Henry Mackenzie, the Scottish novelist, playwright, poet and essayist, was born in Edinburgh on the 26th of August, 1745, the year of the last Jacobite Rising.
Henry Mackenzie was, in his day, a major literary figure in Scotland. He was a leading light amongst the Edinburgh literary galaxy comprising the early period of the Scottish Enlightenment; a contemporary of luminaries such as Hume, Smith, Robertson, and Blair. Mackenzie was known by the epithet ‘The Man of Feeling’, after the title of his first and most important novel. In reality, he was a hardheaded man of affairs, having qualified for the English bar and served as the Comptroller of Taxes for Scotland. However, he was drawn to literary pursuits and his early works included imitations of traditional Scottish ballads – ‘The Ballad of Duncan’ being one example. After moving to London to study law, in 1765, he began to imitate English literary styles in which ‘moral sentiment’ was then becoming a powerful influence. That led to ‘The Man of Feeling’, which was published anonymously in 1771, and met with instant success. It is narrated by a character whom ‘the country people’ called ‘The Ghost’ and who ‘was known by the slouch in his gait, and the length of his stride’. The story closes thus:
“I sometimes visit his [Harley's] grave; I sit in the hollow of the tree. It is worth a thousand homilies: every noble feeling rises within me! Every beat of my heart awakens a virtue!--but it will make you hate the world--No! There is such an air of gentleness around that I can hate nothing; but as to the world--I pity the men of it.”
You get a feel for Mackenzie’s writing from the near contemporary descriptions of his first two novels: ‘The hero of the former [‘the Man of Feeling] is a weak creature, dominated by a futile benevolence, who goes up to London and falls into the hands of people who exploit his innocence, whereas the other [‘the Man of the World’] was a person rushing headlong into misery and ruin, and spreading misery all around him, by pursuing a happiness which he expected to obtain in defiance of the moral sense.’ Sir Walter Scott, who as a young man Mackenzie inspired, said of Mackenzie’s second novel, ‘Man of the World’, which appeared in 1773, that its hero was as consistently bad as the ‘Man of Feeling’ had been “constantly obedient to his moral sense.”
His books are perhaps ‘of their time’, but anyone of whom Sir Walter Scott was a fan can’t be half-bad. “The principal object of all his novels,” said Scott, “has been to reach and sustain a tone of moral pathos, by representing the effect of incidents, whether important or trifling, upon the human mind, and especially on those which were not only just, honourable, and intelligent, but so framed as to be responsive to those finer feelings to which ordinary hearts are callous.” In 1814, Scott dedicated his ‘Waverley novels’ to Mackenzie and the result, for the benefit of anyone who can read, was a romantic combination of lore and legend that cut a trailblazing path through the tangled forests of literature.
Mackenzie belonged to several literary clubs in Edinburgh. One was called the ‘Mirror Club’ and Mackenzie was editor of, and chief contributor to, its weekly periodical called, funnily enough, ‘The Mirror’, which resembled ‘The Spectator’. The small folio sheet ran for just over a year from January, 1779, and some years later, in 1785, it was followed by ‘The Lounger’, which ran for nearly twice as long. One of the latter editions had the distinction of containing one of the earliest tributes to the genius of Robert Burns. That was a generous and adventurous critique on Burn’s freshly published poems, including ‘Addresses to the Mouse’ and ‘the Mountain Daisy’, which had yet to receive public acclaim.
Many of the intellectual elite of Enlightenment Edinburgh belonged to social clubs such as the ‘Mirror Club’. The same sets of people often formed the core of several overlapping clubs or societies, which served the purpose of entertainment and provided for the exchange of ideas. Mackenzie belonged to the ‘Crochallan Fencibles’, which was also a literary club. Its meetings were held at a pub in Anchor Close and its members included the printer William Smellie, the social scientist Adam Ferguson, and Robert Burns. Mackenzie also frequented the exclusive ‘Poker Club’, which was originally set up to help promote a Scots Militia. Its members included Joseph Black, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, and Dugald Stewart. These four and Mackenzie were all later members of the ‘Oyster Club’, which also included Robert Adam, the elder John Clerk of Eldin, and James Hutton, and which met in the seediest pubs of the Grassmarket and Cowgate. Poor old James Boswell never forgave the ‘Poker Club’ for rejecting him as “insufficiently talented” – what irony.
Mackenzie was one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and also an original member of the Highland Society, in whose ‘Transactions’ he provided an editorial proffering his view of the controversy surrounding ‘Ossian’s Poems’. In 1793, Mackenzie ventured into the realms of biography, writing a ‘Life’ of his friend, the blind poet, Doctor Blacklock, which was published for the benefit of Blacklock’s widow, and an ‘Account of the Life and Writings of John Home, Esq.’, another of his cronies. Mackenzie also tried his hand at writing for the theatre, but he wasn’t able to craft characters forcible enough for the stage, where striking personas are indispensable. One of his dramatic pieces, ‘The Prince of Tunis’, was performed in the Edinburgh Theatre, in 1773, with a certain measure of success. However, his other attempts were failures. Whether Mackenzie would stand scrutiny today is open to debate, but it’s perhaps unfair to compare an author with those of any age other than his own. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “the most of men content themselves if they only can, in some degree, outstrip their predecessors.”