Thomas Hood: A Short Life


Thomas Hood was born on 23 May 1799 in London. His father was a partner in the bookselling firm Vernor and Hood.

He left school at age 14 to work as a clerk in a counting house. Illness caused him to leave and he was apprenticed to an engraver. When his health still did not improve, he was sent to convalesce in Scotland where he stayed for a couple of years. Upon his return to England he took up engraving again. Hood suffered from ill health -- a heart condition of some sort and later tuberculosis -- for most of his life

In 1821 he was hired as a sub-editor of London Magazine. He became acquainted with many of the contributors, including De Quincey, Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb, with whom he formed a close friendship. He contributed poems and wrote the replies-to-correspondents column in which he displayed his skill at punning.

He married Jane Reynolds in 1825 and that same year Odes and Addresses to Great People, co-written with his brother-in-law John Hamilton Reynolds, was published anonymously. The humorous parody, modeled on the Smith brother's Rejected Addresses, was a critical success.

Two volumes of Whims and Oddities, miscellanies of humorous pieces with his own illustrations, appeared in 1826 and 1827.1

The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, a volume of serious poetry written in a Keatsian style, also appeared in 1827. It received only mild critical praise and did not sell well. Midsummer Fairies was Hood's only attempt to achieve recognition as a serious literary poet, although he did occasionally publish sonnets, lyrics and odes.

National Tales (1827), a collection of romantic and sentimental tales, was a critical and popular failure.

For one year Hood edited the annual The Gem in which his narrative poem "The Dream of Eugene Aram" appeared (1828).2 "Epping Hunt," a humorous ballad with engravings by George Cruikshank, appeared in 1829; it is notable for the quantity and quality of the punning.

In 1830 he published The Comic Annual, a collection of poems, prose pieces, illustrations and visual puns; he produced an annual each year for the next nine years. Written almost entirely by Hood, they were very popular and solidified his reputation as one of the very best humor writers and punsters.

Hood's novel, Tylney Hall, appeared in 1834. It was a popular and critical success. The main plot concerns a rivalry among two brothers and their cousin. The comic subplot involves a family of Londoners who come to live in the country near Tylney Hall. About half of the book is clever, humorous, and entertaining. The rest is a conventional story of bastardy, murder, coincidence, mistaken identity, and so on. One character stands out -- a postilion called Unlucky Joe. His life is a series of misfortunes; they're due sometimes to his own ineptitude, sometimes to chance and sometimes to the dishonest actions of others. At the end he is run over by a wagon on Good Friday.

Hood also wrote another novel, Our Family which was unfinished at his death. Subtitled "A Domestic Novel" it is about a kind, poor parish physician, his family and servants. He comes under suspicion of being a "resurrectionist" and the town turns against him. It's quite good and contains several interesting characters, including Mr. Postle, the doctor's assistant, who solves problems using diseases and medicines as metaphors and Kezia, a sleepwalking servant, who is plain, honest, loyal and outspoken.

By 1835 Hood was sufficiently in debt to consider declaring bankruptcy (the exact nature of the debts is unknown). But, like Walter Scott, whom he admired, Hood felt honor-bound to pay his debtors by working harder. He and his family moved to Coblenz, Germany where the cost of living was lower. He also hoped that the climate would be better for his health, but it wasn't and he became seriously ill several times during his five years on the continent.

portrait of Thomas Hood

In 1838 while continuing to write his comic annuals, he started Hood's Own; Or Laughter from Year to Year a medley of prose, verse and illustrations composed of material from The Comic Annual and new material. It proved to be popular. After two years in Germany he moved to Ostend, Belgium which was more convenient for conducting business in England.

Up the Rhine, an autobiographical, epistolary novel modeled on Smollett's Humphry Clinker, was published in 1840. It sold well until Hood sued the publisher, whom he believed was cheating him, and sales were stopped.

Hood returned to England in 1840 and became the editor of New Monthly Magazine which provided him with a regular income. In it appeared Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg, a criticism of the rapacious commercialism of the time. Miss Kilmansegg, daughter of wealthy parents, loses her leg in a riding accident. She demands and receives a solid gold, bejeweled replacement. She is courted by many and marries a "Count." He drinks and gambles and accumulates debts until he demands that she give up her leg. She refuses and he kills her by hitting her with her own leg.


At this time Hood was also contributing to other magazines, including Punch, where "The Song of the Shirt" appeared anonymously in the 1843 Christmas issue. The poem is about a seamstress who represents the thousands of working women who lived in abject poverty despite constant labor: "Stitch -- Stitch -- Stitch,\ In poverty, hunger, and dirt,\ Sewing at once, with a double thread,\ A shroud as well as a shirt." It was enormously popular -- reprinted in British and European newspapers, dramatized, printed on broadsheets and handkerchiefs and turned into a street ballad.

Hood retired from the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine and at the beginning of 1844 started Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany. It was soon in financial trouble because his partner had lied and could not provide the promised funding. Aware of the seriousness of his condition and worried about his accumulating debts, Hood was relieved, when in November 1844, Robert Peel bestowed a pension of 100 on Jane Hood. Writing and editing from his sick bed Hood struggled to get out each number but by Christmas he was too ill to do so. F. O. Ward, a contributor, took over as unpaid sub-editor. On May 3, 1845 Hood died at age 46. Jane died 18 months later.


See also

Thomas Hood and Hoodwink


Notes

1Hood drew the illustrations for some of his early works; he was only a fair illustrator.

2In 1754 Eugene Aram, a schoolmaster, murdered a man but the skeleton wasn't discovered for 14 years. Aram's story is the theme of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Eugene Aram. In Hood's poem Aram dreams that he kills a man but is unable to hide the body because the earth repeatedly rejects it.