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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1557

First published: 1853

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque satire

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Mr. Soapey Sponge, a cockney sportsman

Lucy Glitters, an actress

Jawleyford, a sportsman

Puffington, another sportsman

Jogglebury, a carver of canes

The Story:

Soapey...

(The entire section contains 1557 words.)

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First published: 1853

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque satire

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Mr. Soapey Sponge, a cockney sportsman

Lucy Glitters, an actress

Jawleyford, a sportsman

Puffington, another sportsman

Jogglebury, a carver of canes

The Story:

Soapey Sponge led a remarkably consistent life while he was in London. Each day he appeared at the same pub or betting stall at exactly the same time. No man had a better knowledge of London’s streets and transportation. In fact, he spent all his spare time studying his street guide. He affected loud clothes, and he was intimate with grooms and horse dealers.

Just outside London was a small farm run by Buckram, a sharp horse trader. In need of mounts for the hunting season, Sponge decided to visit him. Buckram had two horses to show, Hercules and Multum in Parvo; both could be bought cheaply, for they were incurably vicious. Sponge, an expert horseman, concluded a deal whereby he could take the horses on an installment basis. Since he would need a groom if he were to cut a figure among fox hunters, he engaged Leather, Buckram’s slippery factotum. Leather had neither morals nor standing, but Sponge believed he could make him behave acceptably.

The hunt at Laverick Wells had become popular among certain of the sporting fraternity, and Sponge decided to try his luck there first. He sent Leather and the horses on ahead to prepare for his coming. Leather, however, was too efficient; he puffed his master up too much. He extolled Sponge’s rich wardrobe and extensive stables to such an extent that the whole town was sick of Sponge before he even arrived.

Waffles, the master of the hunt, determined to show up the newcomer by substituting a drag hunt for the real fox hunt. All the town knew of the substitution and secretly hoped Sponge would come to grief. On the day of the hunt, Sponge mounted Hercules in private. By the time he joined the crowd, the horse was considerably subdued. The drag hunt was thrilling. The pack ran through all the bogs and flinty pastures, through all the stout fences. The casualties were numerous, but Sponge kept on bravely. Riding ahead of Waffles, he was first at the supposed kill.

The daring horsemanship of Sponge changed the atmosphere a great deal; now he was admired, and his horse was praised. Waffles made indirect overtures to buy Hercules; by pretending indifference, Sponge closed the deal at three hundred guineas. As a favor, Waffles allowed a friend to ride Hercules soon afterward. The animal, vicious as always, took the bit in his teeth and crashed through the window of a drapery shop.

After four weeks, Waffles was heartily sick of his bargain and told people of his unlucky deal. When Buckram turned up and offered twenty pounds for Hercules, Waffles was glad to let the horse go. Sponge, however, pretended that Lord Bullfrog, Hercules’ former owner, was incensed at the report that he had sold Sponge a vicious horse. Sponge supposedly agreed to return Hercules and get his money back. Waffles had to admit the horse was gone, but he knew not where. To avoid a lawsuit for slander, he paid over two hundred and fifty pounds to Sponge to quiet Lord Bullfrog.

At Laverick Wells, Sponge had met Jawleyford, a boaster who had invited him to Jawleyford Court to hunt with Lord Scamperdale’s hounds. Jawleyford had invited Sponge in so general a way that he never expected him to accept. Nevertheless, thick-skinned Sponge wrote a note announcing his acceptance and then appeared before Jawleyford could think up a good excuse for putting off the visit. The host and hostess consoled themselves with the idea that Sponge was rich and might make a match with one of their daughters.

Sponge was a most disagreeable guest. His appetite was prodigious. He smoked cigars in the house, read his beloved guide to London’s streets, and paid no attention to the daughters. The family was relieved every time he rode out to hunt with Scamperdale’s pack.

Sponge’s mount was quite unmanageable on the first hunt. In spite of Sponge’s best efforts, he ran among the hounds and hurt some of them. Scamperdale was furious. He had no love for Jawleyford, and his guest seemed a dangerous man to have around. Back at Jawleyford Court, rumor eventually began to circulate that Sponge was no rich hunter but a penniless adventurer. As hints to leave became stronger, Sponge was relieved to have an invitation from Puffington, a neighbor who kept his own pack of hounds.

