Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

THEODORE EDWARD HOOK. If it be difficult to say what wit is, it is well-nigh as hard to pronounce what is not wit. In a sad world, mirth hath its full honor, let it come in rags or in purple raiment. The age that patronizes a “Punch" every Saturday, and a pantomime every Christmas, has no right to complain if it finds itself barren of wits, while a rival age has brought forth her dozens. Mirth is, no doubt, very good. We would see more, not less, of it in this unmirthful land. We would fain imagine the shrunkencheeked factory-girl singing to herself a happy burden, as she shifts the loom-the burden of her life-and fain believe that the voice was innocent as the skylark's. But if it be not soand we know it is not so—shall we quarrel with any one who tries to give the poor care-worn, money-singing public a little laughter for a few pence? No, truly; but it does not follow that a man who raises a titter is, of necessity, a wit. The next age, perchance, will write a book of “Wits and Beaux,” in which Mr. Douglas Jerrold, Mr. Mark Lemon, and so on, will represent the wit of this passing day; and that future age will not ask so nicely what wit is, and not look for that last solved of riddles, its definition.

Hook has been, by common consent, placed at the head of modern wits. When kings were kings, they bullied, beat, and brow beat their jesters. Now and then they treated them to a few years in the Tower for a little extra impudence. Now that the people are sovereign, the jester fares better-nay, too well. His books or his bon-mots are read with zest and grins; he is invited to his Grace's and implored to my Lord's; he is waited for, watched, pampered like a small Grand Llama, and, in one sentence, the greater the fool, the more fools he makes.

If Theodore Hook had lived in the stirring days of King Henry VIII., of blessed (?) memory, he would have sent Messrs. Patch and Co. sharply to the right-about, and been presented with the caps and bells after his first comic song. No doubt he was a jester, a fool in many senses, thongh he did not, like Solomon's fool, “say in his heartvery much. He jested away even the practicals of life, jested himself into disgrace, into prison, into contempt, into the basest employment—that of a libeler tacked on to a party. He was a mimic, too, to whom none could send a challenge; an improvisa

a

406

WHAT COLERIDGE SAID OF HOOK.

[ocr errors]

tore, who beat Italians, Tyroleans, and Styrians hollow, sir, hollow. And lastly-oh! shame of the shuffle-tongued-he was, too, a punster. Yes, a glorier in puns, a maker of pun upon pun, a man whose whole wit ran into a pun as readily as water rushes into a hollow, who could not keep out of a pun, let him loathe it or not, and who made some of the best and some of the worst on record, but still puns.

If he was a wit withal, it was malgré soi, for fun, not wit, was his “ aspiration." Yet the world calls him a wit, and he has a claim to his niche. There were, it is true, many a man in his own set who had more real wit. There were James Smith, Thomas Ingoldsby, Tom Hill, and others. Out of his set, but of his time, there was Sydney Smith, ten times more a wit; but Theodore could amuse, Theodore could astonish, Theodore could be at home any where; he had all the impudence, all the readiness, all the indifference of a jester, and a jester he was.

Let any one look at his portrait, and he will doubt if this be the king's jester, painted by Holbein, or Mr. Theodore Hook, painted by Eddis. The short, thick nose, the long upper lip, the sensual, whimsical mouth, the twinkling eyes, all belong to the regular maker of fun. Hook was a certificated jester, with a lenient society to hear and applaud him, instead of an irritable tyrant to keep him in order: and he filled his post well. Whether he was more than a jester may well be doubted; yet Coleridge, when he heard him, said, “I have before in my time met with men of admirable promptitude of intellectual power and play of wit, which, as Stillingfleet says,

6 The rays of wit gild wheresoe'er they strike,' but I never could have conceived such readiness of mind and resources of genius to be poured out on the mere subject and impulse of the moment." The poet was wrong in one respect. Genius can in no sense be applied to Hook, though readiness was his chief charm.

The famous Theodore was born in the same year as Byron, 1788, the one on the 22d of January, the other on the 22d of September; so the poet was only nine months his senior. Hook, like many other wits, was a second son. Ladies of sixty or seventy well remember the name of Hook as that which accompanied their earliest miseries. It was in learning Hook's exercises, or primers, or whatever they were called, that they first had their fingers slapped over the pianoforte. The father of Theodore, no doubt, was the unwitting cause of much unhappiness to many a young lady in her teens. Hook père was an organist at Norwich. He came up to town, and was en

[blocks in formation]

6

gaged at Marylebone Gardens and at Vauxhall; so that Theodore had no excuse for being of decidedly plebeian origin, and, Tory as he was, he was not fool enough to aspire to patricianism.

Theodore's family was, in real fact, Theodore himself. He made the name what it is, and raised himself to the position he at one time held. Yet he had a brother whose claims to celebrity are not altogether ancillary. James Hook was fifteen years older than Theodore. After leaving Westminster School, he was sent to immortal Skimmery (St. Mary's Hall), Oxford, which has fostered so many great men—and spoiled them. Hé was advanced in the Church from one preferment to another, and ultimately became Dean of Worcester. The character of the reverend gentleman is pretty well known, but it is unnecessary here to go into it farther. He is only mentioned as Theodore's brother in this sketch.* He was a dabbler in literature, like his brother, but scarcely to the same extent a dabbler in wit.

