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Book Review: The Wit in the Dungeon by Anthony Holden

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The Wit in the Dungeon is a biography which explores the life of literary figure Leigh Hunt: a contemporary of several acclaimed authors and poets (such as Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Keats, and Wordsworth), whose own fame has only continued to shine among literary academics. This is not to say that Hunt is not a fascinating figure of potential mass appeal; on the contrary, biographer Anthony Holden deftly sprinkles the text with Hunt’s life, ranging from discussions of his curious collections (he collected the hair of celebrities, such as Keats and George Washington) to recollections of his passive-aggressive love affair with his wife Marianne. But it is unfortunate that with such a rich character as Leigh Hunt as his subject, Mr. Holden nevertheless infuses his text with a tedium which just might inspire a reader to toss the book directly at the nearest wall.

This biography is embroiled with contradictions; from the subtitle, The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt: Poet, Revolutionary, and the Last of the Romantics, it is easily assumed that the author holds the poetry of Hunt in great esteem. Yet this is often not the case – frequently, it is Hunt’s essays which are held in great esteem, while the farther one goes into the text, the more Holden politely disdains the merit of Hunt’s poetry. In fact, Holden goes so far as to offer up samples of Hunt’s later poetry dedicated to the royal family to be reviled by the contemporary reader. While it is necessary to attempt to portray the true essence of a character within a biography, it is not at all necessary to attack the poetry of a man who has been dead for 146 years at the time of publishing. This scenario may be different if perhaps Hunt was an overrated poet, but due to the situations portrayed in this narrative, was he not attacked enough in life?

Still, there are moments within The Wit in the Dungeon when Holden shines as Hunt’s latest biographer. Whenever Holden’s opinions have disappeared, Hunt becomes more and more of a living character. He may not always look very empathetic, but the reader is truly able to feel the beautiful nuances of his deep friendship with Percy Shelley. And when Shelley dies, Holden’s portrayal of Hunt’s emotional state is beautifully composed. Indeed, throughout the narrative, he is able to demonstrate with a description of a mere object the emotional state of his subject.

All together, however, this biography is too dry and too scholary for a personality such as Leigh Hunt. It’s not that he deserves a lurid, tabloidesque tell-all story – even though all the ingredients for an E! True Hollywood Story are present: alcoholism, jail stays, political disputes, hints of affairs, gruesome deaths, multiple famous guest stars, a public dispute with Charles Dickens, as well as a struggle with poverty that writers to this day could sympathize with. But with The Wit in the Dungeon over and done with, Mr. Hunt still deserves a biography filled with the same zest for life for which he was so famous.

Reviewed by Megan Giddings

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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