Puffington’s house was a rich bachelor establishment, and Sponge was well situated for a time. He was puzzled for a while by the cordiality of his reception, but Spraggon, Lord Scamperdale’s man, soon made the situation clear. Somehow Puffington had the notion that Sponge was a sportswriter intent on gathering material for hunting stories. Spraggon induced Puffington to give Sponge thirty pounds to secure a flattering write-up. After pocketing the commission that Sponge had gladly paid him for his help, Spraggon sat down to dictate a story on the Puffington hounds.

As it turned out, Spraggon had no definite ideas on writing a hunting story. Sponge used a blotchy pen. In addition, neither of them knew much about spelling. They sent their completed effort to the local weekly paper, where it was edited by a spinster who had only contempt for hunting. When Puffington saw the garbled story, he was furious. Learning that Sponge had written it, he retired to his room with a supposed illness and instructed the butler to give strong indications that Sponge was to leave.

In the nick of time, Jogglebury came over to invite Sponge for a visit. Jogglebury was no hunter; he was too fat and asthmatic even to stoop over, but he had a young son due to be christened, and Mrs. Jogglebury badly wanted a rich godfather. So Sponge was invited.

Jogglebury was a niggardly host. When he agreed to take Sponge to a neighboring hunt, he stopped so often to hack out likely looking saplings that they missed the pack completely. Jogglebury lived only for his hobby of carving canes in the likenesses of famous men. Sponge could scarcely stay long with the Joggleburys; he detested children, and his hosts soon made it clear that he was wearing his welcome thin.

At last, Sponge found a refuge with Sir Harry Scattercash, a rake married to a former actress who smoked cigars. Sir Harry and his party were much more interested in liquor than in hounds, but Sponge stayed on long enough to fall in love with Lucy Glitters, an actress whom he admired greatly for her daring riding in the field. After their marriage, Lucy and Sponge stayed on with Sir Harry until the bailiffs arrived to attach the property. Then they set out for London, where Sponge opened up a betting establishment and seemingly prospered. It was soon commonly supposed that he was a rich man.

Critical Evaluation:

MR. SPONGE’S SPORTING TOUR does not aim to be either the definitive study of fox hunting and the natural history and habits of the animals of the chase or a coherent, Romantic novel. It is a series of pictures of vivid scenes filled out with character sketches. Within the limits of the author’s intention, the book is quite successful.

Robert Smith Surtees wrote of what he saw and knew, and he put it on paper with an unself-conscious honesty. His style is awkward, his grammar is faulty, and frequently he seems to lose his place, but his descriptions of locale and character are filled with an amazing authenticity and charm that completely overcome the faults of the book. The very haphazard quality of the work gives it a unique immediacy and vitality. When Surtees describes the costumes of the characters, one knows for a fact that these clothes are precisely what they ought to be, and when a character is pigeonholed in his place in society, he too is precisely and accurately captured by the author’s pen. Surtees knew the tough young touts and bucks, had observed the snobs and climbers, and he spared none of them. Because of this candor, MR. SPONGE’S SPORTING TOUR is probably Surtees’ best novel and is much more readable than his more famous tales of Jorrocks.

The dialogue in the book is as leisurely and accurate as the descriptions. The boredom, the stuffiness, and the stupidity of the talk is perfectly and mercilessly captured. Surtees himself was a country squire and had the prejudices of his kind. He hated the fashionable places and smart society and was suspicious of cleverness. These traits give his novel a prickly quality that is refreshing to the modern reader. He never attempts to enlist the reader’s sympathy. There is little sentimentality in this tale of bounders and thieves, nouveaux riches and snobs. The book is especially merciless toward the mobs that are overrunning the country and changing everything, to the annoyance of both Mr. Sponge and his creator. The interest of the incidents and characters and the rich humor, although somewhat dated, more than compensate for the lack of plot in the book.

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