Regency Impudence: Joseph Hume

“I see precisely how it is! You are very like my father, Salford! ..the only time  when either of you remembers what you are is when some impudent fellow don’t treat you with respect!”

— Sylvester: or The Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer

Impudence is a powerful force of conflict in Regency-themed literature. The setting of these stories is profoundly concerned with status, and the orderly categorization of the individual within a deeply stratified society. The impudent character bucks the rules, and zounds! the reader is hooked.

The term impudence used to refer to conduct that was immodest. This was during the medieval period. With the rise of the middle class in nineteenth century Britain, the term came to mean behavior that challenged landed class privilege at all levels–political, cultural, social, eliciting dismay, but more often amusement.

Dashed good fun to flout those who are just a little high in the instep.

In the Regency-era political arena, much of the impudence on display can be attributed to Joseph Hume (1777-1855). Made wealthy from a technique to keep gunpowder dry, he purchased a Tory seat, only for that session of Parliament to dissolve.  Chagrined, he “ratted” upon his return, and became a Radical MP.

Joseph Hume, “a burly man with a massive head and virtually no neck.” by John Whitehead Walton

His achievements, which were many, attempted to force retrenchment upon the government’s purse. His biographical entry in History of Parliament states he was “willfully perverse..largely impervious to the ridicule and abuse which he largely attracted from his political adversaries.”

This was impudence indeed, but that was not the half of it.

“..very very noisy, very violent … and on many points unintelligible, but quite satisfied with himself.”

— John Gladstone, Tory MP (letter to George Canning, Feb. 1822)

He was proud of his conduct, and that was the crux of his impudence. This unrepentant quality of character excited Maria Edgeworth’s considerable disgust. In her Letters she thought him most impudent for attacking ‘all things and all persons,’ but more particularly because he refused to heed all advice to moderate his good opinion of himself.

Tories detested him. His natural allies, the Whigs, were at times delighted and incensed by him. Sir Henry Brougham wrote to a colleague that Hume makes a ‘stupid ass’ of himself in parliamentary proceedings, inducing most to either fall asleep or walk out with his interminable demands for an accounting of even the most minute of government expenditures.

The fact he went about the thing with an air of superiority was Too Much.

“…his stupid vanity … His kind patronage of Archy [Hamilton] is only laughable, but to see him splitting on that rock (of egotism and vanity) is rather provoking. What right has he to talk of the Whigs never coming to his support on … reform?”

The Creevey Papers (1822)

There were many who tried to reform society at the political level. There were not many who did it as impudently as Hume, as two occasions demonstrate. One concerned an investigation he launched into profiteering at the Crown’s stationary office. The other was the buying and selling of Greek bonds on the taxpayer’s dime.

He admitted to having done both.

In the case of the first charge, he compounded his impudence by admitting his perfidy in writing, on the very stationary in question. As to the second charge, his corruptible speculation resulted in a personal financial loss, for which he demanded the poor Greeks compensate him.

“Could he, in the incipient stages of his existence, have looked forward to the brazen celebrity which he now obtained, we might almost wonder that he could have the impudence to be born.”

— Anecdotes of Impudence, Charles Tilt (publisher) 1827

‘If Hume should be returned for Middlesex, he of course will forget that he owes his seat to me twice over,” said moderate Whig George Byng, here bearing a most impudent Hume on his back.



The Real Regency Reader: The Miser Married

One popular book on the Regency bookshelf was written by an unlikely spinster, Catherine Hutton (1756-1846). She used the character of a spendthrift to conquer a miser in her 1813 novel The Miser Married, A Novel. The story is mostly a series of letters, many consisting of a daughter’s observations of her widowed mother’s adventures and those of the widower Mama sets her cap for.

Catherine Hutton

Catherine Hutton

The novel opens with Mr. Winterdale, a gentleman of some means who keeps to himself and known to be ever careful of his money. He is quite aware of his new neighbors:

“The lady who has taken Ravenhill Lodge is come to it, with her family, which Martha tells me consists of a daughter and a niece. She says Mrs. Mereval is a handsome woman, not more than eight and thirty, and that the two girls are very beautiful. So they may be for me. I had a glance of two female figures, peeping through the lattice of the little door in the park wall, and I sent for the carpenter directly, to nail it up with boards. These women may, perhaps, think they have a right to be acquainted with me, because they chuse to come and live at the next house. I can tell them that will be no easy matter.”

Then we have the daughter’s letter, written in the wake of being diverted from reading her novels:

“Which, my dear Harriet, in the catalogue of human events, do you think capable of bringing Mr. Winterdale to our house? ..not for a morning call but a positive inmate; eating, drinking and sleeping under our roof? You are mute with astonishment; at length you answer, “a broken leg, perhaps.” Your conjecture is exactly right.”

Throughout the three volumes of the novel, the series of letters from the characters cleverly display a wide range of personalities in a diverting tale of the miser and the beautiful widow. The author is not above commenting on other Regency books, relying on the aforesaid novel-reading daughter:

Mrs. Hannah More–Cœlebs in Search of a Wife. Comprehending observations on domestic habits : “Wicked novel reader as I am, I confess that, in some of her long arguments, I turned over six leaves, instead of one!”

On Maria Edgeworth’s Lenora: “The moral purpose of Leonora is to persuade woman to attend to her duties, rather than her rights. In a word, to counteract Mary Wollstonecroft.”

Of Holcroft and his Anna St. Ives: “(It) is written, as the author, himself, declares, to inculcate the lesson of fortitude to females. I admire her fortitude; but I think her rather too philosophical, for a young lady.”

Miss Hutton was an expert on characterization, a talent highly prized by Regency readers. As such, she was certainly aware of how her keen observations might strike a nerve in more than one quarter. In her Prologue, she lays bare her trepidation in releasing her first novel to the “awful Tribunal of the Public.”

She knows she is an unlikely novel-writer, being only certain of her ability to make a variety of puddings:

“..but that I possessed the inherent qualities necessary to write a book, was not suspected by me, till lately.”

What Ravenhill might have looked like. Remote.

What Ravenhill might have looked like. Remote.