George Hanger: The Life and Times of an Eccentric Nobleman by Ian Saberton (Claygate, UK: Grosvenor House Publishing, 2018)
The “English eccentric” is an instantly recognisable cultural figure the world over, and while it would be wrong to suggest that this Island nation has a monopoly on the production of the eccentric, it is undeniably true that no other country embraces “oddity” with quite the same zeal. In England, all manner of wicked and immoral behaviour will be forgiven a person if they have earnt the title “eccentric.” Surprisingly perhaps, one of the fields in which the English have fashioned the most oddballs is their armed forces. From Wolfe to Nelson, Wellington to Lawrence of Arabia, a profession that ordinarily requires the enforcement of rigidity and conformity has instead bristled with Englishmen who refused to acknowledge that particular requirement.
Major George Hanger was a soldier, rake, dandy, wastrel, gambler, notorious womaniser, serial duellist and sometime pimp for the Prince Regent for whom the term “eccentric” could have been invented. Ian Saberton takes us on an often hilarious ride through a life that, had it been a satirical play written by Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift, would have been laughed off the stage for seeming too incredible.
Like Hanger himself, this book is an oddity. At times good, at times bad, and in at least in a couple of ways downright ugly. For the student of the American Revolution, interest in Hanger’s life primarily revolves around the period he spent as Banastre Tarleton’s second officer in the Loyalist British Legion. As a cavalry major, he joined the regiment after the Waxhaw’s and was struck down by yellow fever before Yorktown so his time actually fighting was brief. He has, however, left us with several written works and numerous anecdotes of his time in America that are remarkably perceptive and worthy even today of study.
Saberton does a sterling job of bringing Hanger’s career to life. Very little is left uncovered; from soldier of fortune in a Hessian Regiment to penniless coal merchant in Regency London, the author takes us on a vivid ride through a period of Revolution and riot, debauchery and depravity. These were exciting times to be alive and as the book reveals Hanger dived in head first.
There is an awful lot of information in the book, much of which will be new to all but the most knowledgeable reader. I particularly liked an anecdote highlighting Tarleton’s time in occupied Charleston. A rebel lady of high social standing demanded from him the use of two rooms in her own requisitioned home which would “contribute to her comfort.” Tarleton sarcastically replied. “Madam. After mature deliberation, my eyes are so opened that the enemies of my country should not enjoy any convenience that I hold it as an act of propriety to retain the house . . . for my sole accommodation.” Exit one chagrined Charleston Patriot.
The book covers much ground, which is both its strength and weakness. I was continually looking up incidents and characters mentioned in the book as major and minor figures flew by. This is part of the book’s charm. Unfortunately, sometimes there were simply too many distractions from the central narrative that on occasion this characteristic became wearisome. I found myself skipping whole passages that were irrelevant, or which could have been dealt with better using a footnote. Too often the writing jumped around like a grasshopper on a hot griddle, and the book would have been better served had it been rigorously edited down. Saberton frequently repeats whole passages of Hanger’s own books or contemporary anecdotes about him that could have been concisely summarised without detriment to the spirit of the subject.
It also means that at times, the writing positively creaks. To bring the book back on track, corny expositional devices like, “when we last left George” or “when we left Tarleton” are used too often. The writer also occasionally introduces his personal politics into the work, which many will find jarring. Bizarrely suggesting, for example, that the British today no longer celebrate the “Glorious Sixteenth” of August (the date of the victory at Camden) because of political correctness is pushing it, when a more mundane but accurate reason would be that practically no one in Britain has ever even heard of the battle let alone been stifling any wish to celebrate it. This may be merely patriotic whimsy on the part of the author and is forgivable as such. But I am not sure that describing the Scotch Irish as “surpassing all other sects in bigotry and fierce denominationalism going to lengths which are almost unbelievable” is a balanced or historical account of a people who were perhaps the toughest and most loyal Patriots of the entire war.
As for the ugly? Well, there are no primary or secondary source footnotes or citations which is unforgivable in a biography of this length. This is a massive pity as Saberton has included some excellent quotations and incidents that many will want to follow up on.
The maps are also so poorly drawn and of such a low resolution as to make them practically worthless. To make up for that, however, he has included some gorgeous and rare contemporary satirical engravings that may seem cryptic to the modern reader. Saberton does an excellent job in deciphering them and explaining their context and connection to Hanger’s life.
Finally, the dust jacket of the book is perhaps the worst I have ever seen on a title. Featuring what looks like white powder nonchalantly dripped over a blue marble top it has absolutely no association with the subject, the war, or the eighteenth century. It would have been ideal for a biography of the artist Jackson Pollock maybe, or a thriller about a Mexican drug cartel but here it does the book a severe disservice as many a casual buyer will not associate it with the period or subject matter and pass it by.
Both Hanger and this book are undoubtedly an acquired taste, but I am glad I read it and if a few quickly remedied alterations had been applied at the sub-editing stage this book and Hanger would have undoubtedly found a wider and well-deserved audience.
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