1902 Encyclopedia > John Gibson Lockhart

John Gibson Lockhart
Scottish writer and editor

JOHN GIBSON LOCKHART (1794-1854), was born in the manse of Cambusnethan in Lanarkshire, where his father, Dr Lockhart, was minister. His mother was daughter of the Rev. John Gibson, minister of St Cuth-bert's, Edinburgh. In 1796 his father was transferred to Glasgow, where John Lockhart was reared and educated, He derived his rare abilities from his mother, and his first regular teaching from the High School of Glasgow. He appears to have been from the first distinguished as a clever, but by no means industrious boy. Like most clever boys he read everything that came in his way; and what he had once devoured he never forgot; for his memory was so retentive that, in after life, like Macaulay and Sir George Lewis, he seldom found it necessary to verify a passage for quotation. No livelier boy than John Lockhart ever lived ; in or out of school his sense of fun and humour, expressed in joke, sarcasm, and pencil caricatures, was irrepressible. At the same time, however merry and mischievous, he was a proud and reserved boy; and this was the side he mostly turned to the outer world as a man. The struggle between a very affectionate nature and a determination not to show his feelings, or perhaps an incapacity to give way to them, cost him dear. A younger brother and sister were carried off within a few days of each other. John appeared to bear the loss like a stoic, but he fell seriously ill, and had to be removed finally from the High School. On his recovery, though still under twelve years of age, he was entered at college, where he sketched the professor for the amusement of his com-panions, as he had sketched the masters before. When examination time came, he astonished all by a display of erudition, especially in Greek authors, of the acquisition of which he had given no signs; a Snell exhibition, just vacant at Oxford, was accordingly offered to him and accepted.

Lockhart was not turned fourteen when he was entered at Balliol College, but he soon asserted his character and his powers. His fun and satire made him at once popular and formidable, while beyond the regular studies of the place he acquired a great store of extra knowledge. He read French, Italian, German, and Spanish, was curious in classical and British antiquities, and well versed in heraldic and genealogical lore. Lockhart went up to the schools in the Easter term of IS 13—not nineteen years of age—and, notwithstanding the most audacious employ-ment of part of his time in caricaturing the examiners, he came out first in classics. The name of Henry Hart Milman, a subsequent friend through life, stood next his. For mathematics he never had the least inclination.

He now quitted Oxford, and before settling to the study of Scottish law, for which his father had designed him, he indulged a long cherished wish to visit Germany. His knowledge of German had introduced him to the great band of poets and scholars who had suddenly exalted the fame of German literature. Lockhart had no means to undertake the journey; but here his reputation came to his aid. A proposal to translate Frederick SchlegePs Lectures on the Study of History was accepted by Mr Blackwood, and the price of the labour paid before a line was written. Lockhart always spoke of this as a most generous act on " Ebony's " part, and his friendship with the liberal publisher lasted through life. He meanwhile paid his visit to Germany, was introduced to Goethe at Weimar, traversed France and the Netherlands, made careful observations on pictures and architecture, and returned to Edinburgh to study law by the time he was twenty-one. In 1816 he was called to the bar. But he had no friends among writers aud attorneys, his brilliant powers of conversation did not comprise that of public speaking, and few, if any, briefs came in. His habits of observation, however, turned the time to a use afterwards exemplified in Peter's Letters.

Edinburgh was then the stronghold of the Whig party. The Edinburgh Review was their organ, and it was not till 1817 that the Scotch Tories found a national channel of assertion and defence—namely, in Blackwood's Magazine. This periodical held its way dully enough with its first numbers, when suddenly an outburst of wit and ridicule directed against the hitherto unchallenged writers of the Whig party, surpassing them in cleverness and equalling them in personalities, electrified the Edinburgh world. Wilson (Christopher North), Hogg (the Ettrick Shepherd), and Lockhart had joined the staff, and retaliation for long pent-up wrongs began. Lockhart's pen contributed scholarly papers on various subjects, including hearty criticism and eulogium on Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other victims of a Review which could find only scant praise even for Walter Scott. His translations also of the Spanish ballads appeared for the greater part in Blackwood. But his pen was more often dipped in caustic, dealing out attacks and recriminations which led to regrettable con-sequences. Meanwhile the gifted and handsome young man, for Lockhart's head was cast in the highest type of brilliant manly beauty, had attracted the notice of Walter Scott. They met first in 1818. The acquaintance soon ripened into friendship, and that friendship led to the union between Lockhart and Scott's eldest daughter, Sophia, in April 1820. For more than five years after his marriage Lockhart tasted the best form of domestic happiness. Winters spent in Edinburgh and summers at a cottage fitted up for them at pretty Chiefswood, near Abbotsford, gave the young couple the constant enjoyment of friendship, society, and even worldly distinction, added to the blessing of a perfect home. At Chiefswood Lock-hart's two eldest children, John Hugh and Charlotte, were born ; Walter, later, at Brighton.

