Biography

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Theodore Edward Hook (1788-1841)

This article was written by Richard Garnett and was published in 1891.


HookTheodore Edward Hook, novelist and miscellaneous writer, son of James Hook, musical composer, was born in Charlotte Street, Bedford Square, 22 Septe3mber 1788. He was educated at private schools, and subsequently for a short time at Harrow. According to his own account, which may be easily credited, he was principally distinguished at school for mischief, deceptiveness, and an inaptitude for serious application. He had the misfortune to lose an excellent mother at an early age, and his natural failings were fostered by a premature introduction to the theatrical world as author of words for the songs in his father's comic operas. His share in the ‘Soldier's Return’ brought him £50 when he was only sixteen; and, sometimes in conjunction with his father, sometimes independently, he produced during the next five or six years a number of farces and melodramas. One of the latter, ‘Tekeli,’ was ridiculed by Byron in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ but proved attractive to the public.

Hook's social qualities, however, gained him more celebrity than his dramatic performances; his conversation abounded with wit and drollery, his faculty for lyrical and musical improvisation was marvellous, and the exuberance of his animal spirits impelled him to ceaseless practical jokes, sometimes harmless, sometimes heartless, but always clever. The most celebrated was the famous Berners Street hoax, perpetrated in 1809, when the street was blocked up for a whole day by all sorts and conditions of men, from the Duke of Gloucester and the lord mayor to draymen and chimney-sweeps, summoned on various pretexts to besiege the house of a Mrs. Tottenham, who had incurred Hook's displeasure. Upwards of four thousand letters, it is said, had been sent out. Hook's next freak was to take up residence at the university of Oxford, which he left after two terms without having involved himself in any more serious scrape than the risk of banishment, from the excess of complaisance which made him volunteer to sign forty articles should such be the desire of the authorities. Resuming his gay life in town, he became acquainted with the Rev. E. Cannon and other favourites of the Prince of Wales.

It was probably through their and his brother's influence that, at the age of twenty-four, utterly unacquainted as he was with business and arithmetic, he obtained the post of accountant-general and treasurer at Mauritius, where he arrived in October 1813. This apparently miraculous piece of good fortune proved his ruin. When, in 1817, an examination into the state of the treasury was directed by the governor, Hook at first received a full acquittance from every liability; but a second investigation, undertaken at the instance of a clerk named Allan, who destroyed himself during the course of it, brought to light a deficiency of sixty-two thousand dollars, of which he could offer no explanation. He was, of course, held responsible, his whole property in the island was confiscated, and he was sent home. Upon his arrival in England the case was investigated by the treasury, who discovered no ground for criminal proceedings, but fixed the civil responsibility upon him for the rest of his life. His remaining property was seized, he was imprisoned from 1823 to 1825, and although, after the final treasury minute, the crown claim for the balance of the debt was allowed to remain dormant during his life, it was revived against his representatives. The fault of this apparently harsh proceeding lay principally with himself. Though for many years receiving an ample income from his pen, he never attempted to discharge any portion of his admitted liability, and had thus forfeited all title to indulgence.

Long before Hook's liberation from confinement he had resorted to his pen for his living. In 1819 and 1820 appeared, with other ephemeral literary work, the clever farce ‘Exchange no Robbery,’ so unluckily suggestive in title that it had to be brought out under the pseudonym of ‘Richard Jones,’ ‘The Arcadian,’ a short-lived magazine, and ‘Tentamen,’ a satire on Queen Caroline and Alderman Wood, which achieved no little success. If the authorship was known to any, it may have co-operated with the general recommendation of Sir Walter Scott in obtaining for him the editorship of the ‘John Bull,’ established towards the end of 1820 to counteract the popular enthusiasm for Queen Caroline. Hook's reckless humour and preternatural faculty of improvisation now had full swing, and his powers were never displayed to so much advantage as in this scurrilous, scandalous, but irresistibly facetious, and for a time exceedingly potent journal. No man with a particle of chivalry could have written as Hook did, but no such man could have been equally effective in exposing a pernicious, though generous, popular delusion. He undoubtedly proved himself the prince of lampooners. The exuberance of his impetuous fun sweeps away the studied and polished sarcasms of refined satirists like Moore; he hurls ridicule and invective right and left with a Titanic vigour so admirable in itself as a manifestation of energy that we almost forget that after all it is only mud that he is showering. Most of it, however, stuck where it was meant to stick, and his disreputable paper must be named with the ‘Craftsman’ and the ‘North Briton’ among those which have contributed to mould English history. ‘It is impossible to deny,’ says the ‘Quarterly Review,’ ‘that “Bull” frightened the Whig aristocracy from countenancing the Court of Brandenburgh House.

