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