Cockneyism

Gregory Dart

At first Dickens tried to deny that Harold Skimpole, the parasitical aesthete of Bleak House, had been based on his friend Leigh Hunt; but later he confessed, not a little proudly, that the character was ‘the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words . . . it is an absolute reproduction of a real man.’ Skimpole is a corrosive presence in the novel, a serene-faced sponger who claims to know nothing of ‘the world’. ‘I am a child you know,’ he tells the young wards of John Jarndyce. ‘You are designing people compared with me.’ Skimpole’s main similarity to his real-life source, apart from a talent for accepting handouts, is his conversational manner, which is peculiarly fanciful, fluent and charming, but there are other connections, too. Like the Hunt of the 1850s, he has been used to presiding over a large, disorderly household of befuddled and beautiful do-nothings; also like Hunt (whose earliest recollection was of his father’s room in the King’s Bench prison in 1784), he seems to have spent his entire life in debt.

A century and a half after the publication of Bleak House, the shadow of Skimpole is lifting. Whatever Hunt’s faults, he was manifestly neither an idler nor a scoundrel, and there is a growing awareness of the significant contribution he made to poetry and belles-lettres, and, most important of all, a belated realisation that, as editor of his brother John’s Examiner newspaper between 1808 and 1822, he was one of the most important radical journalists of the early 19th century.

Tall, with dark skin and dark brown hair, Leigh Hunt attributed his colouring to the influence of the West Indian sun on his paternal ancestors: his grandfather had been a clergyman in Barbados. His father, Isaac Hunt, trained as a lawyer in Philadelphia, and when the American War of Independence broke out, he wrote a series of pamphlets on the loyalist side. Threatened with political persecution, he fled to England in 1776, where he was soon joined by his young wife and family. In London he followed an unsuccessful career as a preacher, and fell frequently into debt. But he remained an exotic, ebullient character, and imparted a strong dose of New World optimism to his surviving children. Of these, Henry Leigh Hunt was the youngest son, a shy, bookish child who got a rigorous, one might almost say republican, education at Christ’s Hospital in the City of London, where he was a friend of Thomas Barnes, a future editor of the Times, and a younger contemporary of Lamb and Coleridge.

John and Leigh Hunt brought a new idealism to English journalism when they launched the Examiner in 1808. At a time when most polite journals were still tied to the Whig or Tory parties, it was genuinely independent. And from the Peninsular War to the Peterloo Massacre, its charismatic editor remained a champion of progressive opinion, fearlessly opposing the repressive policies of successive Tory Governments. Recognising the importance of Hunt’s early political journalism, the Pickering and Chatto editors have devoted nearly two volumes of the new Selected Writings to the work he did during the Examiner period. And the editors of these volumes, Greg Kucich and Jeffrey Cox, have done a superb job of setting it in context, offering a compelling re-evaluative essay by way of an introduction, and prefacing every article with a detailed explanatory note.

These articles cover all the major issues of the Regency (Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna, Waterloo, English factory conditions, Methodism, postwar radical agitation etc), and one cannot help but be impressed by the range and quality of Hunt’s polemical writing. The editors are right to point to a bitterly satirical vein in his anti-government diatribes, especially since this has not been sufficiently acknowledged, but his style is characterised by its playfulness, fluency and invention. From the most exasperating circumstances, Hunt regularly succeeded in drawing out a good deal of humour as well as indignation, and his criticisms were often all the more effective for being delivered with a subtle mixture of sympathy and disdain.

As a critic of power, Hunt was not as penetrating as his longtime friend and fellow radical Hazlitt; nor did he cultivate the same guillotine style. But given his position as the editor of a weekly newspaper, and one of the leaders of progressive opinion in England, it is not surprising that he preferred to be sociable rather than sublime. It was not enough for him to snipe at power from the sidelines as Hazlitt did. Lacking Hazlitt’s intellectual background, Hunt was not given to obsessing about philosophical differences between the Whigs, the radicals, the Romantic liberals and the utilitarians; he believed the reform movement was a broad church, whatever his misgivings about working-class agitators such as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and Cobbett. Most touching of all, he displayed a fervent belief in ‘improvement’, the idea that society would gradually but inevitably become freer and fairer through the development of public opinion. ‘The advancement is going on,’ he wrote in 1828. ‘If government is not in earnest, society is.’ In contrast to Hazlitt, who was six years older than him, Hunt never grew nostalgic about the French Revolutionary moment, considering that its polarisation of the political debate had done nothing but hinder the cause of reform; instead, he remained resolutely forward-looking and consensus-seeking, unfailingly optimistic that time would tell.

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