On Every Side a Jabbering

Clare Bucknell

  • Memoirs on the Life and Travels of Thomas Hammond, 1748-75 edited by George E. Boulukos
    Virginia, 303 pp, £47.95, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 8139 3967 4

‘Never come till you have been called three or four times; for none but dogs will come at the first whistle,’ Swift instructs an imaginary audience of dull maids and lazy footmen in Directions to Servants. ‘Never submit to stir a finger in any business, but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready: “An please your honour, I don’t understand horses.”’ If he had met the young groom Thomas Hammond he might have found even worse things to say about the conduct of the serving classes. ‘Never take a rebuke from your master for stealing without telling him to go to hell’; ‘If you are hired as a companion to a travelling horseback performer, attempt several times to sleep with his wife and then complain about your wages.’ Hammond was an original, a poor farm boy with no parents who took every chance he was offered (along with quite a few he wasn’t) and rose to become a celebrated performing rider in the bullrings of Spain. He kept a journal assiduously as he went, and wrote up his Memoirs in four volumes with hand-drawn illustrations, tables of contents and footnote glosses for those without his linguistic abilities (‘sans ceremonie: Without ceremony. – TH’). He wrote about sights and places few aristocrats would encounter on their Continental tours. He was chancy, observant, self-assured, kind to horses and rude to people.

Hammond was born in Cambridgeshire in 1748 and grew up in a little village called Exning near Newmarket. By the time he was six he had lost his mother and three brothers; his father, penniless and out of work, handed him over to an uncle. He spent his childhood at work: field-labouring, milking cows, hawking bread in the streets, scaring birds, bookkeeping for the parish overseer. Like John Clare, who escaped to the woods to read ‘Sixpenny Romances’ as a child, he loved books and hid them from stern elders who equated reading with laziness. Unlike Clare, he got money for books from stealing and used to squirrel away halfpence when he was meant to be making money for his grandmother’s bakery (‘Once I believe that I had got near two Shillings together, which I hid in the thatch’). At 14 he left his village to be a jockey in one of the Newmarket stables, but continued during the winter months to engage in what he called ‘that wise cultivation of the human Mind’, by which he meant compound arithmetic and ‘Some thing of the Latin tongue’. He was ambitious and easily bored, and as soon as he felt he wasn’t being paid enough at Newmarket he began to look around for new opportunities – not locally or in a neighbouring county, as would have been usual, but in a place he must have known practically nothing of: ‘At the Spring Meetings I saw a French Marquis buying some cast-off running horses at the Auction & having a great desire to go to France I embraced this Opportunity, & began to Enquire who this Marquis was, & whether he had occasion for a Servant.’ It wasn’t at all clear that the marquis did want one, but having rashly quit his job Hammond hung around outside his house in London for four days until he was taken on. He departed for Dover in May 1767, aged 18.

The sea voyage was awful, as it invariably was in the 18th century (there was the seasickness, then the unpleasant possibility of having to land wherever you could if the winds were adverse). Hammond had a ‘spewing fit’ before they were ‘Scarce well out of the Harbour’: ‘I began to cast up my accounts, & thought within Myself, O that I was but ashore Once again I would never go to sea any more.’ They arrived 11 hours later. Hammond was thrilled to be on dry land but felt, as he wrote expressively, ‘like a Strange Cat in a Garret, hearing on every side such a jabbering whereof I did not Understand a Word’. His new French master was Louis-Gabriel de Conflans, a decorated nobleman who had commanded troops during the Seven Years’ War; he picked up Hammond and a number of English horses while on a diplomatic mission across the Channel. Hammond was to care for the horses, but also to ride them and join in with extremely bloody hunts in the landscaped parks of Chantilly and Fontainebleau (one such ‘began at 8 o’clock in the Morning and held till Night killing only hares, of which about 31 Gentlemen killed 2400’). He accompanied his master on a boar hunt with Louis XV, who famously hated seeing other people do well and allowed ‘nobody but himself to fire, or carry fire arms, nor even to pass by him in the Chace’. At the Hôtel Matignon in Paris he met the King of Denmark and the Prince of Monaco, who called him a ‘silly Boy’ when he admitted to wanting to leave France and the service of the marquis for home.

