The Hazlitt Society


Hone That Satire

Hone that satire by David McKie

The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press

by Ben Wilson
455pp, Faber, £16.99

In a gloomy room in a tavern in Chancery Lane three friends sat plotting the destruction of the government. The weapon they meant to deploy was not the sword or gunpowder: it was ridicule. Their target was George, the prince regent, and his hardly less ludicrous ministers; all the measures to which they were turning in desperation - savage censorship, the repudiation of habeas corpus, the corruption of the right to trial by one's peers, even brutal armed intervention as practised at Peterloo - would, this trio calculated over their generous intake of wine and ale, be powerless against their assault. One of these men was William Hazlitt, among the most revered and cherished of English writers. A second was the dissolute but immensely gifted satirical cartoonist George Cruikshank. And the third was William Hone.

Hazlitt and Cruikshank are familiar enough; but Hone? He is largely forgotten, a mere Lepidus, the unwary might imagine, in this triumvirate. But the young historian Ben Wilson thinks it is time he was rescued from his oblivion and restored to his one-time glory. The claims he makes for his hero are ambitious and sweeping. Hone pioneered new forms of investigative journalism and exposure of injustice. He changed for ever the way that crime was reported in England. Some of his publications deserve to be rated among the most significant of his day. His satires became an international sensation. His work left an indelible mark on the consciousness of contemporaries as few other pieces of journalism can ever have done. And so on. Sometimes Wilson seems to be pushing a little too hard. But the tale he has to tell is so exciting, and the bravura with which he recounts it so infectious, that his case becomes irresistible.

Some of that has to do with the rich assortment of heroes and villains who surrounded Hone in his heyday. Perhaps the ripest of the villains here is Lord Justice Ellenborough, with his militant eyebrows and stern black eye and Cumbrian accent, ruthless dictator to juries of what they ought to think, and creature of the administration - "I am yours," he assured home secretary Sidmouth, "and let the storm blow from what quarter of the hemisphere it may, you shall always find me at your side." As he saw it, his duty, in whose performance he deployed every kind of bullying, was to defend those in power against their evil, seditious critics, since otherwise anarchy lurked round every corner. Not far behind, though, is the poet Southey, who amid the clamour for political and parliamentary reform declared: "It is the people at this time who stand in need of reformation, not the government." Dr Stoddart, editor of the Times, then a distinguished component of a "venal hireling press" which suppressed without instruction both the reformist case and even such evidence given in courtrooms as did not suit the interest of the administration, had an honoured place in their pillory too, under the appropriate sobriquet Dr Slop.

Hone's greatest moment of triumph, and the most compelling of many effective set pieces in Wilson's book, came with his prosecution in 1817 for a publication which neatly and deliberately combined blasphemy with sedition - a mockery of authority which parodied the liturgy. Wilson's accounts of the three successive trials his hero faced is wonderfully stirring. In each case his defence, which he conducted himself, having no funds to do otherwise, swept the jurors away. What happens to me, he kept reminding them, is for you to decide, not for the presiding judge. Ellenborough, announcing after Hone's first acquittal that he'd try the remaining cases himself, was powerless to prevent the gales of laughter and applause that greeted Hone's spontaneous eloquence. The jury in the final case cleared him in 20 minutes. One of the jurors said later that he had been prepared to die "rather than pronounce a man 'guilty' who was manifestly prosecuted, not for blasphemy or sedition, but for exposing abuses which were eating into the very heart of the nation". Ellenborough was broken. He resigned, left the public stage and within a year was dead.

Hone's triumph - the triumph of laughter, to invert Wilson's title - made him from then on virtually unassailable. Dangerous as his journalism might be, giving him the platform which prosecution afforded could only make him more dangerous still. And his fight for the rights of free speech and free publication duly prevailed, to the benefit of all who came after. Wilson's final sequence charts a decline. With George, his favourite ministers and the attitudes they represented gone, his particular talents were no longer relevant. The enemy had been driven from the field. The school of satire which he and Cruikshank created - and as Wilson accepts, Hone's impact would have been dulled without the supplementary power of Cruikshank's cartoons - fell into abeyance. Even Southey now classed him as inoffensive. The old investigative crusader took to publishing books of entertainment and anecdote. His debts, always formidable, overtook him and saw him imprisoned. His fine collection of books - lustfully assembled with little regard for the crying want of his suffering wife and children - had to be sold. Long before his final illness and death he was drifting into oblivion.

Yet oblivion, in a curious way, was a form of redemption. The old blasphemer became a deeply religious man, hiring his old journalistic talents out to a non-conformist paper campaigning for ecclesiastical reform. The old radical had turned conservative. He now repented his former brilliance and the uses to which it had been put. The new political climate, and the promise of legislation on libel which vindicated his long and spirited fight for press freedom, brought him no joy. "By the mid-1820s", says Wilson, "he had become as much a relic of the Regency years as Sidmouth, Castlereagh and the laws of blasphemous and seditious libel."

The Guardian, 5th May 2005.