Stevenson, John Hall- (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

STEVENSON, JOHN HALL-, originally JOHN HALL (1718–1785), country gentleman and poetaster, born in 1718, was son of Joseph Hall of Durham, by his wife Catherine, sister and heiress of Lawson Trotter of Skelton Castle in Cleveland, Yorkshire. On 16 June 1735 he was admitted a fellow-commoner of Jesus College, Cambridge. At the time Laurence Sterne, an exhibitioner of the college and Hall-Stevenson's senior by five years, was nearing the end of his second year at the university. With Sterne Hall-Stevenson formed at once a close intimacy, which lasted till death separated them. They called each other cousin, but the blood-relationship was very distant, if not imagi- nary. Hall-Stevenson was a precocious undergraduate, delighting in Rabelaisian literature and coarse jesting. Such tastes dominated his life. On leaving the university about 1738, without a degree, he made the grand tour, and on his return he married a lady of property, Anne, daughter of Ambrose Stevenson of the Manor House, Durham, by his wife Ann, daughter of Anthony Wharton of Gillingwood, near Richmond, Yorkshire. He assumed his wife's surname in addition to his own. In 1745 his uncle, Trotter, an avowed Jacobite, fled the country, and Trotter's residence, Skelton Castle, passed to his sister, Hall-Stevenson's mother. Hall-Stevenson inherited it on her death. It dated from the fifteenth century, and was in a half-ruinous condition while Hall-Stevenson occupied it.

Hall-Stevenson's sole aim in life was, he repeatedly declared, to amuse himself. He had no liking for field sports, and divided his energies at Skelton between literature and hospitality. He collected a library, largely consisting of facetiæ, and wrote with fatal fluency verse in imitation chiefly of La Fontaine, whose ‘Contes’ attracted him by their obscenity. At the same time he gathered round him a crew of kindred spirits, drawn chiefly from the squirearchy and clergy of Yorkshire, whom he formed into ‘a club of demoniacks.’ The members met under his roof at Skelton several times a year, and indulged by night in heavy drinking and obscene jesting. The chief of these were a clergyman, Robert Lascelles (a connection of the Earl of Harewood), who was nicknamed Pantagruel or Panty, Colonel Hall, Colonel Lee, one Zachary Moore, an architect named Pringle, and a schoolmaster, Andrew Irvine of Kirkleatham. Their orgies seem to have been pale reflections of those practised by Dashwood and his friends at Medmenham. An annual trip to London, where he usually lodged in the neighbourhood of Berkeley Square, brought Hall-Stevenson the acquaintance of a few men of literary or political consequence, including Wilkes and Horace Walpole. Three familiar letters from him to Wilkes, dated in 1762, are among the Wilkes manuscripts in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 30867, ff. 181, 188, 199). Occasionally he seems to have visited the continent. He claimed friendship with Rousseau, but he may have made Rousseau's acquaintance in England. Each summer or autumn he usually spent a few days at York or Scarborough.

Hall-Stevenson gained some notoriety by his small pamphlets of licentious but tedious and unimpressive verse, which he issued in quarto form with ample margins at frequent intervals. In 1760 he published a ‘Lyric Epistle’ to his friend Sterne, on his triumphal reception in London after the publication of ‘Tristram Shandy’ (two lyric epistles, ‘To my Cousin Shandy on his coming to Town,’ and ‘To the Grown Gentlewomen the Misses of ****’). Gray justly described the verses as ‘absolute nonsense’ (Letters, iii. 37). There followed ‘Fables for Grown Gentlemen’ (1761 and 1770), and in 1762 Hall-Stevenson's best-known publication, ‘Crazy Tales’ (other edits. 1764 and 1780). An engraving of Skelton Castle forms the frontispiece. Hall-Stevenson and his friends had nicknamed it Crazy Castle, and in ‘Crazy Tales’ he described the merry meetings of his friends there. Into the mouth of each of the members he put a more or less obscene tale, and he appended a few adaptations of Horace's ‘Odes’ to current events.

Horace Walpole affected to detect in Hall-Stevenson's compositions ‘a vast deal of original humour and wit.’ But Smollett and the writers in the ‘Critical Review’ showed truer insight in treating his efforts with caustic contempt. By way of retaliation Hall-Stevenson poured floods of vulgar abuse on the head of Smollett and his Scottish associates in such lucubrations as ‘A Nosegay and a Simile for the Reviewers,’ 1760, and ‘Two Lyrical Epistles, or Margery the Cook Maid, to the Critical Reviewers,’ 1760.

Hall-Stevenson's acquaintance with Wilkes turned his attention to politics. In much the same vein as he addressed himself to the reviewers, he denounced Bute and all professional politicians, whether whig or tory. The titles of his political effusions ran: ‘A Pastoral Cordial; or an Anodyne Sermon, preached before their Graces Newcastle and Devonshire,’ 1763; ‘A Pastoral Puke; a second Sermon preached before the people called Whigs; by an Independent,’ 1764; ‘Makarony Fables, with the new Fable of the Bees,’ 1767; ‘Lyric Consolations, with the Speech of Alderman Wilkes delivered in a Dream,’ 1768; and ‘An Essay upon the King's Friends,’ addressed to Dr. Johnson, 1776.

