A Review of ‘Tylney Hall’ by Thomas Hood

Overview of Thomas Hood & Wanstead

Review of Tylney Hall | Finding Wanstead in Tylney Hall  | Black representation in Tylney Hall

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The fact that Tylney Hall (1834) is Thomas Hood’s only published novel implies that he was not really suited to this discipline of writing – especially as his reputation for humorous articles and sublime poetry was already established. This may be true given the mixed reviews Hood received for this three volume story. But the parlous state of Hood’s finances and his desperately poor health would also have compelled him to focus on shorter more intense creative output – just to make ends meet. Furthermore, Hood was actually working on a second novel entitled ‘Our Family’ at the time of his death – so we must assume he was not too bruised by the experience of writing Tylney Hall.

This post provides an overview and critique of the plot – and it does contain some spoilers!

Plot Synopsis

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This novel is set in the 1700s in a location in the environs of London. The eponymous mansion of Tylney Hall is owned by Sir Mark Tyrrel, a widower with two young sons. Sir Mark is a keen sportsman enjoying warm relations with his friends, relations and employees. His sons are as different as brothers can be. Older boy and heir-apparent Ringwood is the outdoor type, whereas Raby is a bookish, more sensitive lad who prefers poetry to the hunt. Their lives change when Sir Mark’s younger brother returns from the West Indies, barely clinging to life – bringing with him a scared and frightened boy who he identifies as his son. There is an awkward moment in which Sir Mark exclaims ‘He’s of a cross breed, he’s as brown as Gypsy Jack’. But when he sees how upset he has made the boy he quickly makes amends

‘Come, come’, said Sir Mark, laying his broad hand with an encouraging slap… ‘what I said about the skin was only for the sake of giving tongue – a good horse can’t be of a bad colour.’

As his brother lies dying, Sir Mark pledges ‘to back him through this world, and while I live I’ll ride with him round the course.’ This is an important scene because it instantly shows us that the most powerful character (Sir Mark) takes the boy to his heart – and supports him unequivocally thereafter.

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Sir Mark nicknames his nephew ‘St Kitts’, alluding to his island of origin, and the narrator Hood (for the most part) refers to him as ‘the Creole’. In fact we have to wait until page 43 before the boy’s Christian name is revealed; ‘Walter’ – but I think this is a plot device emphasising Walter’s status as an outsider, rather than an outright bias against him.

The main storyline of Tylney Hall revolves around Walter’s relationship with his cousins, Ringwood and Raby. Walter is often innocently caught up in the cross-fire when the brothers fall out (as siblings do) – because whichever side he takes – both brothers end up resenting him. Ringwood in particular can be nasty and continually questions Walter’s legitimacy, suggesting that he was born out of wedlock. Perhaps the most shocking attack comes when Ringwood names his new horse ‘Brown Bastard’ – in retaliation for a betrayal he wrongly believes Walter has committed. Surprisingly the accusation of bastardy is most hurtful to Walter because he feels unable to stand on an equal footing with the brothers because of it.

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Walter befriends a mysterious fortune-teller in the forest

Sir Mark keeps the peace at home and always supports his nephew when arguments arise, but Walter’s resentment continues to grow as a series of misunderstandings (on either side) increase his antipathy to Ringwood. Just when it seems Walter will flip, he meets a mysterious black woman in the forest who claims to have been his nursemaid in the West Indies. She counsel’s Walter to bide his time and crucially provides him with documentary evidence proving his legitimacy – the marriage certificate for his parents:

the reproach of my birth is removed; that sting will still be aimed at me, but it has lost its venom… I am now Ringwood’s equal in all but expectations

All three boys are educated at Oxford, returning to Tylney Hall during the holidays. One summer Raby meets and falls in love with Grace Rivers, the daughter of a local magistrate. But the lovers are thwarted after Sir Mark announces he has long-since agreed that oldest son Ringwood shall wed the magistrate’s daughter. Walter ought to have been pleased to see this serious rift between the brothers, but instead the news awakens the depth of his own feelings for Grace, inciting a jealous hatred towards Raby too.

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Raby is no sharp-shooter, preferring poetry to potshots

Walter knows that Sir Mark intends to buy him a commission into the army when he graduates from Oxford  – but he now decides he wants more. Observing Sir Mark’s disappointment at Raby’s complete inability to use a gun, Walter offers to give Raby shooting lessons, and takes him to a secluded part of the Flats ostensibly to shoot hares. Raby fires the gun when he sees movement in a copse and to his utter shock finds that he has shot his brother Ringwood dead. We are not told whether Walter engineered the shooting – but he does take advantage by urging Raby to flee as he will surely be found guilty of murder, given the well-known fact of the breach between the brothers.  That night a thunderstorm floods the area  – and a few days later a body is plucked from the river wearing Raby’s clothes – indicating that he has died attempting his escape.

