Saturday, June 27, 2015

Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities (Robert Smith Surtees)

When I was growing up in Passaic, New Jersey, my mother got me borrowing privileges in the adult department of the Julius Forstmann Library when I was in 4th grade, because I had pretty much read my way through the children's room by then, and had been reading adult classics (starting with Jules Verne) from 2nd grade on. Two "adult" volumes at the library that I immediately took a shine to were Edward Wagenknecht's Cavalcade of the English Novel (1943, revised 1954) and Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952). In a very real sense, these delightful books have guided my reading for a lifetime.

Wagenknecht (1900-2004) was old-fashioned (although perceptive enough to realize early on that film was a coming medium), and is not really trustworthy on 20th Century literature. He is excessively bothered by "coarseness," whereas we are unperturbed by it, maybe even attracted to it because of its honesty. But he had a generous spirit, and made literature sound like something you wouldn't want to miss. He is the sort of critic it is very good to encounter when you are young.

There are authors mentioned in the Cavalcades that it took me a very long time to catch up to, and one of those is Robert Smith Surtees. who shares the chapter "From Scott to Dickens" in Cavalcade of the English Novel with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Lever, William Carleton, Frederick Marryat, and Thomas Peacock (quite the diverse crew!).

Surtees has been pigeon-holed as a fox-hunting novelist, and perhaps partly because of that, has never "boomed," as Wagenknecht points out. But Wagenkecht also astutely notes that it is easy to enjoy Surtees even if one thoroughly disapproves of hunting, because he excels at comic characterizations.

Surtees' slangy language is very dense for us and takes some getting used to; some references will be missed by non-specialists. But he is a joyously high-spirited writer, which is immediately noticeable and sustained me through the early going while I was getting used to the style. By the 100-page mark, I was reveling in the entire performance.

The book I chose for my initiation was Surtees' first, Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities, not a novel but a collection of fictional sketches that first started appearing in the New Sporting Magazine (which Surtees co-founded) in 1831, and that were gathered between hard covers in 1838. (The Pickwick Papers, very obviously influenced by Jorrocks' adventures, had made Charles Dickens' reputation in the meantime.)

John Jorrocks is a rumbustious Cockney grocer whose character develops over a number of Surtees' fictions, but at the beginning he is pretty much a flat-out idiot, though not lacking in a certain crude charm. At his social level, he is clubbable; his friends enjoy him, for his inanities as much as anything else. And every now and then amidst much foolish chatter he comes out with a bit of down-home wisdom: " - so come without any ceremony - us fox-hunters hate ceremony - where there's ceremony there's no friendship."

Only the first few of the 13 sketches in JJ & J are really hunting pieces; after that, Surtees starts to vary the game, so that we get Jorrocks at the seaside, Jorrocks on excursion in France, Jorrocks throwing a dinner party, and so on. Abundance of ingestion is a running theme; the man eats like one of his horses. He also dandies himself up as much as possible, doing his best to be a "man of mode" despite having (to put it mildly) no gentlemanly or intellectual qualifications.

But elan vital, now that he's got. And if Surtees can't help satirizing Jorrocks, he also admires him for the sheer life-force he represents; appetite for hunting, for food, for nice togs translates easily into appetite for life in general. Fast-forward Jorrocks a hundred years, tone him down somewhat, and you're not far off Leopold Bloom.

"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."

"Grant your Jorrocks but one request, and that is the contents of a single sentence. 'I want a roasted or boiled leg of mutton, beef, hung beef, a quarter of mutton, mutton chops, veal cutlets, stuffed tongue, dried tongue, hog's pudding, white sausage, meat sausage, chicken with rice, a nice fat roast fowl, roast chicken with cressy, roast or boiled pigeon, a fricassee of chicken, sweet-bread, goose, lamb, calf's cheek, calf's head, fresh pork, salt pork, cold meat, hash.' "

Like many a vigorous fellow, Jorrocks feels himself hobbled by his wife, which lends a good deal of marital comedy to the book's later passages: " - wish to God I'd never see'd her - took her for better and worser, it's werry true; but she's a d----d deal worser than I took her for."

In short, if you have any winking fondness for vulgarity at all, Jorrocks is your man, and you ought to make his acquaintance. And there's really no excuse not to, because JJ & J is readily available as a free download at Project Gutenberg.

Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities

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