Thomas Hood (1799-1845)
Herbert Tyrrel, late of St. Kitts in the eastern Caribbean, arrives in a sickly condition at the “Rabbits”, a roadside inn near the seat of Tylney Hall, the estate of Sir Mark Tyrrel, the current baronet. He is put to bed and Doctor Bellamy is sent for. Bellamy is the only local professional, but his methods are viewed askance by Mrs. Hanway, the inn-keeper’s wife, a self-labeled herbsperson, with a talent for despatching all and sundry to a quick and occasionally painful demise. The doctor is slightly more competent, but imbued with all the prejudices and procedures common to early nineteenth century medical authorities. In short order, the two practitioners reduce Herbert to a critical state, at which point Sir Mark is sent for and he arrives in time to witness his brother’s decease.
Accompanying Herbert is his son Walter, a comely but dark hued youth of sixteen. Mark has two sons, also: Ringwood, the eldest, and Raby the younger. They are youths in their late teens; Ringwood is a devoted hunter to hounds, and a horse enthusiast, while Raby is mostly interested in books, poetry, and Latin. Mark invites Walter (later referred to as St. Kitts by the two brothers) to come and live at the Hall and he accepts.
Walter feels out of place and resentful because of his skin coloring and his supposedly unsanctified heritage. His mother, presumably of native origin, was not married to his father. Tension grows between the three youths, and is fanned by their interests in local girls. Grace is the daughter of Justice Rivers, a rigid, unyielding magistrate, compared by the author to the infamous Justice Jeffries, a hanging judge of Welsh fame who was elevated to Lord Chancellor, probably because of his iron interpretation of the laws. The Twigg family, newly arrived in the area, have purchased a nearby farm and are busy remodeling it and learning how to make it a profitable enterprise. Their daughter, Flora, is a comely but bovine lass, who is the object of admiration by Ringwood. Raby is attracted to Grace. The Twiggs throw a garden party for the local gentry; it’s an extravagant display with a pageant, a champagne tent, a floral exhibit, and a horse race, among other features. The cow, Daisy, takes a major part when she escapes and careers through the yard, knocking over tables and making a mish-mash of food, plateware, and silverware, scaring the ladies and wreking havoc right and left… The champagne bottles explode, having been left in a hot tent, and the affair is washed out at last by an intense rain storm.
Walter is at a disadvantage in all of these goings-on, partly because of his racial characteristics, and partly because he is sort of a sneaky, underhanded manipulator. Helping him in his nefarious schemes is a local gypsy-like vagabond, a lady with the reputation of a fortune-teller named Indiana. She tells Walter that she was a friend of his mother’s, and she displays a greedy interest in Walter’s efforts to attain power in the Tyrrel family’s activities and enterprises. He becomes enamored of Grace and jealous of Raby.
The three youths leave home to attend Oxford. Ringwood spends a lot of time in sports and gambling. Raby reads and studies himself into a state of physical enfeeblement. Walter makes a few artful associations that serve him in some of his devious operations.
Returning home, their relative positions are not much changed and Walter is more bitter than ever. He persuades Raby, one day, to go rabbit hunting with him. After flailing about in the brush for a while, Walter, espying Ringwood partially hidden behind a tree, advises Raby, whose eyesight has been damaged through overuse, that a rabbit is lurking behind the same tree. Raby shoots, killing Ringwood. Aghast at what Walter has made him do, he runs away and disappears in London. The cynical Walter blames the assassination on him and uses the opportunity to become more familiar with Grace.
Meanwhile, Sir Mark, grieving over losing both sons, is wasting away, to the bitter sorrow of his best friend, Ned, a local hunt master and inventor of mechanical gadgetry.
After Mark passes, Walter, having received a supposedly original copy of his mother’s marriage certificate, given to him by Indiana, assumes possession of the Tylney Estates, and more or less crowns himself Sir Walter. And begins courting the inconsolable Grace, who hates him, especially after a major flood during which the body of a man was found, resembling Raby.
Several years pass, during which Walter gleefully exercises his seigneurial rights, firing the servants, changing the furniture, and selling the horses. As Grace, fading and miserable, is about to obey her father and marry Walter, Ned, angered at the loss of his friends, chases Walter down, riding over fences and leaping small streams (at a single bound). They duel: Walter tries to shoot Ned in the back, so Ned, swerving about, plugs him through the heart. A passing stranger has observed these carryings-on, and, walking up, notes that Walter is lying dead on the ground. Ned recognizes him as Raby, who has just shown up after walking all the way from Dover. Apparently Raby was kidnapped while hiding in London, and experienced some years of adventure on the high seas, fighting pirates, being taken prisoner by the French, escaping and eventually arriving back in England. He had traded clothes with a local inhabitant while running away to London, so as to conceal his identity.
The plot continues to unfold, but in the interest of non-spoilage, i’ll cut off my precis at this point; suffice it to say, there is a happy, more or less, ending, with the various threads neatly polished off.
There’s very much more to the book than i have recorded here. Hood’s genius for satire and comedy is very much in evidence, and many of the characters are true originals. Mrs. Hanway, unlucky Joe Spiller, the ranting preacher Bundy and others are vehicles illustrating Hood’s rather negative understanding of English society. He really believes, and with some justification, that the system is upside down: the rich and powerful are immoral and nasty while the poor are honest and true. “The moral balance preponderates in favor of the wicked; evil wins, goodness loses”. Hood struggled for recognition his whole life, and what success he achieved was at the expense of his health. He died at 45.
If a copy of this book can be found, i recommend reading it… it’s sort of a cross between Thackery and Dickens, but not inferior to either, so far as i could estimate…