Robert Smith Surtees Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like Anthony Trollope, Robert Smith Surtees (SURT-eez) re-created in his novels a limited but significant phase of the social milieu of his time. The world of his fiction, although small, is admirably self-contained and complete in every detail within its boundaries of the kennel and the stable, the hunting fields and the drawing rooms of the English “squirearchy.” Against this background he presented a cross-section of Victorian society: The aristocracy entrenched behind barriers of caste and privilege, the new middle class trying to rise above its origins in trade, tuft-hunters and amiable blackguards aping the gentry and living at the expense of their social betters, sturdy yeoman farmers, the laboring tenantry, and comic yokels. These people fill a series of sporting novels lively with humor and pungent with that flavor of satire which was Surtees’ strong point.

Descended from an ancient country family that took its name from the River Tees, Surtees was born at The Riding, Northumberland, on May 17, 1803. His boyhood was spent at Hamsterley Hall, near Durham, a seventeenth century manor bought by his father in 1810. A younger son without prospects of inheritance, he was educated at Ovingham School and at the Durham Grammar School, and in 1822 was articled to a solicitor at Newcastle-on-Tyne in preparation for a career in law. Three years later he transferred to the office of another solicitor in Bow Churchyard, London. Admitted in Chancery in 1828, he abandoned law for journalism a year later and became a hunting correspondent for Sporting Magazine.

His first book, combining his knowledge of law with his interest in sport, was The Horseman’s Manual, published in 1831. In the same year his older brother died, and Surtees became the heir to Hamsterley, a change of fortune which probably influenced his decision to join Rudolph Ackermann in founding the New Sporting Magazine, which he edited until 1836. For the third issue of the magazine, in July, 1831, he wrote the first of the humorous sketches dealing with John Jorrocks, the sporting Cockney grocer of Great Coram Street. This series, continued until September, 1834, proved so popular that the publishing house of Chapman and Hall planned a similar miscellany which resulted in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Opposed to repeal of the Corn Laws, Surtees stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1837. Following his father’s death in 1838, he returned to Hamsterley to lead the life of a country landlord and hunting squire. He married in 1841 and in the following year was appointed a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant for Durham County. He was also for a time a major in the Durham Militia, an experience he later satirized in his account of the Heavysteed Dragoons. He became high sheriff of Durham...

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Robert Smith Surtees Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Collison, Robert L. A Jorrocks Handbook. London: Coole Book Service, 1964. A guide to Surtees’ comic invention.

Gash, Norman. Robert Surtees and Early Victorian Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Places Surtees in his historical and cultural context.

Neumann, Bonnie Rayford. Robert Smith Surtees. Boston: Twayne, 1978. An intellectual and literary biography.

Watson, Frederick. Robert Smith Surtees: A Critical Study. 1933. Reprint. Nunney, Somerset, England: Robert Smith Surtees Society, 1991. An overview study of the spectrum of Surtees’ work.

Welcome, John. The Sporting World of R. S. Surtees. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Concentrates on Surtees’ hunting writing.