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Sturm und Drang in a Revolutionary Decade

"In my thirteenth year," writes Hone in the drafts of his autobiography, "I became very importunate with my father to find for me a situation in which I could earn something by my handwriting."[1] Thus a green and inexperienced William Hone began to make his way in the world. Remarkably, for he was very young to begin office work even by eighteenth-century standards, Hone soon found employment as a "factotum" to a solicitor who was just setting up his practice in Bishopsgate Street. For a few weeks this position suited Hone quite well, and he discharged his little duties to the satisfaction of his employer. But, owing to a change of location of the solicitor's office, Hone's workspace also changed, leaving him alone in a room with an unlocked bookcase well supplied with the works of English poets and dramatists. The temptation was too great. To the neglect of his copying and despite the complaints of the solicitor, Hone would spend whole afternoons reading poetry until, as he put it, "I was suddenly, and deservedly dismissed, with an imagination inflamed to intensity by the infatuating reading in which I had recklessly indulged."[2] This, of course, was an ignominious event—Hone's first venture into the world of adult reponsibility had ended in shame and failure. It did, however, give him a taste for imaginative writing which he would shortly indulge when the publisher John Cooke began issuing his series of British poets in 6d. weekly numbers. The works of Goldsmith and Thomson, in particular, left their romantic, even sentimental impression: "I felt emotions of peaceful delight unknown to me before—my affections went forth to every living thing; my heart expanded with rapturous joy."[3]

After this initial professional failure, Hone took a second position, this time under his father's vigilant eye in the offices of the Clerkenwell Parochial Board. The work here was easy enough—mainly assisting his father with his copies—but it struck Hone as endless and gloomy drudgery. Perhaps because his imagination had been ignited by poetry or perhaps simply because he was a fifteen-year-old adolescent, he was frightened that he would find himself condemned to a dreary, monotonous career as a legal copyist. Hone grew understandably melancholy at the prospect, and during the warm summer evenings he "stalked about the fields, anticipating and brooding over the hardships of [his] imagined destiny."[4] Fortunately, a shake up in the parochial office necessitated yet another change of employers, and Hone soon found a new "situation" as a copyist for a Mr. Pelletti, another solicitor. Pelletti, a Unitarian, was a quiet, orderly man much given to reading and discussing religious literature. He introduced Hone to the works of William Law, and, perhaps more importantly, he allowed his young copyist some precious leisure time in which to read and reflect and talk with his friends and associates. The result of this freedom, however, was not the development of a meditative and religious temperment, as Pelletti probably hoped; instead, it led Hone first to a reassessment and then to a complete reversal of his religious and political attitudes.

Throughout the 1780s, as we have seen, Hone's life was dominated by his father's unwavering religious faith. Hone's father, in turn, was an ardent follower of the self-styled evangelist, Rev. William Huntington, S. S. (the "S. S." standing, in Huntington's homemade vocabulary, for "Sinner Saved").[5] Every Tuesday evening, from his arrival in London in 1783 until about 1792, the older Hone would bring his son to the ancient and cavernous dissenters' meeting-house in Monkwell Street to hear Huntington preach. It did not seem to matter that the sermons offered an apparently contradictory blend of High Tory political conservatism and antinomian attacks on worldly institutions. What counted here was a seductively powerful rhetoric that bound together the attending faithful with a sense of their own righteousness and a paranoid, sometimes condemning suspicion of persons and institutions that were not of the fold. This rhetoric had its inevitable effects on young Hone. It led indirectly to the isolated, disciplined, and highly protective environment which William and Francis Hone tried to create for their boys; it led directly to the younger William's unquestioning faith in the universal truth and power of his father's religion. In fact, he was so completely under the spell of the Huntingtonian religious temperment that, when he first made some acquaintances outside his own family, he was utterly shocked at their irreligious and even profligate behavior. An eleven-year-old Hone then tried to induce his companions to reflect on the dire and eternal consequences of their actions, which preaching earned him some jeering giggles and a new nickname—the "Little Methodist." [6]

