T H E  L I F E  O F  J O H N  M Y T T O N

A Sporting Writer's History of an Extraordinary

Character of the Early Nineteen Century


ARE you curious to know what sort of person your neighbour 
is in a deck chair on Brighton pier? Watch, then, which
column of The Times—she has brought it, rolled like a French 
roll, and it lies on the top of her bag—she reads first. Politics, pre-
sumably, or an article upon a temple in Jerusalem? Not a bit of it
—she reads the sporting news. Yet one could have sworn, to look 
at her—boots, stockings and all—that she was a public servant of 
some sort; with Acts of Parliament in her bag, findings of Commis-
sions, and a frugal lunch of biscuits and bananas. If for a moment 
she basks on Brighton pier while Madame Rosalba, poised high on a 
platform above the sea, dives for coins or soup plates it is only to 
refresh herself before renewing her attack upon the iniquities of our 
social system. Yet she begins by reading the sporting news.

PERHAPS there is nothing so strange in it, after all. The great 
English sports are pursued almost as fiercely by sedentary men 
who cannot sit a donkey, and by quiet women who cannot drown a 
mouse, as by the booted and spurred. They hunt in imagination. 
They follow the fortunes of the Berkeley, the Cattistock, the Quorn
and the Belvoir upon phantom hunters. They roll upon their lips the 
odd-sounding, beautifully crabbed English place-names—Humblebee, 
Doddles Hill, Caroline Bog, Winniats Brake. They imagine as they 
read (hanging to a strap in the Underground or propping the paper 
against a suburban teapot) now a “slow, twisting hunt,” now “a 
brilliant gallop”; the rolling meadows; the thunder and the
whimper of horses and hounds; the beautiful fields of Leicestershire 
unfolding; and then the ride home again, stretched, soothed, and
satisfied, with the lights coming out in the farmhouses in the dark. 
The sporting writers, Beckford, St. John, Surtees, Nimrod, make no 
mean reading. In their slapdash gentlemanly way, without any
special respect for pen and ink, they have written far better than the
professionals. This riding and tumbling, being blown upon and rained
upon and splashed from head to heel with mud have worked them-
selves into the very marrow of English prose and given it that leaping
quality, that glow of imagery stripped from hedge and hillside which
distinguishes it, not, indeed, above the French, but so emphatically 
from it. In short, why should she not, in spite of boots and stockings, 
biscuits and bananas, read the sporting news? Why should she not, 
having folded up her paper, take from her bag a square red book
and proceed, while Madame Rosalba dives and the band blares
and the green waters of the English Channel sparkle and sway 
between the chinks of the pier, to read the Life of Jack Mytton?

YET Jack Mytton was by no means an estimable character. Of 
an old Shropshire family (the name was Mutton once), he had 
inherited a fine property and a large income. The little boy who was 
born in the year 1796 should have carried on the tradition of politics 
and sport which his ancestors had pursued respectably for five 
centuries before him. But families have their seasons, like the year. 
After months of damp and drizzle, growth and prosperity, there come 
the wild equinoctial gales, a roaring in the trees all day, fruit destroyed
and blossom wasted. Lightning strikes the house and its rooftree 
goes up in fire. Indeed, Nature and society between them had 
imposed upon the Mytton of 1796 a burden which might have crushed
a finer spirit—a body hewn from the solid rock, a fortune of almost 
indestructible immensity. Nature and society dared him, almost, to 
defy them. He went shooting in the thinnest silk stockings, let the 
rain pelt on his bare skin, swam rivers, charged gates, crouched naked 
on the snow, and still his body remained obdurate and upright. He 
had his breeches made without pockets; wads of banknotes were 
picked up in the woods, and still his fortune survived. He had 
children and tossed them in the air and pelted them with oranges; 
he had wives whom he tormented and imprisoned until one died and 
the other snatched her chance and ran away. While he shaved a 
glass of port stood by his side, and as the day wore on he worked 

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through five or six bottles of wine and sopped them up with 
pound upon pound of filberts. It was as if among all his bets was
one with the gods that he would waste their gifts. There was an 
extremity about his behaviour which raises it from the particular to 
the general. The shaggy body of primeval man, with all his appetites 
and aptitudes (Jack Mytton never wore a watch, for he knew the
time by instinct), seemed to have risen from his grave under the 
barrows, where the great stones were piled on top of him, where 
once he sacrificed rams and did homage to the rising sun, to carouse 
with tippling fox-hunters of the time of George the Fourth. His 
limbs themselves seemed carved from more primitive materials than 
modern men's. He had neither beauty of countenance nor grace of 
manner, yet he bore himself, for all his violence of body and mind, 
with an air of natural breeding which one can imagine in a savage 
stepping on his native turf. When he talked, says Nimrod, which 
he did sparely, he said, in a very few words, things which made every-
body laugh; but, unequally gifted as he was, acute in some senses, 
dull in others, he had a deafness which made him unwieldy in general 

WHAT, then, could primeval man do, having cracked his jokes, 
devoured his filberts, swilled his wine? He could take bets
and make them. Was it a watery winter's night? He would drive 
his gig across country under the moon. Was it freezing? He would 
make his stable boys hunt rats upon skates. Did some moderately 
cautious guest admit that he had never been upset in a gig? Mytton 
at once ran the wheel up the bank and flung them both into the road. 
Put any obstacle in his way and he leapt it, swam it, smashed it, some-
how surmounted it, at the cost of a broken bone or a broken carriage. 
To yield to danger or to own to pain were both unthinkable. And 
so the Shropshire peasantry were amazed (as we see them in Alken's
and Rawlins's pictures) by the apparition of a gentleman setting his 
tandem at a gate, riding a bear round his drawing-room, beating a 
bulldog with naked fists, lying between the hoofs of a nervous horse, 
riding with broken ribs unmurmuring when every jar was agony. 
They were amazed; they were scandalised; his eccentricities and 
infidelities and generosities were the talk of every inn and farmhouse 
for miles; yet somehow no bailiff in the four counties would arrest 
him. They looked up at him as one looks at something removed 
from ordinary duties and joys—a monument, a menace—with con-
tempt and pity and awe.

BUT Jack Mytton himself—what was he feeling meanwhile? The 
thrill of perfect satisfaction, the delight of joys snatched un-
hesitatingly without compunction? That was a question which
occurred to the by no means introspective mind of Nimrod.  “Did 
the late Mr. Mytton really enjoy life amidst all this profusion of ex-
penditure?” No; Nimrod was of opinion that he did not. He had 
everything that the human heart could desire, but he lacked “the 
art of enjoyment.” He was bored. He was unhappy. “There was 
that about him which resembled the restlessness of the hyena.” He 
hurried from thing to thing, determined to taste and enjoy, but some-
how blunted and bruised his pleasures as he touched them. Two 
hours before his own exquisite dinner he devoured fat bacon and 
strong ale at a farmhouse, and then blamed his cook. Still, without 
an appetite, he would eat; still he would drink, only instead of port 
it must be brandy to lash his flagging palate into sensation. A “sort 
of destroying spirit egged him on.” He was magnificent, wasteful, 
extravagant in every detail. “. . . it was his largeness of heart 
that ruined Mr. Mytton,” said Nimrod, “added to the lofty pride 
which disdained the littleness of prudence.”

BY the time he was thirty, at any rate, Jack Mytton had gone 
farther than most men thought possible; he had almost ruined 
his health; he had almost spent his money. (Continued on page 86)