Between 1818, when he joined the Blackwood staff, and 1825 Lockhart's pen was indefatigably at work. As early as 1819 Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk appeared. Like Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, these profess to give the impressions of a stranger in a new country. Dr Peter Morris, a Welsh physician, passes some time in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh, and describes the men and manners very freely to his relations at home. His descriptions of the chief notabilities of the day have a certain historical, almost antiquarian interest, though now the least interesting part of the work. What we enjoy most is the reflexion of a young and ardent mind dealing out opinions and estimates far beyond its years, the correctness of which time has singularly verified. The amount of reading too which crops out in every page is amazing; a perpetual play of allusions, quotations, and happy nicknames—for which Lockhart to his last days was famous—is given with a raciness of tone of which the reader might tire, but for the simple, vigorous English in which it is clad. A chapter on dandies is a chef d'oeuvre in its way. That a work describing the appearance and idiosyncrasies of many living individuals should give offence was a matter of course. His description of the northern universities was not likely to please; while for the unsparing ridicule and ruthless quizzing heaped on the General Assembly—" men," he is supposed to have said, " of like passions with ourselves, but worse manners " —it would be strange indeed if the author had escaped with impunity.

Valerius, a Roman Story, followed next (1821). As Valerius was intended to illustrate the manners and customs of Borne in the time of Trajan, so Reginald Balton, published in 1823, aimed at exhibiting the life of an undergraduate at Oxford as he had known it. Lockhart's strength did not lie in novel writing, and, to those who read Reginald Balton now, the digressions of the author are far more interesting than the adventures of the hero. But a plot of simpler construction and intenser passion showed Lockhart's strength to greater advantage. Adam Blair (1822) is a tale of temptation, fall, and repentance, each fearful in its way, told with tremendous power, and as far removed from all that is morbid and false in senti-ment as the author was himself. It gave great offence to the Scottish Church, for the erring man is a minister, and the scene is laid in a Scottish manse.

In 1826, on the death of Mr Gifford, the editorship of the Quarterly Review was offered to Lockhart, and accepted. He was singularly free in position, however far from idle. He was next heir to Milton Lockhart, the property of his unmarried half-brother, who eventually survived him; the legal profession to which he had been destined was virtually abandoned; and time had shown him that the party strife which prevailed in Edinburgh was demoralizing to both sides. This last conviction did the most to reconcile him to the separation from all Scottish surroundings. His friends gave him a farewell dinner, when, labouring with strong feelings, and with his habitual dislike or incapacity to express them, he said, on returning thanks, " You all know that I am no speaker; had I been, there would have been no occasion for this parting."

The conduct of a great periodical like the Quarterly Review is the touchstone of a man's capacity, knowledge, and temper. Looking back to an editorship which lasted twenty-eight years, it must be admitted that Lockhart maintained a high position in all these respects. He con-tributed largely to the Review himself, his biographical articles being especially admirable. He also found time, being a very glutton in work, for many a paper in Blackwood; he wrote what remains the most charming of the biographies of Burns; and he undertook the superintendence of the series called Murray's Family LAbrary, which he opened in 1829 with a L,ife of Napoleon. But his chief work was the Life of Waller Scott, a task at once of love and duty. Lockhart knew the great and good man as no one else did, and felt that, whatever the mistakes in judgment, no life from first to last could better afford complete revelation. There have not been wanting those in Scotland who have taxed him with ungenerous exposure of his subject, but to most healthy minds the impression conveyed by the biography was, and is, one of the most opposite kind'—namely, that Lockhart has almost deified Scott. The labour incurred was in so far one of love, inasmuch as the writer reaped no part of its considerable proceeds, but resigned them absolutely for the benefit of Scott's creditors.

Lockhart's life in London was a long succession of con-stant work, of dignified social success, and of heavy bereave-ments. His eldest boy, the suffering " Hugh Littlejohn " of the Tales of <t Grandfather, died in 1831. Sir Walter died in 1832 ; Anne Scott, the second daughter, who had come to live with the Lockharts in London, in 1833; Mrs Lockhart in 1837. The love for his children was for long the one bright element in his life. But the death in 1852, and, sadder still, the previous life, of his surviving _ son Walter, a fine youth, who had entered the army under unfortunate auspices, broke down all that remained of health and spirit in the father.

Failing health compelled Lockhart to resign the editorship of the Quarterly Review in 1853. He spent the next winter in Rome, but returned to England with no restoration of vital power. He was conveyed to Abbotsford, where, under the tender care of his daughter Mrs Hope Scott, and cheered by the prattle of his grand-daughter, now the possessor of Abbotsford, he lingered till his death, November 25, 1854. He was buried in Dryburgh Abbey, at the feet of Walter Scott. (E. E. )

The above article was written by Lady Eastlake.

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