[The following passage comes from chapter 8 of Chris Vanden Bossche's Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867, which is reviewed in the Victorian Web — Andrzej Diniejko]

Illuminated S

urtees (1803-1864) had much in common with Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). Both began writing to earn an income — Disraeli in 1826 and Surtees 1831 — but by the 1840s their fiction writing had become avocational, Disraeli because he was in Parliament and Surtees because he had inherited the family estate at Hamsterley. Hillingdon Hall, like Coningsby and Sybil, satirizes the Whig aristocracy, and in it Surtees, as would Disraeli in Parliament, opposes repeal of the Corn Laws. Finally, just as Disraeli failed in his first attempt to run for Parliament, Surtees was, in 1837, an unsuccessful candidate in his first and only campaign for a parliamentary seat.

Yet the differences between the two novelists are apparent from the fact that Surtees refused several subsequent offers to run for Parliament, whereas Disraeli not only persisted in running for Parliament but indeed had considerable political ambitions. Whereas Coningsby and Sybil appeared under the authorship of “B. Disraeli, M. P.” and served as publicity for his campaign for party leadership, Surtees jealously guarded his anonymity, with Hillingdon Hall appearing under the name of the “Author of 'Handley Cross' &c.” Disraeli, writing in the service of his political ambitions, adopted the characteristically earnest authorial voice of the reformer. By contrast, Surtees, relieved of the necessity of earning a living after inheriting Hamsterley Hall, adopted the persona of the amateur who seeks merely to entertain.

Nonetheless, as its commentary on agricultural improvement and the Corn Laws, its election plot, and an allusion to Chartism (“the new charter”) indicate, Hillingdon Hall, for all of the comedy and satire that, after all, it shares with Coningsby, seeks to intervene in contemporary debates about social agency (3.36.93), Like the two preceding Jorrocks novels, Hillingdon Hall consists of a series of humorous episodes depicting the London native's encounters with rural culture. Unlike its predecessors, however, it has a loosely organized plot, the central thread of which involves the electoral campaign conducted by the Duke of Donkeyton, a Whig lord whose son, the Marquis of Bray, gets maneuvered by the Anti-Corn Law League into supporting repeal and loses the election to Jorrocks, who has taken up the cause of protection on behalf of his farming tenants. One could thus make the case that Surtees invented the scenario in which his rich Cockney grocer retires and purchases a country estate in order to satirize those among the Whig aristocracy, in particular members of the recently established Royal Agricultural Society of England, who advocated free trade and repeal of the Corn Laws.

Like Disraeli, Surtees envisions social agency in terms of landed property and a finely graded hierarchy that displaces the agency of the Whig oligarchy, but he differs in his depiction both of the land itself and of the nature of the hierarchy. As we have seen, Disraeli envisions a hierarchy in which the reformed aristocrat establishes a set of reciprocal relations of responsibility and deference between himself and his “peasantry” (Coningsby 3.5.173). By contrast, Surtees depicts a hierarchy that occupies a much narrower range, comprising the country squire as landed proprietor and yeoman farmers as his tenants, both of which share an interest in protecting the value of the land. Whereas Disraeli's novels treat the landed estate as a figure for the nation governed by a reformed aristocrat, Hillingdon Hall remains resolutely, albeit comically, focused on the ins and outs of working the land. Disraeli would reform the nation by reforming Parliament, but Surtees would do so by reforming agriculture. Finally, while Coningsby and Egremont embrace middle-class self-culture as a means of reforming the aristocracy, the role of the squire is to provide capital necessary to the reform of agriculture. [103-4]

References

Vanden Bossche, Chris. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014. [Review in The Victorian Web


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Last modified 1o May 2014