He ate peas with a knife

John Sutherland

  • Douglas Jerrold: 1803-57 by Michael Slater
    Duckworth, 340 pp, £25.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 7156 2824 0

The tenth and central chapter of Michael Slater’s biography is entitled ‘Jerrold, Dickens, Thackeray’. This, as Slater reminds us (often), is the company his contemporaries expected Douglas Jerrold to keep. Some partisans might even have thought Slater right to put him first. Dickens and Thackeray were pall-bearers at Jerrold’s funeral and, according to their contemporary David Masson, ‘the three do form a triad so that it is hardly possible to discuss the merits of any one of them without referring to the other two.’ Posterity has found it very possible. And, richly informative as Slater’s biography is (he has been at it for thirty years), critical resuscitation of Jerrold is unlikely. He is doomed to remain in the obscure sump of Victorian writing, famous for a lifetime only.

Jerrold was born in 1803, the son of a ‘melancholy comedian’ and his second wife, an actress. Few records survive of his childhood, and little is known about the family’s circumstances. In their place Slater reconstructs the seedy world of the Minors – the companies that scraped a livelihood outside the orbit of the licensed London theatres. It was a nomadic upbringing. A dull boy, at the age of nine Douglas could barely read. The only school prize he ever won, it pleased him to recall, was for the largest ringworm.

In 1813 he was sent to sea as a ‘boy entrant’, to serve on HMS Namur, a 74-gun man-of-war. The vessel’s captain was Jane Austen’s younger brother, Charles (there are no references to Douglas in the Austen family correspondence). He entered the Royal Navy not as a cabin-boy but as officer material, and was (probably) instructed in reading, writing and seamanship by the ship’s schoolteachers. He had, however, been thrust into what he called the ‘moral mildew of a man-of-war’ at a vulnerable age. The Namur saw no active service, but it was charged with transporting Waterloo casualties back to English hospitals and, according to his son, the ‘raw stumps and festering wounds’ made a horrific impression on the 12-year-old. He had witnessed not war, but the consequences of war. He was, for the rest of his life, fiercely anti-militaristic.

In 1815 Jerrold left the Navy. With the final victory over Napoleon his career prospects were diminished and it may well have been, as Slater surmises, that he was disgusted by what he had seen in the service, particularly the flogging of men and the caning, or worse, of boys. It may also have been that his increasingly distressed family needed him to pitch in. For a while – and still, at 13, a child – Douglas was apprenticed to a London printer (the trade was, notoriously, a nursery for radicals) before drifting back into the unlicensed theatrical world. In 1824 he married. Little is known of his wife. She ‘may’, Slater hazards, have been an actress like his mother. She may have been a scold like Jerrold’s most famous fictional character, Mrs Caudle, and given to ‘curtain lectures’ (bed-time nagging). There were two children in two years and ‘hunted pauperdom’ for ten.

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