John Gibson Lockhart, author, biographer, editor and critic, was born on the 14th of July, 1794.
John Gibson Lockhart was co-editor of ‘Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine’, which he helped transform into one of the leading periodicals of its day, and became editor of the ‘Quarterly Review’. He was the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, but was also a noted novelist in his own right, writing, amongst other works, a story about the temptation of a widowed rural minister who has an affair with a married woman. Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary these days, ‘Adam Blair’ caused quite a stir in the 19th Century and has since appeared on the list of one hundred best Scottish books of all time. However, Lockhart is best known as a biographer and the author of the definitive, seven volume ‘Memoirs of the Life of Scott’, although he also wrote noted biographies of Burns and Napoleon.
John Gibson Lockhart was born on the 14th of July, 1794, in the Manse of Cambusnethan in Lanarkshire, where his father was the Church of Scotland Minister. The family moved to Glasgow, in 1796, where John attended grade school and Glasgow High School. He had to be removed from school before he was twelve, however, that was only because of ill-health and, when he recovered, he was sent to Glasgow University. At University, from 1805, he displayed so much precocious talent, especially in Greek, that he was offered a Snell Exhibition scholarship to Oxford. So he was not quite fourteen when he entered Balliol College, in 1808, where he read French, Italian, German and Spanish. In 1813, he graduated with a first in classics and returned to Glasgow, where he lived whilst studying law in Edinburgh. He was called to the bar in 1816.
Lockhart's true vocation lay in literary work and, in 1816, he travelled to Germany on behalf of the publisher, William Blackwood, who paid him an advance for a translation of Schlegel's ‘Lectures on the History of Literature’. On his return to Scotland, Lockhart settled in Edinburgh and, together with John Wilson (Christopher North) and James Hogg, became a contributing editor to ‘Blackwood's Magazine’. The ‘Maga’ was the Tories answer to the Whig party’s ‘Edinburgh Review’ and its popularity escalated with their caustic and aggressive articles. Lockhart’s biographer, Andrew Lang, refutes the view that Lockhart was responsible for the virulent articles on Coleridge and on ‘The Cockney School of Poetry’ of Keats and his friends. He may have written the later, August 1818, article on Keats, but in any case, he showed an appreciation of Coleridge and Wordsworth.
There is no doubt that the reputation of the newly founded ‘Maga’ was established almost overnight, due to Lockhart and his mates. In October, 1817, Lockhart published the ‘Chaldee Manuscripts’, which were a bitter satire of Edinburgh society and his 1819 ‘Peter's Letters to His Kinsfolk’ continued that theme. He also contributed many excellent translations of Spanish ballads, which were also published separately, in 1823.
In 1818, Lockhart met and formed a warm friendship with Sir Walter Scott, whose daughter, Sophia, he married in 1820. That same year, he became embroiled in an unfortunate series of events that led to the death of John Scott, who was the editor of ‘London Magazine’. Scott had written a series of articles attacking ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ and had accused Lockhart of being chiefly responsible for its extravagances. Letters were exchanged and a meeting between Lockhart and Scott was proposed, but after some delays and complicated negotiations, Jonathan Henry Christie and Scott fought a duel in which the latter was sadly killed.
Over the next several years, Lockhart then turned his attention to writing a series of successful novels, including the noteworthy ‘Adam Blair’, the full title of which was ‘Some Passages in the Life of Adam Blair, Minister of Gospel at Cross Meikle’. In 1822, he edited Peter Motteux's edition of ‘Don Quixote’, to which he prefixed a life of Cervantes, which set him on the path of biography. He moved to London, in 1825, to become editor of John Murray's ‘Quarterly Review’ as successor to Sir John Taylor Coleridge. Three years later, he published ‘A Life of Robert Burns’, quickly followed by ‘A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte’. In London, he established his literary position and was quite rightly recognized as a brilliant editor.
He wrote an amusing but virulent article on Tennyson's ‘Poems’ in the ‘Quarterly’ and continued to write for ‘Blackwoods’. His biography of Burns was produced for ‘Constable's Miscellany’ and ‘Napoleon’ opened a series called ‘Murray's Family Library’. Unquestionably, however, his piece de resistance was his ‘Life of Sir Walter Scott’, published in seven volumes between 1837 and 1838. It was praised by Carlyle in a contribution to the ‘London and Westminster Review’ and has been called, after James Boswell's ‘Samuel Johnson’, the most admirable biography in the English language. As a contribution to Scott’s straightened circumstances, Lockhart gave up the proceeds to the benefit of Scott's creditors.
Today, when church scandals are ‘ten a penny’, it’s hard to imagine Lockhart’s ‘Adam Blair’ causing a great uproar, but in 1822, it was heavily criticised for its portrayal of a widowed Minister’s affair with a married woman. It is certainly worth a read as its vivid descriptions of nature provide a powerful subtext and mirror the Minister’s repressed emotions. The novel was based on a true story; that of a local Minister who was deposed in 1746, the year of Culloden, but went on to marry his mistress and be accepted back into the Church. However, there is no such obvious ending to ‘Adam Blair’ of which Lockhart wrote, “I have told a true story. I hope the days are yet far distant when it shall be doubted in Scotland that such things might have been”.
John Gibson Lockhart died at Abbotsford on the 25th of November, 1854, and was buried in Dryburgh Abbey next to Sir Walter Scott. A two volume biography of Lockhart was published by Andrew Lang in 1896.