Recently discovered in the vast collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Thomas Hammond’s memoir is an important find. Most 18th-century memoirs were written by members of the elite, but Hammond was a servant. And he was a literary innovator, adapting the techniques of the early novel to autobiography. This is a funny, affecting, thoroughly absorbing story told by a gifted though unschooled writer with a keen eye for detail and a knack for colourful expression. Hammond lived long ago, yet he comes across as modern. The world he describes is strange and interesting, disturbing at times for its violence and injustice but appealing nevertheless for the humour and pragmatism of the people who inhabited it.
Hammond himself is flawed but likeable, a roguish underdog. Having lost much of his family by the age of six, he sold bread in the streets of Exning, Suffolk, worked as a stableboy and jockey, and stole money for books, heading off to the woods to read novels.