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.