The Common Reader, Second Series, by Virginia Woolf

Jack Mytton

Are you curious to know what sort of person your neighbour is in a deck-chair on Brighton pier? Watch, then, which column of The Times — she has brought it, rolled like a French roll, and it lies on the top of her bag — she reads first. Politics, presumably, or an article upon a temple in Jerusalem? Not a bit of it — she reads the sporting news. Yet one could have sworn, to look at her — boots, stockings, and all — that she was a public servant of some sort; with an Act of Parliament, a blue-book or two, and a frugal lunch of biscuits and bananas in her bag. If for a moment she basks on Brighton pier while Madame Rosalba, poised high on a platform above the sea, dives for coins or soup-plates it is only to refresh herself before renewing her attack upon the iniquities of our social system. Yet she begins by reading the sporting news.

Perhaps there is nothing so strange in it after all. The great English sports are pursued almost as fiercely by sedentary men who cannot sit a donkey, and by quiet women who cannot drown a mouse, as by the booted and spurred. They hunt in imagination. They follow the fortunes of the Berkeley, the Cattistock, the Quorn, and the Belvoir upon phantom hunters. They roll upon their lips the odd-sounding, beautifully crabbed English place-names — Humblebee, Doddles Hill, Caroline Bog, Winniats Brake. They imagine as they read (hanging to a strap in the Underground or propping the paper against a suburban teapot) now a “slow, twisting hunt”, now a “brilliant gallop”. The rolling meadows are in their eyes; they hear the thunder and the whimper of horses and hounds; the shapely slopes of Leicestershire unfold before them, and in imagination they ride home again, when evening falls, soothed and satisfied, and watch the lights coming out in farmhouse windows. Indeed the English sporting writers, Beckford, St. John, Surtees, Nimrod, make no mean reading. In their slapdash, gentlemanly way they have ridden their pens as boldly as they have ridden their horses. They have had their effect upon the language. This riding and tumbling, this being blown upon and rained upon and splashed from head to heels with mud, have worked themselves into the very texture of English prose and given it that leap and dash, that stripping of images from flying hedge and tossing tree which distinguish it not indeed above the French but so emphatically from it. How much English poetry depends upon English hunting this is not the place to enquire. That Shakespeare was a bold if erratic horseman scarcely needs proving. Therefore that an Englishwoman should choose to read the sporting news rather than the political gossip need cause us no surprise; nor need we condemn her if, when she has folded up her paper, she takes from her bag not a blue-book but a red book and proceeds, while Madame Rosalba dives and the band blares and the green waters of the English Channel sparkle and sway between the chinks of the pier, to read the Life of Jack Mytton.

Jack Mytton was by no means an estimable character. Of an old Shropshire family (the name was Mutton once; so Brontë was Prunty), he had inherited a fine property and a large income. The little boy who was born in the year 1796 should have carried on the tradition of politics and sport which his ancestors had pursued respectably for five centuries before him. But families have their seasons, like the year. After months of damp and drizzle, growth and prosperity, there come the wild equinoctial gales, a roaring in the trees all day, fruit destroyed and blossom wasted. Lightning strikes the house and its roof-tree goes up in fire. Indeed, Nature and society between them had imposed upon the Mytton of 1796 a burden which might have crushed a finer spirit — a body hewn from the solid rock, a fortune of almost indestructible immensity. Nature and society dared him, almost, to defy them. He accepted the challenge. He went shooting in the thinnest silk stockings, he let the rain pelt on his bare skin, he swam rivers, charged gates, crouched naked on the snow, but still his body remained obdurate and upright. He had his breeches made without pockets; wads of bank-notes were picked up in the woods, but still his fortune survived. He begot children and tossed them in the air and pelted them with oranges; he married wives whom he tormented and imprisoned until one died and the other snatched her chance and ran away. While he shaved, a glass of port stood by his side, and as the day wore on he worked through five or six bottles of wine and sopped them up with pound upon pound of filberts. There was an extremity about his behaviour which raises it from the particular to the general. The shaggy body of primeval man, with all his appetites and aptitudes, seemed to have risen from his grave under the barrows, where the great stones were piled on top of him, where once he sacrificed rams and did homage to the rising sun, to carouse with tippling fox-hunters of the time of George the Fourth. His limbs themselves seemed carved from more primitive materials than modern men’s. He had neither beauty of countenance nor grace of manner, yet he bore himself, for all his violence of body and mind, with an air of natural breeding which one can imagine in a savage stepping on his native turf. When he talked, says Nimrod, which he did sparely, he said, in a very few words, things which made everybody laugh; but, unequally gifted as he was, acute in some senses, dull in others, he had a deafness which made him unwieldy in general society.