In London in the early 1790s a freethinking spirit, both political and religious, was everywhere in evidence. Indeed, at the upper end of Chancery Lane, just a few blocks from the Hone household in Red Lion Square, the indefatigable reformer Thomas Spence had set up a cart from which he sold all sorts of controversial radical publications, including his own works on land reform and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. (On the morning of 6 December 1792, while Hone was hurrying to his work in the solicitor's office, he watched as Spence was arrested on charges of sedition.)[7] Such an environment was bound eventually to challenge the undoubting piety of the "Little Methodist," but the first real test came from an unexpected quarter. Sometime in the mid-1790s, Hone's father was given a copy of An Apology for the Bible by Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, a work written in response to the 1795 publication of the second part of Paine's Age of Reason. The elder Hone passed the book along to his son who read it with care and was largely convinced by its reasoning, even though he had not read Paine and had to reconstruct the radical argument by inference from Watson's rebuttal. Surprisingly, the effect of the book—in another instance of the sheer unpredictability of the act of reading—turned out to be quite opposite from its author's avowed intentions. As Hone puts it, "Until the Apology informed me, I never conceived the Bible had been, or could be, doubted or disbelieved, and, strange to say, although I thought Bishop Watson proved the untruth of much that Paine had written, yet the Bishop's work alone created doubt in me who had never before doubted. I mention this much as a fact, without remark."[8] It is, nonetheless, a remarkable fact that a persuasive polemic, obviously designed to settle an issue, should so thoroughly unsettle the reader's beliefs. Thus troubled by religious questions, Hone began to be aware of ideas and practices that had been unknown to him just a few short months before and that would have been utter anathema to his strait-laced early theology.

It was at this juncture that Hone came under the baleful spell of English poetry, the dangers of which were quite clearly understood in the neo-Puritanical world he inhabited.[9] An even worse influence would soon follow. While working at the Clerkenwell Parochial Board, Hone became intimate with some of the younger clerks in the office. Much to the displeasure of Hone's father, these free-living young urbanites took Hone with them to a performance at Sadler's Wells. Astounded by the spectacle, Hone became in a very short time a complete devotee of the theater. He would arrange to have the responsibility for evening errands given to him so that, by hurrying, he could finish in time to get a half-price theatre ticket and attend the show. He even used up his small book-buying budget in pursuit of this new passion and then pestered his mother for an increase in his allowance. In short, the studious and voracious young reader had now become, in a small way, a cosmopolitan man about town. Recalling this period in the 1830s, Hone significantly borrows a phrase from his father's autobiography, "I became play-house mad."[10] An early infatuation with the theatre was one of many parallels between the lives of the two William Hones.

In 1795 and 96, then, Hone was a very divided character. On the one hand, he still lived under the potent and unshakeable influence of his father's strict religious principles; on the other, he was much attracted to the luxurious "beauties" of English poetry and to the more ribald and spectacular fun of the theatre. In addition, Hone was mixing more and more with a society of his peers and coming to be increasingly critical of his parents' protective influence. Given the social, political, intellectual, and religious upheaval of the times, it is only to be expected that Hone would be drawn towards the well-publicized radical ideas put forth by the social activists and political theorists of the day. Before long, a "seducingly eloquent" friend had convinced him that "religion was a dream" and that the "human mind" would soon awaken from the darkness of superstition to assert its splendid individual powers and claim its individual rights. The time was nearly at hand when, in a working through of a kind of pre-Marxist utopian teleology, "governments would disappear, and every individual would be self-governed."[11] Religion and faith, for the former "Little Methodist," had not at this point been completely supplanted by Enlightenment Reason, but the Bible no longer held its sacred status of revealed and eternal truth. Instead, the New Testament became a source of elevating ethical examples, on a par with, say, Plato's Socratic dialogues. Hone was sixteen years old when he "became a convert" to this so-called "New Philosophy" and joined the local chapter of the London Corresponding Society.

During the same period, Hone was an avid reader of novels—borrowed from a nearby circulating library—and he also began studying the works of the leading intellectual voices of the 1790s radical movements, including those of William Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, George Dyer, and the authors of various LCS publications, as well as some translations of French theorists like Holbach and Volney. In particular, Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice—which was, of course, powerfully influential among the better-educated and more highly literate radicals—convinced Hone of the accuracy of its rationalist analyses of social and political issues and of the desirability of a society constructed on the principles of philosophical anarchism. But for Hone it was not enough to be convinced by abstract argument, regardless of how unassailably persuasive it seemed. In addition, Hone wanted to see evidence that the persons who lived their lives according to, say, Godwinian precepts were indeed happier and more content than those who were still enslaved to their ancient superstitions. With this object in mind, Hone discovered where he might likely see the "perfectibility philosopher," and he went to meet him in person. To Hone's "utter astonishment," he found the famous Godwin in the midst of a childish tantrum sparked by some completely negligible disappointment. On inquiry, Hone discovered that such outbursts of an "ungoverned temper" were common with the petulant Godwin, and this information turned him away from the philosopher's writing: "Until then, his works had been great favourites with me; I never looked at them again, nor ever afterwards saw, or desired to see their author."[12]

