LEIGH HUNT (1784-1859)

His forebears were landholders in Barbados until his father moved to Philadelphia before the Revolutionary War.  He and his wife did well until the conflict began, when they were persecuted for their Tory inclinations.  Mrs. Hunt left the country, turning down Benjamin Franklin’s offer of guitar lessons, moving back to the island first and then on to England.  Her husband was taken in a riot and narrowly escaped being tar-and-feathered.  He escaped from jail and made his way to London to rejoin his family.  Leigh was born soon after, the youngest of five brothers and one sister.  The family lived for a while with Nathaniel West (the painter) until they found their own place near the edge of town.  Leigh was a somewhat fearful boy partly because of his brother Stephen’s relentless teasing and persecution.  But he loved escaping into the woods and fields with a book of poetry or Day’s Sandford and Merton stories and talking to the cowboys and sheepherders.  He was occasionally ill and once was sent to France to recover his health at the seashore.  His brother’s persecution resulted in frequent nightmares, one of which featured a mantichore.  The grinning toothy face scared him for years before he outgrew bad dreams.

Leigh was sent to Christ Hospital school, the largest free educational institution in London with 600 boys as students.  Charles Lamb and Sam Coleridge both were students, but preceded Leigh by several years.  The foundation of his future financial difficulties began at this point because the student body was split into different categories, none of which associated with the others.  So Leigh learned languages and soft subjects but no arithmetic or physical sciences.  He suffered the usual beatings and practical jokes common to the era but also made some life-long friendships.  As his status improved, he was able to access local bookstores on Paternoster Row, where he found books on Spenser, Collins, Grey, Shakspere and others.  He read the Arabian Nights, Hamlet, Hudibras, Paradise Lost and wrote a lot of poetry himself.  When in bed with scalded legs he learned the flute.  One of the instructors, known as Boyer the Beater knocked out one of his front teeth.  At fifteen years of age he left the school and almost immediately had a book of poetry published.  He graduated at a lower level than some of his peers because he stuttered.  Fully accredited students had to be able to speak fluently.

For several years he left a mildly madcap existence.  He was almost drowned while sailing on the Isis when the small sailboat he and a friend were in jibbed at the wrong time and he was thrown into the water with the main sheet wrapped around his neck.  He and another associate once walked from Ramsgate to Brighton (112 miles) in four days.  The reign of Napoleon began in 1802 and Leigh joined the civilian militia.  At the same time he became interested in the theater and started writing reviews of plays that were published in small magazines and newspapers.  His work was first printed in The Traveller, a minor gossip sheet with a short life.  His father made him a present of a 36 volume edition of English poetry that he devoured, and that materially influenced his writing style and provided a foundation for his later critical efforts.  Reviews of the drama at that time were mostly involved with puffing up plays in order to increase attendance and to sell more tickets.  Leigh’s essays concentrated more on literary and objective qualities;  he raised the level of criticism even though his reviews were only printed in smaller journals and magazines.

One day while riding he experienced severe heart palpitations.  Associating these with  episodes of depression (which he’d been suffering from for a while), he came to the conclusion that strenuous exercise was the best cure.  So he started walking long distances and rowing on the Thames.  One day on the water they came across a line that ran from one bank to the other, apparently supporting a fishnet that spanned the whole river.  They cut it and subsequently got into a row with the fisherpersons who’d been watching from the bank.  Luckily a policeman appeared before any substantial damage was done to any of the participating parties.