The younger son of “Hook's Exercises” developed early enough a taste for ingenious lying—so much admired in his predecessor, Sheridan. He “fancied himself” a genius, and therefore, from school-age, not amenable to the common laws of ordinary men. Frequenters of the now fashionable prizering—thanks to two brutes who have brought that degraded pastime into prominent notice-will hear a great deal about a man“fancying himself.” It is common slang, and needs little explanation. Hook "fancied himself” from an early period, and continued to “fancy himself,” in spite of repeated disgraces, till a very mature age. At Harrow, he was the contemporary, but scarcely the friend, of Lord Byron. No two characters could have been more unlike. Every one knows, more or less, what Byron's was; it need only be said that Hook's was the reverse of it in every respect. Byron felt where Hook laughed. Byron was morbid where Hook was gay. Byron abjured with disgust the social vices to which he was introduced; Hook fell in with them. Byron indulged in vice in a romantic way; Hook in the coarsest. There is some excuse for Byron, much as he has been blamed. There is little or no excuse for Hook, much as his faults have been palliated. The fact is that goodness of heart will soften, in men's minds, any or all misdemeanors. Hook, in spite of many vulgar witticisms and cruel jokes, seems to have had a really good heart.

I have it on the authority of one of Hook's most intimate

* Dr. James Hook, Dean of Worcester, was father to Dr. Walter Farquhar Hook, now the excellent Dean of Chichester, late Vicar of Leeds.

[blocks in formation]

a

friends, that he was capable of any act of kindness, and by way of instance of his goodness of heart, I am told by the same person that he on one occasion quitted all his town amusements to solace the spirit of a friend in the country who was in serious trouble. I, of course, refrain from giving names; but the same person informs me that much of his time was devoted, in a like manner, to relieving, as far as possible, the anxiety of his friends, often, indeed, arising from his own carelessness. It is due to Hook to make this impartial statement before entering on a sketch of his “Sayings and Doings," which must necessarily leave the impression that he was a heartless man.

Old Hook, the father, soon perceived the value of his son's talents; and, determined to turn them to account, encouraged his natural inclination to song-writing. At the age of sixteen Theodore wrote a kind of comic opera, to which his father supplied the music. This was called “The Soldier's Return." It was followed by others, and young Hook, not yet out of his teens, managed to keep a Drury Lane audience alive, as well as himself and family. It must be remembered, however, that Liston and Mathews could make almost any piece amusing. The young

author was introduced behind the scenes through his father's connection with the theatre, and often played the fool under the stage while others were playing it for him above it, practical jokes being a passion with him which he developed thus early. These tricks were not always very good-natured, which may be said of many of his jokes out of the theatre.

He soon showed evidence of another talent, that of acting as well as writing pieces. Assurance was one of the main features of his character, and to it he owed his success in society; but it is a remarkable fact, that on his first appearance before an audience he entirely lost all his nerve, turned pale, and could scarcely utter a syllable. He rapidly recovered, however, and from this time became a favorite performer in private theatricals, in which he was supported by Mathews and Mrs. Mathews, and some amateurs who were almost equal to any professional actors. His attempts were, of course, chiefly in broad farce and roaring burlesque, in which his comic face, with its look of mock gravity, and the twinkle of the eyes, itself excited roars of laughter. Whether he would have succeeded as well in sober comedy or upon public boards may well be doubted. Probably he would not have given to the profession that careful attention and entire devotion which are necessary to bring forward properly the highest natural talents. It is said that for a long time he was anxious to take to the stage as a profession, but, perhaps--as the event seems

VARIETIES OF HOAXING.

409

to show-unfortunately for him, he was dissuaded from what his friends must have thought a very rash step, and in after years he took a violent dislike to the profession. Certainly the stage could not have offered more temptations than did the society in which he afterward mixed; and perhaps, under any circumstances, Hook, whose moral education had been neglected, and whose principles were never very good, would have lived a life more or less vicious, though he might not have died as he did.

Hook, however, was not long in coming very prominently before the public in another capacity. Of all stories told about him, none are more common or more popular than those which relate to his practical jokes and hoaxes. Thank Heaven, the world no longer sees amusement in the misery of others, and the fashion of such clever performance is gone out. It is fair, however, to premise, that while the cleverest of Hook's hoaxes were of a victimizing character, a large number were just the reverse, and his admirers affirm, not without some reason, that when he had got a dinner out of a person he did not know, by an ingenious lie, admirably supported, he fully paid for it in the amusement he afforded his host and the ringing metal of his wit. As we have all been boys-except those that were girls-and not all of us very good boys, we can appreciate that passion for robbery which began with orchards and passed on to knockers. It is difficult to sober middle-age to imagine what entertainment there can be in that breach of the eighth commandment, which is generally regarded as innocent. As Sheridan swindled in fun, so Hook, as a young man, robbed in fun, as hundreds of medical students and others have done before and since. Hook, however, was a proficient in the art, and would have made a successful "cracksman” had he been born in the Seven Dials. He collected a complete museum of knockers, bell-pulls, wooden Highlanders, barbers' poles, and shop signs of all sorts. On one occasion he devoted a whole fortnight to the abstraction of a golden eagle over a shop window, by means of a lasso. A fellow-dilettante in the art had confidentially informed him of its whereabouts, adding that he himself despaired of ever obtaining it. At length Hook invited his friend to dinner, and on the removal of the cover of what was supposed to be the joint, the work of art appeared served up and appropriately garnished. Theodore was radiant with triumph ; but the friend, probably thinking that there ought to be honor among thieves, was highly indignant at being thus surpassed.

Another achievement of this kind was the robbery of a lifesized Highlander, who graced the door of some unsuspecting

S

a

« PreviousContinue »