John Gibson Lockhart

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1854); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 28-36.

He was a man of note on various grounds. He was an author of no mean qualifications; he was the son-in-law of Scott; and he was the editor of the Quarterly Review after Gifford. Without being a man of genius, a great scholar, or politically or morally eminent, he had sufficient ability and accomplishment to insure considerable distinction in his own person, and his interesting connections did the rest. He was a man of considerable mark.

The younger son of a Glasgow clergyman, he was destined for the Law — more as a matter of course than from any inclination of his own; for he never liked his profession. He went to school, and afterward to the University at Glasgow, whence he was enabled to proceed to Balliol College, Oxford, by obtaining an exhibition in the gift of the Senatus Academicus. He was subsequently called to the Scotch Bar; but from the first his dependence was on literary effort; for his professional fees never amounted to 50 a year. After the Peace he went to Germany — a not very common undertaking at that time — and saw Goethe; and his account of this incident seems to have struck Scott, when they who were to become so closely related met for the first time in private society, in May, 1818. A few days after the dinner-party at which this happened, the Messrs. Ballantyne sent to Lockhart, to propose that he should undertake a task which Scott had delayed, and wished to surrender the writing the historical portion of the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1816. When he called on Scott to talk it over, the great novelist, who was then receiving 10,000 a year from the new vein he had opened, assigned a characteristic reason for giving up the Register. He said that if the war had gone on, he should have enjoyed writing the history of each year as it passed; but that he would not be the recorder of Radical riots, Corn Bills, Poor Bills, and the like. These things, he said, sickened him; and he thought it fair to devolve such work upon his juniors. Mr. Lockhart first saw Abbotsford the next October, when he was sent for from Elleray, with his friend John Wilson, to meet Lord Melville, and take the chance of some professional benefit arising from the interview with the First Lord of the Admiralty, if their sins in Blackwood could be overlooked by him. This shows that Blackwood's Magazine was already rising under the re-enforcement of Wilson's strength. The strength which raised it was not Lockhart's. His satire had, then and always, a quality of malice in it, where Wilson's had only fun; and he never had Wilson's geniality of spirit. Wilson's satire instructed the humble, and amused the proud who were the objects of it; but Lockhart's caused anguish in the one case, and excited mere wrath or contempt in the other. Scott confessed that it might be from complacency at Lockhart's account of this visit to Abbotsford that he judged so favorably of Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk, which appeared a few months afterward. He called its satire lenient; but all the Edinburgh Whigs were up against it as a string of libels; and Lockhart himself tells us candidly that it was a book which none but a very young and a very thoughtless person would have written.

Sophia Scott, the elder daughter of the novelist, and the one who inherited his genial and amiable spirit, his good sense, and his royal tendencies, and who was naturally the delight of his life, had just before manifested singular fortitude for so young a creature, when her father's fearful malady — cramp in the stomach — seized him in the country, alone with her and a set of distracted servants. This was an indication of what she was to be through her too short life. She married Mr. Lockhart just a year after that illness of her father's, in April, 1820; and it was her function for the seventeen years of her marriage to heal the wounds inflicted by those less amiable than herself, and to soothe the angry feelings excited on every hand, sooner or later, by the conduct of the Quarterly Review when in her husband's hands. As Scott recovered his strength, after that fearful illness, he busied himself in improving, for the reception of the young couple, a sequestered cottage within a short ride of Abbotsford; and he, with his own hands, transplanted to Chiefswood the creepers which had hung the old porch at Abbotsford. It was for her child that he wrote the Tales of a Grandfather; and that precocious boy, who died of spinal disease at the age of eleven, was the object of as passionate an attachment as Scott had perhaps ever known.

In 1820 Mr. Lockhart published his first novel, Valerius, a Roman Story, which immediately took its place among the secondary Scottish novels, as those were called which would have been first but for Scott's series. That book was full of interest, and of promise of moral beauty which was not fulfilled. The influences then surrounding the author were eminently favorable. He always said that the happiest years of his life were those spent at Chiefswood. During those few years of domestic peace he seems to have had a stronger hold of reality than either before or after. The inveterate skepticism of his nature was kept down, and he found dearer delights than that of giving pain. Other novels followed, — Reginald Dalton, Adam Blair, and Gilbert Earle. All are more remarkable for power in the delineation of passion, and for beauty of writing, than for higher qualities. Carlyle has described Lockhart's style as "good, clear, direct, and nervous:" and so it is; and with genuine beauty in it, too, both of music and of pathos. And of all he ever wrote, nothing is probably so dear to his readers as his accounts, in his Life of his father-in-law, of the pleasures of Chiefswood, when Scott used to sit under the great ash, with all the dogs about him, and help the young people with their hospitable arrangements, cooling the wine in the brook, and proposing to dine out of doors, to get rid of the inconvenience of small rooms and few servants. It is a curious instance of Lockhart's moral obtuseness that, while writing thus, he could make some most painful and needless disclosures in regard to Scott himself in that Life, to say nothing of his foul and elaborate misrepresentation of the Ballantynes throughout. To that evil deed it is necessary only to refer for the confutation immediately published was so complete, and the establishment of the fair fame of the Ballantynes so triumphant, that their libeller had his punishment very soon. Some lovers of literature and of Scott still struggled to make out that the Ballantynes and their defenders, as tradesmen, could know nothing of the feelings, nor judge of the conduct, of Scott as a gentleman. The answer was plain: the Ballantynes were not mere tradesmen; and if they had been, Scott made himself a tradesman, in regard to his coadjutors, and must be judged by the laws of commercial integrity. The exposures made by the Ballantynes and their friends of Scott's pecuniary obligations to them, were forced upon them by Mr. Lockhart's attacks upon their characters, and misrepresentation of their conduct and affairs. The whole controversy was occasioned by Lockhart's spontaneous indulgence in caustic satire; and the Ballantynes came better out of it than either he or his father-in-law.

