Theodore Edward Hook (b. 1788)



  • Author


  • Freedom: 1841

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
March 2023

Born in London, author and prankster Theodore Edward Hook was the son of organist and composer James Hook (1746–1827) and his wife Elizabeth Jane (née Madden). The family was affluent and Hook was tutored privately before attending Harrow School for a year. Sadly, Hook’s general indolence and taste for creating mischief dogged his time in school and he did poorly. The same personal attributes often blotted his subsequent creative and professional activities. His literary talents were undeniable, however. In addition to creating lyrics and opera libretti for his father, Theodore was the author of numerous newspaper articles, short stories and novels. Of the latter, Maxwell (1830), Gilbert Gurney (1836), Jack Brag (1837), and Gurney Married (1838) achieved currency. Hook was an ardent Tory, and he launched the newspaper John Bull in 1820. When confined to debtor’s prison between 1823 and 1825, he began work on a series of stories which were released in nine popular volumes as Sayings and Doings (1824–28). These have been described by Angela Esterhammer as “an experimental hybrid of fiction, social critique, and metafiction that combines techniques of representation from theatre, improvisational performance, and newspaper journalism” (Print and Performance in the 1820s: Improvisation, Speculation, Identity, Cambridge University Pres, 2020).

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Theodore Hook joined forces with his father in a series of stage works that dealt with themes related to war, but which did not address the current war with France directly. The first of these was The Solder’s Return, presented at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (April 23, 1805), when Theodore Hook was just sixteen years of age. This comic opera in two acts proved to be popular, and it played until October 31, 1806; newspaper advertisements show that The Solder’s Return was performed subsequently in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Exeter, Hampshire and other locations. Theodore Hook was also an early exponent of the melodrama genre.

Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) is often cited as the first stage work in Britain to style itself as a melodrama, although earlier afterpieces and comic operas already contained many of the elements of the melodrama. Thus, Hook had earlier works on which to draw. Although the melodrama genre lost popularity during the second half of the century, it was taken very seriously during the first half. As Alexander Lacy writes, the genre is “a type of play characterized by exciting incidents and emotional thrills, accompanied by music calculated to emphasize the varying situations and to suggest the nature of the characters portrayed” (Pixerécourt and the French Romantic Drama, U of Toronto Press, 1928). Hook’s interest in melodrama is revealed in three works adapted from the French author, René Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt (1773–1844): Tekeli, or the Siege of Montgatz (November 24, 1806), The Fortress (July 16, 1807), and The Siege of St Quintin, or Spanish Heroism (November 10, 1808). In a time of conflict with France, it might seem ironic that Hook adapted the works of a contemporary French author to create patriotic theatre from the British perspective, but as Edith Wray revealed, French theatre proved to be fertile ground for English adaptors in the period of 1780 to 1815. The list of such adaptors includes Holcroft, Inchbald, Hoare, Colman, Dibdin, Kemble and many others. Thus, it appears that Theodore Hook was taking his lead from an established tradition. Wray writes that English authors were attracted to the lively dramatic situations and plot twists. Pixerécourt’s plays had the added attraction of “spectacular, melodramatic material” to attract Hook’s interest (“English Adaptations of French Drama between 1780 and 1815,” Modern Language Notes 43, no. 2, 1928).

Hook possessed great personal charisma, and he was popular in both artistic and royal circles. He so charmed the Prince Regent (future George IV) that arrangements were made to have Hook appointed accountant-general and treasurer for the Island Mauritius, beginning in 1813. Hook was totally unsuited to this position and he spent his time partying, while others robbed the treasury. In 1817, he was arrested and brought back to England on criminal charges; although not prosecuted, his properties were seized. While Hook made a good living from his writing, he never learned to manage money, with the result that he was frequently financially embarrassed. Part of Hook’s great charm was his wit and his sense of mischief. He appears to have been the first to mail a postcard in Britain in 1840. The card was meant as a joke on the post office since it bore a caricature of postal workers. Some of his pranks were of a far more serious nature, however.