By the following year he’d changed his mind about leaving, though not for the reasons the prince had envisaged. An Englishman named Wolton who made a living performing ‘surprizing feats of Horsemanship’ arrived in Paris with his wife in the summer of 1769. Hammond, scenting an opportunity, ‘scrap’d acquaintance’ with the newcomer and offered Wolton his services as a French-speaking groom and travel companion; by this point he could communicate ‘passably well’ in French and had bought a ‘Grammar’ to help him ‘learn it more perfectly’. He left a trunk full of books and possessions (‘the 7th Vol of Moliere’s works’, ‘Hist. of England’, ‘4. or 5 different shap’d snuffboxes’) in the care of the marquis’s porter and entered Wolton’s service at the end of June. Their route lay east and southwards, through Reims, Metz, Nancy and Dijon to Lyon. In each city they set up a riding space in the yard of an inn or on a patch of grass, publicised Wolton’s bareback tricks and tried to sell enough tickets to keep them going until the next performance. Breaking even was a struggle: rents were high, space was at a premium – at Compiègne Wolton had to share his arena with ‘a Man who wanted to exhibit a combat of wild Beasts therein’ – and the aristocratic contacts Hammond had picked up through the marquis weren’t generous with their tips (the Prince of Condé, of whom better might have been expected, was ‘so Niggardly’ as to give Wolton a gift of ‘No More than four Guineas’). Hammond did, though, achieve something of a personal triumph on the road to Lyon: he plucked up the courage – ‘after long studying how to go about it’ – to ‘give My Mistress a kiss in presenting her a Ribband for a Christmas Box’, the beginning of a slow-burning affair that went on without Wolton’s knowledge in the back rooms of roadside inns for months.

Lyon itself – which Hammond chastised in his journal for the ‘extream Narrowness of the Streets which are badly paved and always dirty’ – was a financial disappointment; the weather was terrible and there was little to do but wait for spring. In March, with snow still on the ground, Wolton decided to give up on France and arranged for the little party to follow the grand tour route east and southwards, through the Savoy Alps into Italy. Hammond wasn’t used to mountains except in books, and drew on his most ornate vocabulary to convey his impression of the late-season snow on the peaks: ‘Old Hoary Winter, in frozen Majesty, still preserving his Empire’. The road up to the high pass at Mont Cenis was long and treacherous. The British tourist Anna Miller, who took the same route six months after Hammond in the autumn of 1770, noted that collapsing bridges and ‘being crushed to death by ponderous rocks’ were two possible hazards; in the winter there were avalanches, rolling ‘Snow balls’ of ‘prodigious Bulk’. Miller, though, had a carriage and then a local chair-carrier to take her to the top; travellers who didn’t had to go on foot through thick snow and biting winds, with the path ‘so frozen & slippery’, as Hammond wrote, ‘that we were oftener on our hands and knees than on our feet’, and the poor horses ‘sunk up to the Belly in the soft snow’. The precipitous journey down from the summit into Piedmont was like an unpleasant early ski run, managed on rickety sledges (a ‘rough Arm-Chair built upon two flat pieces of Wood’) propelled by taciturn locals who zigzagged the six miles down to the bottom with their dazed charges in twenty minutes flat.

Hammond wasn’t on a Grand Tour in the usual sense, but he was aware that the sights and sense impressions he was describing and the information he was recording along the way gave him the authority of a cultural tourist, and he liked to adopt something of the tone of the travel manuals he read. ‘All Geographers have wrote, that Venice is composed of 72 Islands,’ he noted sceptically in May 1770; ‘I’ll not contest a fact so Universally received: but I confess I can’t conceive what were those Islands, & I am certain that that gives a false Idea of the plan & situation of this city.’ He thought the best way of showing what places were like was by counting things. In Venice he recorded ‘115 Steeples (tho’ some very low;) 64 Statues of Brass, 23 Monuments or pillars of Brass, 70 churches, 39 frairies; 28 nunneries; 17 rich Hospitals, and 53 squares’. In Paris he noted that ‘54,000 sheep, 32,400 Hogs, 33,978 stock fish or Cod dried’ and ‘32,600 Barrells of herrings’ were consumed by the inhabitants annually. He had 48 hours to spare in Rome and, having conducted a mad dash around St Peter’s, the Colosseum, the Quirinal Palace, Trajan’s Column, the Pantheon and the Forum (the sort of itinerary that occupied aristocratic tourists for months), he admitted with uncharacteristic modesty that a full description of the Eternal City was beyond him: ‘I shall content myself Briefly to say it is the Capital of all Italy and the Christian World.’ He liked to look down as well as up, too, and enjoyed in a perverse sort of way the filthy living conditions travellers had to endure. ‘The [innkeeper’s] son was so kind as to carry my portmantle up stairs, & conduct me to my room, which any Pig would certainly have mistaken for its mother’s habitation,’ he wrote in Portugal. ‘But enough of this shitten subject.’

