The Real Thing
One of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, ‘My Son’s Wife’, features a high-minded young aesthete named Midmore, who spends his days pondering the improvement of society. Midmore inherits a country estate from a widowed aunt, Mrs Werf, and reluctantly pays it a visit. Thumbing through the books in the library, he suddenly realizes with horror what the late Colonel Werf ’s mind must have been in its prime: for the colonel, like Kipling, was an enthusiastic reader of Surtees, the mid-Victorian hunting novelist, and Midmore is exposed to an attitude to life – sceptical, brisk, tough-minded and unsentimental – diametrically opposed to his own. ‘It was a foul world into which he peeped for the first time,’ Kipling tells us, ‘a heavy-eating, hard-drinking hell of horse-copers, swindlers, match-making mothers, economically dependent virgins selling themselves blushingly for cash and lands, Jews, tradesmen and an ill-considered spawn of Dickens and horsedung characters.’ Unable to put it down Midmore reels off to bed clutching a copy of Handley Cross, one of Surtees’s milder creations.