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A London Childhood—Early Reading

In the late spring or early summer of 1783, the Hone family moved to London, the city where young William would spend the balance of his life. Exactly what motivated the removal is somewhat in doubt, with the elder Hone claiming the divine inspiration of a prophetic dream and the younger claiming, more pragmatically, that his father went to the metropolis in order to hear a favorite preacher. But whatever the cause, it is clear that Hone soon secured a position in the office of Mr. Ludlow, a solicitor, and that shortly thereafter the family was established in recently built lodgings on the eastern corner of Grafton Street.

These bald facts are important for a couple of reasons. First, the elder Hone's ability to get and keep reasonably profitable employment as a clerk or copyist is a sign of his diligence as an employee and his facility with written language, and it helps to place the Hone family within the upper reaches of London's so-called "lower orders." Though Hone never became a fully independent artisan (nor is there any suggestion that he aspired to such entrepreneurial independence), he nonetheless was able to keep himself solvent and his family in fairly stable and comfortable circumstances, and this fact alone separates Hone from the far greater numbers of un- or semi-skilled laborers and indigents who crowded the city's streets. It also, as will soon become evident, helped to create a kind of Keats-like class anxiety for his son who, in effect, felt affinities for and disgust with both the more elite classes and the "lower orders," but who never felt very settled or secure in either group. This anxiety was likely exacerbated by his very protective parents, who tried to keep William and his brother Joseph from playing with any neighborhood children and thus prevented them from living the energetic, blackguard life of London street urchins. [1] Second, the very fact of the move, as well as the location of the residence, places the Hone family among the great numbers of persons from the provinces who were flooding into London during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The city grew very rapidly during this period, due, in large part, to the sheer numbers of these "immigrants" from the counties. They came, no doubt, seeking economic opportunity and greater prosperity, but they also and inevitably changed the social, cultural, and even physical reality of the capital.

Grafton Street, when the Hone family lived there, was on the far northernmost fringes of urban London; beyond, in the area of the present Regent's Park, all was open countryside. The young William Hone took full advantage of this situation. He reveled in his proximity both to open countryside and to the more diverse and social life of the city, and his descriptions of his childhood experience give a distinctively romantic-era cast to his autobiography. He recalls, for instance, the parade of Londoners he could watch from his front windows: "On Sunday mornings in the different fields crowds assembled around preachers, boxing-matches, dog-fights, and duck-hunts. . . . London poured towards the country a populous tide of individuals. . . . Many were personally afflicted, youths walking on crutches or with one crutch, girls suffering under disorders of the hip-joint, rickety children with jointed iron straps on their legs." And making up a different segment of the spectacle were "profusely powdered" tradesmen who "wore scarlet coats and long-flapped, figured waistcoats; cocked hats with their hair behind in long or large clubbed pigtails, and at the sides in large stiff curls; silver or plated buckles, curiously wrought or bespangled, on their shoes." [2] It was, in short, the teeming and diverse life of late eighteenth-century London on full display in front of the Hone household. Of course, this almost Dickensian stance of observing and celebrating the multifarious life of the community (even including the particular attention given to the broken and decrepit) is probably as much a product of the 1830s, when Hone put to paper his autobiographical sketch, as it is of his childhood. Nonetheless, the details are likely accurate enough to offer a picture of the surroundings in which Hone lived his early years and which left their mark upon him.

In addition to this very social, urban environment, Hone's relatively well-to-do economic status enabled him to experience something more rare for a London boyhood. Hone's mother had a cousin in the capitol who was married to a Mr. Rees, a commissioner of bankrupts, and the Rees family maintained a country residence at Belsize, Hampstead, where young William was often invited to stay. The result was a quiet experience and appreciation of the natural world. In the Manor House at Belsize, recalls Hone,

near the park wall, I first marked the different odours of flowers growing in the gardens, the delicious smell of apples lying in the storeroom. Then my ear educated itself to sound, and I listened breathlessly to silence—to its eloquence—my young heart escaped in sighs, for I felt wonder. There I first heard the sound of the wild bee, and can still point out the spot where I heard his drowsy hum among the flowers in the sultry heat of a summer's day. [3]

One suspects once again that Hone's "recollection" of his childhood experience is filtered through his later reading of Charlotte Smith's and Wordsworth's poetry ("breathless wonder" is, of course, a Wordsworthian cliché). But the early contact with and reverence for a placid natural world does help to explain a kind of reserve and detachment that is typical of Hone's later personality. Hone himself attributes his detachment to this influence; even at the time, he claims, he "sought to be alone," [4] and the impulse remained with him throughout his life. In 1826, for instance, when imprisoned for debt, Hone's greatest regret was not that he was separated from ordinary social and professional intercourse or that he had been forced to sell off his extraordinary collection of antiquarian books and prints; rather, it was that he was unable to wander over the green hills of Newington that he could see from his window within the Rules of the King's Bench prison.