His contract with Wolton prescribed backstage duties – taking care of the horses, negotiating with the locals – but on the road between Florence and Rome, ‘like one who finds himself obliged to scratch where he itches’, he gave into a long-standing desire to try his master’s riding tricks himself. Riding ‘standing upright on 2 horses’ proved easy and Wolton took him on as a formal apprentice in ‘Break-neck Jockeyship’ in August 1770, missing the glaringly obvious clues that Hammond was as much motivated by proximity to Mrs Wolton as by professional ambition. They performed together for the first time in Naples, the last stopping point on Wolton’s Italian tour, and achieved a kind of celebrity on arriving in Spain in the autumn of 1770, where thousands of spectators at a sitting packed out the bullfighting amphitheatres of Barcelona and Madrid to see their double act. Wolton’s game wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Hammond pasted into his Memoirs 14 beautiful illustrations of the repertoire of tricks they performed, which show a stoic-looking jockey in a plumed helmet manipulating a stoic-looking horse into a series of unlikely postures: standing upright on two horses prancing in parallel; brandishing a whip while straddling the backs of three horses making a jump; leaning down over the back of a horse and gripping onto one of its hooves as it galloped; lying supine on a horse playing dead; and (the crowd-pleasing grand finale) doing a headstand on a horse’s back while firing a pistol into the air.

It was perilous work and they were fortunate not to be injured more than they were. ‘I have been the fool long enough, to expose myself dayly to the danger of breaking my neck,’ Hammond complained. Wolton once fell in front of a royal audience in Madrid when his horse was spooked at the noise of the palace orchestra; a few days later he fell again and dislocated his left shoulder (‘it was not without some difficulty that they got a surgeon skillful enough to put it in its place again’). Hammond, though, was used to violence: his master in Newmarket had once beat him so hard on the skull with a broomstick ‘that it crackt My pipkin from whence the red liquor distilled upon My Shoulders’; another boy he knew of 16 or 17 hanged himself unexpectedly, ‘& was quite dead when found altho’ we were all in the Stable, & it was done while the horses eat one Small feed of corn’. On the road, violence was part of the performing life. Wolton overpriced his show in Milan and ‘so enraged’ the local poor that ‘I thought they would have stoned us to death as we were going home after the performance,’ as Hammond wrote; the guard of soldiers on hand to protect them narrowly prevented a mob from casting Wolton ‘headlong down the Ramparts’. In Valencia they were mistaken for Frenchmen and pelted with stones as they ran from the amphitheatre back to their lodgings. ‘The Common people Make no distinction between foreigners but think they are all French whom they hate even to the degree of madness.’

The crowds who could pay wanted violence too. Hammond watched a lion break his neck on his restraining rope as part of an animal combat show in France. The bloodiest spectacle available was bullfighting, which he saw for the first time in Madrid and described in his journal in minute detail, supplying his own carefully worked drawings of the various postures and manoeuvres adopted by the toreros, banderilleros and matadors. Bullfighting was the ‘Darling & almost only Diversion of the Spaniards’, he discovered, not to be missed even by heavily pregnant women (‘there has been women taken in Labour & not being able to get out, were brought to bed in the very seats of the Amphitheatre’); it was also, to a man who had lived his life among horses, ‘shocking, bloody … horrid & cruel’, involving scenes of animal torture that he set out in surgical prose:

He [the bull] rips the horses guts out, which keep falling out by degrees thro’ the motion of the Horse, till at last one end separates from the rest & reaches the ground, which … the poor animal at last treads on, & brings out the whole mass of his Bowells altogether; then they turn him into the fields to live as long as he can, which he will do for several hours.

The bulls fared no better, killed off by the matador (though not as quickly and painlessly as might be hoped) when ‘at last with so Many painfull wounds, so much running & Loss of blood’ their ‘spirits’ were ‘quite exhausted’; dragged quickly out of the circus to make way for the next animal, they would be ‘flead & cut in pieces upon [their] own skin’. Eighteen bulls ended up in pieces like this every day the arena was open.

