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[Horace Smith]
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. VI.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. 80  (August 1847)  461-68.
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No. VI.
Forsan et hæc olim meminisse juvabit.

Theodore Hook—His Hilarity different from that of Charles Mathews—His unrivalled Talent as an Extemporiser—His Sanctum in Charlotte-street—The Thunder-storm —The Sadler’s Wells’ Burletta—How he sometimes escaped from his Pranks—Returns from the Mauritius—Edits the John Bull—Dinner at Lady Stepney’s—Contrast of Hook, “Abroad and at Home.”— His Death—Subscription for his Children—Notices of Lady Stepney and Parson Cannon.

I have said that Charles Mathews, with his unrivalled powers of mimicry, his inexhaustible fund of anecdote, and his mirth-provoking comic songs, was a constant source of amusement at our Sydenham merry meetings; but, perhaps, Theodore Hook might have been crowned by the laughter-lovers as the more genuine and natural Momus of the party. The former had a decided genius for a particular species of pleasantry, and he loved to display it in congenial society, partly, because every one likes to show off the talent in which he knows himself to excel, partly, because he received pleasure in giving it to his companions; but his exhibitions, so far from appearing to be the spontaneous overflow of a joyous temperament, sometimes gave you the impression that they were rather efforts to enliven a disposition not naturally gay. Even to his pleasant sallies his irritability imparted an occasional petulance that tended to confirm such a belief; they were often, however, rendered more piquant by this peevishness of manner, which was, perhaps, after all, rather apparent than real, and people willingly make allowance for the occasional bad temper of a good-natured man.

Far different was the effect produced by the unvaried and irrepressible ebullience of Theodore Hook’s vivacity, which was a manifest exuberance from the conjunction of rampant animal spirits, a superabundance of corporeal vitality, a vivid sense of the ludicrous, a consciousness of his own unparalleled readiness, and a self-possession, not to say an effrontery, that nothing could daunt. Indulging his natural frolicksomeness rather to amuse himself than others, he was not fastidious about the quality of his audience, whom he would startle by some outrageous horse-play, or practical joke, if he found them too stupid for puns, jests, and songs. Thus you were always sure of him; he required no preparation, no excitement, he was never out of sorts, never out of spirits, never unprepared for a sally however hazardous, a prank however mad. If the writer of these notices confesses that he sometimes participated in these questionable freaks, he begs permission to state, in extenuation for both parties, that he is now speaking of Hook in the earlier portion of his career.

The century must have been young when I first met him at the house of the late Nat. Middleton, the banker, then living in Charles-street, St. James’s-square. A large dinner-party was assembled, and before the ladies had withdrawn, the improvisatore was requested to favour the company with a song; his compliance was immediate and unembarrassed, as if it were an affair of no difficulty; and the verses, turning chiefly upon the names of the guests, only once varied by an allusion to some occurrence of the moment, were so pointed and sparkling, that I hesitated not to express my total disbelief in the possibility of their being extemporan-
462A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
eous, an opinion which some “good-natured friend” repeated to the singer. “Oh, the unbelieving dog!” exclaimed the vocalist. “Tell him if I am called upon again, he himself shall dictate the subject and the tune, which of course involves the metre; but it must be some common popular air.” All this took place; and the second song proving still more brilliant than the first, I made a very humble palinode for my mistrust, and expressed the astonishment and delight with which his truly wonderful performance had electrified me. Not without difficulty, however, had I been enabled to believe my own ears, and several days elapsed before I had completely recovered from my bewilderment, for, as an occasional rhymester, I could well appreciate the difficulty of the achievement.

