Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Wit in the Dungeon by Anthony Holden

Leigh Hunt is almost forgotten now, even among readers, but in his heyday he was part of a circle that included the literary and artistic giants of the time. He was so influential that he was jailed for remarks against the Royal family and jealously mocked by lesser writers.
Quite prolific, he wrote theater and book reviews, political editorials, satires, poems, plays and general articles for a range of publications, most notably his brother’s long running newspaper, the “Examiner”. He not only promoted women writers, but was friends with the major authors of several generations, often publishing their work for the first time. A favorite past time was timed sonnet contests with Keats and Shelley. He had no sense of smell or how to manage money, a problem compounded by his alcoholic wife. His earliest memory was of a debtor’s prison, where the family lived with his aging father, who had fled the U.S. at the start of the American Revolutionary War because of Loyalist sympathies.
He was imprisoned himself for pointing out that the Prince had reneged on promises for Irish Catholic Emancipation. But was able to bribe his way into a private section with a flower garden & weekly deliveries of fresh veggies. Here, he held a Salon, with writers and artists visiting and playing badminton. One artist brought a newly completed 12 ft. long canvas into the jail for Hunt to see. The title of the book is from Byron’s description of Hunt at this time.
In his later years, as his & his wife’s health deteriorated, he became reclusive and wrote less. Fans such as Charlotte Bronte, Rossetti, Hawthorne and Thackeray were influenced by him, but Dickens made fun of him with the thinly disguised Skimpole in Bleak House. It was a mean payback for all of the encouragement Hunt had given Dickens early on.
This was a well done biography, capturing the time as well as the people. There are quotes from Hunt and friends, but they aren’t excessive and there are illustrations of the major players and places. If Hunt was alive today, he would probably be running a flashy PR agency, so it was immensely interesting to see how things were done in those days. It’s unfortunate that he’s faded so much, considering his tremendous output and influence, Leigh Hunt should be more familiar than he is. This book goes a ways in reminding people of him and his legacy.

Little, Brown and Co. 2005 430 pp. ISBN 0-316-06752-0

Jackie has never painted a picture that was 12 feet long, but has done some smaller ones, which you can see here

3 comments on “The Wit in the Dungeon by Anthony Holden

  1. hrileena
    February 1, 2010

    Hunt’s actually been making something of a comeback in recent years, as seen by the fact that not one, but two biographical studies of him were published in the same year. The book you’ve reviewed is one, the other is called Fiery Heart. Though they’re both good reads, Leigh Hunt’s own writings — and he was a prolific writer — are even better. Sadly, they’re not exactly easy to find. It’s a pity.

    This review is well done, but I must say I disagree with the assessment that if Hunt ‘was alive today, he would probably be running a flashy PR agency’. Hunt was a bit too inflexible to be any good as a PR manager; he was — and probably still would be — an activist. His other great ability was to find, befriend and encourage younger writers with greater talents than his own, a sort of literary talent scout, mentor and agent rolled into one.

  2. Minnie
    February 1, 2010

    Fascinating – and makes one long to re-read more of the original work. Harold Skimpole in ‘Bleak House’ strikes me as more of a caricature than an attempt at accurate portraiture, tho’. I could see Hunt thriving as an old-style literary editor on an influential quality weekly or Sunday broadsheet (remember those? No? Ah, you’d have to be over a certain age ;-)); he’d be happy as the boss, with a reasonably indulgent Big Boss – and generous expenses (including comprehensive medical cover, enabling Mrs H to be dried out at regular intervals …).

  3. Nikki
    February 3, 2010

    It’s odd to think how important he was in his own time yet without this review I would never have heard of him. I’ll try and find some of his work. Seems a shame to let him be forgotten. Very interesting review.

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This entry was posted on February 1, 2010 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: biography, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: literature and tagged , , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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