1902 Encyclopedia > John Wilson (Christopher North)

John Wilson
(also known as: Christopher North)
Scottish writer and critic
(1785-1854)




JOHN WILSON (1785-1854), better known as CHRISTO-PHER NORTH (the pen-name which he used in his contri-butions to Blackwood's Magazine), was born at Paisley on 18th May 1785. His father, who bore the same name with himself, was a wealthy gauze manufacturer of no particular family or education. His mother, Margaret Sym, was of gentler blood, possessing also beauty and talents. John was the fourth child, but the eldest son, and he had nine brothers and sisters. He appears, like many Scotchmen of genius, to have been rather irregularly educated in his earlier days,—the best of his physical and sporting, if not of his scholastic, training being received at the manse of the village of Mearns, of which constant notices appear in the Essays. He was only twelve when he was first entered at the university of Glasgow, and he continued to attend various classes in that university for six years, being for the most jiart domiciled with and under the tutorship of Prof. Jardine. His father's death had immediately preceded his first entry at Glasgow. In these six years Wilson "made himself " in all ways, acquiring not inconsiderable scholar-ship, perfecting himself in all sports and exercises, and falling in love with a certain " Margaret," who was the object of his affections for several years. The most curious literary memorial of these early years is a letter to Words-worth, written in 1802 without any personal acquaintance or introduction, and betraying not a little priggishness, as we should now count it, but in that respect only showing the difference of contemporary maimers, and interesting as being the first evidence of what was nearly a lifelong connexion of admiring though sometimes recalcitrant criticism.
In June 1803 Wilson was entered as a gentleman commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford. Men have seldom felt more than Wilson the charm which Oxford exercises on all but a very few, and generally (with some noteworthy exceptions, such as Gibbon and Jeffrey) very worthless, sons; and in much of his later work, notably in the essay called " Old North and Young North," he has expressed his feeling. But it does not appear that his Magdalen days were altogether happy, though he perfected himself in " bruising," pedestrianism, and other sports, and read so as to obtain a brilliant first class. His love affairs with "Margaret" did not go happily, and he seems to have made no intimate friends at his own college and few in the university. He took his degree in 1807 and found himself at twenty-two his own master ; and he had a good

income, no father or guardian to control him, no property requiring management, and apparently was not under the influence of the etiquette which in similar circumstances generally makes it necessary for a young man to adopt some profession, if only in name. His profession was an estate on Windermere called Elleray, and ever since imperishably connected with his name. Here he built, boated, wrestled, shot, fished, walked (he was always an astonishing pedestrian), and otherwise diverted himself for four years, besides composing or collecting from previous compositions a con-siderable volume of poems. But Wilson was too genuine a man to be happy without a wife, and in 1810 the place of " Margaret" was taken by Jane Penny, a Liverpool girl of some family and fortune, whom he married on 11th May 1811. The Isle of Palms, his first published volume, consisting of poems, was issued not long after this. Four years of married life at Elleray succeeded, which, except as being happier and therefore less historied, do not seem to have differed much from the earlier four. Then came the event which definitely made a working man of letters of Wilson, and without which he would probably have produced a few volumes of verse and nothing more. His whole fortune, or at least the major part of it, was lost by the dishonest speculation of an uncle in whose hands, with no doubt rather culpable carelessness, Wilson had left it. At the same time this hard fate was by no means unquali-fied in its hardness. His mother had a house in Edin-burgh, in which she was able and willing to receive her son and his family; nor had he even to give up Elleray, though henceforward he was not able constantly to reside in it. He read law and was called to the Scotch bar, taking plentiful sporting and pedestrian excursions, on some of which his wife accompanied him, publishing in 1816 a second volume of poems (The City of the Plague), and generally leading a very pleasant life, if not such an entirely independent one as formerly. The year 1817 was the turning point in Wilson's life. The famous Cevallos article, which resulted in the secession of Scott and other Tories from the Edinburgh Review and the establishment of the Quarterly, was years earlier; but there had still been no formal declaration that the "Blue and Yellow" was for Whigs only. Wilson was a Tory and the son of Tories (" If you turn Whig, John," said his mother to him, " this house will not hold you and me "), but he was glad to accept Jeffrey's invitation to contribute. Almost at the same time, however, a far more suitable chance appeared. Wilson was not patient of being edited, and his reckless humour as well as his political bias would in the long run have pretty certainly disqualified him for the Edinburgh. The growth of Blackwood's Magazine, and its sudden trans-formation from a colourless or Whiggish monthly rival to Constable's Review into an organ at once of the most red-hot Toryism in politics and of the wildest irreverence towards received notions in literature and other matters, took place in the same year. The petard of the "Chaldee Manuscript," nominally due to Hogg, but with most of the gunpowder put in by Wilson and Lockhart, determined the character of the new periodical, and Wilson's career was fixed. He was never exactly editor, for the powers of " Christopher North " in that respect were a fantastic imagination; and we have definite and authoritative assertions, not only that he never received any stipend for editing, but that the pub-lishers always retained a certain supervision even over Wilson's own contributions. The famous series of the Nodes Ambrosianee is said to have been of Maginn's inven-tion, and for nearly ten years was so very partially representa-tive of Wilson's own work and thought that none of its numbers during that time have been included by his son-in-law in the authorized, but by no means complete, edition. Lockhart, a somewhat less genial but far more concentrated
and deliberate writer, was, until his departure for London to take charge of the Quarterly, at least as potent in the management as Wilson; and, although the facts are not known with absolute certainty, there is no doubt that it was a daring " alarum and excursion " of Lockhart's, under the alias (one of many) of Baron von Lauerwinkel, which caused Jeffrey, nominally because of an attack on Prof. Playfair, but obviously for other reasons, to inform Wilson, almost in so many words, that his further contributions were not desired for the Edinburgh. Wilson had also some share—though, if internal evidence may be trusted, not much—in Lockhart's Peter's Letters, which, harmless as they seem nowadays, infuriated the Whig society of the Scottish capital.
The first result of this new business on Wilson's general mode of life was that he left his mother's house and estab-lished himself (1819) in Ann Street, Edinburgh, on his own account with his wife and family of five children. The second was much more unlooked for : it was his candidature for and election to the chair of moral philo-sophy in the university of Edinburgh (1820). To speak honestly, his qualifications fpr the post were almost nil, even if the fact that the best qualified man in Great Britain, Sir William Hamilton, was also a candidate, be left out of the question. But, luckily for Wilson and for letters, the matter was made a political one; the Tories still had a majority in the town council; he was power-fully backed up by friends, Scott at their head; and his adversaries played into his hands by attacking, not his competence (which, as has been said, was very vulnerable), but his moral character, which was not open to any fair reproach. Yet he made a very excellent professor, never perhaps attaining to any great scientific knowledge in his subject or power of expounding it, but acting on generation after generation of students with a stimulating force that is far more valuable than the most exhaustive knowledge of a particular topic. His duties left him plenty of time for magazine work, and for many years his contributions to Blackwood were extraordinarily voluminous. Most of the best and best-known of them appeared between 1825 and 1835, that is, between the departure of Lockhart for. London in the former year and the death of Blackwood the publisher and of Mrs Wilson in the latter.
The domestic events of Wilson's life in the last thirty, years of it may be very briefly told. He oscillated between Edinburgh and Elleray, with plentiful excursions and summer residences elsewhere, a sea trip on board the Experimental Squadron in the Channel during the summer of 1832, and a few other unimportant diversions. The death of his wife was an exceedingly severe blow to him, especially as it coincided very nearly with that of his friend Blackwood. For many years after it (though he never up to the date of his death gave up writing) his literary work was intermittent, and, with some exceptions, not up to the level of the earlier. Late in 1850 his health showed definite signs of breaking up ; and in the next year a civil list pension of £300 a year was conferred on him. He died at Edinburgh on 3d April 1854.
But a very small part of "Wilson's extensive work was published in a collected and generally accessible form during his lifetime, the chief and almost sole exceptions being the two volumes of poems above referred to, the Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life (prose tales and sketches), and the Recreations of Christopher North, a selection, mostly limited to sporting and descriptive pieces, of hi* magazine articles. These volumes, with a selected edition of the Nodes Ambrosianm in four volumes, and of further essays, critical and imaginative, also in four volumes, were collected and re-issued uniformly after his death by his son-in-law, Prof. Ferrier. The collection is very far from exhaustive ; and, though it undoubtedly contains most of his best work and comparatively little that is not good, it has been complained, with some justice, that the characteristic, if rather immature, productions of his first eight years on Blackwood are almost entirely omitted, that the Nodes are


