Finlay, George (DNB00)
|←Finlay, Francis Dalzell||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 19
FINLAY, GEORGE (1799–1875), historian, was son of Captain John Finlay, R.E., F.R.S., and brother of Kirkman Finlay (d. 1828) [q. v.] His grandfather, James Finlay, was a Glasgow merchant. He was born 21 Dec. 1799, at Faversham, Kent, where his father was inspector of the government powder mills. The latter died in 1802, and George was for some time instructed by his mother, to whose training he attributed his love of history. His education was continued at an English boarding-school, and in the family of his uncle, Kirkman Finlay of Glasgow [q. v.], under private tutors. He subsequently studied law in Glasgow, and proceeded about 1821 to the university of Göttingen to acquaint himself with Roman jurisprudence. While there he began to doubt his vocation for law, and, partly influenced by his acquaintance with a Greek fellow-student, 'resolved to visit Greece and judge for myself concerning the condition of the people and the chances of the war.' In November 1823 he met Byron at Cephalonia. 'You are young and enthusiastic,' said Byron, 'and therefore sure to be disappointed when you know the Greeks as well as I do.' The number of Hellenes and Philhellenes about Byron gave umbrage to the Ionian government, which was bound to remain neutral. Finlay quitted the island on a hint from Sir Charles Napier, and, after narrowly escaping shipwreck, made his way successively to Athens and Missolonghi, where for two months he spent nearly every evening with Byron, who, Parry says, 'wasted much of his time' in conversation with the future historian and other such frivolous persons. Quitting Missolonghi before Byron's death, Finlay joined Odysseus on an expedition into the Morea, but, disgusted with the general venality and rapacity, returned to the headquarters of the government, where things were no better. A malarious fever compelled him to return to Scotland, where he passed his examination in civil law, but was soon again in Greece at the invitation of his intimate friend Frank Abney Hastings [q. v.], who had built a steamer in which Finlay took his passage. He continued fighting for Greece, or engaged in missions on her behalf, until the termination of the war, when he purchased an estate in Attica, 'hoping to aid in putting Greece into the road that leads to a rapid increase of production, population, and material improvement.' 'I lost my money and my labour, but I learned how the system of tenths has produced a state of society, and habits of cultivation, against which one man can do nothing. When I had wasted as much money as I possessed, I turned my attention to study.' His unfortunate investment had at least the good results of compelling his continual residence in the country, with which he became most thoroughly acquainted, and of stimulating his perception of the evils which, in the past as in the present, have deteriorated the Greek character and injured the credit and prosperity of the nation. The publication of his great series of histories commenced in 1844, and was completed in 1861, when he wrote the autobiographical fragment which is almost the sole authority for his life. His correspondence is lost or inaccessible, and, notwithstanding his courteous hospitality, acknowledged by many travellers, little more seems to be known of his life in Greece than his constant endeavours to benefit the country by good advice, sometimes expressed in language of excessive if excusable acerbity, but which, if little followed, was never resented by the objects of it. His most important effort was the series of letters he addressed to the 'Times' from 1864 to 1870, which, being translated by the Greek newspapers, produced more effect than his earlier admonitions. He also contributed to 'Blackwood's Magazine,' the 'Athenæum,' and the 'Saturday Review,' and occasionally visited England, not later, however, than 1854. He wrote in Greek on the stone age in 1869, and in the following year published the French narrative of Benjamin Brue, the interpreter who accompanied the Vizier Ali on his expedition into the Morea in 1715. Among his other writings are an essay on the site of the holy sepulchre (1847), and pamphlets on Greek politics (1836) and finance (1844). His essays on classical topography, never collected by himself, were published in 1842 in a German translation by S. F. W. Hoffmann. He died at Athens 26 Jan. 1875; the date 1876 given in the Oxford edition of his history is an unaccountable mistake.
Finlay's great work appeared in sections, as follows: 'Greece under the Romans,' 1844; 'Greece to its Conquest by the Turks,' 1851; 'Greece under Ottoman and Venetian Domination,' 1856; 'Greek Revolution,' 1861. After the author's death the copyright of these several works was offered to the delegates of the Clarendon Press by his representatives, and in 1877 all were brought together under the title of 'A History of Greece from its Conquest by the Romans to the present time, B.C. 146 to A.D. 1864,' and published in seven volumes under the able editorship of the Rev. H. F. Tozer. The whole had been thoroughly revised by Finlay himself, who, besides aiming throughout at a greater condensation of style, had added several new chapters, chiefly on economical subjects, entirely recast the section on Mediæval Greece and Trebizond, and appended a continuation from 1843 to the enactment of the constitution of 1864. The period covered by the history, therefore, is no less than two thousand and ten years.
Finlay is a great historian of the type of Polybius, Procopius, and Machiavelli, a man of affairs, who has qualified himself for treating of public transactions by sharing in them, a soldier, a statesman, and an economist. He is not picturesque or eloquent, or a master of the delineation of character, but a singular charm attaches to his pages from the perpetual consciousness of contact with a vigorous intelligence. In the latter portion of his work he speaks with the authority of an acute, though not entirely dispassionate, eye-witness; in the earlier and more extensive portion it is his great glory to have shown now interesting the history of an age of slavery may be made, and how much Gibbon had left undone. Gibbon, as his plan requires, exhibits the superficial aspects of the period in a grand panorama; Finlay plunges beneath the surface, and brings to light a wealth of social particulars of which the mere reader of Gibbon could have no notion. This being Finlay's special department, it is the more to his praise that he has not smothered his story beneath his erudition. He may, indeed, even appear at a disadvantage beside the Germans as regards extent and profundity of research, but this inferiority is more than compensated by the advantages incidental to his prolonged residence in the country. His personal disappointments had indeed caused a censoriousness which somewhat defaces the latter part of his history, and is the more to be regretted as it affected his estimate of the value of his own work, and of its reception by the world. In character he was a frank, high-minded, public-spirited gentleman.
[Autobiography prefixed to vol. i. of the Oxford edition of Finlay's History; Memoir in Athenæum, 1875; Sir Charles Newton in Academy, and Professor Freeman in Saturday Review, 1875.]