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Book of the Month

November 2005

R. S. Surtees

Handley Cross

London: 1854
Sp Coll Hepburn 157

Traditionally, November marks the start of the hunting season and so this month we feature Handley Cross, a nineteenth century comic classic that centres on the adventures of John Jorrocks, an eccentric grocer turned Master of Fox Hounds. Written by R. S. Surtees, this entertaining satire is a 'noisy, vital book' full of zest and high spirits. Coloured steel engravings and woodcuts by the renowned Victorian book illustrator, John Leech, enliven this edition.

Frontispiece: Michael Hardey

Robert Smith Surtees (1805-1864) was a country gentleman, born into a family of landowners in County Durham. He inherited his love of hunting from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all of whom kept a pack of hounds. His cousin, Robert Surtees of Mainsforth (1779-1834), was a well known antiquary and poet. After a happy-go-lucky childhood, in 1822 he was articled to a solicitor in Newcastle. Three years later he went to London to continue his legal training. Although he found the law intolerable, he was able to spend the weekends hunting. As well as chasing about the countryside, however, Surtees also indulged in his taste for 'scribbling'. By 1828, he had begun writing articles for the Sporting Magazine, and in 1831 he joined Rudolph Ackermann in founding its rival, The New Sporting Magazine: Surtees was its first editor and chief hunting correspondent. In the same year, Surtees' unmarried elder brother died, leaving him unexpectedly the heir to the family's considerable estate.


Having abandoned the law in 1835, Surtees soon also relinquished his magazine editorship, probably in order to become more involved in running family affairs. In 1838, he finally became squire of Hamsterley Hall in County Durham when his father died. Thereafter, as a prominent figure in the community, he was heavily involved in local affairs and politics. Nevertheless, he managed to maintain his dual passions for hunting and writing; he kept his own pack of hounds between 1838 and 1840, and began to write novels. His literary ambitions were muted, however. It seems that he felt that writing was not quite a gentlemanly pursuit and his fictional works were all published anonymously. Surtees died in 1864 at the age of nearly 60, his literary life still somewhat masked by the conventional public life of a country gentleman.

Plate opposite p.362: The Pomponius Ego Day

Surtees had first tested out his creative writing skills in 1829. Having got two thirds of the way through a semi-sporting novel, he showed his efforts to friends; they were apparently so scornful that he threw this work on the fire. At this point he therefore concentrated on journalism, and his first published book, The Horseman's manual (1831), was a factual work that dealt with the law relating to horses. His first work of fiction, Jorrock's Jaunts and Jollities, was published in 1838: this was a loose collection of articles that had appeared irregularly in The New Sporting Magazine between 1831 and 1834.

Plate opposite p.81: Mr Jorrocks enters into Handley Cross

Handley Cross was next. It originally appeared in serial form in monthly parts (also in The New Sporting Magazine) between March 1838 and August 1839, and was then published in its entirety in three volumes by Henry Colburn in 1843. This unillustrated version of the work only contained twenty chapters. An augmented version, in eighty chapters and boasting plates and illustrations by John Leech, was issued in seventeen parts by Bradbury and Evans between March 1853 and October 1854. Our copy of the book is an example of yet another edition, published in 1854.

Chapter one, p.1: The Olden Times

It seems that Surtees particularly enjoyed the discursive nature of writing serially and in the preface to this edition he remarks on how 'not being tied to space or quantity' has given him a 'better opportunity' of developing his 'sporting hero'. The sporting hero referred to here is the inimitable John Jorrocks. Surtees was writing about Jorrocks as early as 1831 and, as mentioned above, a collection of tales relating to him was gathered together as Jorrock's Jaunts and Jollities in 1838. A further Jorrocksian novel, Hillingdon Hall, was serialized in 1843-44.

A great comic character, on a par with the creations of Dickens, Jorrocks is a self made Cockney grocer with a penchant for fox hunting. Of irrepressible high spirits, the garrulous Jorrocks is a rough diamond. This Rabelaisian novel recounts his muddling adventures as an amateur huntsman who comes to the up and coming spa town of Handley Cross to take over its pack of hounds for a season, having been pinpointed for the task on account of his wealth and the fame of his exploits out hunting with 'the Surrey'. A man with few social pretensions, he is flattered to be the MFH but at the same time self possessed enough to know why he has been targeted. Never short of cod maxims, catchphrases and blunt wisdom, as he says himself, 'I'm a sportsman all over, and to the backbone. - 'Unting is all that's worth living for - all time is lost wot is not spent in 'unting - it is like the hair we breathe ...' but 'Enough of the rhapsodies, let us come to the melodies - the s. d. in fact. Wot will it cost?'

Plate opposite p.106: Mr Jorrocks (loq) - "Come hup! I say - You ugly beast!"

While undoubtedly keen and enthusiastic about his sport, much of the novel's comedy arises from his trials and tribulations on the hunting field with his horses Xerxes and Arterxerxes - losing his hounds, being chased by bulls, haranguing his companions, becoming hopelessly lost, and avoiding large fences. Towards the end, his London 'friends' decide to have him certified and committed to a lunatic asylum in order to rescue him from the extravagance of running the hunt, thereby saving the remnants of his fortune. On this melancholy note, the first version of the novel ends. In the later edition, however, Jorrocks' actions are defended by the Lord Chancellor and he is released: the story ends with him happily assembling his hounds for another season.
Handley Cross was not an immediate success. Its first publisher wanted Surtees to tone the character of Jorrocks down, or even eliminate him altogether. Fortunately, since Surtees was not dependant upon writing to make a living, he could ignore such advice. Herein probably lies the reason for the book's initial lack of popularity: it did not appeal to non-sporting types and yet it alienated the hunting community since it did not give them a flattering and idealized portrait of their world. At the time of its writing, hunting was changing from being the popular and socially inclusive neighbourhood event of isolated rural communities  - the kind of old fashioned farmer's hunt of Surtees' youth referred to in the first chapters of Handley Cross as 'the olden times'. It was rather being transformed into a more socially exclusive and ruinously expensive activity. It has been suggested that making Jorrocks a Cockney grocer was Surtees' way of protesting about how the hunting fraternity was increasingly elbowing out tradesmen and the lower classes. For although the behaviour of Jorrocks often instigates the comic action, Surtees always laughs with him rather than at him. 

