Thomas Chatterton

D. H., "Chatterton's Life improper for the Biographia Britannica" Gentleman's Magazine 53 (February 1783) 144.


It is with the utmost surprize I read in your Magazine of last month an intention announced of inserting, in the Biographia Britannica, a Life of CHATTERTON. Good heavens, Mr. Urban, what is the merit of an impostor, debauchee, and suicide, that he should be handed down to posterity under any other characters? Are they titles to a place in the Temple of Fame in that work whose original edition was called by an excellent judge, "Vindicatio Britannica; or, a Defence of every body?" (Walp. Royal and Noble Auth. II. 68.). But, perhaps, in order to maintain a reputation for impartiality, the present editors mean to give the Devil his due, and to record how a youth of 17 could impose on men of maturer years and abilities in this enlightened age. Then why not record the tricks of Miss Canning, Mrs. Tofts, Psalmanazar, and all the dextrous ones? Dr. K. was ashamed to retain Bp. Atherton, who, in the words of his biographer Mr. Oldys, was at least "a very remarkable warning-piece in history to future ages," and yet wishes to insert a life not less vicious and immoral. Is this to write a history, "with a due regard to the chief privileges of human nature, and with feelings especially of the moral kind?" (Pref. to 2d Edit. p. XXI.)

But with what materials is this history to be written? Is it to be supposed that any Bristolian will assist in a detection of Chatterton? This would be at the same time a detection of Rowley. Mr. Surgeon Barret, whose History of Bristol must now become as much "felo de se" as poor Chatterton, must for ever feel it his interest to suppress every evidence of the imposture, to a single thread-paper. Mr. Pewterer Catcott has been hissed off the stage; and the poor Dean of Exeter, who has been so basely "Dewitted," cannot add to the memoirs of this wretched boy any thing more than has appeared in his Preface, and in Mr. Thistlethwaite's, and his own sister's letter.

D. H.