Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593
First published: 1861
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Sporting romance
Time of work: Nineteenth century
John Standish Sawyer, a country gentleman and ardent fox hunter
Isaac, Sawyer’s groom and horse handler
The Honorable Crasher, Sawyer’s friend and hunting companion
Cecilia Dove, the woman with whom Sawyer falls in love
Parson Dove, Cecilia’s fox-hunting father
Tiptop, The Honorable Crasher’s groom and horse handler
John Standish Sawyer, a hard-riding, fox-hunting country gentleman whose farm lay not far from London, decided one fall afternoon that he had too little and too poor hunting in his own country. He also wished to show himself off as a horseman and hunter among a better class of hunters than those in his own vicinity. That evening, the bachelor sat in his study alone; he tried to decide, with the help of numerous glasses of brandy and water, what hunting community he would visit during the remainder of the season. He finally decided that he would go to Market Harborough, which had a good season and good attendance.
The following morning, Mr. Sawyer walked to a neighboring farm to buy a new horse for hunting, since he had only two hunters in his stable. At the neighboring farm, whose owner was more a horse trader than an agriculturist, Sawyer found a beautiful roan that was just what he wanted. Returning to his own farm, The Grange, Sawyer went out to the stables and informed old Isaac, the groom, that he was to bring the new horse home and then prepare to take the inmates of the stable by railway to Market Harborough. Isaac knew his master and did not argue, although he did not quite approve of the journey.
Two days later, Isaac and the horses arrived at Market Harborough, where Sawyer joined them after traveling down to London to outfit himself with new, stylish boots and riding clothes. On the train from London to Market Harborough, Sawyer met a tired-seeming young gentleman, also an ardent fox hunter, named the Honorable Crasher. At the time, neither made much of an impression on the other, although from Sawyer’s position the Honorable Crasher was quite a fashionable figure.
The first morning after Sawyer’s arrival at Market Harborough was a very foggy one. Nevertheless, Sawyer had his groom prepare one of his hunters and joined a group of hunters, one of whom was the Honorable Crasher. When the fog refused to break, the two new friends were invited to lunch with the parson of the neighborhood, Mr. Dove, who was also an ardent hunter. The luncheon was a pleasant one, especially for Sawyer, who was impressed with Cecilia Dove, the parson’s pretty young daughter, a girl greatly devoted to fox hunting. The girl found Sawyer to be a pleasant chap with a respectable estate, and she was also quite taken with him.
Several weeks went by swiftly. Sawyer proved himself to be as good as or better than the other riders at Market Harborough. In addition, there were plenty of foxes to be hunted, most of which gave the hounds and the hunters a lengthy and swift chase. Sawyer’s new horse, the roan, proved as good as he had expected. Sawyer found himself thrown into the company of some merry bachelors who enjoyed life to the utmost and respected him. In addition, he often spent time with pretty Cecilia Dove, who was as captivated with Sawyer as he was with her.
Word went around one day that a steeplechase was being planned as a main event of the hunting season. The fox hunters of Sawyer’s group at first scoffed at the idea, since there would be no fox, but at last they fell in with the plan; the event would provide an opportunity to show off horse and rider, to make a reputation, and to win some money by riding and betting. Sawyer, who really had no horse good enough for the race, kept very quiet with respect to the event; privately, he wanted to enter it.
Old Isaac, Sawyer’s groom, knew that his master wanted to get in the race, and he hit upon a plan that involved a new horse. In Sawyer’s stable, there was a fine-looking bay that ate well, never got sick, but was a poor hunter. It was this animal that Isaac planned to palm off on the Honorable Crasher. To that end, he dropped mysterious hints to Tiptop, the Honorable Crasher’s groom. Tiptop fell for the bait and suggested to Isaac that the bay race with one of the Honorable Crasher’s horses to see which was the faster.