Clearly Hone's social and natural environments combined to shape his later identity, but an influence even more profound was provided by an early and intense obsession with print. With the help of his father and a stint in a local "dame school," Hone learned to read at about four or five years of age. From that time forward his life was dominated by a passion for reading and a vivid imagination that interpreted and transformed the world around him according to his reading. Unfortunately for young William, the Hone family library was quite meager, consisting only of the Bible, a battered copy of Paradise Lost (which was beyond the boy's comprehension), a cookbook belonging to his mother, a book on farriery which the elder Hone had apparently inherited from his own father, and Bailey's English Dictionary. [5] This is hardly the stuff to fire the imagination of a child reader; thus, when any new item of print—even if just a stray news sheet or advertisement—came into the house, it was an event of some importance. Just such an event happened in the late 1780s. Due to an outbreak of smallpox in the neighborhood, William had been pulled out of the dame school he had been attending in Great Marylebone Street. The young scholar was apparently despondent and listless as a result for he very much loved going to school, so his father tried to make up for the loss by buying for his son a new book: Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The effect of Bunyan's prose was immediate and intense. Entranced by the simple narrative and the vivid imagery, he read and reread the volume, not understanding the allegory and not even realizing in his young awareness that the story was a fiction. Indeed, one day when his father took him to see the commotion and bustle of the Exchange, Hone exclaimed from his perch on his father's shoulders, "Vanity Fair! This is Vanity Fair!"—much to the amusement of the passersby. [6]

It is not really surprising that Hone's first potent experience with literature should come in the form of Bunyan's allegory. After all, the tale was one of the most frequently reissued books of the eighteenth century, appearing in forms ranging from cheap woodcut chapbooks to expensively printed and bound gift-book editions, and many thousands of young readers were enthralled by the adventures of Christian as he struggled towards his salvation in the Celestial City. The impact of Pilgrim's Progress on people from Hone's generation and class can hardly be overstated; in fact, it parallels the influence of Paradise Lost on the more self-consciously "literary" community. Like Milton's epic, Bunyan's narrative provided a vocabulary of images with which to interpret the course of contemporary events, and it thus offered a kind of rude mythology in support of the millennialist undercurrent in the popular religious thinking of the later eighteenth century. But, unlike the elevated blank verse of Paradise Lost, Bunyan's prose is calculated to appeal to a mass audience of inexperienced readers. As Thomas Scott argues in the Preface to his edition of 1795, the narrative continually demonstrates a "vigorous native genius" which is powerful precisely because of the "rudeness" of its style. These elements insure that "even the careless or uninstructed reader is fascinated to attention by the simple and artless manner in which the interesting narrative is arranged." [7] Because of its sheer accessibility, then, Pilgrim's Progress was one of the primary vehicles by which religious principles could be disseminated among the "lower orders," and the book was therefore energetically circulated by various evangelical groups. Wesley himself had produced a chapbook edition in the 1740s, albeit with a distinctly Wesleyan cast to the theology; it was seen as appropriate reading for the newly established Sunday schools in the 1780s; and, upon his death in 1813, Hone's father's preacher, the influential William Huntington, S. S., provided money in his will to purchase a copy for virtually every young person of his acquaintance. It is typical then that Hone's deeply religious father should have procured a copy for his son: he was simply following within his own family one of the primary patterns through which religious ideas and attitudes were broadcast among the literate and handed down from parents to their children.

