Black representation in ‘Tylney Hall’ (1834)

 

Overview of Thomas Hood & Wanstead

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

black opera

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)

kitchen stuff - black servants

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)

fortune teller

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)

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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.

Conclusion

black street traders

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.

For more information on Thomas Hood and Epping Forest you might like ‘A Fond Farewell’ or why not find out how one London home can contain so much history

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

 

Finding Wanstead in Thomas Hood’s Tylney Hall

Overview of Thomas Hood & Wanstead

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

Up the slope Wanstead Park

Hood conjured a vision of Wanstead Flats – not Wanstead House

The overview to this blog looks at Thomas Hood’s impact as a poet and wry observer of the joy and hardships of life in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As explained, his only novel Tylney Hall (1834), gave readers false hope of discovering what actually happened at Wanstead House, nearby ancestral home of the Earls of Tylney –  which had been suddenly and brutally demolished less than a decade earlier. Such a glaringly obvious deceit within the novel’s title undoubtedly upset readers. The Literary Gazette echoed this widespread disappointment

It was inferred that the private histories of the Wellesley and Long families had furnished matter for the novel…. Accordingly, not a few copies travelled eastward, through Stratford-le-Bow, but, of course, to the signal discomfiture of the speculators [because] the figures were not drawn from living models

I am fascinated by the fact that the central character – from whose perspective we follow events – is a black man – Not a stereotypically menial representation found in the background of much Georgian art, but a wealthy, educated and well-connected black man, with a profound understanding of the prejudice he encounters. What’s more he is not the only black character in the book. I thought this plot-device would have set alarm bells ringing as to Tylney Hall ‘s credibility. But having examined several contemporary reviews of Hood’s novel – both good and bad – I find no evidence to suggest that the presence of black people of worth was anything out of the ordinary to late Georgian readers.

middling heat in the west indies 1817

Tylney Hall avoids traditional black stereotypes

So how much, if anything, does Tylney Hall represent the geography and social fabric of eighteenth century Wanstead? I will answer this question in two sections, firstly looking for physical evidence of Wanstead’s presence – and secondly questioning whether the presence of black (or Asian) people in that part of the world was as commonplace as Tylney Hall implies

1. Finding Wanstead in Tylney Hall

It is important to remember that Hood was often unwell during his years at the Lake House. Thus the writer had to rely heavily upon his surrounding neighbourhood to create the backdrop for Tylney Hall. From the outset Hood makes no effort to disguise the fact that Wanstead is the setting.

Rabbits1900

The Three Rabbits was within walking distance of Hood’s home

The opening chapter of Tylney Hall  takes us to the Rabbits public house ‘set in a bleak wasteland called the Flats…On the other side stretched an immense park, behind an angle of which lay perdue a small village.’ Straight away the geography of Wanstead is laid before us – from Manor Park’s Three Rabbits pub in the south up to the village beyond Wanstead Park. Hood gives a lovely description of the pub and its characters, including their regular whist drives. We also learn that the local coaching inn, which stands outside the grounds of ‘Tylney Hall’ is called ‘The Green Man’  – not just the same name but the same proximity of Leytonstone’s Green Man pub to the gates of old Wanstead House.

green man

The Green Man Inn (Leytonstone) features in Hood’s Tylney Hall

Tylney Hall is less obviously a replica of the real Wanstead House. Perhaps Hood never visited Wicked William’s Palladian palace before it was demolished, for interior descriptions of Tylney Hall are scanty. However Tylney Hall does possess ‘a great many Gobelin Tapestries’ – copying one of the main treasures advertised for sale by George Robins in 1822, suggesting that Hood may have seen or possessed an auction catalogue. External features of Wanstead House – such as the stables (still standing today) and the octagonal Basin are replicated by Hood for the fictitious Tylney Hall

gobelin tapestry

Gobelin Tapestries prominently featured in Robins’ auction catalogue (1822)

Hood’s lovely descriptions of the park, lake and waterways around ‘Tylney Hall’ can only be picked up and appreciated by readers familiar with the landmarks in question. We can therefore conclude that Hood’s novel is definitely a homage to Wanstead Park.

2. Finding black people in Wanstead

cruickshank from the west indies

West Indian immigrants satirised by Cruickshank (1824)

Recent research has shown that black people were fairly commonly employed as servants in wealthy or titled households during the Georgian era. As such many were educated to a high-level commensurate with their status within the hierarchy of the home. In many cases these families contained mixed race children or servants – either of whom would have enjoyed the protection of their wider family group. Those who returned from service in the East India Company often settled in close knit ‘Anglo-Indian’ communities – The writer William Makepeace Thackeray  (1811-1863), who was born in Calcutta and returned to England in 1815 to complete his education – lived in one such community – sticking together to overcome local resentments. Another example may be found in the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, which has recently been made into a film. But most importantly, there was a general influx of foreign settlers in Britain’s urban areas from the eighteenth century onwards. By the 1790s significant immigrant communities, arriving from Africa, the West Indies or Asia – either aboard merchant ships, or demobbed military/naval conscripts. In London, for example, the slums around St Giles were considered to be black ghettos.

During my research on ‘Wicked William’ of Wanstead House I discovered that during the 1790s the Wellesley-Pole family regularly opened a soup kitchen from their home in Savile Row – This weekly event was attended by such numbers of homeless black immigrants that they were eventually ordered to close it to keep the peace.

the rabbit salesman

For many,  black people were a regular feature of everyday life

So, let’s take these findings to the Wanstead area. First of all we can see that a great many estates in and around Epping Forest were bought up and subsequently developed by East India Company employees and merchants. Given its relatively close proximity to London and the docks – it is therefore perfectly reasonable to conclude that Hood’s Tylney Hall does reflect the reality of black people – rich and poor, entitled and subservient – who may have lived or worked around Wanstead at this time.

In my final part I will take a closer look at three black characters from Tylney Hall to get a better understanding of their place in society and the interaction they had – both good and bad – with those around them. I want to show that for Hood at least – there was a true respect for black people. Perhaps Hood was reflecting the prevalent public enthusiasm for black culture following the recent Abolition of Slavery Act (which gained Royal Assent just two months prior to publication). But I prefer to think his experience of living amidst the poor and under-privileged around Wanstead was the more fertile ground where his characterisations were formed

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Paul Edwards has written a great article in History Today looking at black personalities in Georgian England

For more information on the subject of black history try this select bibliography:

Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain 1780-1830 by Dr Norma Myers

The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir by Michael Bundock

Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, C. 1660-1807by Kathleen Chater

Black England: Life Before Emancipation, and  Black Victorians/Black Victoriana – both by Gretchen Gerzina

London In The Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing  by Jerry White

Finally you may like to read more about the Wellesley-Pole’s charitable work, as they attempt to rescue a tramp. If only their son Wicked William of Wanstead House had the same attitude when he went amongst the needy

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

tylney hall cover

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.

fortune teller

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.

cockney sportsman

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.

duel
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

Thomas Hood, Tylney Hall & Multicultural Wanstead

Overview of Thomas Hood & Wanstead

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

 thomas-hood-5

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.

sonnet to vauxhall

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.

 lakehouse

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.

wickedwilliam

 

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.

eppinghunt-1

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

song of the shirt

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

bridge of sighs

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

 found drowned

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.

grave

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.

wansteadcolour

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.

Easter Monday 1817 by Henry Thomas Aitken

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.

To read more of Thomas Hood’s poems click here – or try a tasty selection of his best quotes

Gerald Massey has an excellent website devoted to Thomas Hood

You may also like to read about more Epping Hunt related buffoonery courtesy of Wicked William or to know about his short-lived military career.