The bullfighting account, in its fullness and precision, is one of the elements of Hammond’s story that points to the Memoir’s historical accuracy and helps to authenticate its claims. One of the less credible episodes (though not to say inaccurate, since incredible things did seem to happen to Hammond all the time) is his religious conversion: the extraordinary decision he made in Spain in early 1771 to study to become a Catholic and encourage Wolton to do the same. The feelings that stood behind the decision were love and guilt rather than spiritual fervour. Mrs Wolton, struck down by smallpox in Zaragoza in December, was talked into an exemplary deathbed conversion by a stream of priests who addressed her variously in German, Italian and French (none of which she understood), and managed to make her first and last confession to two visiting Irish ladies who acted as interpreters. She was 21. ‘It seemed to me,’ Hammond wrote, looking on, ‘that My own [faith] was built upon an unsure foundation, like the Man in the Gospel who laid the foundation of his House in the Sand.’

In Valencia he and Wolton had encountered the famous horrors of the Inquisition tribunal in the shape of a ‘charitable and freindly’ old priest, who had ‘pressed us to propose all our objections against the roman Catholick Religion’ so that he could refute them. As ever the language barrier got in the way of high-level theological argumentation: ‘As he understood nothing but Latin and Spanish, and I but very little of either at that time, his arguments came to me in french by the Interpretation … and I deliver’d them in English to Wolton: therefore through so many translations it is to be supposed that we caught them but very imperfectly.’ Hammond’s conversion, delayed a few months until the spring because lucrative riding opportunities got in the way, was overseen by a young Spanish nobleman who – in return for lessons in horsemanship – agreed to set him up with an Irish chaplain for his religious instruction. After 12 days of studying he was ready to face the Inquisition again and make a formal declaration of abjuration. There was a brief pop quiz (hamstrung by the usual linguistic confusion) on ‘the mystery’s of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Divine Word &c’ before he was ‘absolved in a very formal manner from the crime of Heresy’ and ‘made a member of the Mystical Body of Christ’ forthwith.

Hammond wasn’t much interested in the forms and rituals of his new religion; he went to his first midnight Mass at Christmas ‘to pass away the tedious hours of a long frosty night’, but was bored and confused (‘I think there will be no harm done if I never go again’). What did stick with him and made him constantly nervous was the Church’s attitude towards sex. He wrote about his teenage explorations in the Memoirs like a hectoring parish curate, chastising Thomas Hammond the Younger for the spiritual short-sightedness that might have damned him forever: ‘fornicators & adulterers shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ as he wrote sternly of his first sexual encounter. When he felt he’d said too much about his youthful misdemeanours he scribbled it out. This passage, with its odd mixture of vile honesty and too-little-too-late piety, has been pieced together by George Boulukos from clues in earlier notebooks:

And during this fortnight I think the Irishman took me to a lewd [Woman’s] house, which was the first time that ever I tasted french meat. I thank God [that I avoided tasting of it] any more. Happy! if in imitation of the Royal Psalmist I had [strove] by penitential tears to wash away the enormity of the sin. Alas! how easy is unthinking youth drawn into the path of everlasting perdition.

Sometimes the effect – hard to say here whether it’s deliberate or accidental – of self-censorship is to make the whole thing seem a lot worse than it was. His description of an early attempt to seduce Mrs Wolton in Turin is coyly threadbare of information: ‘Now the Devil was very <illegible> suggesting to me that this was a fair opportunity <of> that <illegible>ing the <illegible> desires that I had so long harboured within my guilty breast & that now raged with such <illegible> … ’ The omissions here are frustrating but they’re also suggestive, like delicately constructed crossword clues.

*

That curious wavering between effect and accident is what can seem so disorientating about Hammond’s prose, the way it seems to toy with the idea of presenting itself as something else – as a fictional voyage or a picaresque tale or a sentimental novel. During the 18th century the difference between history or biography and fiction wasn’t always obvious. Early fictional prose narratives – Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), for instance – offered themselves to readers as truthful historical accounts of real events and people; on the other hand, writers of scurrilous or libellous attacks liked to pretend they were conjuring up imaginary events or characters so they could make their remarks with impunity.