In 1810 Leigh became the managing editor of his brother’s paper, The Reflector.  Some of his friends, C. Lamb and Barnes submitted essays for it.  It lasted four issues before going broke.  Shortly after, Leigh went to jail.  The Prince of Wales had engaged himself as a supporter of the Free-Ireland movement some months before, but reneged on his promises to a group of Reformers and Leigh wrote a scathing criticism of his behavior.  So he was arrested and spent two years in prison and was fined 1000 pounds.  Eventually he lived in a two room suite in the prison hospital with his family and they enjoyed good food, stayed warm in the winter and were able to go for walks in the garden.  Lamb was a frequent visitor as was Thomas Moore.  William Hazlitt appeared, as did Percy Shelley. Jeremy Bentham was a regular badminton participator.  Lord Byron came to ride the younger Hunt’s rocking horse.  Leigh noted that Thomas Carlyle had the finest eyes he’d ever seen.  Keats and Shelley didn’t agree too well;  the former was experiencing the first symptoms of tuberculosis and he was defensive in the presence of the latter;  and probably was jealous as well.  Lamb loved practical jokes and was addicted to punning.  But he valued truth:  “truth was precious, and not to be wasted on everybody”.  Coleridge was an idler and a waster of his great talents.

After his release, Leigh and his family took ship for Italy.  It was a very rough passage, with four children and his wife confined in a small cabin with a goat.  During the period they were sailing, 1500 ships were noted by the officials as being lost.  The Hunts rented a house north of Leghorn and Byron and Shelley were frequent visitors.  One evening Shelley, who loved the water, was sailing back to his residence when his boat was swamped and he drowned.  Leigh had named Shelley as his best friend at one time and he was devastated by the accident.  Shortly after, they moved closer to Genoa with Byron.  The latter soon left, however, as the government was becoming upset with his associations with the Carbonari (the Mafia of the time).  Byron left for Greece, where he had an appointment with fate at Missolonghi.  Walter Savage Landor visited fairly often and became a good friend and helped in dealing with the authorities and merchants.  Later, another move took place when they all relocated to Florence.  Leigh loved it there:  the art, architecture, statuary and culture gave him great pleasure.  But money became an issue so the family moved back to England.

The balance of his life was devoted to writing essays and reviews and poetry and the occasional book.  He continued to experience difficulties with money and debt.  His friends made a futile attempt to have the government issue him a pension.  His most popular and successful play was “A Legend of Florence” which was produced in 1840.  Queen Victoria saw it four times.  Charles Dickens, Forster and Jerrold held a benefit dinner for Leigh that was quite successful in terms of money.  Bulwer-Lytton had nice things to say about him and aided with his financial entanglements.

The book ends in 1858 with a short codicil in ’59 that contained his final thoughts concerning his lifelong exertions.  His last book, “Religion of the Heart”  was well-accepted.  It described his religious convictions and hopes for the future.

This was a peculiar book in some ways.  It rambled about quite a lot and was difficult to follow occasionally.  He liked long sentences and employed them at the drop of a conjunction.  Sometimes the meaning got lost in the underbrush.  Hunt was the target of resentment and jealousy for part of his life, mostly having to do with his financial ineptness:  he made the point more than once that he knew no arithmetic.  His health was peripatetically  terrible, although the exact nature of his trouble was never stated:  just hypochondria and depression.  He was not a believer in established religion, although he believed in an afterlife.  He thought Dante’s Inferno was ‘childishly mistaken”.  Im not sure what he meant by that.

I’d read about Hunt for years and was always curious about him so i’m glad to have finally read the book.  He wasn’t an exceptional talent, but he was apparently very knowledgeable and personable.  He was generous with his time and attracted lights greater than himself, for which he should be honored.  I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in the period, but the intended reader should be one who was capable of “summoning up the blood”…




Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Jeremey Pordage has just arrived in Los Angeles airport.  He’s been hired by a local millionaire, Mr. Stoyte, to catalog his recently acquired journals of the fifth Earl of Hauberk, a member of the minor nobility of 18th century England.  Driving toward Stoyte’s castle in a chauffeured limousine, Pordage sees Consul gas stations, owned by Stoyte, a cafe shaped like a bulldog, a real estate office built to resemble the Sphinx, and the Beverly Pantheon, a cemetery with statues, fountains, a perpetual Wurlitzer organ, and a wedding chapel.  En route they pass Stoyte’s Hospital for Sick Children.  the chauffeur stops momentarily to pick up Mr. Propter, the manager of Stoyte’s extensive farming interests.  Approaching Stoyte’s castle, the auto passes over a moat, through several gates and into a sort of keep before parking.  Mr. Propter proffers a few bits of advice re Stoyte:  he’s manic, has had a stroke, has a very short fuse, and worries a lot.  Soon, Jeremey meets the tubby, fidgety owner who takes him on an orientation tour.  The building is constructed on top of a hill, with a swimming pool on the top floor.  Descending on one of the elevators, they visit the library, lushly decorated with famous paintings and woodwork by Grinling Gibbons, but with no books.  The lower levels contain a laboratory, where Dr. Obispo conducts his researches, and the collections facility, where Jeremey is to work.  Later, Peter Boone, lab assistant to Dr. Obispo, and Virginia, Stoyte’s girlfriend, appear.