Hall-Stevenson's relations with Sterne give his career its only genuine interest. Sterne introduces him into both ‘Tristram Shandy’ and the ‘Sentimental Journey’ under the name of Eugenius. He represented him as a prudent counsellor, and gratefully acknowledged the readiness with which Hall-Stevenson often put his purse at a friend's service. Hall-Stevenson returned the compliment by flattering references to Sterne as ‘Cousin Shandy,’ and often signed himself ‘Anthony Shandy.’ Sterne was a frequent visitor at Skelton, and from the books in the library drew many hints.

In the summer of 1767, a few months before Sterne's death, Hall-Stevenson stayed with him at Coxwold, and carried him back to Skelton. They amused themselves on the seashore of the neighbouring Saltburn by racing each other in chariots over the sands. But even in his association with Sterne Hall-Stevenson illustrated his lack of decency. He tried to imitate Sterne's style. Hall-Stevenson's ‘A Sentimental Dialogue between two Souls in the palpable Bodies of an English Lady of Quality and an Irish Gentleman,’ 1768, was a very lame parody of ‘Tristram Shandy.’ Less defensible was Hall-Stevenson's endeavour to complete the ‘Sentimental Journey.’ In 1769, within a year of Sterne's death, he issued, with a brief biographical preface, a disreputable continuation. Although in his character of an author Hall-Stevenson had nothing to lose, this achievement is discreditable to him in the character of a friend. After Sterne's death Hall-Stevenson promised Sterne's daughter to write his life, but was too indolent to make serious effort to carry out the promise.

Hall-Stevenson's careless mode of life, which involved very liberal potations, gradually induced chronic hypochondria. In the ‘Sentimental Journey’ Sterne wrote that Eugenius ‘blamed the weather for the disorder of his nerves.’ The story is told that Hall-Stevenson took to his bed and regarded himself as in extremis whenever there was an east wind, and that one day when the wind came from the east Sterne cured him by tying up the weathercock, and thus led Hall-Stevenson to believe that the wind had changed. He was harassed, too, by pecuniary difficulties, while his relations with his wife were never good. In 1765 he reopened at Selby Hagg, near Skelton, some alum works which had been discontinued for near fifty years; but he failed to make them pay, and gave them up in 1776. On 17 Feb. 1785 he wrote to his grandson that he had been obliged to raise 2,000l. to pay his brother, who had a mortgage on the estate. At the same time he declared that the chief advantages of life had been denied him by premature marriage, and that the scantiness of his fortune had forced him to vegetate in the country, and precluded him from every laudable pursuit suggested by ambition (W. D. Cooper, Seven Letters by Sterne and his Friends, 1844, p. 17). He died at Skelton next month (March 1785).

By his wife who died in 1790, Hall-Stevenson had two sons, of whom one, John, died unmarried. The surviving son, Joseph William Hall-Stevenson (1741–1786), died within a year of his father, and was succeeded at Skelton Castle by his son, John Hall-Stevenson (1766–1843). The latter, who rebuilt Skelton Castle, assumed in 1788 by royal sign manual the sole surname of Wharton. He was descended from the Wharton family of Gillingwood, Yorkshire, in the female line through Ann Wharton, wife of Ambrose Stevenson and mother of the poetaster's wife. He contested the parliamentary representation of Beverley in the whig interest nine times between 1790 and 1826, and was seven times successful between 1790 and 1820. But the expense of the struggle ruined him, and in 1829 he took refuge within the rules of the queen's bench in Lambeth, where he died on 28 May 1843 (Gent. Mag. 1843, ii. 207). Skelton Castle is now the property of this John Wharton's nephew, John Thomas Wharton, esq.

Hall-Stevenson's works, with some unpublished translations and other pieces, were collected and published in three volumes in 1795. An engraving of Skelton Castle (Crazy Castle) formed the frontispiece. ‘Seven Letters written by Sterne and his Friends,’ hitherto unpublished, were edited from Hall-Stevenson's manuscripts by W. Durrant Cooper, and printed for private circulation in 1844. An edition of the ‘Crazy Tales,’ dated 1825, was absurdly assigned on the title-page to Richard Brinsley Sheridan [q. v.] ‘Crazy Tales’ was reprinted privately in 1894.

[George Young's Hist. of Whitby, 1817, ii. ch. ii. iv. v.; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes; Burke's Landed Gentry, s.v. ‘Wharton of Skelton Castle;’ Cooper's Seven Letters as above; Sterne's Works and Correspondence; and art. Sterne, Laurence.]

S. L.