1902 Encyclopedia > John Forster

John Forster
English historian, biographer, journalist and critic
(1812-76)




JOHN FORSTER, (1812-1876), an English historian, biographer, journalist, and critic, was born April 2, 1812, at Newcastle, where his father, a member of the Unitarian Church, followed the occupation of a butcher. He was well grounded in classics and mathematics at the grammar-school of his native town, and gave early promise of future distinction. After a brief residence at Cambridge he removed in 1828 to London, where he attended law classes in connexion with the recently founded university, but devoted himself chiefly to literary pursuits. The earlier productions of his pen were contributed to various liberal papers, particularly to The True Sun, The Morning Chronicle, and The Examiner. As literary and dramatic critic for the last-named journal, he from the outset showed much conscientiousness, discrimination, and tact, and the influence of his powerful individuality soon made itself strongly felt. He had not long passed his twentieth year when the publication of his Lives of Eminent British Statesmen began. This work, originally undertaken for Lardner's Cyclopaedia, and published separately in 1840 under the title of The Statesmen of the Commonwealth of England, tvith a Treatise on the Popular Progress in English History, was immediately recognized as a work of great interest and value, entitling its author to high literary rank. Thenceforward he was a prominent figure in that distinguished circle of literary men which included such names as Bulwer, Talfourd, Fonblanque, Landor, Carlyle, Dickens. In 1843 he was called to the bar by the benchers of the Inner Temple; but while highly valuing this honourable connexion with the legal profession, he never became or sought to become a practising lawyer. His energies were mainly devoted to laborious historical investigations, while relaxation was sought chiefly in lighter forms of literary activity. For some years he edited the Foreign Quarterly Review; in 1846, on the retirement of Charles Dickens, he took charge for almost a year of the Daily News; in 1847, on the resignation of Albany Fonblanque, he became editor of the Examiner, and this post he retained till 1856. From 1836 onwards he con-tributed to the Edinburgh, Quarterly, and Foreign Quarterly Reviews a variety of articles, some of which were republished in two volumes of Biographical and Historical Essays in 1858. In 1848 appeared his Life of Oliver Goldsmith, which, especially as revised and improved in a second edition (1854), has taken an acknowledged place as one of the most admirably executed biographies to be found in the whole range of English literature. Continuing his original researches into English history at the period of the Revolution, he published in 1860 two volumes, respect-ively entitled Arrest of the Five Members by Charles I.— A Chapter of English History rewritten, and The Debates on the Grand Remonstrance, with an Introductory Essay on English Freedom. These were followed by his Biography of Sir John Eliot, published in 1864, an elaborate and finished picture from one of his earlier studies for the Lives of the Statesmen. In 1868 appeared his biography of his friend Walter Savage Landor. For several years he had been collecting materials for a life of Swift, but his studies in this direction were for a time suspended in con-sequence of the death of Charles Dickens, with whom he had long been on terms of intimate friendship. The first. volume of Forster's Life of Dickens appeared in 1871, and the work was completed in 1874. Towards the close of 1875 the first volume of his Life of Swift was published; and he had made some progress in the preparation of the second, when he was seized with an illness of which he died on the 1st of February 1876. He lies buried in Kensal-Green Cemetery, where a just and discriminative inscription tells that he was " noted in private life for the robustness of his character and the warmth of his affec-tions ; for his ceaseless industry in literature and business, and the lavish services which, in the midst of his crowded life, he rendered to his friends; for his keen appreciation of every species of excellence, and the generosity of his judgments on books and men." In 1855 Forster had been appointed secretary to the Lunacy Commission, and for some years after 1861 he held the office of a commis-sioner in lunacy. In 1860 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the university of Edinburgh. His valuable collection'of manuscripts, along with his books and pictures, was bequeathed to the South Kensington Museum.







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