The national movement was arrested, and George IV had mainly “John Bull” to thank for that result.’ It produced another result less satisfactory to the editor; when his long-concealed identity leaked out, it became impossible for the treasury to show him the indulgence which would have been represented as the price of his pen, and pique perhaps concurred with carelessness in preventing him from endeavouring to make his defalcations good. He had further encumbered himself with family cares in a very unfortunate manner, having formed an irregular connection, to which he adhered with such strict fidelity that it is surprising he should never have legalised it. Another great mistake was the dissipation of his energies in a number of abortive literary projects, instead of their concentration in his journal, which, after some years of almost unparalleled success, gradually ceased to be a remunerative property. Among these unsuccessful undertakings, however, must not be reckoned his nine volumes of novels published from 1826 to 1829 under the collective title of ‘Sayings and Doings,’ for which he received little less than £3,000 ‘Passion and Principle,’ with its pendant ‘Cousin William,’ ‘Gervase Skinner,’ and ‘Martha the Gipsy’ are the best known. Hook estimated his own ability as a novelist very accurately. ‘Give me,’ he said, ‘a story to tell, and I can tell it, but I cannot create.’ This deficiency in invention made him an habitual copyist from the life.

The hero of ‘Maxwell’ (1830), his next and most carefully constructed novel, is a close portrait of his friend Cannon, and his later works, ‘Gilbert Gurney’ and ‘Gurney Married’ (1836 and 1838), are little else than a gallery of thinly disguised portraits and a string of anecdotes from real life, so excellently told, however, that these slight performances seem likely to survive his more ambitious writings. They appeared in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ of which he had become editor in 1836. In the interval he had written (1833) ‘The Parson's Daughter’ and ‘Love and Pride,’ and (1832) a life of Sir David Baird, a work apparently quite out of his line, but which satisfied the family and the public. ‘Jack Brag,’ 1836, is a successful parasite's mockery of an unsuccessful one. He also rewrote the reminiscences of Michael Kelly and commenced a life of Charles Mathews, which was discontinued from differences with the family. His last novel of importance was ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths,’ 1839; subsequent publications, the dregs of his failing powers, were believed to be only partially from his own hand. During the last six or seven years of his life Hook was steadily sinking in health, in circumstances, and in literary power, and the inner history of his life is truly tragic.

Received into the highest circles, admired, caressed, applauded for his unequalled social talent, he was, as he knew well, regarded merely as a hired jester, whose failure to amuse his patrons would be visited by prompt expulsion from their society. While apparently the soul of gaiety abroad, at home he led the life of the hunted and harassed author; while the dissipations of the gay world broke down his health, domestic cares weighed heavily upon his really affectionate disposition; and the scenes where he shone and sparkled were darkened by the great shadow of his unredeemed and unredeemable debt. Lockhart has raised the veil in a most powerful passage in the ‘Quarterly,’ reinforced by significant extracts from Hook's diary. Portraits of him as he appeared at this time to those who chiefly knew him as Lord Hertford's parasite appear in ‘Coningsby,’ where he is introduced as ‘Lucian Gay,’ and in ‘Vanity Fair,’ where he figures as ‘Mr. Wagg.’ ‘Done up in purse, in mind, and in body,’ as he said himself, he expired at his house at Fulham on 24 August 1841. His effects were seized by the crown as preferential creditor, but his family were provided for by a subscription, in which the names of his aristocratic patrons, the king of Hanover's excepted, were not to be found.

Hook was a better man than would be easily discovered from his writings. ‘He was,’ says Lockhart, ‘humane, charitable, generous. There was that about him which made it hard to be often in his society without regarding him with as much of fondness as of admiration.’ His defects were a moral vulgarity, far more offensive than the social vulgarity it ridiculed, and a want of every quality especially characteristic of a high-minded man. In the less exalted sphere of the social affections he was exemplary, and much of his apparent dissipation was forced upon him by the necessity of keeping in society to keep out of gaol. ‘His real tastes,’ says Lockhart, ‘were simple enough.’ His unflagging literary industry in the midst of so many hindrances and temptations is highly to his credit. Though he sold his pen, he did not prostitute it; the side in support of which his wit and scurrility were enlisted was really his own. His natural powers were extraordinary. ‘He is,’ said Coleridge, ‘as true a genius as Dante.’ With regular education and mental discipline he might have done great things; his actual reputation is that of a great master in a low style of humour, and the most brilliant improvisatore, whether with the pen or at the piano, that his country has seen.


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