Sir Mark is devastated by this double tragedy and dies less than a month afterwards. Walter inherits the estate but he cannot rest easy as the first the local squire then the old woman in the forest threaten to expose him. As the months pass by, Sir Walter (as his is now known) begins to relax – and looks to complete his final conquest – that of Grace’s heart. This proves a bridge too far as Grace rejects his advances, and accuses him of skulduggery. Returning home from this devastating setback Sir Walter meets the squire who produces a letter confirming Walter’s hand in Ringwood’s death, and challenges him to a duel. Walter sinks to new depths of dishonour by attempting to shoot his adversary in the back while he is still taking the 10 paces – The bullet misses its mark and the squire fatally wounds Walter by return of fire.

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Bad-boy Walter shoots (but misses) the squire while his back is turned

All this is witnessed by a passing stranger – who happens to be Raby on his way home, after deciding to face the music. The younger brother is not after all – having swapped his clothes with a tramp before he made his escape. Walter has the decency to make a dying confession fully exonerating Raby, enabling him to marry Grace and reclaim Tylney Hall as its rightful owner.

There are a lot of deaths in the final part of the book, but these are not entirely unexpected as we have seen the resentment build inside Walter. Some of the comic set-pieces, such as an elaborately described fete champetre – held at the home of social-climbing snob Mr Twigg (and turns out disastrously bad) – contain serious events which help turn the screw of Walter’s hatred. It is hard not to empathise with Walter after the treatment he receives from Ringwood & though Walter does turn out to be a thoroughly bad apple in the end, Hood succeeds in showing that this is in some part down to the ordeal he has endured.

Style of Writing

When Thomas Hood wrote Tylney Hall he considered himself ‘young in the path in which he was treading’ and readily acknowledged that characterisation failed to an extent because ‘he could not write love scenes’. It is certainly true that the largely comic style of narration makes it difficult for Hood to switch emphasis to the darker side without jarring the flow. When looking for the absurd, such as portrayed by the character ‘Unlucky Joe’, Hood’s style of writing resembles the early works of Thackeray, who published The Yellowplush Papers around the same time. Both men earned their living contributing to popular magazines such as Punch, and both were fans of the ribald sense of humour promoted by artists such as Rowlandson. The fete scene is particularly reminiscent of Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1822) – a very influential but largely discarded masterpiece of Regency satire.

Hood’s reputation as ‘king of the punsters’ is certainly well lived up to, but perhaps too much to sustain what is a genuinely interesting and sometimes gripping plot. The whole piece comes across as a kind of bridging point between late Georgian bawdiness and the mawkish sentimentality that was about to dominate Victorian literature. It is nonetheless a worthy attempt to tackle the important and still relevant subject of privilege and prejudice.

Most of all I enjoyed its understated social commentary, in particular on the subject of ‘legitimacy’ defined by the arbitrary fate of being born on the ‘wrong side of the blanket’ – for which Walter laments

Tis no fault of mine. I had not the ordering of my birth…

Justice may award the shame to the parent, but the prejudice of man entails it on the child.

Rating 4 out of 5

Tylney Hall is more than just a curiosity, and is a very readable story.  The strength of Hood’s central black characters seems very innovative – perhaps ahead of its time. Transformed into a screenplay this could produce a powerful and unique insight into black culture in Georgian Britain.

Part Three of this series examines how accurately Tylney Hall represents Georgian Wanstead – the area upon which it is based

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There is a dearth of readily available information on Tylney Hall  – Gerald Massey’s website remains the best resource for Thomas Hood generally but I also recommend The Poetry Foundation

Finally, why not check out this collection of Hood’s memorable quotes

Elsewhere on my blog I have examined Hood’s relationship with the Epping Hunt. For other sporting related posts you might like the story of prize-fighter Tom Shelton or a brief history of Royal Ascot

Three to See at the First Georgians Exhibition, Queens Gallery

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The beauty of going to any exhibition is the fact that each and every item being shown has the power to strike a chord, providing every visitor both a unique and a personal experience.

This fact can be no better demonstrated by going to ‘The First Georgians’ which is on at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until October 12th. Organised to mark the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I, Britain’s first constitutional monarch – this exhibition focusses on works of art collected by the royal family (at various times) dating from 1714 until the death of George II in 1760, what we might describe as the early Georgian era.

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Hogarth’s business card as an engraver – but he was so much more

Fans of William Hogarth (1697-1764) will not be disappointed. His series of six paintings A Harlot’s Progress (1732) & Marriage A La Mode (1743-45) can be seen side-by-side in a section dedicated to perhaps the first exponent of British satirical art.

Seeing Johannes Kip’s incredibly detailed London maps and Canaletto’s overly idyllic views of the Thames from Somerset House was a great pleasure, but for me there are three stand-out exhibits worthy of the admission price alone.

  1. David Garrick and his wife, Eva-Maria Veigel, by William Hogarth (c.1757)

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I have always associated Hogarth with the representation of idleness and debauchery via engravings such as Gin Lane (1751) but here we find an almost seaside-postcard style of painting with truly vibrant colours and little nuances of humour encapsulating his subjects perfectly.

