William Hone, Regency Radical: Selected Writings of William Hone, eds. David A. Kent and D. R. Ewen
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Romanticists have an unusual penchant for "circles" and "schools." We have a Lake School, a Satanic School, and a Cockney School (which includes the Hunt circle); we have Joseph Johnson's circle, the Wordsworth Circle, Shelley and his Circle; and we have, of course, the plural and seemingly all-encompassing Romantic Circles. It is as if romanticists wish to account for the literary culture of the early nineteenth century in the graphic terms of a Venn diagram. And yet, for all these overlapping schools and circles, some figures always seem to lie just beyond the circumference, unlisted on the roster of any particular school and thus relegated (literally) to the margins of literary history where they appear only occasionally in the odd footnote. Until quite recently, William Hone has been just such a figure. Though he was well known to many of the central writers and publishers of the Regency period, and in spite of his general fame (or notoriety) in the public prints, and though he was the long-time friend of Charles Lamb, the publisher of Hazlitt's Political Essays, and perhaps the best-selling writer in England during the post-Peterloo and Queen Caroline affair periods, Hone has not been widely known or widely read among more recent romantics scholars. Happily, over the last dozen years or so this state of affairs has begun to change. With the publication of such works as Marcus Wood's Radical Satire and Print Culture, Joss Marsh's Word Crimes, a handful of essays and electronic editions (such as The Political House That Jack Built, here on Romantic Circles and on my BioText website), and most recently in Ben Wilson's Laughter of Triumph, Hone's work as a publisher and journalist, parodist and antiquarian is coming into increasing prominence.
The volume under consideration here offers a timely contribution to this swell of interest in Hone. The first substantial compilation of Hone's work since Edgell Rickword's Radical Squibs and Loyal Ripostes (1971), and the first collection ever to offer anything approaching a comprehensive view of Hone's "life and works," Regency Radical: Selected Writings of William Hone is a most useful volume. The book presents a biographical introduction to Hone supplemented by a short chronology; a very brief selection of articles from The Reformists' Register, a short-lived weekly that Hone published—initially with the help of Francis Place—in 1817; extended selections from Hone's famous libel trials of 1817; four of the half dozen or so illustrated satires produced with George Cruikshank in 1819-21; and a short selection of material drawn from Hone's very popular late-career antiquarian works, The Every-Day Book (1825-27), The Table Book (1827), and The Year Book (1832). These excerpts from the published works are followed by a short sampling from Hone's voluminous correspondence, much of which is very illuminating and entertaining reading but most of which has never been published. The works collected here thus span the period when Hone was at his most prominent and influential as a public figure, and they suggest something of the range and the development of Hone's writing and publishing efforts. All of these selections are effectively, but unobtrusively annotated.
And herein lies the chief value of Kent and Ewen's volume. Heretofore, editions of Hone's work have been scattered and often very partial. While editions of some pieces—Hone's Three Trials, for instance, or The Political House that Jack Built—have always been relatively easy to locate and read, scholarly discussion of such works has typically appeared in rather limited contexts. Many readers of Romantic Circles, for instance, will be familiar with Hone as a parodist and satirist, but will know little about his journalism or his antiquarianism. Likewise, historians of British jurisprudence may well know Hone from his 1817 libel trials, but be blind to the broader context of Hone's distinctive "antiquarian radicalism" and to his literary pretensions. And few romanticists or legal historians are very keenly aware of the important role Hone's Apocryphal New Testament (1820) plays in the history of Bible publishing and discussions of the biblical canon. The inevitable result, of course, is that it has been difficult to see Hone in any comprehensive way. Regency Radical strives to draw together the fragments of Hone's reputation into a single volume where students and scholars of the Romantic period can finally begin to grasp the breadth of the man's efforts. In effect, the book serves to "humanize" Hone, seeing his work not as a rich source of marginal materials and backgrounds for studies focused elsewhere but rather as a coherent body of work in its own right, the product of the man whose portrait stares evocatively from the front cover and whose sometimes very personal (and personable) letters make up the book's final section. Regency Radical presents a new Hone, then, and the book will likely find its greatest value in this suggestion of a comprehensive view of the works and, of course, as a kind of ready reference to the numerous topical allusions that are so frequent in the sort of politically engaged writing that is typical of Hone's ouvre. This is very useful scholarship indeed.
Unfortunately, this comprehensive inclination is also, inevitably, the source of the book's limitations. While the volume does offer a broader and more accessible view of Hone than anything else currently in print, there are some surprising gaps in the coverage. For instance, nothing from the series of antiquarian and polemical works that followed Hone's controversial publication of the Apocryphal New Testament is represented here—readers are likely to come away from the volume with no awareness of this still largely unexplored aspect of Hone's career. Other editorial selections are similarly lacking. There are no works previous to 1817, though the introduction to an 1816 pamphlet (the lengthy title of which begins Hone's Interesting History of the Memorable Blood Conspiracy . . . .) offers perhaps Hone's clearest and most unequivocal justification for his radical publishing activities. Likewise, there are no selections from the Cruikshank-illustrated satire A Slap at Slop and His Bridge-Street Gang (1821), though I am not alone in thinking it is the best of the satires and would presumably fit perfectly the selection criteria of a volume called Regency Radical.
Of course it is easy to complain about works that are missing from the volume—any "selected works" compilation is going to omit some important pieces, often for reasons that are fully justifiable. In the case of A Slap at Slop, for instance, the editors may have omitted the piece because the original was printed in a full sheet newspaper format that does not transfer well to smaller codex formats (though Hone himself also printed a rather disappointing octavo version). The problem here involves a kind of uncertainty about what the book is intended to be and to do. If the editors wished—as their title suggests—to focus on those works that made Hone famous during the radical years of the late Regency, then one wonders why the antiquarian prose from the 20s and 30s (as well as a range of letters extending well beyond the limits of Hone's "radical years") is included at all. The later prose, after all, seems to crowd out some other important, even defining works from Hone as a "Regency radical." Alternatively, if the editors intended to provide a more comprehensive overview—as is suggested by the texts chosen for inclusion and as announced in the dustjacket blurb—then one wonders why excerpts from the Apocryphal New Testament and Ancient Mysteries Described or even Hone's spurious continuation of Byron in Don Juan, Canto the Third! or his heavily edited republication of Defoe's Jure Divino might not have made the cut. As it stands, the selection criteria are never clearly spelled out, and the headnotes to each major section (in the absence of a Preface and of headnotes to individual selections) offer only the most minimal guidance.
These quibbles aside, Regency Radical is a welcome and valuable book. It provides a convenient and well-edited reading text for some of Hone's more familiar works, most notably the Three Trials and the (fully illustrated) Hone-Cruikshank collaborations from the post-Peterloo years. These works are supplied with annotations and glosses which, if not always as thorough as one might want, nonetheless offer some original insights as well as sensible distillations of such important commentaries as those of Dorothy George, Ann Bowden, Robert Patton, Marcus Wood, Kevin Gilmartin and others. Hone's political writing from the late-Regency period is highly topical and historically grounded, packed with allusions to contemporary persons, issues, and events. It is a great help to have a reasonably accurate and comprehensive key to such allusions collected together in a single volume. For students and scholars alike, Regency Radical offers both a sound introduction and a handy reference to Hone's most characteristic writing.