HANDLEY CROSS: OR, THE SPA HUNT is a typical example of nineteenth century English sporting tales. The novel contains little plot and little attempt at dramatic motivation, but to an enthusiastic fox hunter, HANDLEY CROSS is fascinating because of its gusty hunting tales and the single-minded devotion of its characters to the sport. Jorrocks, appearing in a number of Surtees’ works, is dear to devotees of the hard-riding, hard-drinking sporting set.
For almost twenty years, Robert Smith Surtees regaled the huntsmen of Britain with his amusing tales of the grocer Jorrocks and his undying passion for all things having to do with the chase. Abused and ridiculed for his extreme love of the hunt, he is never totally absurd: there is too much intensity, sincerity, and humanity in the man’s love of sport for him to be destroyed by his enemies and detractors. Although a cockney in manners and speech, a mere grocer by trade, Jorrocks achieves a lovable nobility all his own.
In his encouraging address to Benjamin, one of his huntsmen or glorified stable boys, Jorrocks reveals the high-minded values of character and true worldliness he associates with expertise in things of the hunt: There is no saying what “keenness combined with sagacity and cleanliness may accomplish.” Benjamin is flattered into believing that he has all the “ingredients of a great man,” and “hopportunity only is wantin’ to dewelope them.”
The hunt is everything to Jorrocks; it is the measure of all he holds dear. Everything else in life, including his grocery business and home, takes second place to the call of the hounds. Even when he is sorting his clothes, the primary consideration is what can be preserved for use in the hunt and what must be discarded because it no longer can be adapted to the hunt. He is so obsessed with his passion that he cannot, without some anxiety, entrust anything connected with hunting to others. When his celebrated horse is being auctioned, he constantly interrupts the auctioneer with praise of the animal’s speed and leaping ability. Eventually, Jorrocks’ passion becomes a form of madness, but Surtees insists, in a shower of good honor, on vindicating Jorrocks. As exaggerated as it is, his love of the hunt is too sincere and authentic to cause his downfall. He must be free to hunt again.