David Garrick (1717-79) was one of the most frequently painted subjects in eighteenth-century Britain. He befriended Hogarth after the artist painted Garrick as the King in William Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1745 (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery). But it is thought that the pair fell out over this particular portrait. Garrick was displeased with his likeness and disliked the original domestic setting. Hogarth amended the scene by adding a hanging chord in the background reminiscent of the stage, but Garrick never collected the painting and it was still in Hogarth’s possession when he died in 1764.

What I especially like is the depiction of Veigel sneaking up behind her husband to snatch his pen away. This gives me a sense of the warmth of their relationship, with Garrick’s smile adding further to the playfulness of the scene.

This painting is hung in the main gallery well away from the other Hogarth exhibits, and for this I think it benefits greatly and the style in which it is painted makes it refreshingly timeless.

  1. Thomas Killigrew with an Unidentified Man, by Van Dyck (1638)

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This painting really is mesmeric to see in the flesh. Painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) it depicts two figures united by grief. On the left is Thomas Killigrew (1612-83), who is in mourning for his wife Cecelia Crofts, who died in 1638 just two years into the marriage. Killigrew wears his wife’s wedding ring attached to his left wrist by a black silk band. A silver cross inscribed with her intertwined initials is attached to his doublet and he wears a mourning ring next to his wedding band. In his hands is a piece of paper on which there are drawings, possibly made with a funerary monument in mind. Killigrew is being comforted by a friend, but is too distracted by grief to acknowledge what he is being shown.

Such is the incredible clarity of van Dyck’s brushwork that Killigrew really does come to life and his doleful eyes seem to draw you in from far away so you can come and pay your respects. Killigrew’s expression and his long hair would not look out of place on a 1960s hippie, but the sombre tone really does transmit his pain. There are some interesting theories about who the other gentleman may be, but I think the beauty of this painting renders knowing an irrelevance.

  1. Frederick, Prince of Wales, by Amigoni c.1736)

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This may seem like an odd choice for my top three, but I have selected it because one of the very knowledgeable curators at the Queen’s Gallery gave a very informative 10-minute talk about it during my visit. Unfortunately she had to compete with a completely ignorant guide who stood at the opposite end of the main gallery talking very loudly to a party of tourists. Given that the guide had ample other points of interest to show her enthusiastic troupe, it was incredibly bad manners for her to blather on whilst the curator bravely soldiered on.

Above all this painting has exposed my ignorance about the Georgian succession. Up until now I have been happily deluding myself that George III was the son of George II and followed him as naturally as princes follow kings. But the fact is that Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751) was the man who ought to have succeeded George II, & whose death meant that it was a grandson who became George III in 1760.

Frederick seems to have had a very neglected childhood, having been left back in Hanover at the age of 7, and not seeing his parents for the next 14 years. Not surprisingly his relationship with George II was strained, and he spent his life trying to carve a separate identity. As Prince of Wales he fraternised with opposition politicians and became a patron of the arts. His knowledge and good taste led to the accumulation an outstanding cache of art, which now forms part of the Royal Collection.

Frederick was eventually banned from the King’s court in 1737 after he sneaked his heavily-pregnant wife out of Hampton Court Palace in the middle of the night, to ensure that the King and Queen could not be present at the birth. His poor spouse was forced to get into a carriage which raced over to St James’s Palace just in time for the birth. The King and Queen were furious at this perceived snub and never forgave Frederick for this act of independence.

This portrait by Amigoni was commissioned by the Prince’s friend, George Bubb Dodington (1691-1762), & given to Frederick as a peace-offering following a spat between them. As is appropriate for a friend’s portrait the Prince appears in an informal and affable guise, as patron of the arts. Frederick holds a book inscribed ‘Pope’s Homer’, alluding to Pope’s famous recently-published translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Cherubs fly above the Prince holding a lyre (the attribute of Poetry) and a snake biting its tail (the attribute of Eternity, the duration of a true poet’s fame).

Though his pose is relaxed, the Prince does have formal attributes: a crown on the table, and a riband of the Garter reminding us that this is not just any patron of the arts but a heroic and a royal one.

Frederick certainly seems a character worthy of greater investigation, not just for his contribution to the development of the arts, but also for his love of English culture. Whenever you next hear ‘Rule Britannia’ spare a thought for our lost King for it was Frederick, Prince of Wales whose patronage brought this song into creation.

Because I am really more of a Regency historian, I have shamelessly pillaged the Royal Collection website for background information on these great works of art. Any errors made are all mine though.

If you have been or are considering going to the First Georgians Exhibition I’d love to hear back regarding the works of art you found most compelling – As I have a free return voucher and it would be great to look from another perpective!!

Click Here for more info and facts on the First Georgians Exhibition:

The peerless Lucy Worsley has made a BBC4 TV show about the current exhibition

If you liked this you may like the following excellent Georgian era  Blogs:

Jacqueline Riding is a fountain of knowledge on Georgian art amongst other skills

Who could resist the legend that is Madame Gilflurt 

The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies promotes all things Georgian

And finally, partly because Ireland is steeped in Georgian era culture, and partly because Frederick, Prince of Wales served as the tenth Chancellor of the University of Dublin (1728-51), I would recommend a visit to the Irish Georgian Society  – Me being Irish might have had a hand in this too.