What, then, could a primeval man do, who was born in England in the reign of George the Fourth? He could take bets and make them. Was it a watery winter’s night? He would drive his gig across country under the moon. Was it freezing? He would make his stable-boys hunt rats upon skates. Did some moderately cautious guest admit that he had never been upset in a gig? Mytton at once ran the wheel up the bank and flung them both into the road. Put any obstacle in his way and he leapt it, swam it, smashed it, somehow surmounted it, at the cost of a broken bone or a broken carriage. To yield to danger or to own to pain were both unthinkable. And so the Shropshire peasantry were amazed (as we see them in Alken’s and Rawlins’s pictures) by the apparition of a gentleman setting his tandem at a gate, riding a bear round his drawing-room, beating a bulldog with naked fists, lying between the hoofs of a nervous horse, riding with broken ribs unmurmuring when every jar was agony. They were amazed; they were scandalised; his eccentricities and infidelities and generosities were the talk of every inn and farmhouse for miles; yet somehow no bailiff in the four counties would arrest him. They looked up at him as one looks at something removed from ordinary duties and joys — a monument, a menace — with contempt and pity and some awe.

But Jack Mytton himself — what was he feeling meanwhile? The thrill of perfect satisfaction, the delight of joys snatched unhesitatingly without compunction? The barbarian surely should have been satisfied. But the by no means introspective mind of Nimrod was puzzled. “Did the late Mr. Mytton really enjoy life amidst all this profusion of expenditure?” No; Nimrod was of opinion that he did not. He had everything that the human heart could desire, but he lacked “the art of enjoyment”. He was bored. He was unhappy. “There was that about him which resembled the restlessness of the hyena.” He hurried from thing to thing, determined to taste and enjoy, but somehow blunted and bruised his pleasures as he touched them. Two hours before his own exquisite dinner he devoured fat bacon and strong ale at a farmhouse, and then blamed his cook. Still, without an appetite, he would eat; still he would drink, only instead of port it must be brandy to lash his flagging palate into sensation. A “sort of destroying spirit egged him on”. He was magnificent, wasteful, extravagant in every detail. “ . . . it was his largeness of heart that ruined Mr. Mytton”, said Nimrod, “added to the lofty pride which disdained the littleness of prudence.”

By the time he was thirty, at any rate, Jack Mytton had done two things that to most men would have been impossible: he had almost ruined his health; he had almost spent his money. He had to leave the ancestral home of the Myttons. But it was no primeval man, glowing with health, bristling with energy, but a “round-shouldered, tottering old-young man bloated by drink” who joined the company of shady adventurers whose necessities obliged them to live at Calais. Even in that society his burden was upon him; still he must shine; still he must excel. No one should call him Johnny Mytton with impunity. Four horses must draw Mr. Mytton the three hundred yards to his rooms or he preferred to walk. And then the hiccough attacked him. Seizing his bedroom candle, he set a light to his shirt and staggered, burning and blazing, to show his friends how Jack Mytton cured the hiccough. What more could human beings ask of him? To what further frenzies would the gods dare their victim? Now that he had burnt himself alive, it seemed as if he had discharged his obligation to society and could lay the primeval man to rest. He might perhaps allow that other spirit, the civilised gentleman who was so incongruously coupled with the barbarian, to come to the surface. He had once learnt Greek. Now as he lay burnt and bloated in bed he quoted Sophocles —“the beautiful passage . . . wherein Oedipus recommends his children to the care of Creon”. He remembered the Greek anthology. When they moved him to the seaside he began to pick up shells, and could hardly sit out dinner in his eagerness to be at the work of brushing them “with a nail brush dipped in vinegar”. “He to whom the whole world had appeared insufficient to afford pleasure . . . was now completely happy.” But alas, shells and Sophocles, peace and happiness, were whelmed in the general dissolution which could not be delayed. The King’s Bench prison seized him, and there, corrupt in body, ruined in fortune, worn out in mind, he died at the age of thirty-eight. And his wife cried that she could not “help loving him with all his faults”, and four hourses drew him to the grave, and three thousand poor people sobbed for the loss of one who had somehow acted out for the benefit of the crowd an odious, monstrous part, laid on him by the gods, for the edification of mankind and their pleasure too, but for his own unutterable misery.

For the truth is we like these exhibitions of human nature. We like to see exalted above us some fox-hunter, like Jack Mytton, burning himself alive to cure the hiccough, some diver like Madame Rosalba, who, mounting higher and higher, wraps herself about in sacking, and then, with a look of indifference and satiety as if she had renounced and suffered and dedicated herself to some insane act of defiance for no pleasure of her own, dives into the Channel and brings up a twopenny-halfpenny soup-plate between her teeth. The lady on the pier feels gratified. It is because of this, she says, that I love my kind.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01