Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
John Gibson Lockhart (1794–1854)
 
[John Gibson Lockhart was born at Cambusnethan, where his father was minister of the Established Church of Scotland, on 14th July 1794. He entered the University of Glasgow at twelve years old, and three years later went to Balliol with a Snell exhibition. Some accounts make him enter Glasgow at 11 and Oxford at 13. This precocious, but not then so very precocious, academical career was completed by a first-class in 1813, when Lockhart was about the age at which most men now matriculate. Perhaps if he had taken a little longer over it he would not have overlooked the celebrated false quantity of jnuam in the epitaph of Scott’s “Maida”; but his scholarship was at least sufficient and far superior to that of most literary men of his time. He had another and for his day a still more unusual advantage in going to Germany after he left Oxford and acquiring a competent knowledge of the German tongue, which brought him a commission from Blackwood to translate Schlegel’s Lectures on History. He was called to the Scotch bar in 1816; but was a bad speaker, and had, it seems little love for law. The foundation or rather the second foundation of Blackwood’s Magazine introduced him to his true vocation; and for some years he was, almost as much as Wilson, the leader in all its mirth and mischief, from the “Chaldee Manuscript” downwards. His first original book, Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, appeared in 1819, and next year he married Sophia Scott, Sir Walter’s eldest daughter, and took up his residence (when not in Edinburgh) at Chiefswood. There, mainly, he wrote in four successive years (1821–4) his four novels—Valerius, Adam Blair, Reginald Dalton, and Matthew Wald. In the latest of these four years he also published his Spanish Ballads. In 1826 he moved to London, having been appointed editor of the Quarterly Review, a post which he held almost till his death, but which did not prevent him from having much to do with the early and more boisterous phase of Fraser’s Magazine. His great Life of Scott was published between 1837 and 1839, and during its publication his wife died. In 1843 he was made Auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall. Ten years later his health broke down, and resigning the editorship, he went to Italy, but only came home to die at Abbotsford on the 25th November 1854. Besides the books above mentioned he wrote an admirable Life of Burns (1828), and an extremely well done abstract of his father-in-law’s Napoleon (1829).]  1
 