After the publication of his novels, Mr. Lockhart was summoned, one spring day of 1825, to a conference at Abbotsford, to which Constable and James Ballantyne were parties. The project to be discussed was that memorable one of Constable's, to revolutionize "the whole art and traffic of bookselling." From that conference sprang the cheap literature of the last quarter of a century and one of the first volumes produced under the new notion was Lockhart's Life of Burns, which appeared early in Constable's Miscellany. It was in the same year, 1825, that he succeeded Gifford in the editorship of the Quarterly Review, and of course removed to London. If he had not Gifford's thorough scholarship, he had eminent literary ability, — readiness, industry, everything but good principle and a good spirit. These immense exceptions we are compelled to make; and they are not a new censure. All the world was always aware of the sins of the Quarterly, under Lockhart's management; and the best-informed had cause to view them the most severely. Everybody knows what Croker's political articles were like. Everybody knows how the publisher was now and then compelled to republish as they had originally stood, articles which had been interpolated, by Croker and Lockhart (whose names were always associated in regard to the Review), with libels and malicious jokes. In their recklessness they drew upon themselves an amount of reprobation in literary circles which thin-skinned men could never have endured. Now, the young author of a father's biography was invited by the editor to send him early proof-sheets, for the benefit of a speedy review, and the review did what it could to damn the book before it was fairly in the hands of the public; and now, the vanity of some second or third-rate author was flattered and drawn out in private intercourse, to obtain material for a caricature in the next Quarterly. As an able man, a great admirer of the literary merits of the Review, and no sufferer by it, observed, "The well-connected and vigorous and successful have nothing to apprehend from the Quarlerly; but, as sure as people are in any way broken or feeble — as sure as they are old, or blind, or deaf, or absent on their travels, or superannuated, or bankrupt, or dead — the Quarterly is upon them." It was the wounds thus inflicted that the gentle wife set herself to heal, when she possibly could. It was amidst the explosions of friendships, formed in flattery, and broken off by treachery — amidst the wrath of every kind and degree evoked by her husband, or under his permission, that her modest dignity and her cheerful kindliness commanded admiration, and won love from those who would never more meet the reckless editor, who quizzed the emotions he had excited. His success was all-sufficient, in his own estimate. The transcendent literary merits of the Review placed it high above failure and he did not care for censure. It was his own callousness which made the sensitiveness of others so highly amusing to him. Yet there are passages even in his later writings which make one wonder what he did, in an ordinary way, with feelings which seem to have dwelt in him — to judge by their occasional manifestation. For instance, there is something remarkable in his selection, from among all Scott's writings, of the passage of most marked spiritual beauty — that passage of his preface to Ivanhoe in which he accounts for not having made Rebecca's lot "end happily." Such a choice seems to show that Lockhart should properly have won something more than admiration of his accomplishments as a writer and converser, and fear of him as a satirist. It seems as if there might have been, but for his own waywardness some of that personal respect and confidence, and free and constant friendship, which he never enjoyed nor appeared to desire. It appears as if there was truth in the remark made by Allan Cunningham, that there was "heart in Lockhart when one got through the crust."

The good-will which he did not seek in his happy days, was won for him by the deep and manifold sorrows of his latter years. The extraordinary sweep made by death in his wife's family is a world-wide wonder and sorrow. Lady Scott went first; and the beloved child — Lockhart's intelligent boy, so well known under the name of Hugh Littlejohn — died when the grandfather's mind was dim and clouded. Soon after Scott's death, his younger daughter and worn-out nurse followed him; and in four years more, Mrs. Lockhart. The young Sir Walter died childless in India, and his brother Charles, unmarried, in Persia. Lockhart was left with a son and a daughter. As years and griefs began to press heavily upon him, new sorrow arose in his narrow domestic circle. His son was never any comfort to him, and died in early manhood. The only remaining descendant of Scott, Lockhart's daughter, was married, and became so fervent and obedient a Catholic, as to render all intimate intercourse between the forlorn father and his only child impossible. He was now opulent. An estate had descended to him through an elder brother and he held an office-that of Auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall — which yielded him 300 a year. He had given up the labor of editing the Quarterly: but what were opulence and leisure to him now? Those who saw him in his daily walk in London, his handsome countenance — always with a lowering and sardonic expression — now darkened with sadness, and the thin lips compressed more than ever, as by pain of mind, forgave, in respectful compassion for one so visited, all causes of quarrel, however just, and threw themselves, as it were, into his mind, seeing again the early pranks with "Christopher North," the dinings by the brook at Chiefswood, the glories of the Abbotsford sporting parties, the travels with Scott in Ireland, and the home in Regent's Park, with the gentle Sophia presiding. Comparing these scenes with the actual forlornness of his last years, there was no heart that could not pity and forgive, and carefully award him his due, as a writer who has afforded much pleasure in his day, and left a precious bequest to posterity in his Life of the great Novelist, purged, as we hope it will be, of whatever is untrue and unkind, and rendered as safe as it is beautiful.

Mr. Lockhart travelled abroad in 1853, under continually failing health. He has left a name which will live in literature, both on his own account, and through his family and literary connections.