Some months after this encounter, while on my way to call upon a friend in Bedford-square, I was overtaken by so sudden a storm of thunder, lightning, and rain, that I took shelter in the door-way of a house in Charlotte-street, where I had hardly ensconced myself, when a figure ran helter skelter to my side, seeking, as I imagined, the same protection as myself. It proved, however, to be Theodore Hook, who, after expressing his pleasure at our unexpected meeting, told me that the house was his father’s, and opening the door with a latch-key, asked me to put into the paternal port until the storm was over; an invitation which I readily accepted, and was ushered into a small back drawing-room, his own peculiar sanctum. A sketch of this apartment, from the reminiscences of an associate, is thus given in the Quarterly Review (vol. lxxvii., p. 56).“The tables, chairs, mantelpiece, piano, were all covered with a litter of letters, MS. music, French plays, notes, tickets, rhyming dictionaries; and not a seat to be had.” Such was its plight at the time of my induction, with the addition of a half-finished bottle of wine, of which, after offering me a glass, he tossed off a large bumper, so early were sown the seeds of that propensity which gained upon him so lamentably in afterlife! The day was sultry, the windows had been left open, so had the piano, at which Hook seated himself, and looking up at the sky, while he accompanied himself on the instrument, he sang in rhyme an extemporaneous defiance of the still-raging storm, in terms so daring and unmeasured, that while I was surprised by his cleverness, I was infinitely more astounded by his outrageous audacity. We all know that a thunder-storm, the merely fortuitous strife of the elements, is produced by the collision of air-driven clouds; but the certain destructiveness and uncertain direction of the death-fraught electric spark, and the lingering delusion—not unassociated, perhaps, with our boyish recollections of the Jupiter Tonans, that these terrific fulminations are the voice of an offended deity, are calculated to awaken a feeling of vague solemnity, even in the minds of the most reckless. Not such, however, was its effect upon Hook, who, as the storm died away, a result which he attributed to his own menaces, began to imitate the retiring thunder on his instrument.

“Are you not afraid of the fate of Salmoneus?” I inquired.

“No; but the storm is afraid of me,” he replied; and, at the same time, throwing down one of his gloves as a gauntlet, he sang a challenge to the clouds, inviting them to return and renew the contest, if they were not satisfied with the defeat they had already sustained.

Let not any one accuse him of intentional profaneness; it was the mere out-burst of boisterous temerity, proceeding from intoxication of animal spirits, and a desire to astonish his auditor, in which latter object he certainly succeeded.

A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance. 463

Retaining his seat at the piano, after the conclusion of this strange escapade, he asked me whether he should give me an extempore Opera scene, with imitations of the principal performers, or a Sadler’s Wells’ burletta, such as was then currently performed in that suburban theatre. The latter won my preference, and most complete, as well as entertaining, was the performance. The morning song of Patty the dairymaid, as she sallied forth to milk her cows, the meeting, and the duet with her rustic lover, Hodge, the scolding of the cross old mother at her staying away so long from the cottage, her vindication by the good-tempered father, all given, music as well as words, in an unpremeditated trio —the advent of the squire—his jovial hunting-song—his dishonourable proposals to Patty, and their indignant rejection—his quarrel with Hodge, who upbraids him with his base attempt—his ignominious retreat, and the marriage of the happy pair, announced by a merry peal from the village bells, were all presented with such a perfect imitation of the Sadler’s Wells’ libretto, as well as of the characters introduced, that his promptitude and versatility filled me with an indescribable amazement.

A rollicking buffoonery, and puns, and jests, and extemporaneous songs, and practical jokes of the most matchless impudence, were Hook’s predominant characteristics, but he occasionally indulged a quiet drollery, not less laughable than his witty flashes. I once met him at a dinner-party, where his spirit seemed to be rebuked by the presence of two solemn-looking elderly noblemen, until the subject having turned upon Shakspeare, one of the company observed that the only individual of all his acquaintance who thought that illustrious poet over-rated, was Perry, of the Morning Chronicle.

“This excites no surprise in me,” said Hook, very gravely; “you must recollect that the bard has gone out of his way, and substituted one beverage for another, for the express purpose of passing him by, and showing him a slight.”

“Beverage! Slight! What can you mean?” demanded two or three voices.