Chapter five, p.37: The Hunt Committee

Plate opposite p.243: The Handley Cross Fancy Ball

Certainly, the novel is flawed, and its rambling plot has been criticised for being overlong and prolix. As with most of Surtees' works, there is seemingly no reason why the book should ever end. However, it must be remembered that Surtees' chief motivation was to entertain; as he declared in the preface, 'the reader will have the kindness to bear in mind, that the work merely professes to be a tale, and does not aspire to the dignity of a novel'. 

Plate opposite p.343: "Mind the Bull"

Surtees has been somewhat overlooked as a 'serious' nineteenth century writer, but in recent years his work has been reassessed by Norman Gash in the light of the insights it can offer us about the social life of the early Victorian period. Surtees was writing in an age of transition, and no other writer is so firmly placed in his historical setting or so obsessed about the minutiae of daily life. The development of the spa town of Handley Cross, for instance, is one example of a town's rapid and grandiose development thanks to the coming of the railways. More intimately, his novels are crammed with details about clothing, food, drink, furniture and servants. As a social witness, Surtees is not without bias, however: his province is the middle class society of the countryside and small provincial town - industrial Britain is ignored.
Joining Jorrocks in Handley Cross is a diverse range of other well drawn characters. Energetic and vital, as Gash comments, Surtees 'took his characters from the mass of ordinary, indifferently honest, moderately selfish human beings which at all time make up the great part of the race. There are no villains and no saints; no tragedies, no romanticism, no idealism, and precious little innocence'; they all have 'robustness, vitality and self-confidence'.

Mention must be made of James Pigg, Jorrock's servant, huntsman and sidekick. Pigg is obstinate, disrespectful, often drunk and speaks with an impenetrable northern accent. But he is also loyal, bound to Jorrocks by their shared love of hunting. Their frequent slanging matches are one of the joys of the novel, demonstrating Surtees' unerring ear for dialogue.

Plate opposite p.485: Pigg in the melon frame

Plate opposite p.362: The Pomponius Ego Day

Surtees based other characters on experience. Charley Stobbs, the son of a Yorkshire yeoman who is being trained up as a barrister at the chambers of the great Mr Twister, undoubtedly draws on Surtees' own unhappy time as a solicitor's pupil. As he bitterly remarks, the law's 'crotchety quibbles are enough to disgust any one with a taste for truth and straightforward riding'. More infamously, Pomponius Ego, the pretentious hunting correspondent whom Jorrocks invites to come and inspect his pack (promising him 'a good blow out, both in the ways of wittles and drink') is an unmistakable and maliciously cruel portrayal of C. J. Apperley, or 'Nimrod', the well known sporting journalist. Luckily for Surtees, Apperley died before he could retaliate.  

P.402: Mr Jorrocks and Pigg drink "Fox hunting"

One of the great pleasures of this edition of Handley Cross is the interpretation of its events by the artist John Leech. He was introduced to Surtees by William Thackeray, a great friend and admirer of Surtees' work. The first novel Leech illustrated for Surtees was Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour. Surtees had originally asked Thackeray to illustrate this work, but Thackeray declined on the grounds that he could not draw horses; instead, he recommended Leech, being 'of a sporting turn' and who 'to my mind draws a horse excellently'. Leech illustrated all of Surtees' subsequent works and the two men became friends. The illustrations follow the text closely, a result of close collaboration between the artist and writer. Although Leech was responsible for numerous book illustrations, and is lauded as the chief cartoonist of Punch, some of his best work is to be found in the pages of Surtees' novels. 

Plate opposite p.532: Mr Jorrocks's return to his family

Surtees went on to write six further novels. Of these, Mr Sponge's sporting tour (1848-51) was his first real success. Although known predominantly as a hunting novelist, he also produced two society novels, Ask Mamma (1857-8) and Plain or Ringlets? (1859-60). His last novel, Mr Facey Romford's Hounds (1864), is deemed to be technically his best. Surtees died while awaiting its publication.

Hepburn 157-161 on the shelf

Not typical of the literary establishment of his time, the Victorian public were slow to appreciate Surtees. Certainly, he did not set out to please them particularly, or to pander to their tastes. Nonetheless, his reputation grew steadily after his death and his characters, such as Jorrocks, became famous. To this day, his novels are loved by a band of devotees, but they deserve a wider reading public. Readers may be put off because they perceive his subject matter to be too specialised, especially in these days when hunting with hounds has become such a contentious and emotive issue. It has been stated that 'as long as hunting lasts Jorrocks will have readers - real readers, readers who read a book till they know it by heart - and this for the simple reason that "it's hunting"' (Gordon Tidy, quoted in Watson, p264). However, it is perfectly possible for those who know nothing about horses and hounds to enjoy Surtees' work. Here is a novelist who is free from affectation and false sentiment: the best way to read him is simply to surrender to his rich world and revel in its great sense of the ridiculous.

This copy of Handley Cross comes from the Hepburn Collection. It is one of five novels by Surtees in the collection, all bound by Zaehnsdorf, a firm of craft bookbinders who were established in 1842.


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Julie Gardham November 2005