney Hall’ for a title Hood inadvertently and fatally undermined his novel – by unnecessarily calling into question the accuracy of its content.
Tylney Hall does show Wanstead as it was to Thomas Hood
Because Hood’s works were always inspired by his own life experiences I believe that the world created in the pages of Tylney Hall should not be rejected, as we are offered a tantalising and surprising viewpoint of life in multicultural Wanstead 200 years ago. Additionally we find perhaps the first English novel to centrally feature strong and noble black characters, to whom we can sympathise and relate. The second part of this study will examine this more closely, proving that that Hood really was ahead of his time thus worthy of a new and more fitting appraisal.
Gerald Massey has an excellent website devoted to Thomas Hood