“Why, in that well-known line—‘To suckle fools and chronicle small-beer’— is it not manifest that he ought to have written—‘Chronicle Perry?’”

Sheer as was its absurdity, the oddness of the remark, and the dry seriousness with which it was propounded, shook the commoners with laughter, and even elicited a smile from the peers.

Often have I sate upon tenterhooks, for fear of the consequences, while Hook has been playing off his pranks with an impertinence that could hardly fail to be detected and resented; and more than once have I known him to be indebted to his legs for his escape. When supping with him one night at the Hummums, he made such a point-blank attack, by mimicry and every species of annoyance, upon a corpulent, respectable-looking, country gentleman, sitting in the same box, that at length he turned fiercely round upon his tormentor, exclaiming,

“What the devil do you mean by this impertinence?”

“My dear sir,” replied Theodore, blandly, “my meaning can be explained to your entire satisfaction, if you will allow me to say one word to you at the door of the coffee-room.”

“Well, sir, well,” growled the stranger, “I do expect entire satisfaction, and am ready to hear what you have got to say.”

With which words he stalked to the door, which he had no sooner reached, than Hook resumed,

464 A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.

“You are to understand, sir, I have laid a wager with my friend that I can run to the pit entrance of Drury Lane theatre faster than you can. Mind, we are to start when I clap my hands,” which signal he instantly gave, and took to his heels with a speed that soon carried him out of sight of his fat and fuming victim.

By the same safe, but not very dignified expedient, did he extricate himself from a still more perilous dilemma at Sydenham. One Sunday afternoon a party of us were strolling through the village, just as the inhabitants were returning from church, when Hook, having suddenly turned down his shirt-collar, pushed back his curly hair, and assumed a puritanical look, jumped into an empty cart by the road-side, and began to hold forth in the whining tones of a field preacher. Gathering ourselves in front to listen to him, we formed the nucleus of a congregation, which presently included a score or two of open-mouthed labourers and country crones. So enthusiastic and so devout were the sham preacher’s manner and matter, that he commanded the deep attention of his auditors, until, with a startling change of voice and look, he poured forth a volley of loud and abusive vulgarities, jumped from the cart, and ran across the fields, pursued by a couple of incensed rustics, who soon, however, abandoned a chase which they found to be hopeless. That we might not be suspected of any participation in this gross and inexcusable outrage, of which, indeed, all of us were really innocent, and many of us completely ashamed, we joined in the fierce indignation of the bystanders, fully assenting to their prediction that the perpetrator would inevitably come to be hanged in this world, and be provided with particularly warm quarters in the next.

At our Sydenham festivities, where an almost Saturnalian licence was allowed, it may well be supposed that Hook, under the excitement of wine, added to a temperament naturally half wild with spirits, did not always restrain his merriment “within the limits of becoming mirth.” Sooth to say, his transgressions in this respect were apt to be inordinate. On one such occasion, when a cluster of villagers were seen listening at the window which abutted upon the road, it was proposed that the servant should be sent to disperse them; but the good-natured host refused his assent, exclaiming, “Pooh, pooh! let them alone; they like to be shocked; I happen to know it. Besides, they may never have another opportunity of hearing the wags of London.” A precious opinion they must have formed of these same wags!

