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.
Like Tobias Smollett, his only rival as the hard man of the English novel, Surtees has never been highly esteemed by the academic or literary worlds: Orwell, V. S. Pritchett, Joyce Cary, Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf, amazingly, may have been keen admirers, but given his subject matter and his rumbustious, agreeably coarse-grained prose, his critical neglect is hardly surprising. And although Thackeray said that he would have given all he had to have written Mr Facey Romford’s Hounds, and introduced its author to John Leech, whose gloomy engravings of rain-swept fields and bottle-nosed huntsmen perfectly complement the novels, Surtees was never part of the London literary scene.
A North Country squire by background and inclination, he was born in 1805: he worked in London as a lawyer and, more enjoyably, as a sporting journalist, but in 1
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