After several days, Jeremy and Peter, a personable sort, meet mister Propter in order to investigate some of Stoyte’s agricultural interests.  They have a nice visit under some eucalyptus trees and talk about the dire plight of the migrant workers suffering on Stoyte’s farms.  They poor souls live in vermin infested conditions and are paid pennies a day.  Propter does his best to improve their lives, but his boss hates the poor because he was once like them;  also they make him feel guilty, for which he actively tries to make their existence more miserable.  Propter is a wise and learned soul, who over a good quarter of the book decants his philosophical views about life and reality into the willing ears of his companions.  Basically, life on earth is divided into three levels:  animal, human, and spiritual.  Humans are trapped by time and craving, which they must overcome in order to enter the upper level, a kind of enlightenment in tune with the universe and true reality.  People are basically trapped into the middle level, ignorant and misled about almost everything.  Attempts to do good are usually foiled and evil almost always results.

Later, Stoyte becomes jealous of Peter, who he thinks is making love to Virginia.  Actually Dr. Obispo is the guilty party.  Dashing about with his revolver, Stoyte shoots Peter to the amusement of Obispo, who is an amoral villain with a sadistic sense of humor.  Obispo’s researches have been directed into the search for immortality at the behest of Stoyte, and, discovering clues in the pages of the journals being examined by Jeremey, he induces Stoyte to undertake a trip to England to investigate the mysterious catacombs underlying Hauberk’s ancient castle in the hopes of uncovering the truth behind the subtle hints revealed in the journals.

The ending of the book is pretty grim.  In fact, i wish i’d never read it, in spite of the fairly interesting ideas of Mr. Propter.  I think Huxley must have been influenced by the terrible effects of the first World War and thrown into an emotional abyss by the Spanish Civil War, which some of his friends participated in,  as well as experiencing a lot of depression over the immediate future, which he must have known was going to develop into another global holocaust.  The book was published in 1939.

Insofar as the actual writing was concerned, Huxley was a master craftsman;  the details in the book highlight to an almost egregious degree the irony and sarcasm inherent in the indiscriminate flourishing of money.  Although Propter (propter hoc is abbreviated Latin for a basic logical fallacy) had interesting ideas, they were pretty one-sided and nebulous, i thought, and i couldn’t help but feel that they were due to H’s depression and anxiety over what he saw lurking in the future.  I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone unless they had a imperative need to probe the depths of Huxley’s thought.  His other works are much better, i think;  I’d start with Chrome Yellow, a very funny parody on the activities of the British upper classes.

The Sea for Breakfast

Lillian Beckwith (1916-2004)

Morag, a land-lady in Skye, has been letting rooms to the author (Lillian B.) for some time  until the latter decides to purchase her own croft (cottage) in the tiny village of Bruach.  The story opens with her laboriously extracting nails from the kitchen walls with a hammer with a loose head.  Tigh-na-Mushroom (house on the rock) croft is in sad shape and in order to be liveable will require a new roof and extensive redecoration, including paint, paper, tile-work, new stove, chimney cleaning, a new gate, and sundry other repairs and parts.

