1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:177-78.



The most successful imitator of Sterne in sentiment, pathos, and style; his superior in taste and delicacy, but greatly inferior to him in originality, force, and humour, was HENRY MACKENZIE, long the ornament of the literary circles of Edinburgh. If Mackenzie was inferior to his prototype in the essentials of genius, he enjoyed an exemption from its follies and sufferings, and passed a tranquil and prosperous life, which was prolonged to far beyond the Psalmist's cycle of threescore and ten. Mr. Mackenzie was born in Edinburgh in August 1745, and was the son of Dr Joshua Mackenzie, a respectable physician. He was educated at the High-school and university of Edinburgh, and afterwards studied the law in his native city. The legal department selected by Mackenzie was the business of the Exchequer court, and to improve him in this he went to London in 1765, and studied the English Exchequer practice. Returning to Edinburgh, he mixed in its literary circles, which then numbered the great names of Hume, Robertson, Adam Smith, Blair, &c. In 1771 appeared his novel, The Man of Feeling, which was afterwards followed by The Man of the World, and Julia de Roubigne. He was, as we have previously stated, the principal contributor to the Mirror and Lounger, and he wrote some dramatic pieces, which were brought out at Edinburgh with but indifferent success. The style and diction of Mackenzie are always choice, elegant, and expressive, but he wanted power. It may seem strange that a novelist so eminently sentimental and refined should have ventured to write on political subjects, but Mackenzie supported the government of Mr. Pitt with some pamphlets written with great acuteness and discrimination. In real life the novelist was shrewd and practical: he had early exhausted his vein of romance, and was an active man of business. In 1804 the government appointed him to the office of comptroller of taxes for Scotland, which entailed upon him considerable labour and drudgery, but was highly lucrative. In this situation, with a numerous family (Mr. Mackenzie had married Miss Penuel Grant, daughter of Sir Ludovic Grant, of Grant), enjoying the society of his friends and his favourite sports of the field, writing occasionally on subjects of taste and literature — for he said, "the old stump would still occasionally send forth a few green shoots" — The Man of Feeling lived to the advanced age of eighty-six, and died on the 14th of January 1831.

The first novel of Mackenzie is the best of his works, unless we except some of his short contributions to the Mirror and Lounger (as the tale of La Roche), which fully supported his fame. There is no regular story in The Man of Feeling, but the character of Harley, his purity of mind, and his bashfulness, caused by excessive delicacy, interest the reader from the commencement of the tale. His adventures in London, the talk of club and park frequenters, his visit to bedlam, and his relief of the old soldier, Atkins, and his daughter, though partly formed on the affected sentimental style of the inferior romances, evince a facility in moral and pathetic painting that was then only surpassed by Richardson. His humour is chaste and natural. Harley fails, as might be expected from his diffident and retiring character, in securing the patronage of the great in London, and he returns to the country, meeting with some adventures by the way that illustrate his fine sensibility and benevolence. Though bashful, Harley is not effeminate, and there are bursts of manly feeling and generous sentiment throughout the work, which at once elevate the character of the hero, and relieve the prevailing tone of pathos in the novel. The Man of the World has less of the discursive manner of Sterne, but the character of Sir Thomas Sindall — the Lovelace of the novel — seems forced and unnatural. His plots against the family of Annesly, and his attempted seduction of Lucy (after an interval of some eighteen or twenty years), show a deliberate villany and disregard of public opinion, which, considering his rank and position in the world, appears improbable. His death-bed sensibility and penitence are undoubtedly out of keeping with the rest of his character. The adventures of young Annesly among the Indians are interesting and romantic, and are described with much spirit: his narrative, indeed, is one of the freest and boldest of Mackenzie's sketches. Julia de Roubigne is still more melancholy than The Man of the World. It has no gorgeous descriptions or imaginative splendour to relieve the misery and desolation which overtake a group of innocent beings, whom for their virtues the reader would wish to see happy. It is a domestic tragedy of the deepest kind, without much discrimination of character or skill in the plot, and oppressive from its scenes of unmerited and unmitigated distress. We wake from the perusal of the tale as from a painful dream, conscious that it has no reality, and thankful that its morbid excitement is over. It is worthy of remark that in this novel Mackenzie was one of the first to denounce the system of slave-labour in the West Indies.

"I have often been tempted to doubt," says one of the characters in Julia de Roubigne, "whether there is not an error in the whole plan of negro servitude; and whether whites or creoles born in the West Indies, or perhaps cattle, after the manner of European husbandry, would not do the business better and cheaper than the slaves do. The money which the latter cost at first, the sickness (often owing to despondency of mind) to which they are liable after their arrival, and the proportion that die in consequence of it, make the machine, if it may be so called, of a plantation, extremely expensive in its operations. In the list of slaves belonging to a wealthy planter, it would astonish you to see the number unfit for service, pining under disease, a burden on their master. I am only talking as a merchant; but as a man — good heavens! when I think of the many thousands of my fellow-creatures groaning under servitude and misery! — great God! hast thou peopled those regions of thy world for the purpose of casting out their inhabitants to chains and torture? No; thou gavest them a land teeming with good things, and lightedst up thy sun to bring forth spontaneous plenty; but the refinements of man, ever at war with thy works, have changed this scene of profusion and luxuriance into a theatre of rapine, of slavery, and of murder!

"Forgive the warmth of this apostrophe! Here it would not be understood; even my uncle, whose heart is far from a hard one, would smile at my romance, and tell me that things must be so. Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason, is deaf to the voice of either; here she stifles humanity and debases the species-for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man."

We add a specimen of the humorous and the pathetic manner of Mackenzie from The Man of Feeling.