Again let me remind the reader that all these, and many similar outbreaks, together with the thousand and one minor acts of tomfoolery of which no record has been made, were perpetrated by Hook in his earlier days, some time before he received his ill-fated appointment to the treasurership of the Mauritius. Every one knows the painful and humiliating circumstances that occasioned him to be sent home from that colony as a prisoner. After a long investigation, the Audit Board declared him a defaulter to the amount of 12,000l., though he himself never admitted a deficiency of more than 9000l. Great doubts were entertained as to his reception in society; and he himself, as if anxious to avoid publicity, was stated to be residing, for his father was then dead, in some humble suburban lodging. At this juncture I was no longer a Londoner; and thus I lost sight of him, and rarely even heard of him, until he made himself notorious as a sort of literary gladiator for the Tory party, writing scurrilous lampoons upon the persecuted and cruelly-used Queen
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.465
Caroline, and editing the newly-established John Bull newspaper, the leading features of which were a zealous advocacy of the slave-trade, occasional licentiousness of language, with an unsparing malignity, rancour, and personality, in its attacks upon the queen’s defenders, the Whigs and the Liberals. We have a clue to the good taste of the aristocracy and clergy of that day, by which classes it was principally supported, when we state, on the authority of Hook’s own diary, that at one period his receipts from the paper were as high as 2000l. a year! To any delicate or chivalrous refinement in his onslaughts, Hook had never made pretension; nor were the political sentiments of the John Bull, however extreme, inconsistent with his own. He was rabidly loyal; the idol of his idolatry being the immaculate George IV.! His gratitude for the appointment to the Mauritius involved, moreover, a lively sense of benefits to come, for he was firmly persuaded that the sovereign would make good his defalcation by a grant from the privy purse.

An absence of several years from England, and my subsequent residence in a provincial town, so completely separated me from Hook, that though I often heard of his “Sayings and Doings” I only caught infrequent personal glimpses of him. Rumour had apprised me that he had been living too fast in a financial sense; and his bloated, unhealthy appearance gave me painful assurance, at every fresh interview, that the remark was equally applicable to his social habits. The last time I had the pleasure of dining in his company was in the year 1840, at the London residence of the late Lady Stepney. At this period his customary beverage was brandy and champagne in equal portions, with an infusion of some stimulating powder, which he generally carried about with him. Appetite for food seemed to have nearly failed him, but he sought compensation in champagne, and I could perceive little or no diminution of his customary vivacity and his witty sallies. Willingly taking his place at the piano in the drawing-room, he commenced, “by particular desire of several persons of distinction,” with the favourite mock cathedral chant of “The Little Birds do sing;” after which he was prevailed upon to treat us with an extempore song, which proved as prompt, sparkling, and felicitous, as the best effusion of his best days. In the midst of it, Sir David Wilkie stole into the room, making his salutations in a whisper, lest he should disturb the singer, who was so far from being disconcerted, that he immediately introduced him to the company as
“His worthy friend, douce Davy Wilkie,
Who needn’t speak so soft and silky,”
since his entrance, instead of interrupting him, had supplied him with another verse. A minute or two afterwards a particle of candlewick fell upon the arm of Miss B——, an incident which the vocalist instantly seized, by addressing the lady, and declaring that it excited no surprise in him whatever—
“Since he knew very well, by his former remarks,
That wherever she went she attracted the sparks.”

In this impromptu style, his tumbler being duly replenished, he continued to delight and astonish his auditors until, at the warning of the tell-tale clock, striking the little hours, they tore themselves reluctantly away.

Poor, dear, fascinating, mirth-dispensing, body and mind afflicted
466A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
Theodore Hook! From such scenes, from courtly bowers, and festive halls, and lordly saloons, where flattery, homage, worship, a living apotheosis, were lavished upon him by starred and garterred grandees, jewelled peeresses, bright-eyed belles, and the elite of the beau-monde, the miserable Merry-andrew dragged himself to his unblessed home, utterly exhausted both in frame and mind, to bewail, in bitter compunction, his ruined prospects, his ever-increasing embarrassments, his waning health, his wasted life, and the felt approaches of that death which would leave his creditors unpaid, his children and their mother utterly destitute! The firework had been played off; it had flashed, and sparkled, and scattered light and cheerfulness around, delighting all by its ever-changing and ever-charming forms and hues; and nothing now was left but the darkened, unsightly framework of the wheel, worn, wasted, and shattered by its own brilliant gyrations, under an artificial and self-consuming impulse. A few weeks before the dinner-party at which I had seen him lionising hi all his glory, and apparently sharing the happiness that he conferred, he had made the following entry in his diary:—

“Jan. 1st, 1840.—To-day another year opens upon me with a vast load of debt and many incumbrances. I am suffering under constant anxiety and depression of spirits, which nobody who sees me in society dreams of; but why should I suffer my own private worries to annoy my friends?”