LOCKHART, one of the most distinguished of that class of men of letters whose career has been determined by the spread of periodical literature during the nineteenth century, stands almost alone as an example of certain disadvantages which attend this kind of literary production. That no complete edition of his work exists is not surprising; it is usual and certainly salutary, that editions of writers who have been journalists should be incomplete. But Lockhart, almost alone of the great journalists of the century, offers to the critic the embarrassing subject of a man whose work in periodicals, though it was admittedly very large indeed, has never been authoritatively collected, and cannot be identified in the papers where it appeared without access to records always confidential, and perhaps now not in all cases existent. The article on Theodore Hook he acknowledged and reprinted. But all the rest of the matter contributed during nearly thirty years to the Quarterly is still unacknowledged; it is to this day uncertain whether some of the famous Blackwood articles—that on Keats, the “Zeta” attack on the Cockneys, the Baron Lauerwinkel attack on Playfair—were Lockhart’s or not; and his contributions to Fraser are, I believe, the least traceable of all. It is true that students of his acknowledged and independent work, of his letters, and of the general body of history or fiction about him, will never be at a loss for a pretty strong opinion as to what is and is not Lockhart’s. But it is of course impossible to deliver such an opinion with the certainty which attends the judgment of unquestionably authentic work.  2
  The reference just made to the “history or fiction” about Lockhart concerns a matter of no slight importance in the estimate of his work, though one which cannot receive extended treatment here. A legend was early formed—assisted no doubt if not actually started by the youthful description of himself by himself as a “scorpion which delights to sting the faces of men” in the famous Chaldee Manuscript—attributing to Lockhart not merely the possession of a biting pen, but the disposition to use it in a manner very aggressive and not too scrupulous. The uproarious Ishmaelism of Blackwood and the more sedate carping of the Quarterly were successively laid to his charge; and in some cases the matter reached, in others it very nearly reached, the then usual arbitrament of the pistol. Some pains have been taken to show that Lockhart was not to blame in the complicated and unhappy affair that led to the death of John Scott, editor of the London Magazine; and still later, the previously unpublished letters of Sir Walter have come to the support of those who take this view by showing that at all events the Duke of Wellington pronounced his conduct unimpeachable, a sentence in a case of honour not easily to be set aside. Charges, not better supported but not so easily refuted, have been brought against him in reference to Keats, to Playfair, and others; while his pamphlet war with the Ballantynes, as a sequel to his Life of Scott, has not seemed, even to some well-disposed judges, to have been conducted in a wholly creditable manner.  3
  The point, however, chiefly or rather solely important here, is that—whether Lockhart did or not strain the licence of a time when party and other feeling ran very high, and when the responsibilities of anonymous journalism were not so strictly construed even by men of honour, as by men of honour they are now supposed to be—he was at any rate capable of using the pen for purposes both of offence and defence in a very dangerous manner. And of this there can be no doubt. Young as he was at the time of Peter’s Letters his formidable powers are clearly perceptible there; the famous Tennyson review more than ten years later (never formally acknowledged, but now attributed on the most certain evidence) is a masterpiece of what has since been termed “slating”; and there are passages in the “Theodore Hook,” friendly and apologetic as it is, which would show any intelligent reader what Lockhart’s sting would be like when he chose to use it.  4
  He was, however, very much more than a satirist and a snarler. From the first he seems to have had the command of a really excellent style—a style in which a few slight oversights may be noted here and there, but which in the main is one of the very best examples of a class too generally undervalued—the class showing the latest phase of the “classical” style of the eighteenth century, free from over-classicism, slightly suppled and modernised by foreign and vernacular influences, but as yet untouched by the tendencies to lawlessness, to extreme ornament, and to other excesses which were successively illustrated in Landor, in De Quincey, in Carlyle, and in Mr. Ruskin. And he put this style, in his avowed and substantive work, to most excellent use, assisting its operation by the display of good reading, of sound, if sometimes slightly grudging criticism, and above all of a manly and judicial sense with which few have shown themselves better provided.  5
  The minor works above mentioned—the Napoleon, the Burns (a really admirable book), and the miniature sketch of Theodore Hook, first written for the Quarterly and then separately printed, display these qualities well enough. The Hook, in particular, is the equal of any essay of Macaulay’s in finish, grasp, and ease, superior to most of Macaulay’s essays in fairness and freedom from mere advocacy, and certainly not the inferior of any in literary merit for those who can taste sobriety as well as brilliancy of literary manner.  6
  The novels, admitting of more variety of handling, though perhaps not showing their writer to be an absolute master of the novel, increase the estimate of his general literary powers very greatly. Valerius is an estimable attempt in a kind where hardly anyone has succeeded; some vivid sketches of a long past Oxford, relieve Reginald Dalton; and even the excessive gloom and defective interest of Matthew Wald do not obscure what is certainly evident in Lockhart’s work, and is one of its most interesting features, the existence of very deep feeling under a cynical exterior. But Adam Blair is almost a masterpiece in concentrated power and passion; and though, like most novels, it lends itself ill to excerpt, the passage here quoted will show Lockhart’s mastery of that perilous “grand style,” the form of which in each generation is more apt to seem tawdry or ludicrous than grand to the next.  7
  But it would be folly to deny that without the Scott Lockhart could not pretend to anything like the position which he at present holds; and would have to be left to the appreciation of a few students of literature like-minded with himself. The charm and abundance of the letters and diaries which the book contains, together with the modesty and reticence of the editorial appearance in it, have, perhaps, lowered the general opinion of the credit due to Lockhart himself. But this will certainly not be the case with those who have been accustomed to sift and weigh the constituents of literary excellence. Rather will their admiration for Lockhart be increased, knowing as they do how perilous the handling of such matters as the diaries and letters of a man of genius is, and how rarely the task of marshalling and arranging so vast a mass of miscellaneous material has been successfully performed. The architectural skill of the arrangement must be patent; and it was no surprise to good judges when the full publication of the Diary and the Letters the other day showed that Lockhart had been not less judicial in choosing his materials, than skilful in using them. Add the taste, the sense, nay the feeling—little credit as Lockhart has usually received on this last score—which he displayed in the original contributions, the excellence of the writing, the masterly infusion of enough and not too much anecdote and humour, and it will I think be hard to find a greater biography. No doubt the respective partisans of Lockhart and Boswell—pair strangely different in everything but success as biographers, and almost as different in the character of that success—will always award the prize according to their partisanship. The wiser few will say, “Give us both!”  8
 
 
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