Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by A. Ainger
Dr. John Brown (18101882)
[Born in 1810, at Biggar in Lanarkshire, the son of Rev. John Brown, theologian and divine, he was educated first at Biggar and later at the High School of Edinburgh. From there he passed to Edinburgh University, and entered upon the study of medicine. He graduated as M.D. in 1833, and practised his profession in Edinburgh for the remainder of his life, attaining considerable reputation for professional skill, and for general culture combined with rare charm of mind and character. Outside his profession and the circle of his acquaintance he became known to the large English-speaking race by three volumes of miscellaneous essays, the first of which appeared in 1858, which their author entitled Horæ Subsecivæ. The contents were of the most varied character, the first volume containing the larger proportion on topics of professional interest, but comprising essays and sketches of character, which for mingled charm of style, critical acumen, and humour, are amongst the choicest products of the century. The most famous of these sketches, that bearing the name of Rab and his Friends, appeared in the first volume, and at once attracted attention. Dr. John Brown died full of years and honours in May 1882.]
IN the summer of 1858 there appeared a volume, from an Edinburgh publishing house, in which neither the authors name nor the title-page conveyed much idea to the South British lover of the Belles Lettres. The chief title was Horæ Subsecivæ, and the sub-title Locke and Sydenham, with other occasional papers. The writer was a Scotch physician of the name of Brown, and the bulk of the volume consisted of essays on purely professional topics. There was indeed one bearing the illustrious name of Arthur Hallam, but forty years ago the name had associations less widely diffused than now. But there were two pieces of writing in the volume which would at once reveal to the searcher for new planets in the literary heaven that one of singular originality and charm had swum into his ken.
The first in order was the preface, in which all the qualities of the writer, afterwards to become so famous and familiar, appeared in a style of their own, as fresh and picturesque and engaging as that of Charles Lamb or Louis Stevenson. The keenest interest in his own profession was found in close alliance with the widest literary outlook; the liveliest humour, and appreciation of it in others; a poets and a painters eye for the lovelinesses of scenery, and a deeply religious and sympathetic nature. The other contribution to the volume was speedily to eclipse all the rest in public favour, and to be identified for the remainder of his life with the writers name. The title Rab is as closely bound up with the name of its originator, as that of Tom Brown is and will ever be with that of the late Thomas Hughes.
Rab and his Friends is indeed one of those happy masterpieces which it is difficult to criticise without falling into an uncritical ecstasy of praise. The story, so its author informs us, is in all essentials strictly matter-of-fact. The assurance was hardly necessary. Alike in material and in workmanship, it has nothing in common with the manufacture of pathetic fiction. We have only to compare it with the best artificial in certain popular Scottish annals of the poor, to feel the difference. Its charm is that of absolute fidelity to life, reflected from the rare and beautiful personality of the narrator. For it is no mere photographic transcript of a remembered incident. The most perfect art controls it throughoutshown for instance in the skill with which the personality of the dog Rab (a humorous character), who begins and ends the story, is so blended with the fortunes of the human actors as never once to strike a jarring note, or disturb the serene flow of the pathetic interest.
Dr. John Brown has been sometimes called the Charles Lamb of Scotland, and no doubt there are points inviting comparison. The unconventionality and homeliness of the subjects which prompt many of the essays: the frank egotism of their treatment, the playfulness and discursiveness of his methods, suggest Lamb. Like the sheeps-head which he has made so famous, there is ever a fine confused feeding to be enjoyed from him. But if he be a Scottish Elia, it is an Elia with this differencethat the moral, and even the deeply religious motive is never missing from even the most unlikely topics. The son of a famous preacher, upon whom some of his finest comments were uttered (in his Letter to John Cairns), he bore upon his mind and genius the ineffaceable marks of his religious childhood. There is hardly an essay to which Lamb might not have fairly applied his witty translation of Horaces phraseproperer for a sermon. But the religiousness of the man is so part and parcel of his genius as to disarm, or rather, not even to suggest criticism. His style, imitated from no one model, is the easy, unstudied style of a good letter-writer and talker, yet rising often into a singular beauty and eloquence when some deep moral emotion possesses him. Again and again we feel that with him, as with Samuel Johnson, his wisdom was the Wisdom of the Just. John Brown is already a classic, because he has made himself loved much. He is yet one more witness that it matters little for an essayist what are his themes, if only the personality of the writer is delightful, and is diffused and discernible through all his work. Tenderness and humour: the love of children and dogs and all helpless things: the enthusiasm for all that is best in human life and character, and inability to feel scorn for any living creatureall this may seem in these days an inadequate equipment for securing a hold upon readers, and becoming a power in literature. But somehow it lives on and stimulates, when each fresh instalment of the ingenious and the recondite on hand-made paper attracts for the moment, and then passes away forever.