The Berners Street hoax was much reported after the fact, but the details appear to have become muddied with time. Some sources have reported it to have taken place on November 27, 1809, at the home of a Mrs. Tottenham. Newspaper accounts (such as those in the Morning Post, November 28, 1810, and the Derby Mercury, December 6, 1810) show that the events took place in 1810. A hoax of a similar nature had taken place on Bedford Street in November of 1809, and the two events appear to have been conflated over time. City records show that that the resident of that address was not a Mrs. Tottenham, but Mrs. Mary Tottingham. Hook is alleged to have made a bet with his friend Samuel Beazely that he could transform any obscure address into the most talked-about address in London. He chose 54 Berners Street in Westminster. Why Mrs. Tottingham was targeted in this manner is not known. The street was in an affluent part of London, and other well-known people lived in the area. Perhaps Hook believed the location would give credibility to his plan which consisted of sending out hundreds of letters ordering furniture and household goods, and requests for assistance. Poor Mrs. Tottingham was completely bewildered by the results. The account in Jackson’s Oxford Journal (December 1, 1810) is particularly complete:

The greatest hoax that ever has been heard of in this Metropolis, was yesterday practised in Berners-street, Oxford-street. The house of Mrs. Tattenham [sic], a lady of fortune, at No. 54, was beset by a multitude of tradespeople at one time, with their various commodities, and such crowds collected as to render the streets impassable. Wagons laden with coals from the Paddington Wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart-loads, organs, piano-fortes, linen, jewellery, and every other description of furniture, sufficient to have stocked the street, were brought as near as possible to the door of No. 54, with anxious tradespeople and a laughing mob. About this time the Lord Mayor arrived in his carriage, and two livery servants, but his Lordship’s stay was short, and he was driven to the Marlborough-street Police Office. His Lordship informed the Sitting Magistrate that he had received a note, purporting to have come from Mrs. Tattenham [sic], which stated that she had been summoned to appear before him, but that she was confined to her room by sickness, and requested his Lordship’s favour to call on her. Berners-street at this time was in the greatest confusion, by the multiplicity of tradespeople who were returning with their goods, and the spectators laughing at them. The officers belonging to the Marlborough-street Office were immediately ordered out to keep order, but it was impossible for a short time. The first thing witnessed by the officers was six stout men bearing an organ, surrounded by coal-heavers, barbers with wigs, mantua-makers with band boxes, opticians with their various articles of trade; and such was the pressure of tradespeople who had been duped, that at 4 o’clock all was consternation and confusion.

Every officer that could be mustered was enlisted to disperse the people, and they were placed at the corners of Berners-street, to prevent tradespeople from advancing towards the house with goods. The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants of every denomination, wanting places, began to assemble at 5 o’clock. It turned out that letters had been written to the different tradespeople, which stated recommendations from persons of quality. A reward has been offered for discovering the author of the hoax.

This hoax exceeded by far that in Bedford-street a few months since; for, besides a coffin, which was brought to Mrs. Tattenham’s [sic] house, made to measure, agreeable to a letter, five feet six, there were accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature painters, and artists of every description.

There is reason for believing that a writer in a Monthly Publication is the author of the above most contemptible piece of humour, and if so, it is to be hoped that he will be detected, and be obliged to make a pecuniary atonment [sic] for such despicable waggery.

Hook was generally believed to have been responsible for the prank, and some believed that he even viewed the resulting mayhem from the house opposite. This was never proved, and he escaped without being prosecuted for public mischief.

Although Hook’s novels enjoyed success during the 1830s, his levels of dissipation outstripped his literary achievements. He was always in need of money and even undertook to ghost-write the memoirs of Michael Kelly (1762–1826) in 1826. His lifestyle eventually caught up with him and he died in penury on August 24, 1841, at the age of fifty-three. Although he never married, Hook produced six children with Mary Anne Doughty. Following his, death the Treasury seized his estate.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

