High status black Georgians, fact or fiction?
Thomas Hood’s Tylney Hall would make a great film because it offers historical drama which doesn’t merely include black roles, but positively revolves around them. To think that Britain in 1834 could (and did) celebrate black culture is something we should all be proud of, and Tylney Hall may well be regarded as a by-product of public opinion in the year that slavery was finally abolished. Whilst it was a rarity, the occurrence of high status black people in Georgian society was not beyond the bounds of probability, hence Hood was not stretching credibility beyond its limits.
This final post examines three characters from Tylney Hall – each of whom provide a valuable insight into the presence and status of black people in late Georgian England. By 1800 black people were a relatively common sight throughout Britain. Historian Grechen Gerzina (who has written a number of excellent books and articles upon this subject) calculates that by 1800 up to 3% of Londoners were black. So let’s meet those created by Hood
Pompey (A servant)
Black servants were highly sought after
The character of Pompey is engaged as a black footman by Mr Twigg, a Londoner who has recently bought a house near Tylney Hall. Hood does use racial stereotyping by having Pompey utter phrases such as ‘Nebber mind’ and ‘me berry glad to see him face’ but this should not be taken out of context. Throughout Tylney Hall Hood relies on accents for comic effect; not just for national but also class differences, and perhaps the most ridiculed of all is the Scottish dialect. So what impression do we get of Pompey?
From the first moment Pompey appears he is impeccably dressed in ‘a new suit of sables’ provided for him by pretentious boss Mr Twigg. We learn that Pompey had formerly served as a soldier under Herbert Tyrell, Sir Mark’s recently deceased brother – who is lying in state at Tylney Hall, and had followed him back to England. Pompey causes a bit of stir by sneaking into the room where his former commander lay, and Hood shows us the loyalty and respect of this ‘affectionate African’. We soon learn that the real target of Hood’s satire is in fact Mr Twigg, a city-dwelling ‘cockney’ whose chav-like behaviour grates upon all and sundry. We get the measure of Twigg’s snobbery when he declares:
It is a strange thing that a man like me can’t have a black footman as well as other people of property
We see how highly regarded for black servants were amongst the upper classes in late Georgian England, and though Pompey is firmly a comic character – his positive attributes are always foregrounded.
Marguerite (A mysterious woman living in the forest)
Marguerite – Scary lady from the forest
Marguerite is without doubt the best character in Tylney Hall. Early in the book the local magistrate Justice Rivers warns Sir Mark Tyrell of a strange woman living in the forest outside Tylney Hall. ‘She possesses, at least, the remains of beauty… as for age she may be 50 or 30.’ Though Marguerite’ as she is known is harmless, her exotic ways and palm-reading skills have made her appear very frightening to the superstitious locals, most of whom live in dread of encountering her.
When Sir Mark finally meets Marguerite upon the road, Mr Twigg decries her as ‘a witch’ but he sees a woman ‘dressed in faded mourning [that] could not conceal the symmetry of a shape that had belonged to that fine order of forms, which is peculiar in the half-caste families of the West Indies. She had the taper waist, the full round limbs, and the graceful easy carriage.’ Immediately we see beyond Twigg’s prejudice, the real person standing before them, and Hood drives the point home exquisitely: When the Squire offers Marguerite sixpence she replies with contempt ‘Give it to your slaves’.
The dignity with which Marguerite is presented more than makes up for her eccentric behaviour, and of all the characters in Tylney Hall she is bestowed with the best lines. When Marguerite finally meets young Walter she reveals her former role as nursemaid to him back in the West Indies, and is able to give him some personal possessions entrusted to her by Walter’s long-dead mother. ‘I was your mother’s dearest friend – her sworn sister, your nurse.’ We can only applaud her for adding
As for my poverty I feel it not; so put up your purse. Should I want money… your hand Walter Tyrrel is the only one on earth that would not revolt my pride… the world is a worthless weedy place to me, but its prejudices are of importance to the young and hopeful. My acquaintance can do you no credit. You must neither name me, nor recognise me, before others… Seek me not, heed me not, mention me not; but if I should summon you at any time… be sure…to come to me.