Hammond enjoyed his ‘romances’ and understood the sorts of tricks they played. He liked to pull in recognisable tropes from contemporary fiction as a way of crossing and recrossing the fine line between history and imagination. In the account of the failed seduction at Turin, for instance, there’s a shadowy version of the last scene in Sterne’s wildly popular fictional travelogue A Sentimental Journey (1768), published while Hammond was abroad. In the Memoirs he and Mrs Wolton are described as lying ‘both in the same room though in separate beds’, ‘she being afraid to lay in a room alone in a strange place’; in the novel Sterne’s narrator, Yorick, delayed overnight on the road through Savoy at an inn with only one bedroom, has to sleep next to a travelling lady in beds ‘that stood parallel, and so very close to each other as only to allow space for a small wicker chair betwixt them’. Sterne’s narrative breaks off in the middle of the night (just as Yorick has ‘accidentally’ stretched out his arm and touched the lady’s maid), so the fully fledged attempt Hammond makes on Mrs Wolton’s honour works as a kind of provisional continuation of the story: ‘when I found that she was fast asleep I crept softly in her bed, which presently awakened her & I <then> received the terrible rebuke due to my wicked attempt’. Understanding the sorts of sophisticated narratological games Sterne is playing makes it possible to see more self-reflexivity in Hammond: it raises among other things a question about the excisions Hammond resorts to when he gets to a subject he’s uncomfortable with, since Sterne too – as a means of indicating some coyness or reticence in the way Yorick tells his story, and to titillate the reader – likes to break off abruptly and leave things out. ‘When I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s –’ says Yorick, making the last word of the novel an expressive nothing.

The most generically self-conscious episode of the Memoirs is the miniature biography of Peter, Wolton’s young Italian-speaking companion, whose extraordinary life Hammond makes into a tale within a tale as tear-jerking and dramatic as the little history of the starling in A Sentimental Journey, or the story of the miserable Emily Atkins in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). To describe Peter’s unlucky early days in France, for instance, Hammond enlists the heavyweight tropes of sentimental fiction – virtue in distress, unsolicited charity, serendipity – to melodramatic effect:

Pennyless! And in a Countrey where he understood not the language, besides the cruel remorse that tormented his mind when he reflected on his past folly almost drove him to despair: When behold a Gentleman passing by & seeing him overwhelm’d with a flood of tears, asked him the cause of his grief; … the Gentleman, moved to compassion, threw him half a Crown and went his way.

When Peter’s fortunes pick up somewhat, he uses the rollicking pace of picaresque storytelling to capture some of the absurdity and spontaneity of his decision-making: ‘Remembering some of the surgeon’s prescriptions on board his Uncle’s Vessel, he set himself up for a Doctor and soon got Employment among a miserable female tribe to cure the Venereal Disease.’ And when Peter learns of a dubious headache medicine involving (as one of its secondary ingredients) ‘a man’s skull reduced to powder’, his biographer takes the opportunity to dive headfirst into gothic horror: ‘Peter hired two Sturdy fellows for half a crown Each, one of which was to keep watch whilst the other Dug open the Grave, & Peter with a Crooked knife … soon hackle’d the man’s head off, & carried it home: And the next day put it in a Pot to boil.’

Boulukos’s edition breaks off at the end of Volume II (of four in the complete Memoirs), leaving Hammond in Madrid at the beginning of 1772; in 1775 he returned to England, found his long-lost father and used his Catholic connections to take up a place as head groom in the Duke of Norfolk’s stables. He never lost his desire to travel and went back and forth to France until the 1790s, hiring French and British stable lads and bringing French horses over to England. The rationale for excluding the second two volumes of his life here is financial (‘impossible in the current publishing climate’); but it’s to be hoped that enough will change to make a complete edition viable, not least because Hammond adopts an epistolary prose style at the end of Volume II that would bear interesting comparison with other forms of ‘to-the-moment’ writing in fiction, Richardson’s novels in particular (‘I … shall set down promiscuously whatever occurs worth my notice,’ he announces). Boulukos’s handling of the first two volumes is sympathetic and restrained, leaving Hammond’s inventive spellings in place and only glossing obscure words where necessary. There’s some tendency towards editorial over-reading (no doubt a hazard with texts like Hammond’s, in which there’s always space for uncertainty over intentionality) – but it does seem strained, for instance, to call his laboured description of a French merry-go-round ‘deliberately estranging, perhaps in imitation of satirical writers such as Swift’. For the most part, though, this edition does a great service in bringing an almost entirely unknown text to life, and allowing a very particular 18th-century voice – unpolished, unmannerly, thoroughly impolite – to speak.