HOOK, THEODORE EDWARD (1788–1841), novelist and miscellaneous writer, son of James Hook [q. v.], musical composer, was born in Charlotte Street, Bedford Square, 22 Sept. 1788. He was educated at private schools, and subsequently for a short time at Harrow. According to his own account, which may be easily credited, he was principally distinguished at school for mischief, deceptiveness, and an inaptitude for serious application. He had the misfortune to lose an excellent mother at an early age, and his natural failings were fostered by a premature introduction to the theatrical world as author of words for the songs in his father's comic operas. His share in the ‘Soldier's Return’ brought him 50l. when he was only sixteen; and, sometimes in conjunction with his father, sometimes independently, he produced during the next five or six years a number of farces and melodramas. One of the latter, ‘Tekeli,’ was ridiculed by Byron in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ but proved attractive to the public. Hook's social qualities, however, gained him more celebrity than his dramatic performances; his conversation abounded with wit and drollery, his faculty for lyrical and musical improvisation was marvellous, and the exuberance of his animal spirits impelled him to ceaseless practical jokes, sometimes harmless, sometimes heartless, but always clever. The most celebrated was the famous Berners Street hoax, perpetrated in 1809, when the street was blocked up for a whole day by all sorts and conditions of men, from the Duke of Gloucester and the lord mayor to draymen and chimney-sweeps, summoned on various pretexts to besiege the house of a Mrs. Tottenham, who had incurred Hook's displeasure. Upwards of four thousand letters, it is said, had been sent out. Hook's next freak was to take up residence at the university of Oxford, which he left after two terms without having involved himself in any more serious scrape than the risk of banishment, from the excess of complaisance which made him volunteer to sign forty articles should such be the desire of the authorities. Resuming his gay life in town, he became acquainted with the Rev. E. Cannon and other favourites of the Prince of Wales. It was probably through their and his brother's influence that, at the age of twenty-four, utterly unacquainted as he was with business and arithmetic, he obtained the post of accountant-general and treasurer at Mauritius, where he arrived in October 1813. This apparently miraculous piece of good fortune proved his ruin. When, in 1817, an examination into the state of the treasury was directed by the governor, Hook at first received a full acquittance from every liability; but a second investigation, undertaken at the instance of a clerk named Allan, who destroyed himself during the course of it, brought to light a deficiency of sixty-two thousand dollars, of which he could offer no explanation. He was, of course, held responsible, his whole property in the island was confiscated, and he was sent home. Upon his arrival in England the case was investigated by the treasury, who discovered no ground for criminal proceedings, but fixed the civil responsibility upon him for the rest of his life. His remaining property was seized, he was imprisoned from 1823 to 1825, and although, after the final treasury minute, the crown claim for the balance of the debt was allowed to remain dormant during his life, it was revived against his representatives. The fault of this apparently harsh proceeding lay principally with himself. Though for many years receiving an ample income from his pen, he never attempted to discharge any portion of his admitted liability, and had thus forfeited all title to indulgence.

