Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784
Soapey Sponge, a nattily dressed young rogue whose career of hunting all winter and talking about it all summer is supported primarily by swindling victims into, and then bailing them out of, bad horse deals and by inviting himself to stay at the country mansions of unsuspecting hunters. At each hunt, he befriends one innocent who foolishly suggests that he stop by if ever in the neighborhood. His hosts soon find that he is nearly impossible to dislodge once entrenched in their households and that they must resort to a variety of tactics to get him to leave. The fine food, drink, and furnishings originally laid out for a man they think is both rich and eligible to serve as a son-in-law or godfather are slowly withdrawn or cut off altogether once Sponge shows himself true to his surname. His given name is more attributable to his moral character; he is not clean but certainly is as slippery as soap. He plays spouses, neighbors, and friends against one another, neatly escaping before they can compare stories. Early in the season, he contracts with a seedy stable owner named Benjamin Buckram, who rents him two beautiful but violently dangerous horses with the option of buying them or selling them to a gullible third party and splitting the profits. Peter Leather, one of Buckram’s stablehands, is hired to keep an eye on Buckram’s horses and act as servant to Sponge. Sponge and Leather agree to work the hunting circuit, giving the impression that Sponge not only owns the horses but also that he is a landed gentleman. Leather will spread the agreed story and manage the difficult horses to make them appealing to potential buyers. Sponge is an excellent rider who controls the animals in public just long enough to get them sold; he then devises various schemes to buy them back or have them returned for free by terrified, embarrassed buyers. After a few successful dupes, he proceeds to work his way through the estates on the hunting tour, leaving only when he is sure of his next source of free room and board. He finally lands in the debauched circle of flashy, soon-to-be-bankrupt Sir Scattercash and is surrounded by a squad of drunken hangers-on, all of whom regard him with the suspicion of one “sponge” for another. Sponge finds both his sinking host and these competitors too dissipated to be socially or financially cultivated, but while there he meets Lucy Glitters, an actress. He falls in love with her after seeing how well they hunt together. When Jack Spraggon is killed, Sponge accidentally wins a steeplechase he had agreed to lose so that he and Buckram could profit from rigged betting. He and Lucy marry, and he returns to London to turn over a new leaf. For someone as slippery as Sponge, this means setting up a cigar and gambling salon with Lucy, based on his intention to “protect” the public from unscrupulous loan sharks and bookies by cheating them himself.
Peter Leather, Sponge’s horse groom and Buckram’s security guard, who makes sure the rented horses are well-kept. A former coachman to a duke, he has since fallen in the world, serving time in prison before arriving at Buckram’s disreputable stables. Though surly and frequently drunk, he assists Sponge in his imposture until dissatisfied, then leaks financial information to the other servants, whose grapevines eventually carry it to Sponge’s hosts. Leather never manages to undo Sponge completely, only to inconvenience him. He ends up as a cab driver, supplementing his income with hush money from Sponge to prevent circulation of their horse-selling schemes.
Jack Spraggon, a nearsighted friend, servant, and bullying thug to the odious Lord Scamperdale. He conspires with Sponge to cheat Scamperdale into buying bad horses in exchange for a cut of the profits. Failing this, he successfully conspires with Sponge on a number of occasions to swindle others by pretending they are only acquaintances, then playing off of each other as they prey on their chosen victim. Spraggon meets his violent end in a horse-jumping accident at the rigged steeplechase he was to have won.
Lord Scamperdale, a mean, stingy landlord. He is jealous of Sponge and sets Spraggon out to run him off. When Sponge eludes the bully on the hunting field, Scamperdale sends him to Sponge’s lodgings with the express purpose of planting rumors about Sponge’s financial worries in order to get Sponge thrown out. He inadvertently achieves the opposite, however, because three bottles of wine into their evening, Spraggon and Sponge recognize their mutual interests, and their partnership is cemented.