He died next year, and was buried in Fulham churchyard, but few mourners, and none of any rank or fame following him to the grave. Not they! More deeply would they have regretted the loss of a favourite living dog than of their dead lion! The popular player, mountebank, and buffoon had taken his benefit in the shape of invitations, banquets, jollifications, metropolitan revels, and the run of rural castles, when a man of genius and pleasantry was wanted to enliven the dulness of the guests; and the sacrificers had now nothing further to do with or for their victim. No, nor for his victims! the produce of his books and other effects, about 2500l., having been surrendered to the crown as the privileged creditor, and his children and their mother being thus left penniless, a subscription was opened for their assistance, to which the King of Hanover generously transmitted 500l., probably in grateful remembrance of the able assistance he had received from Hook’s pen, when a malignant and groundless outcry was raised on account of the suicide of Sellis, his majesty’s German servant. Some of the friends of the deceased in middle life came forward with liberal donations, “but few, very few of those who had either profited as politicians by Theodore Hook’s zeal and ability, or courted him in their lofty circles for the fascination of his wit, have as yet been found to show any feeling for his unfortunate offspring.”* Amusing enough, considering the quarters whence it emanated, was the excuse offered for this sordid shabbiness. Feelings of propriety, and decorum, and morality arrested their contributions; they could not patronise natural children, so that the additional misfortune and need of these poor innocents was made a pretext for not relieving them! This may be a good conventional and social plea, though I doubt whether it be in accordance with the charity enjoined in the Scriptures. But we are a virtuous and a religious people, and there is no morality so strict and straitlaced, nor any so economical withal, as that which takes the pocket for its Bible!

* Quarterly Review, vol lxxii., p. 103.
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance. 467

It has been objected to the interesting biographical notice of Hook in the Quarterly Review, that it lets the reader too much behind the scenes of his private life, and does not evince the kindly and defensive spirit which might have been expected from the writer, who was understood to have been the intimate associate of the deceased. For this charge I cannot see any tenable foundation. “Plato is my friend, but Truth is more my friend,” is still a sound critical canon, and de mortuis nil nisi verum is an improvement on the original quotation. The editor of an influential periodical has contracted moral responsibilities to the public which forbid the indulgence of prepossessions in favour of an individual, however manifest his genius, whose life and conduct present but equivocal claims to the sympathy of the world. A cursory but honest biography, not an apology was the critic’s object, and if he have exhibited any leaning at all, it is on the extenuating rather than the inculpatory side. The early errors of the deceased are attributed to a neglected education, and the mistakes of a kind but weak father; mitigating pleas are urged for his malversation at the Mauritius; but no attempt has been made to conceal or palliate the fatal and repeated imprudences which debarred him from that station in society to which he was so fully entitled by his talents, and led him to throw away those golden opportunities which ought to have secured his happiness by placing him in a position of honour and independence. As one of the friends of Theodore Hook, I give my cordial assent to the concluding sentence of the Review:—“We are not afraid that any of his real friends will suspect us of regarding his memory without tenderness, because we have discharged our duty by telling what we believed to be the truth.”

Let me be indulged with a passing reminiscence of Lady Stepney, of whom mention has been made in this article. Gentle, amiable, friendly, in every respect a lady, and utterly incapable of saying or doing an unkind thing, she mistook her vocation when she claimed to be a literary character and a poetess. Yet the ambition was an honourable one, and if she failed, it might at least be said of her, as of Phaeton—“magnis tamen excidit ausis.” Nor was she altogether free from the foible of imagining herself to be quite as attractive, if not quite as young, as she had been; but this delusion she shared with so many mediæval companions, that it may be deemed a general, rather than an individual, weakness. Proud of her small literature, as well as her small foot, which she took good care to display, she was equally well pleased whether you perused and admired the one or the other. With two such hobbies to ride she could not be otherwise than happy, except when puzzled as to the choice; a predicament in which I once beheld her. Pretending to be much offended, she sidled up to one friend after another, exclaiming,—

“Have you heard what Lady M—— says of me? She declares that people only read my books because I am so pretty. How very ill-natured!” but the smile lurking under the assumed look of displeasure, contradicted the exclamation.

