Dec 30, 2016

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour

by Robert Surtees

This book from the mid 1800's is about a man of limited means who acquires three rented horses, puts on airs and basically invites himself to the homes of various folk in the countryside so he can attend fox hunts (which he also invites himself to). He banks on the fact that nobody knows him, to be able to get away with things- people pretend they know of him to avoid looking ignorant, and he lets them make assumptions about his social position etc, takes advantage of free room and board until he seriously wears out his welcome, and they make efforts to throw him out. Then he moves on, finding someone else who had extended (in mere politeness) an invitation, which he takes them up on suddenly. Eventually enough people in the district hear of him that he finds himself staying with people who aren't so well-to-do, and he is thoroughly dissatisfied. He tries to get himself invited back to one of the other households, and starts to wonder at his predicament- no money, no income, and apparently no more invitations forthcoming.

All this time he is involved in some kind of horse-dealing scams- showing off his horses (hiding their faults of course) and selling them, but then making the buyer so discomfited they pay him to take the horse back (once pressured by empty threat of a lawsuit). So he makes money off these horses that aren't even his. He doesn't seem too skilled at foxhunting although more into it than some of the other characters- lots of them apparently participate just to make a show of themselves- and has a curious obsession with studying a book of 'bus schedules and fares that he carries around. A lot of the book isn't about Mr. Sponge at all (most of the names pointedly emphasize something about each character) there are entire chapters just describing the people who will be his next set of hosts. Lots of curious folk with different quirks and habits. I think the one that amused me most was a man who went foxhunting so he could look for likely trees to cut sticks from- his hobby was carving an entire series of walking-sticks with the heads of famous people.

In the end Sponge, who had often had female attentions pressed on him when staying at various households, met a lady who liked to ride with the hounds, and he very suddenly fell in love and married. Of course he still had no means to make a living, but adroitly (or by sheer luck) won a steeplechase and found something to invest his winnings in. It was a rather abrupt conclusion.

I was interested in reading the descriptions of the hunts, the various ways in which they were conducted and the parts about the horses. Most of this seems to be character studies and obviously intended as humor, although I sometimes missed the point. I did like it just for the fact that it described a way of life long gone by, so very different in many ways (it went easier when I started glossing over the descriptions of people's clothing). More than for enjoyment of the story or an expectation to read it again, I feel I ought to keep this book just for what it is as a physical object- one of the oldest books in my library. My edition was printed in 1860, and even though it is faded, yellowed and stained in places, the binding has held up remarkably well, the paper has a fine texture (although print somewhat faded) and the ink illustrations are very clever- depicting the various characters with a lot of humor.

Rating: 3/5       408 pages, 1853

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