The incident is worth mentioning partly because it illustrates the fate of one of the chief intellectual influences on Hone during his early radical years. More important, it also illustrates an assumption Hone makes as to the nature of authorship, an assumption that aligns him with an English empiricist tradition (ultimately conservative) and sets him against the purer "theory" typically associated with the French.[13] A book like Godwin's ought to be, in Hone's thinking, the honest envoy of the life of its author. The validity of the theory, in other words, could be guaged by assessing the "real" life of the theorist. If there is some disjunction between book and life, then the book must be called into question. Expanding on this same logic, the world of discourse must inevitably be secondary, a mere echo of the concrete social lives and thoughts of real people. However commonsensical and "realistic" such a notion might seem, it nonetheless sets Hone off from the more philosophical radicals who saw discourse as a space wherein social and political ideals might be worked out, where the discourse was not a mere echo of the present but a source of inspiration, of images of perfection toward which one might orient one's real-life struggles. (One thinks here of Godwin's son-in-law Shelley's Preface to Prometheus Unbound which announces the work's "beautiful idealisms of moral excellence," frankly acknowledging and even celebrating the work's lack of "realism.") This tension between persuasive but abstract discourse and concrete, empirical evidence, as will be seen repeatedly in the forthcoming chapters, is a primary motivating dialectic in the development of Hone's thinking, writing, and political activity.

In the latter half of the radical 1790s, then, Hone was a very confused young man. The neo-Puritanical foundations of his early years simply could not withstand the skeptical questioning of a post-Enlightenment intellectual climate, but neither could he completely shake free from his father's religion and embrace a then philosophically chic atheism. It is true that he dabbled in radical politics—even to the point of joining the LCS—but, at the same time, he found the French-inspired "New Philosophy," so ubiquitous in the '90s, as untenable as blind religious faith in the face of real-life conditions that belied its implicit utopian promises. Hone was, in other words, a bundle of intellectual and spiritual contradictions. What was even worse, he was a still a great lover of reading—both for pleasure and for "information"—but he was apparently suited professionally only for a mind-numbing career as an underling in some kind of legal or governmental office. After all, Hone had neither the capital nor the educational and social advantages it took to be introduced into a more respectable and self-reliant position. One hesitates, of course, to draw too definite a relation between outward events and psychological realities, but it is little wonder that this seventeen-year-old should now be troubled by periods of despondency and depression. The sturm und drang of a revolutionary decade were registering their pressure on the psyche of an inquisitive and perceptive young subject.

These effects were not lost on Hone's father who, concerned for his son's welfare and probably frightened by his freshly formed opinions on politics and religion, found for him another "situation," this time with a solicitor in the village of Chatham some 20 or 30 miles to the east of the capital. The biographical information is skimpy during this period (Chatham gets only a few scant sentences in Hackwood), but it is clear that Hone made friends with a few locals of about his own age, and he enjoyed some moments of solitude and natural beauty during frequent walks in the surrounding countryside. (See, for example, Hone's sonnet from this period.) If Hone's father had intended by this move to disentangle his son from his LCS connections, he may not have been completely successful. After all, the famous LCS orator John Gale Jones had visited Rochester, Chatham, and several other cities just a few months before; he sang the Marseillies with some French prisoners of war, and he discovered a keen local interest in the workings of the London divisions of the radical organization.[14] There is no real evidence, however, that Hone took part in any provincial radical activities while in the country, and, given his political inexperience, it would have been unusual if he had. On the contrary, his job required him to attend weekly church services, and his friends seem to have been for the most part Church of England loyalists. Though Hone would tentatively and mildly bring more freethinking ideas into their public-house discussions of national affairs, he seems to have set aside his still uncertain political and religious attitudes in the interests of maintaining light and congenial personal relationships. This is typical of Hone; as in his meeting with Godwin, what counted was the immediate and personal rather than the abstract principle to which one might feel a commitment. Accordingly, his country friendships proved durable: John Venning continued to correspond with Hone for the next 12-15 years, and in 1826 a Mr. Seaton of Chatham left a mourning ring for Hone in his will.[15]

