Fiery Heart by Nicholas Roe<br/> The Wit in the Dungeon by Anthony Holden

How the Dickens did he end up a villain?
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Leigh Hunt deserves a biography all to himself, after playing best supporting actor in many other literary lives. Perhaps he even deserves two. Lovers of the Romantics or the Regency period will want to read Roe for the wealth of detail; his 350 pages cover the story Holden tells in 175. But Roe leaves Hunt on the beach at Viareggio, watching the flames play over the body of his heart's darling, Shelley. If you want to know what Hunt did next, then you must turn to Holden.

The key question is, how did Leigh Hunt, radical journalist, doughty champion of free speech, friend to Byron, Shelley and Keats, end up as the model for the ghastly Harold Skimpole, the prattling parasite who plays such a casually villainous role in Dickens's Bleak House? Roe points to a key incident when Hunt was a schoolboy at Christ's Hospital (preceded by Coleridge and Lamb). He grandly made a present of a book he did not own to another boy and was accused of stealing it. This haziness of the difference between mine and thine is very Skimpolean, as is the constant debt Hunt bowed under for much of his life.

Much of the blame, Hunt's biographers agree, should go to his wife Marianne. She was loved by both Shelley and Mary Shelley, which is recommendation enough, but Holden and Roe concur that Marianne, for all her good qualities, was difficult if not downright dishonest. To the fury of friends like the painter Haydon, whose silver was not returned after a dinner party, she had a habit of cadging and mislaying items. Chelsea neighbour Jane Carlyle complained: "She actually borrowed the brass fender the other day, and I had difficulty getting it out of her hands..."

In 1822 the couple were invited with their six children (the final tally would be 10) to Pisa by Byron and Shelley so that Leigh Hunt could edit a journal, The Liberal. Byron fitted up an apartment for the family on the ground floor of his palazzo. Marianne grumbled: "Can anything be more absurd than a peer of the realm - and a poet making such a fuss about three or four children disfiguring the walls of a few rooms... fye Lord B - Fye!" Byron described the brood as "dirtier and more mischievous than Yahoos... poor Hunt with his six little blackguards." With the tragic bad luck that attended Hunt's whole life, Shelley was to drown within days of their rapturous reunion. Little wonder that Byron swiftly tired of the Hunt menage.

This was a sad falling off from the days when Byron would visit Hunt in his cell at Horsemonger Lane jail in 1813. The Hunt brothers, Leigh and John, had been imprisoned for libelling (ie telling the truth about) the Prince Regent. "What though, for showing truth to flattered state / Kind Hunt was shut in prison..." begins Keats's sonnet on the subject. While Holden's account of the trial is vivid and dramatic, it is Roe who sketches the unforgettable portrait of Hunt's cool and phlegmatic brother John, settling down "with tolerable ease" to solitary confinement in the worst jail in England, without books, pens, ink or paper. Every journalist owes a debt of honour to the Hunt brothers.

Hunt was the last person to notice any resemblance to the portrait in his young friend's novel. The Skimpole affair became the talk of literary London, and Holden details Dickens's weaselly attempts to avoid an apology. The cruellest irony was that the eternally hard-working Hunt should be conflated with a sponger. As Swinburne put it: "To represent him as a heartless and shameless idler... would have been as lifelike a design after the life, as it would be to represent Shelley as a gluttonous, canting hypocrite, or Byron as a loyal and unselfish friend."

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