1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Combe

John Britton, in Autobiography (1850) 1:247-48n.



Though I was never on intimate terms with this talented and eccentric person, I knew him personally by meeting him often at the houses of my friends, the Ackermanns, and James Lonsdale, portrait-painter of Berners Street. Combe was of good family connection, had received a classical education at Eton and Oxford, and very early came into the possession of a large fortune, in ready money. To dash at once into high life, and enact the fashionable gentleman, he (according to his own narration) took a large mansion at "the West End" of London, furnished and filled it with gorgeous articles, and also hired servants, bought carriages, &c., and successively assembled around him a crowd of sycophants and the "beau-monde." This comedy, or rather farce, lasted only for a short time, and it is said that from the commencement to the drop-scene of the ridiculous drama, was not more than one year. Though he fancied this gave him an insight into high life, it is quite evident that the company thus assembled, and thus held together, could only be of a class which ought to rank below the low — gamblers, swindlers, tricksters, imposters, &c. The consequence was ruin — complete, disgraceful ruin, and Combe fled from his creditors and from society. We next hear of him as a common soldier, and recognized at a public-house with a volume of Greek poetry in his hand. He was relieved from this degrading situation, and henceforward, for a long period, the annals of his life have been pretty fully detailed. The walls of the King's Bench Prison, and "the Rules" of that famed establishment, were the limits and sphere of his locomotion; and from his conduct, manners, and general deportment in society, they do not appear to have proved causes of much punishment or lamentation. Horace Smith, in the Memoirs of his witty and much-caressed brother, James, says, that Colonel Greville, with several of his friends, established a pic-nic club for theatrical amusements, &c., and published a newspaper to vindicate their association from severe strictures that appeared in the daily papers against them. Our imprisoned hero was appointed the paid editor, and, to suit his pecuniary situation, the weekly meetings of the writers of articles were held after dark. Horace Smith, who knew Combe, justly remarks, that "a faithful biography of this singular character might justly be entitled a romance of real life; so strange were the adventures and the freaks of fortune of which he had been a participator and a victim. A ready writer of all-work for the booksellers, he passed all the latter portion of his time within 'the Rules,' to which suburban retreat the present writer was occasionally invited, and never left him without admiring his various acquirements, and the philosophical equanimity with which he endured his reverses." Mr. Smith further asserts, that if there was a lack of matter occasionally to fill up the columns of their paper, "Combe would sit down in the publisher's back room and extemporize a letter from Sterne at Coxwold, a forgery so well executed that it never excited suspicion." I cannot but regret that my witty friend had not favoured us with more anecdotes of, and remarks on, the character and literary talents of Combe; but I can easily excuse him when I reflect on the superabundance of material which his memory and his memoranda must have afforded for the two amusing volumes he had planned of his brother's memorable "sayings and doings." Were I disposed to dwell on the character of Combe, I could expand the present note to several pages. He was born in 1741, and died in June 1814. Subsequent to his death, a small volume was published, entitled Letters to Marianne, said to have been written by him after the age of seventy to a young girl, and, according to the Literary Gazette, are trivial, silly, puerile. However eventful and amusing may be the adventures and vicissitudes of such a man as Combe, if narrated by a Dickens, a Thackeray, or a Douglas Jerrold, I must resign the task to such vivid writers, or their followers, and merely refer to the Gentleman's Magazine, for May 1852, for a communication of my friend, Mr. R. Cole, who has a large collection of Autograph Letters and Manuscripts, amongst which is a detailed list of the literary works of, and numerous interesting letters from Combe.