Perhaps her most emotive scene occurs when Marguerite is finally hauled up before the magistrate for vagrancy and she walks free after declaring
I will tell you I have the same natural privileges as yourself; the same right to live where I will, or how I will, to starve on wild herbs and berries in preference to the menial’s pittance, and to sleep under the bare cape of heaven rather than the roof of a poor house… The Liberty that God gave me, man shall not wrest from me.
We see the depth of Marguerite’s devotion to Walter in that she is prepared to accept any hardship on earth in order to help and protect him when she tells him he is ‘the last link of a chain of love, the whole tie that attaches me to a weary world’.When she hands Walter a copy of his parents’ marriage certificate, Marguerite relieves the boy of his greatest pain, that of being labelled a bastard – and she coalesces in his plot for revenge but urges him to wait for the right opportunity
the time is not yet come. But remember every wrong, record every insult; add word to word, and deed to deed, till the whole heap of injury be worthy of a stern and deep revenge, a full and final atonement.
Marguerite plays a crucial role when the time does come, helping Walter persuade Raby to flee after his accidental shooting of older brother Ringwood. There is one important twist to the story in regard to her, which I feel ought to withhold in case you may wish to read the book. Suffice to say that this poverty-stricken (yet noble woman) plays a significant part in the denouement. Her final scene is perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of Tylney Hall as it is seems not only hurried but also unworthy of her character.
Nevertheless Marguerite brings a strong presence to Tylney Hall and I find it refreshing that whilst being black is a device Hood uses to emphasise her outsider status, he paints a very positive picture of her as a strong woman of principle.
Walter Tyrell (member of the Tyrell family of Tylney Hall)
Walter is depicted as a noble but resentful character
Walter is not only the central character of Tylney Hall but for the most part of the book we observe events from his standpoint – we feel the prejudice against him, we understand the pain he endures and what leads him to exact his revenge. Any reader of Tylney Hall might argue that Walter’s ultimately awful actions negate his positive foregrounding as a black person. But I think this would be unfair since Hood has ample opportunity of making Walter a savage (as was perhaps expected at that time), but he instead consciously invites us to sympathise with Walter’s ordeal and to hope he came come through it unscathed.
My review of Tylney Hall goes into more detail about Walter’s rivalry with his cousins Ringwood and Raby Tyrell, so all I want to stress here is the status and placement of Walter as a black noble in the pages of this novel. If Tylney Hall tells us anything it reveals the rigidity of class-lines within Georgian society. For, as soon as Sir Mark takes Walter into his care and up to his social position, there is no sign of any racial prejudice. Walter is enabled to go to Oxford, where he gets a degree – and enjoys exactly the same privileges as cousins Ringwood and Raby. The primary issue is not race but the question of Walter’s legitimacy – because being a bastard was perhaps the greatest barrier of all to social advancement. It is on this head that Walter’s enmity with Ringwood originates. Walter’s determination for equality with his cousins leads onto the second conflict – his plain old-fashioned jealousy of Raby’s love affair with Grace Rivers. Though we are made a party to Walter’s evil machinations, these are ALWAYS stirred following some kind of unfair slight has come his way. An example of this occurs at Mr Twigg’s garden party after Ringwood is splashed by a water hose operated by Twigg’s naughty son, when Ringwood instantly blames Walter (who happens to be nearby) and humiliates him in front of the assembled guests.
When there IS racial prejudice against Walter it is conveyed in a way that shocks reader and fellow characters alike. Sir Mark is perhaps the most representative of this push against racism because he steadfastly protects Walter and treats him as one of his own. Other characters, for the most part, treat him with due deference as an aristocratic person – meaning that when Walter finally does turn evil he has not already accumulated any bias because of the colour of his skin. In the end Walter’s actions alone define him, as they should any character in a well-written novel.
Street scene c.1840s reveals multicultural London
I hope you have enjoyed my series of blogs on Tylney Hall and will share with me the hope that this far from perfect, yet still important and interesting, novel really ought to be revived. Its insight into the lives of black people in Georgian England may be unique. Also the date of publication (1834) plus the very recognisable representation of Wanstead and Epping Forest provides a prototype of early multicultural suburban life.
The best websites for Epping Forest are The Corporation of London (for activities) or the Essex Record Office (for historical research). For modern-day Wanstead news and views look no further than Wansteadium
I always welcome comments and suggestions, and will be blogging again soon on the subject of Wanstead Park