given but in part, if in their best part, and that at least three long, important, and interesting series of papers, less desultory than is his wont, on "Spenser," on " British Critics," and the set called " Dies Boreales," have been left out altogether. "Wilson's characteristics are, however, uniform enough, and the standard edition exhibits them sufficiently, if not exhaustively. His poems may be dismissed at once as little more than interesting. They would probably not have been written at all if he had not been a young man in the time of the full flood of influence of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Scott. His prose tales have in some estimates stood higher, but will hardly survive the tests of universal criticism. It is as an essayist and critic of the most abounding geniality, if not genius, of great acuteness, of extraordinary eloquence, and of a fervid and manifold sympathy, in which he has hardly an equal, that " Christo-pher North" lives and will live. The Nodes Ambrosianx, a series of convivial table-talk, giving occasion to wonderfully various digressions of criticism, description, and miscellaneous writing, have been of late years ranked far below their real value. From their origin it necessarily followed that there was much that is ephemeral, a certain amount that is purely local, and something that is purely trivial in them. But their dramatic force, their incessant flashes of happy thought and happy expression, their almost incomparable fulness of life, and their magnificent humour give them all but the highest place among genial and recreative literature. It is often thought, and sometimes said, that no one but a Scotchman can relish them—an utter mistake, against which it is desirable most energetically to testify in the name of lovers of them who have not a drop of Scottish blood in their veins. The same qualities, together with a greater share of purely literary and critical power (to the display of which the form of the Nodes was inimical), and of a sometimes abused but very admirable faculty of word-painting, appear in the miscellaneous essays. Wilson's defects lay in the directions of measure and of taste properly so called, that is to say, of the modification of capricious likes and dislikes by reason and principle. He is constantly exaggerated, boisterous, wanting in refinement. But these are the almost necessary defects of his qualities of enthusiasm, eloquence, and generous feeling. The well-known adaptation of phrase in which he not recanted but made up for numerous earlier attacks on Leigh Hunt, " the Animosities are mortal, but the Humanities live for ever," shows him as a writer at his very best, but not without a little characteristic touch of grandiosity and emphasis. As a literary critic, as a sportsman, as a lover of nature, and as a convivial humorist, he is not to be shown at equal advantage in miniature ; but almost any volume of his miscellaneous works will exhibit him at full length in either capacity or in all.
The chief, if not the sole, authentic source of information for Wilson's life is
the memoir by his daughter, Mrs Gordon (Edinburgh, 1802). (G. SA.)








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