What was less fully understood by the evangelicals who so assiduously circulated the book was that Bunyan would also be a founding text of the radical political societies of the 1790s and beyond. As E. P. Thompson puts it, "Pilgrim's Progress is, with Rights of Man, one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement: Bunyan and Paine, with Cobbett and Owen, contributed most to the stock of ideas and attitudes which make up the raw material of the movement from 1790-1850." [8] The reason for this unexpected use of Bunyan's narrative stems partly from the content of the work. Readers from the laboring lower classes could no doubt identify with the travail of a Christian who had to resist, among other dangers, the unctuous upper-class attractions of Lord Carnal Delight, Lord Luxurious, and so on. More importantly, when Pilgrim's Progress was supplemented (as it was in Hone's reading) by that classic assemblage of vividly related tales of oppression, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the result was not so much a distinctly pious, disciplined, and self-negating religious temperament as a more generalized attitude of resistance to worldly authority. And worldly authority here included the government, the legal system, and even the very religious institutions which sought to disseminate these works in the first place. It is, in short, a telling example of Blake's aphorism about the scriptures themselves: "Both read the Bible day & night, / But thou readst black where I read white." [9] Pilgrim's Progress offered the radicals a ready symbolic pattern through which they could understand and enliven their own role as antagonists of established social, political, and economic orders, and Bunyan's rhetoric of righteous and dedicated struggle against worldly evils and temptations is frequently identifiable in the many trials of radicals during the decades following the French Revolution. Certainly it appears as such in Hone's libel trials of 1817 where he consistently figures himself as a Christian pilgrim striving to overcome the evil designs of an unfair legal and political system; and, as late as 1832, Hone describes the political adversaries in the Reform Bill controversy as the "Appolyons" and the "Belials," thus blending figures from Milton and Bunyan and demonstrating a felt continuity between the religious struggles of the seventeenth century and the political and economic struggles of the nineteenth.

But this gets ahead of the biographical narrative. In the late 1780s and early 1790s Hone was a precocious adolescent consumed with a desire to read, and consequently he spent much of his time and all of his little stock of pocket money in the bookstalls near the family's new residence in Red Lion Square. This early reading reflected the typical contents of the book trade of the day—Janeway's Token for Children, Brooke's Fool of Quality (as abridged by Wesley), Gesner's Death of Abel, Watts's Songs, and so forth. These few cheap books were then supplemented by printed material from other sources. For instance, Hone had befriended a copper-plate printer who kept an office in the neighborhood. When he was allowed, Hone would watch the printer and his apprentice at work and read whatever plates came through the shop. Other persons in the vicinity also seemed to be amused by the enthusiasm of the boy reader and would lend him such books and periodicals as they could spare. By these means he was able to read a couple old volumes of the Annual Register and even Peter Huet's "Essay on the Weakness of the Human Understanding"—which essay, Hone says, "first led me to reflect."

Perhaps the most important work Hone chanced into during this youthful period of voracious but desultory reading was a stray leaf from an eighteenth-century reprint of the "Trial of John Lilburne." Hone was fascinated by what appeared to be a spirited defense of a wrongfully accused man, but at first he could not even identify the work from which the paper was taken. He carried it around to various local booksellers asking what it was, and at length he identified the book and located a copy. Then, "by patience, industry, and extraordinary management" Hone gathered together the half crown it took to buy the book. The story of the seventeenth-century Leveller John Lilburne's trial complemented the stories of struggle against oppressive worldly power that he had read in Bunyan and in the Book of Martyrs. What is more, through Lilburne, these struggles were directly connected in Hone's mind to the British legal-political system: "This book aroused within me new feelings, and a desire of acquainting myself with Constitutional Law, which in a few years afterwards I had an opportunity of acquiring." This is a deliberate understatement: during his own libel trials in 1817, Hone, as Olivia Smith and Marcus Wood have shown, modeled his case specifically on Lilburne's. [10] In effect, he took his own relationship to Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough and the repressive legal apparatus he represented as a contemporary version of Lilburne's relationship to the oppressive Cromwell and the hand of despotic power, and he was at some pains to convince the jury that his case deserved the same sympathy that Lilburne's had inspired in his own young understanding. [11]

Ironically, though Hone was a great admirer of the Leveller Lilburne, some of his first encounters with a specifically political literature came about through the work of the social disciplinarian John Reeves and his "Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers." Hone's coming to political awareness, in fact, is a narrative exemplary of many soon-to-be radicals of his generation. In July of 1789, Hone had just turned nine years old. He was playing with his hoop and stick in Hand Court, Holborn, when a friend "with mysterious looks and voice" said, "There's a Revolution in France." Hone was puzzled—in fact, he did not know at the time what a "revolution" was—but this was nonetheless the dawn of his political knowledge. The massive impact of the French Revolution and its subsequent events on British thinking and writing has been documented in innumerable histories of the period; for the Hone family in particular, it meant subscribing for the first time ever to a daily newspaper, which William read aloud to his mother and aunt, and discussing and commenting upon the "news" from the Continent. In so doing, says Hone simply, "we became politicians." For help in understanding the political and military upheaval in Europe, this little reading circle enlisted the support of James Theodore Middleton's expensive New and Complete System of Geography (borrowed from a neighbor) and a selection of Reevesite propaganda, all of which vigorously condemned domestic political activists, like those in the newly-fledged London Corresponding Society, who sympathized with the revolutionaries. [12]