It is equally clear, however, that even these rapidly developing friendships could neither settle Hone's political and spiritual confusion nor put a stop to his occasional fits of depression. In September of 1797, for example, Chatham acquaintance Charles Few refers to his new friend's "leadeny" spirits and then goes on to exclaim "Oh! Hone, Hone, thou surely art somewhat confused in thy upper stories." And two years later a letter from Charles Townson reveals a continuing depression: "Laugh! Laugh, you dog, 'tis the best cure in the world for the hyps. . . . You appear when you wrote to be under the influence of one of those melancholy moods which the soul is sometimes betrayed into."[16] These periods of depression would recur throughout Hone's life, sometimes leaving him unable to write for several weeks at a time. Perhaps one cause of this most recent melancholy was a sense of stagnation. At the turn of the century, Hone was once again in the capital, living in rooms in Lambeth and working in yet another law office—Mr. Egerton's in Gray's Inn Square. He continued to attend weekly church services with his new landlady, Mrs. Johnson, but he did so without any fervor and with only a kind of vague amusement at the preacher's earnest appeals to faith. As he describes his own condition: "I both wished and dreaded to be religious. I had no fear or hope of futurity, no soul, or spirit to depart; no hope but to live, no fear but to die; no fear of death, but as the end of life."[17] In other words, Hone found himself unable to be as blissfully oblivious to current social and political thinking as he deemed his father to be. But he was also utterly discontent with the life he was beginning to shape for himself. About the only aspect of his existence that gave him any unmixed satisfaction was a continuing love of books and reading.

 


Notes:

1.
Add. MS 40121, f. 32. [return]

2.
Hackwood, p. 47. [return]

3.
Hackwood, p. 47. [return]

4.
Hackwood, p. 48. [return]

5.
Huntington adopted the title "Sinner Saved" in deliberate opposition to the titles bestowed by more established, "worldly" institutions. Brief notices about Huntington can be gotten from the DNB and from E. P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast, pp. 6-9. There are also a couple of biograhies: Ebenezer Hooper's The Celebrated Coalheaver, or Reminiscences of the Reverend William Huntinton, S. S. (1871) and Thomas Wright's Life of William Huntington, S. S. (1909). Among the many works by Huntington himself, The Kingdom of Heaven Taken by Prayer (1786) included in Vol. 1 of The Select Works of the Late Reverend William Huntington, S. S. (London: W. H. Collingridge, 1856) is probably the most rich with specifically autobiographical information. [return]

6.
Add. MS 40121, f. 21. [return]

7.
A full description of the arrest opens Worrall's Radical Culture, see esp. pp. 9-11. Hone describes the event in a long and fascinating letter to Francis Place dated 23 September 1830 (Add. MS 27808, ff. 314-15), while Place was writing his biography of Spence. The detail of Hone's account, almost 40 years after the event itself, suggests that he was quite familiar with Spence's quirky bookselling cart. [return]

8.
Hackwood, p. 45. [return]

9.
In The English Common Reader, Richard Altick offers a fascinating and detailed chapter on the divided attitudes toward reading held by many evangelical Christians. On the one hand, reading was the primary vehicle through which morality and pious virtue could be communicated to a mass readership—witness, for instance, the astonishing circulation of religious tracts during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the reading of imaginative and "recreational" literature was a different matter altogether; even if such writing did not specifically challenge settled moral issues, it could, it was felt, generate a listless and/or depraved tendency of the mind and soul. Thus, "They [strict evangelical thinkers] considered it too dangerous for good Christians to expose themselves to the blandishments of imaginative literature. The human will was too frail to be so powerfully tempted, and the only safe course was to avoid reading matter which could in any way imperil the soul" (110). It could be that Hone's autobiography was intended to demonstrate the evil effects of such literature as he describes his descent from good moral and instructional reading, through English poetry, and ending up in the dregs of drama and novels. [return]

10.
Hackwood, p. 49. [return]

11.
Hackwood, p. 51. [return]

12.
Hackwood, p. 55. This claim, from Hone's fragmentary autobiography, is not entirely accurate. In early 1818, shortly after his Trials, Hone gained access to the British Library thanks to a letter of support from William Godwin (Hone Collection, Adelphi University, Series 1C, Bx. 4, f. 2).[return]

13.
For these specifically nationalist associations, see David Simpson's Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993). Simpson's opening chapter, "The Politics of Method," (pp. 19-39) is especially important to the present work for its delineation of the connections between the English Revolution of the seventeenth-century and the writing and politics of the romantic period. [return]

14.
See John Gale Jones, Sketch of a Political Tour through Rochester, Chatham, Maidstone, Gravesend etc., including Reflections . . . on the Progress of the Societies Instituted for the Purpose of Obtaining a Parliamentary Reform. 1796. [return]

15.
Add. MS 50746, ff. 19. [return]

16.
Both letters are reprinted in Hackwood, p. 67. [return]

17.
Hackwood, p. 57. [return]