1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Lever

Charles Lever
Irish novelist
(1806-72)




LEVER, CHARLES, novelist, was born at Dublin on the 31st of August 1806 (not 1809 as usually stated), and died at Trieste on the 1st of June 1872. The accounts of the earlier part of his life are, considering the time at which he lived, singularly meagre, confused, and conflicting. His father was an architect, and he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1822, taking his degree in 1827. Many of the adventures of college life recorded in Charles O'Malley are believed to have actually happened. Later, Lever studied at Göttingen, and obtained a degree there. At some time or other before 1832 (for in this unsatisfactory way most of the facts of this part of his life are recorded) he is said to have visited America, and to have sojourned with the Indians, adopting their dress and mode of life, and going through adventures afterwards utilized in Coat Cregan and Arthur O'Leary. But it is impossible to be certain as to this periodonly towards the cholera outbreak of 1832 that something like a. firm ground offers itself to the biographer. Lever had taken up the profession of medicine, and he was appointed, first to a district of which the headquarters was Kilrush in Galway, where Harry Lorreoter was begun, local stories being largely embodied in it, and then to a district in Ulster, around Coleraine and Newtown Limavady, where material was gathered for Charlts O'Malley and the knight of Gwynne. He married Miss Kate Baker, but even here the mist of uncertainty which envelops him exists, and it is not clear what the real date of the marriage was. After his cholera work was done he proceeded to Brussels. It has been usual to represent him as physician to the embassy, and even Thackeray (who knew him well) has given currency to the description by a quotation in the Book of Snobs. But it is certain that Lever was never formally appointed physician to the embassy, though he had letters of introduction to the secretary of the English legation there, and unquestionably practised. Harry Lorrequer was completed at Brussels, and it began to be published in 1837. It was followed by Charles °Walley and Jack Hinton. All these stories, but especially the first two, were made up to a great extent of experiences through which Lever had gone, or stories which he had heard in Ireland, and of the reminiscences and oddities of English residents at Brussels, where there were then many retired English officers who had gone through the Peninsular and other campaigns of the great war. It is said in particular that Major Monsoon was almost a photograph of a well-known living character at the time, and much the same thing has been asserted of other personages. This piecing together of scraps accounts for the incoherency and absence of plot in the earlier books - defects which were increased by the author's habit of composing them in fragments, and revising them for the press with the utmost carelessness. The abundance and variety of his materials, however, his skill as a raconteur, and the fresh and almost boisterous good humour which blew through all his work, made him very popular, and he found a congenial illustrator in H. K. Browne. After a time proposals were made to him to undertake the editorship of the Dublin University Magazine, which he accepted, and held the post from 1842 to 1845. During this time his income was considerable, amounting, according to his biographer, to fully three thousand a year. He lived not in Dublin but a little way out of it, and exercised boundless hospitality to visitors. Besides this, he was an inveterate card player, and not on the whole a lucky one, and he was very fond of horses, which he kept in large numbers for himself and all his family. He was indefatigable in novel writing, Tong Burke, T he 0' Donoghue, The Knight of Gwynne, &c., following those already named. But the work of editing was irksome to him, and for the reasons just named residence in Ireland made it comparatively unprofitable. He therefore resigned his editorship in the year 1845, and went abroad, where he was always more at home than in England or even in Ireland. At first he lived at Carlsruhe, where G. P. R. James was also residing; then he pitched his tent in a castle of Tyrol, which is said to be pretty accurately described in A Day's Ride. Afterwards he wandered about, finally settling at Florence. This neighbourhood became specially agreeable to him, uniting as it did abundant society with the possibility of enjoying it without great expense. In November 1858 he received from Lord Derby one of the rare pieces of patronage which have fallen in modern days to the share of Englishmen of letters, by being appointed consul at Spezzia. During this period of wandering or settled life on the Continent, he changed his style of novel writing. His method was, as has been hinted already, always one rather of observation and reproduction than of deliberate creation, and as he had formerly drawn on the humours of Irish life, or the oddities of Wellington's veterans, so now he dealt with those of travelling Britons abroad, and with similar subjects. The Daltons, The Dodd Family Abroad, Davenport Dunn, &c., belong to this time and family for the most part, though some of them rather fall under the earlier class in style and date of composition. One of Them, Barrington, The Fortunes of Glencore, &c., led up to the most singular of all Lever's books, A Day's Ride, a Life's Romance. This book, which was published in All the Year Round, was said at the time - with what truth it is not easy to say - to have positively lowered the sale of that publication, yet it contains some of Lever's best work, and displays an originality not common with him. The mixture of burlesque and sentiment was, it may be supposed, either uncongenial or incomprehensible to the ordinary reader.





As he grew older, Lever, whose politics had been a rather indefinite Toryism, became more of a party man, and showed this in the papers published in Blackwood's Magazine, under the name of " Cornelius O'Dowd," papers of a miscellaneous kind, but often political. He is said to have thought of engaging, or to have been invited to engage, in regular journalism, but wisely declined. In 1861 he was transferred from Spezzia to Trieste, a change pecuniarily advantageous, but involving the loss of the society which he passionately loved. The last years of Lever's life were somewhat clouded. His health had never been good, and he had not lived carefully. His wife, to whom he was much attached, died before him. But he was still active with his pen, and the novels of his last period, if less lively than his earlier ones, are far better written as well as far more regular and careful in construction. Such are Sir Brooke Fosbrooke, That Boy of Yorcott's, Sir Jasper Carew, The Branzleighs of Bishop's Folly, and his last book, Lord Kilgobbin. He died, as has been said, in the summer of 1872. Novels not yet mentioned are Roland Cashel, Luttrell of Arran, Tony Butler, Maurice Tiernay, the Martins of CTO' Martin, St Patrick's Eve, &c.

Lever deserves an honourable place among the secondary novelists of the 19th century, hut it is not very probable that any single novel of his will have a long lease of popularity. He is one of the authors who do not take the trouble to learn the mechanism of their art until the heyday of their imaginative force is past. The defects of his earlier works have been already indicated. They are written with almost inconceivable carelessness, the same incidents occurring over and over again, and the chronology being altogether bewildering. This is especially the ease with Charles O'Malley, which, however, owing to the liveliness of its adventures and the personage of Mickey Free the Irish servant, is still perhaps the most popular of all. With young and uncritical readers this popularity is likely to be maintained until some supplanter in the same kind arises, or until the state of manners and society becomes too obsolete for anything more than historical interest. Then Lever, like all writers whose formal excellence is not sufficient to save them, will be forgotten; for his later work, though almost always amusing and sometimes more, lute little abiding interest. The sole authority for Lever's biography is the Life by Dr W. J. Fitzgerald tLoudon, 1879). (U. SA.)







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