The two men met early one morning before sunup to try out the two horses. The race was to be for a half mile. The two grooms raced and Isaac’s horse, although it was covered with a flowing sheet, won by several lengths. Little did Tiptop realize that Isaac had taken out another horse under the sheet and had won the race illegally, from a very strict moralist’s standpoint. Isaac hurried to Sawyer and told his master that he was sure that the Honorable Crasher would ask to buy the unwanted bay.
Isaac was right. That very morning, the worthless horse was sold for a tremendous price. When the Honorable Crasher and his groom tried to get speed out of the horse in training him for the steeplechase, however, he could scarcely run. The new owner and his groom were mystified, but Isaac and Sawyer did not breathe a hint of what had happened. With the money from the sale of the worthless bay, Sawyer bought a fine, fast hunter, with which he hoped to win the steeplechase. In honor of Cecilia Dove, of whom he was growing fonder each day, he named the horse Wood-Pigeon.
Before the steeplechase was run, a ball was given by the racing set at Market Harborough. Sawyer was dressed as neatly and dandyishly as a tailor could turn him out, and he attended the ball in order to dance with Cecilia. She was very coquettish during the evening, however, and by acting warm and cool by turns, she angered Sawyer, who finally left the ball. Such treatment was just what the coquette needed to make her realize that she loved Sawyer very much.
The day of the great steeplechase arrived. Six horsemen, all gentlemen, were entered, including Sawyer on Wood-Pigeon. Sawyer, in honor of his love, wore a plum-colored silk shirt, plum being Cecilia’s favorite color. It was Sawyer’s first steeplechase, but he was a fine horseman on a fine horse, and well coached on the nature of the course by Isaac the groom, who had ridden over it on a reconnaissance run.
Sawyer did not win. In fact, he took an ugly fall near the end of the course, although up to that time he had ridden a fine race. In the fall, he suffered a broken collarbone. Cecilia watched the race and decided then that she would marry Sawyer, who had proved himself a courageous gentleman. During his convalescence, the engagement was announced; not long afterward, Sawyer and Cecilia Dove were married. Sawyer’s new wife succeeded in stopping his hunting; he even sold his horses in the flush of married bliss. One day, however, a friend saw him reading a book about hunting and guessed that before long he would be back with the hounds again.
As a forerunner of Siegfried Sassoon’s MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN and Caroline Gordon’s ALECK MAURY, SPORTSMAN, MARKET HARBOROUGH stands at the front of a distinguished, if minor, literary tradition. Like both later novels, the book’s interest lies in the skill with which George J. Whyte-Melville portrays the hunting scenes and the enthusiasm of the principal characters. The milieu of the novel is limited, but within its confines, the book provides a vivid picture of a particular world and range of interests. John Standish Sawyer presents a unique picture of a kind of individual seldom seen anymore; after two world wars, the world does not seem able to afford men who devote their entire lives to fox hunting. Nevertheless, Sawyer is a likable man, for all his narrowness, and the reader is not sorry when, at the end of the book, it is apparent that Sawyer is to continue his life devoted to hunting.
MARKET HARBOROUGH is a particularly English novel; its tone suggests an approach to life that would be difficult to find elsewhere. There is a gentleness and stately grace to the life portrayed in the narrative, a stylized approach to existence that at times seems almost unreal. The horses, the hounds, and the fashionable hunters have nothing whatever to do with the real problems of the world. Children may be working twelve hours a day in London factories, but one finds no sign of that fact within the pages of MARKET HARBOROUGH. This novel of 1861 (the year of GREAT EXPECTATIONS) is far removed from the world of Charles Dickens’ novels, yet its picture of its limited scene is authentic and interesting. The heroine, Cecilia Dove, begins as a picture-postcard figure but develops into a girl filled with life. The strange courtship of John Sawyer and Cecilia Dove is described with a great deal of charm. Perhaps the book is not to everyone’s taste, but it possesses a distinct, if specialized, place in English literature and will always find its devoted readers.