Difficulties abound.  The van delivering new furniture must cross a bridge held together with string and hope;  the chimney is cleaned by a local expert dangling a boulder on the end of a piece of rope;  the only available coal is more shale than coal and is rife with  active communities of fleas;  peat is collected in the old-fashioned way:  by knife and shovel;  and all the heavy lifting is done by the ladies, as the men are too busy stealing wheelbarrows, ladders, windows, chickens, sheep and cows from each other and chasing rabbits and fish to have time to do anything else.

One day one of the locals found a mass of felty material on the beach and used it to make a chicken coop.  It was so spongy and soft he also used it as a mattress for himself.  It was some time before he, a dedicated pipe smoker, realized it was highly explosive gun cotton.

Lilian was an artist of sorts.  After completing a nice scene of the lighthouse across the strait, Hector, Morag’s nephew, found a frame for it on the beach.  Light blue, it was perfect, except for being a toilet seat.

The local grade-school teacher went on a vacation so Lillian volunteered to substitute for several weeks.  There was a problem with rats, though, so a couple of the neighbors offered to get rid of them.  Two men showed up after dark with several bottles of whiskey.  Next morning they were found lying on the ground with a number of drunk rats decorating the premises.  The men had hang-overs but the rats vanished, never to return.  Becky (Lillian’s nickname) achieved a certain measure of popularity with her edificational skills.  Another neighbor tried to hire her to teach his dog to swim after she’d done the same for several of the local boat owners.  He said the poor thing was afraid of the water.

One of the elders enlisted her to help write a letter to Queen Elizabeth.  Having observed a picture of the Duke of Edinburgh dressed in a polo outfit, wearing long boots and consequently probably suffering from corns, the old lady wanted the queen’s advice on how to deal with her own foot troubles.

Along with a friend, Lillian made a shopping trip to Edinburgh.  On the way back they spent a night in Dingwall.  She said it was the only place she’d ever seen where the men stood around on street corners for the sole purpose of confusing the nearby dogs.  Dingwall also had a gorgeous four-cornered clock tower that showed the incorrect time on all four sides, but with no face agreeing with any other.

Herring season occurred in the late summer.  Two boats, the Wayfarer and the Seagull, competed over the number of fish caught and which haul would be first to the shipping point, thus accruing the best prices.  Lots of mackerel were caught as well.  Two trucks were loaded up with the competitors’ catch and raced up the dirt road, each trying to outrun the other.  Neck and neck they sped, and the deck hands sitting on top of the loads began throwing fish at each other, frequently missing their targets, so that the next morning the happily surprised villagers discovered that it had rained fish overnight.

Parties usually lasted all night and not uncommonly occasioned a lot of drinking and obscurely odd behavior, such as sheep stealing and cow chasing.  Halloween proffered an opportunity for the children to match the adults.  Gates disappeared and were replaced with any number of oddities:  fish baskets, wheelbarrows, peat wagons;  a common prank was to place a chunk of peat atop the chimney of an enemy and placing boulders against the door to seal in the occupants

The book described a lot more of this sort of hilarity.  Lillian, who had moved there seeking peace and quiet, probably didn’t find a whole lot of that, but maybe discovered something better:  friendship.  This was the middle volume of a trilogy describing more of the same sort of existence.  The other two books:  “The Hills is Lonely” and “The Loud Halo”.  This wasn’t timeless prose, but i liked it.


The route they followed together led from Edinburgh, through Aberdeen and Inverness, west to the coast and over the sea to Skye.  On the way they stopped to visit ruined cathedrals in St. Andrews and Aberdeen among other places.  Dr. Johnson took his hat off whenever he stepped into a holy place, even though there was nothing left but a few rocks to denote where the walls had been.  After Inverness, they rode horses, stopping for the night at various Lairds’ castles.  Occasionally they stayed at crofts, or small farms.  Boswell was nervous about the doctor’s reaction to dirt and squalor, but Johnson showed no reaction, taking it all in stride and, as he stated several times, enjoying himself immensely.  The weather was stormy for the most part, and the travelers came to expect rain as the normal ambiance.  They sailed across to Skye courtesy of the MacDonald clan and marveled at the courage of Flora MacDonald, who saved Bonny Prince Charlie from the redcoats by dressing him up as a lady’s maid and sailing with him to a hiding place on the island and later arranging his escape to France.