Long before Hook's liberation from confinement he had resorted to his pen for his living. In 1819 and 1820 appeared, with other ephemeral literary work, the clever farce ‘Exchange no Robbery,’ so unluckily suggestive in title that it had to be brought out under the pseudonym of ‘Richard Jones,’ ‘The Arcadian,’ a short-lived magazine, and ‘Tentamen,’ a satire on Queen Caroline and Alderman Wood, which achieved no little success. If the authorship was known to any, it may have co-operated with the general recommendation of Sir Walter Scott in obtaining for him the editorship of the ‘John Bull,’ established towards the end of 1820 to counteract the popular enthusiasm for Queen Caroline. Hook's reckless humour and preternatural faculty of improvisation now had full swing, and his powers were never displayed to so much advantage as in this scurrilous, scandalous, but irresistibly facetious, and for a time exceedingly potent journal. No man with a particle of chivalry could have written as Hook did, but no such man could have been equally effective in exposing a pernicious, though generous, popular delusion. He undoubtedly proved himself the prince of lampooners. The exuberance of his impetuous fun sweeps away the studied and polished sarcasms of refined satirists like Moore; he hurls ridicule and invective right and left with a Titanic vigour so admirable in itself as a manifestation of energy that we almost forget that after all it is only mud that he is showering. Most of it, however, stuck where it was meant to stick, and his disreputable paper must be named with the ‘Craftsman’ and the ‘North Briton’ among those which have contributed to mould English history. ‘It is impossible to deny,’ says the ‘Quarterly Review,’ ‘that “Bull” frightened the Whig aristocracy from countenancing the Court of Brandenburgh House. The national movement was arrested, and George IV had mainly “John Bull” to thank for that result.’ It produced another result less satisfactory to the editor; when his long-concealed identity leaked out, it became impossible for the treasury to show him the indulgence which would have been represented as the price of his pen, and pique perhaps concurred with carelessness in preventing him from endeavouring to make his defalcations good. He had further encumbered himself with family cares in a very unfortunate manner, having formed an irregular connection, to which he adhered with such strict fidelity that it is surprising he should never have legalised it. Another great mistake was the dissipation of his energies in a number of abortive literary projects, instead of their concentration in his journal, which, after some years of almost unparalleled success, gradually ceased to be a remunerative property. Among these unsuccessful undertakings, however, must not be reckoned his nine volumes of novels published from 1826 to 1829 under the collective title of ‘Sayings and Doings,’ for which he received little less than 3,000l. ‘Passion and Principle,’ with its pendant ‘Cousin William,’ ‘Gervase Skinner,’ and ‘Martha the Gipsy’ are the best known. Hook estimated his own ability as a novelist very accurately. ‘Give me,’ he said, ‘a story to tell, and I can tell it, but I cannot create.’ This deficiency in invention made him an habitual copyist from the life. The hero of ‘Maxwell’ (1830), his next and most carefully constructed novel, is a close portrait of his friend Cannon, and his later works, ‘Gilbert Gurney’ and ‘Gurney Married’ (1836 and 1838), are little else than a gallery of thinly disguised portraits and a string of anecdotes from real life, so excellently told, however, that these slight performances seem likely to survive his more ambitious writings. They appeared in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ of which he had become editor in 1836. In the interval he had written (1833) ‘The Parson's Daughter’ and ‘Love and Pride,’ and (1832) a life of Sir David Baird, a work apparently quite out of his line, but which satisfied the family and the public. ‘Jack Brag,’ 1836, is a successful parasite's mockery of an unsuccessful one. He also rewrote the reminiscences of Michael Kelly and commenced a life of Charles Mathews, which was discontinued from differences with the family. His last novel of importance was ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths,’ 1839; subsequent publications, the dregs of his failing powers, were believed to be only partially from his own hand. During the last six or seven years of his life Hook was steadily sinking in health, in circumstances, and in literary power, and the inner history of his life is truly tragic. Received into the highest circles, admired, caressed, applauded for his unequalled social talent, he was, as he knew well, regarded merely as a hired jester, whose failure to amuse his patrons would be visited by prompt expulsion from their society. While apparently the soul of gaiety abroad, at home he led the life of the hunted and harassed author; while the dissipations of the gay world broke down his health, domestic cares weighed heavily upon his really affectionate disposition; and the scenes where he shone and sparkled were darkened by the great shadow of his unredeemed and unredeemable debt. Lockhart has raised the veil in a most powerful passage in the ‘Quarterly,’ reinforced by significant extracts from Hook's diary. Portraits of him as he appeared at this time to those who chiefly knew him as Lord Hertford's parasite appear in ‘Coningsby,’ where he is introduced as ‘Lucian Gay,’ and in ‘Vanity Fair,’ where he figures as ‘Mr. Wagg.’ ‘Done up in purse, in mind, and in body,’ as he said himself, he expired at his house at Fulham on 24 Aug. 1841. His effects were seized by the crown as preferential creditor, but his family were provided for by a subscription, in which the names of his aristocratic patrons, the king of Hanover's excepted, were not to be found.

Hook was a better man than would be easily discovered from his writings. ‘He was,’ says Lockhart, ‘humane, charitable, generous. There was that about him which made it hard to be often in his society without regarding him with as much of fondness as of admiration.’ His defects were a moral vulgarity, far more offensive than the social vulgarity it ridiculed, and a want of every quality especially characteristic of a high-minded man. In the less exalted sphere of the social affections he was exemplary, and much of his apparent dissipation was forced upon him by the necessity of keeping in society to keep out of gaol. ‘His real tastes,’ says Lockhart, ‘were simple enough.’ His unflagging literary industry in the midst of so many hindrances and temptations is highly to his credit. Though he sold his pen, he did not prostitute it; the side in support of which his wit and scurrility were enlisted was really his own. His natural powers were extraordinary. ‘He is,’ said Coleridge, ‘as true a genius as Dante.’ With regular education and mental discipline he might have done great things; his actual reputation is that of a great master in a low style of humour, and the most brilliant improvisatore, whether with the pen or at the piano, that his country has seen.

A portrait of Hook, by Eden Upton Eddis, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

[R. H. Dalton Barham's Life and Remains of Hook; Quarterly Review, vol. lxxii., a most interesting essay, evidently by Lockhart. The ‘new life’ prefixed to the collection of his humorous works published in 1873 is plagiarised from these sources. The Diary quoted by Lockhart has not been published; it is to be hoped that it is not lost.]