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Robert Smith Surtees wrote the funniest novel about hunting

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Sport on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Robert Surtees first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Illustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds,  picture, image, illustration

A humorous llustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds by Surtees, picture by John Leech

It was a dark winter’s afternoon in 1832, as the 27-year-old Robert Smith Surtees sat writing in his London room. He was working on the next episode of his novel Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities which was being serialised in the New Sporting Magazine, when something reminded him of his childhood. He leaned back in his chair in the flickering candlelight and relived the adventure of his first fox hunt.

He had been a boy of 12, the son of a well-to-do country gentleman. His family home was Hamsterley Hall, in Durham, where he had lived since a few years after he was born in 1805. He had been standing in his father’s stableyard when the local hunt passed by. The harsh note of the huntsman’s horn split the morning calm. The hounds were hot on the scent of a fox, and, close behind the dogs, came the huntsmen. The thundering hooves filled Robert’s ears, and, without hesitating, he leapt on to the nearest horse – which was unsaddled and still wearing only a stable blanket – and galloped off in pursuit of the fox.

His father’s reaction to Robert’s bareback cross-country chase had been very mixed. As Master of the Hunt the older man had been amused and pleased by the boy’s enthusiasm, but as owner of a valuable horse which might have been seriously harmed by such thoughtless treatment, he was furious. Robert was lucky, however, for the sportsman was stronger than the disciplinarian in his father and his anger soon faded.

Robert Surtees came out of his day-dream and started busily writing again. He had to finish the episode he was writing, that evening, but he did not mind the work for the serial was about his favourite subject, hunting. By writing of the adventures of his hero, Jorrocks, Surtees could escape from the equally pressing and more serious work of his profession, the law. He hated all things legal, however, finding them dry and dull. So he escaped from London whenever possible and could often be found galloping through the Surry countryside with one of the many local hunts.

Although he was often homesick for the open countryside of home he did not return to the north until he was almost middle-aged. But when he finally went back to Hamsterley Hall in 1838, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the life of a wealthy country gentleman.

From this time on he had no official career to pursue, but as he had inherited all his father’s estates, he had many other tasks to carry out. He owned a large area of farming land and had the management of these, as well as the welfare of his employees. He was also a Justice of the Peace, a role for which his legal training made him well fitted, and town councillor for the neighbouring small town of Medomsley.

Robert Surtees was a conscientious man so these various public offices occupied a great deal of his time. He still found time for his writing, however, which he did mainly as a hobby. Curiously, although it is as a writer that he is remembered today, Surtees never considered his books to be of any importance. He did not want literary fame and even went to great pains to conceal his identity in his books when they were published. He felt that if he were known to be an author it would damage his reputation amongst his down-to-earth neighbours in Durham! When finally his publisher did give away his secret Surtees was so angry that he refused to write any more, and his last novel, Young Tom Hall, still lay unfinished when he died in 1864.

What Surtees wrote about Jorrocks tells us much about the author too. Jorrocks was a London grocer, who had a great love of hunting. Surtees never quite got used to the way London tradesmen combined their sport with business, and the adventures of Jorrocks and his friends are described in such a way as always to make the characters appear rather ridiculous. Surtees was fascinated by the way in which these characters could combine a love of adventure with the typical businessman’s caution. So when Jorrocks decides to ride out of London one morning in a thick fog the results are bound to be funny.

Surtees was always a country man at heart and took his favourite sport much too seriously to be able to mix it with business as Jorrocks does. Yet the fun in the book is never cruel, and, although the tone is always lighthearted, Surtees put much of himself into his writing and much of the way of life of his time, so that Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities today gives readers a fascinating glimpse of the boisterous life of the early nineteenth century.

An extract from Jaunts And Jollities:

“Jorrocks ran to the inn. Presently he emerged from the yard, followed by horse-keepers, coach-washers, porters, cads, waiters and others, with a bright mail-coach lamp strapped to his middle, which lighting up the whole of his broad back now cased in scarlet, gave him the appearance of a gigantic red-and-gold insurance office badge, or an elderly cherub without wings.

The Hackney-coach and cab-men, along whose lines they passed could not make him out at all. Some thought he was a mail-coach guard riding post with the bags; but as the light was pretty strong he trotted on regardless of observation. The fog, however, abated none of its denseness even on the ‘Surrey side’ [of the Thames] and before they reached the `Elephant and Castle,’ Jorrocks had run against two trucks, three watercress women, one pies-all-‘ot!-all-‘ot! man. dispersed a whole covey of Welsh milkmaids, and rode slap over one end of a buy ‘at (hat) box! bonnet-box! man’s pole, damaging a dozen paste-boards, and finally upsetting Balham Hill Joe’s Barcelona `come crack ’em and try ’em’ stall at the door of the inn.”

Surtees was always a country man at heart and took his favourite sport much too seriously to be able to mix it with business as Jorrocks does. Yet the fun in the book is never cruel, and, although the tone is always lighthearted, Surtees put much of himself into his writing and much of the way of life of his time, so that Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities today gives readers a fascinating glimpse of the boisterous life of the early nineteenth century.

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