Most of the Hebrides were in the possession of the Macleans or the MacDonalds, and several times they stayed for a week or more (usually due to bad weather) at one of the houses belonging to relatives of the two clans.  They spent their time rambling about the islands, talking to the inhabitants and dodging showers,  Local attractions consisted of two very large sea-caves, one of which they didn’t explore all the way because they only had one candle and were apprehensive of the dark.  Bogs and sand dunes were common and gave trouble to the horses.  All of the indigenes made their own clothes, shoes, houses, and acted as their own farriers, farmers, ditch-diggers, doctors and orchestras (bagpipes).  The Doctor was a little hard of hearing, but he enjoyed standing next to the bagpipers, listening to the great drone.  Boswell and Johnson attended more than one celebration with music and dancing and story-telling.  Johnson had given up drinking hard liquor years before and resisted temptation almost religiously, except for the occasional imperative dose  needed to drive off the chill associated with being rain-soaked.

The two friends visited Rasay, Skye, Col, Mull, Ulva, Inchkenneth, Icolmkill, and Mull again, in that order.  They received hearty welcomes universally, as Dr. Johnson was famous for his dictionary.  He became upset at losing his walking stick on Col;  he blamed the loss on the sticky fingers of a local swain who was acting as baggage handler, but forgave him because wood was so scarce that the natives snatched every scrap they could find.  They ate the same things the islanders did:  sheep, oatmeal, occasional turnips, tea, and fish.  But the good Doctor resented being presented with a sheep’s head for breakfast at one of the local establishments.  One evening at Columba, a settlement in Icolmkill, the Lady Lochbuy described Johnson as “a dungeon of wit”:  referring to the depth of his knowledge in a typical Scottish vein of humor.  A frequent topic of evening conversation revolved around the supposed original poetry of Ossian as discovered and revealed by James MacPherson.  Samuel argued that it was forged, but Boswell and others wouldn’t believe it, feelings of national pride perhaps influencing their opinions.  Later in life, Bozzie (as Samuel called him), became an adherent of James Ireland who had discovered new plays by Shakespeare.  He didn’t live long enough to see Ireland convicted of forgery.  At the end of October they removed to Oban on the mainland and shortly after travelled back to Edinburgh, where they partied with political and religious luminaries, mostly friends and associates of Boswell’s, until the Doctor boarded the coach back to London.

I read Johnson’s Journal first.  It revealed a slightly different man than i came to know from reading Boswell’s biography of him.  He seemed more sensitive to  national travails and warmer at heart than i would have suspected.  He was the sort of person that was interested in religion above all, but also in economics, politics, philosophy, history, mathematics, and agriculture.  He must have had close to perfect recall, because he could reel off yards of Latin poetry appropriate to almost any occasion.  And he seemed to be familiar with the  history not only of England and Scotland, but even with individual cathedrals and churches they investigated en route.  I remembered a description of how he read books:  his associates didn’t like to lend them to him, because he literally tore into them, reducing them in some cases to shreds and tatters.  He was one of a kind, and full of surprises, maybe the most startling one of which was his friendship with James Boswell.  Two more unlike persons would be difficult to imagine, but apparently there was a plane of some sort connecting their outlooks that proved satisfactory to both.

Boswell seems to have been a highly strung, ambitious scion of a noble family, who decided at some point to devote himself to interviewing and publishing accounts of famous persons, perhaps with a desire to ride to fame on their coat-tails, as it were.  He had been shy as a boy, and possibly drove himself to succeed socially as a result.  He chased Rouseau and Voltaire with much the same enthusiasm that he displayed to his pursuit of Johnson, but with less success.  He drank too much and injured his health with pursuing the ladies, dying prematurely, perhaps.  I really enjoyed traveling with the pair, in spite of their understandably dated opinions and would recommend both books to any interested party.

Thanks to Cleo, Marian and Cirtnecce for suggesting these two books and the fortuity of reading them together.  It was a novel experience…