1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

Walter Scott to John Murray, 17 November 1825; Smiles, A Publisher and his Friends: Memoir of John Murray (1891) 2:220-24.



Abbotsford, November 17th, 1825.

MY DEAR SIR,

I was much surprised to-day to learn from Lockhart by letter that some scruples were in circulation among some of the respectable among the supporters of the Quarterly Review concerning his capacity to undertake that highly responsible task. In most cases I might not be considered as a disinterested witness on behalf of so near a connection, but in the present instance I have some claim to call myself so. The plan (I need not remind you) of calling Lockhart to this distinguished situation, far from being favoured by me, or in any respect advanced or furthered by such interest as I might have urged, was not communicated to me until it was formed; and as it involved the removal of my daughter and of her husband, who has always loved and honoured me as a son, from their native country and from my vicinity, my private wish and that of all the members of my family was that such a change should not take place. But the advantages proposed were so considerable, that it removed all title on my part to state my own strong desire that he should remain in Scotland. Now I do assure you that if in these circumstances I had seen anything in Lockhart's habits, cast of mind, or mode of thinking or composition which made him unfit for the duty he had to undertake, I should have been the last man in the world to permit, without the strongest expostulation not with him alone but with you, his exchanging an easy and increasing income in his own country and amongst his own friends for a larger income perhaps, but a highly responsible situation in London. I considered this matter very attentively, and recalled to my recollection all I had known of Mr. Lockhart both before and since his connection with my family. I have no hesitation in saying that when he was paying his addresses in my family I fairly stated to him that however I might be pleased with his general talents and accomplishments, with his family, which is highly respectable, and his views in life, which I thought satisfactory, I did decidedly object to the use he and others had made of their wit and satirical talent in Blackwood's Magazine, which, though a work of considerable power, I thought too personal to be in good taste or to be quite respectable. Mr. Lockhart then pledged his word to me that he would withdraw from this species of warfare, and I have every reason to believe that he has kept his word with me. In particular I know that he had not the least concern with the Beacon newspaper, though strongly urged by his young friends at the Bar, and I also know that while he has sometimes contributed an essay to Blackwood on general literature, or politics, which can be referred to if necessary, he has no connection whatever with the satirical part of the work or with its general management, nor was he at any time the Editor of the publication.

It seems extremely hard (though not perhaps to be wondered at) that the follies of three- or four-and-twenty should be remembered against a man of thirty, who has abstained during the interval from giving the least cause of offence. There are few men of any rank in letters who have not at some time or other been guilty of some abuse of their satirical powers, and very few who have not seen reason to wish that they had restrained their vein of pleasantry. Thinking over Lockhart's offences with my own, and other men's whom either politics or literary controversy has led into such effusions, I cannot help thinking that five years' proscription ought to obtain a full immunity on their account. There were none of them which could be ascribed to any worse motive than a wicked wit, and many of the individuals against whom they were directed were worthy of more severe chastisement. The blame was in meddling with such men at all. Lockhart is reckoned an excellent scholar, and Oxford has said so. He is born a gentleman, has always kept the best society, and his personal character is without a shadow of blame. In the most unfortunate affair of his life he did all that man could do, and the unhappy tragedy was the result of the poor sufferer's after-thought to get out of a scrape. Of his general talents I will not presume to speak, but they are generally allowed to be of the first order. This, however, I will say, that I have known the most able men of my time, and I never met any one who had such ready command of his own mind, or possessed in a greater degree the power of making his talents available upon the shortest notice, and upon any subject. He is also remarkably docile and willing to receive advice or admonition from the old and experienced. He is a fond husband and almost a doating father, seeks no amusement out of his own family, and is not only addicted to no bad habits, but averse to spending time in society or the dissipations connected with it. Speaking upon my honour as a gentleman and my credit as a man of letters, I do not know a person so well qualified for the very difficult and responsible task he has undertaken, and I think the distinct testimony of one who must know the individual well ought to bear weight against all vague rumours, whether arising from idle squibs he may have been guilty of when he came from College — and I know none of these which indicate a bad heart in the jester — or, as is much more likely, from those which have been rashly and falsely ascribed to him.

Had any shadow of this want of confidence been expressed in the beginning of the business I for one would have advised Lockhart to have nothing to do with a concern for which his capacity was called in question. But now what can be done? A liberal offer, handsomely made, has been accepted with the same confidence with which it was offered. Lockhart has resigned his office in Edinburgh, given up his business, taken a house in London, and has let, or is on the eve of letting, his house here. The thing is so public, that about thirty of the most respectable gentlemen in Edinburgh have proposed to me that a dinner should be given in his honour. The ground is cut away behind him for a retreat, nor can such a thing be proposed as matters now stand.

Upon what grounds or by whom Lockhart was first recommended to you I have no right or wish to inquire, having no access whatsoever to the negotiation, the result of which must be in every wise painful enough to me. But as their advice must in addition to your own judgment have had great weight with you, I conceive they will join with me in the expectation that the other respectable friends of this important work will not form any decision to Lockhart's prejudice till they shall see how the business is conducted. By a different conduct they may do harm to the Editor, Publisher, and the work itself, as far as the withdrawing of their countenance must necessarily be prejudicial to its currency. But if it shall prove that their suspicions prove unfounded, I am sure it will give pain to them to have listened to them for a moment.

It has been my lot twice before now to stand forward to the best of my power as the assistant of two individuals against whom a party run was made. The one case was that of Wilson, to whom a thousand idle pranks were imputed of a character very different and far more eccentric than anything that ever attached to Lockhart. We carried him through upon the fair principle that in the case of good morals and perfect talents for a situation, where vice or crimes are not alleged, the follies of youth should not obstruct the fair prospects of advanced manhood. God help us all if some such modification of censure is not extended to us, since most men have sown wild oats enough! Wilson was made a professor, as you know, has one of the fullest classes in the University, lectures most eloquently, and is much beloved by his pupils. The other was the case of John Williams, now Rector of our new Academy here, who was opposed most violently upon what on examination proved to be exaggerated rumours of old Winchester stories. He got the situation chiefly, I think, by my own standing firm and keeping others together. And the gentlemen who opposed him most violently have repeatedly told me that I did the utmost service to the Academy by bringing him in, for never was a man in such a situation so eminently qualified for the task of education.

I only mention these things to show that it is not in my son-in-law's affairs alone that I would endeavour to remove that sort of prejudice which envy and party zeal are always ready to throw in the way of rising talent. Those who are interested in the matter may be well assured that with whatever prejudice they may receive Lockhart at first, all who have candour enough to wait till he can afford them the means of judging will be of opinion that they have got a person possibly as well situated for the duties of such an office as any man that England could afford them.

I would rather have written a letter of this kind concerning another person than one connected with myself, but it is every word true, were there neither son nor daughter in the case; but as such as I leave it at your discretion to show it, not generally, but to such friends and patrons of the Review as in your opinion have a title to know the contents.

Believe me, dear Sir,

Your most obedient Servant,

WALTER SCOTT.