It is hardly surprising that Hone's first political stance was adamantly anti-Jacobin or that this print-obsessed boy would produce his first "publication" in order to express those sentiments. This is a work Hone called "The Contrast," and, like many of his later books, it is a composite arrangement of materials drawn from other authors interspersed with some original commentary and writing. In this case, Hone reproduced in side by side columns a few lines "on Liberty" by Addison and a few "on Slavery" by Middleton. Beneath each passage he added a prose commentary, and, centered at the bottom of the sheet, he presented an original poem in six stanzas called "Verses on Our Excellent Constitution." The simple political content of the poem can be seen clearly enough in the opening lines:

Come Britons unite, and in one Common Cause
Stand up in defence of King, Liberty, Laws;
And rejoice that we've got such a good Constitution,
And down with the barbarous French Revolution! [13]

"The Contrast," printed in April 1793 shortly after the beheading of the French king, aroused the proud enthusiasm of Hone's parents who helped him finance the printing costs and who sent a copy to the headquarters of Reeves' Association in the Strand. This publicity brought the young writer a letter of commendation from the Secretary of the Association; he was delighted to see "a spirit of loyalty in a person so young." It also brought Hone a few shillings in encouraging gifts—earning for him a clear profit even after the printing costs were deducted. Thus, at the tender age of twelve William Hone had become a "professional" political writer.

"The Contrast" may well demonstrate the same compositional techniques that would become the hallmark of Hone's later parodic and periodical writing, but clearly his political thinking would soon undergo a radical transformation (so to speak). The arch-conservative nationalism of "The Contrast" simply could not survive the tumultuous, freethinking 1790s.



See Hone's draft autobiography, Add. MS 40121, f. 24. [return]

Hackwood, pp. 23-24. [return]

Hackwood 30-31. There is also in the drafts of the autobiography a description of Hone's enraptured musing on the "mystery of water." See Add. MS 40121, ff. 24, 26. [return]

Hackwood, p. 32. [return]

Add. MS 40121, f. 10. [return]

Hackwood, p. 29. [return]

Preface to Thomas Scott's edition of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in Two Parts (London: Barret, Saunders, Parsons, et. al., 1795), p. i-iii. [return]

The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966), p. 31. [return]

from Blake's "Everlasting Gospel," The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman and Harold Bloom, (New York, Anchor/Doubleday, 1982), p. 524. [return]

See Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language, 1791-1819 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 186-200, and Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 121-44. The classic account of Lilburne, the Levellers, and other matters regarding the religious polemics of the seventeenth century is Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down (New York: Penguin, 1975). [return]

The nature of Hone's youthful reading—including the relevant titles—is drawn necessarily from the autobiography, see especially Hackwood, pp. 28-44, but Hone's recollections square well with Richard Altick's account of the late-eighteenth-century book trade in chapters 2 and 3 of The English Common Reader, pp. 30-77.
I am somewhat uneasy, however, about what Wood calls an "eccentric" attachment to Lilburne, even though I take it, as Olivia Smith and others have done, directly from Hone. The boyhood encounter with Lilburne's Trial does not appear in the manuscript drafts to Hone's autobiography, and the coincidence that a ten- or eleven-year-old Hone should come upon so apropos a work by tracing a single leaf seems remarkable to say the least. I am reassured, though, that virtually all of Hone's subsequent biographers have reported the autobiographical account without apparent doubt. Also, the reason the coincidence seems so suspicious is due to the congruence of Lilburne's and Hone's trials. But this, of course, was Hone's design—not a merely random occurence. Had Hone chanced upon some other story of oppressive power, perhaps it would have become the model for his own trial and the "coincidence" would in retrospect have seemed equally suspicious. And finally, as the previous pages have suggested, the ties between romantic-era radicals and seventeenth-century political and religious controversies were more profound and direct than is usually acknowledged. Hone's fascination with Lilburne will certainly stand as strong evidence for such historical relations.

In the autobiography, Hone calls Middleton's book The Geography of the Whole World. It is, more likely, the two volume folio published by J. Cooke in 1777-78. For a discussion of John Reeves, his Association, and its propaganda, see David Worrall's Radical Culture: Discourse, Resistance and Surveillance, 1790-1820 (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992), pp. 17-19. [return]

Add. MS 40120, f. 2. "The Contrast" was printed like a broadside or advertising flyer on a single side of a quarter sheet. Hackwood's discussion of the work can be found at pp. 44-45. The lines from Addison, incidentally, were probably borrowed from Middleton who quotes them in a discussion of Turkish politics (vol. 1, p. 111); Middleton's lines on Slavery appear in an account of the practice in Algiers (vol. 1, p. 260). [return]