Such was her self-deception, touching her position as a writer, that she never suspected the persiflage of which she was sometimes made the object. The conversation once turning upon the advantages of being known ai an author, Theodore Hook, ever ready for a grave hoax, observed—

“Why, it is all very well in some cases, such as mine for instance, where you do not attempt to rise beyond mediocrity, and could not if you would. Nobody is then jealous of you, and, therefore, nobody cares to malign you; but the moment you obtain pre-eminence and fame, and
468A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
surpass all your competitors, they hate you, and envy you, and make you the butt of the most venomous attacks. Look at
Sir Walter Scott. Few men have attained so exalted a position, few have borne their faculties so meekly in their high office; and yet, how unsparingly has he been attacked by Hazlitt! No one, however, is so competent to give an opinion upon this subject as our distinguished hostess. Do not you find, Lady Stepney, that your similar position exposes you to the same sort of petty and spiteful detraction?”

As he spoke, he looked earnestly at her ladyship, as if anxious to hear her reply, while he thrust his tongue into his cheek, and winked at his companions, as soon as he turned his head.

“Now, really,” said the duped authoress, quietly assuming the seat beneath the summa biverticis umbra Parnassi, thus ironically assigned to her, “I cannot say that I have much to complain of in that respect. To be sure, I do read now and then very unhandsome criticisms upon my works, but as I know that they proceed from nothing but malice and envy of my superior success, I consider them to be compliments rather than any thing else. No, I have never regretted my becoming an authoress.”

Such ridicule, even though undetected by its object, was a very unfair return for her ladyship’s hospitality; but it was more kind, perhaps, to confirm her in this gratissimus error, than to disabuse her of it. No one who knew her could have the heart to give her pain; and I need not, therefore, add, that these anecdotes would never have been committed to paper in her lifetime.

Before I quit the subject of Theodore Hook, I may state that the original of the “Godfrey Moss,” introduced into his novel of “Gilbert Gurney,” as incumbent of the very appropriate rectory of “Fuddley-cum-pipes,” was an unbeneficed clergyman, named Cannon, one of the priests of the household, an eccentric humorist, and one of the novelist’s most congenial compotators. Many, many years ago, I met “Parson Cannon,” as he was familiarly called, at the table of Mr. Croker, when that gentleman lived at Fulham, and also when he had apartments in Kensington Palace; but whatever might have been his quaint drollery, or his convivial qualities when stimulated by a pipe and spirit castor, with two or three cronies, they were not conspicuous in a mixed company. He was a good singer, however, of English ballads, and when performing on the piano or the organ, he really seemed to be inspired. The last time I encountered him was at the extremity of the pier at Ryde, waiting for a sailing-boat, for he almost lived upon the sea. Enveloped in a shaggy Dreadnought coat, he appeared utterly unconscious of the pelting rain, so busily was he employed in preparing an apparatus for boiling the kettle which always went afloat with him, that he might be constantly supplied with his favourite beverage—hot gin and water. By a crescendo process in the former, and a diminuendo in the latter of these ingredients, his potations eventually became too strong for the health, either of his body or his mind. Always elected president of the punch-bowl, when that beverage crowned the jovial night, he used jocosely to remark that few people had mixed more in society than himself; but, in after years, as we learn from the recently published Memoir of his friend, the Rev. R. H. Barham, author of the “Ingoldsby Legends,” he sank into a toping and voluntary exile at Twickenham, and, under the influence of the slow poison to which he had become a slave, finally expired—“deep sunk in childhood’s night.”