Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Hill, George Birkbeck Norman

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

HILL, GEORGE BIRKBECK NORMAN (1835–1903), editor of Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' born at Bruce Castle, Tottenham, Middlesex, on 7 June 1835, was second son of Arthur Hill and grandson of Thomas Wright Hill [q. v.], whose sons, Sir Rowland and Matthew Davenport, are separately noticed (for his paternal ancestry see his Life of Sir Rowland Hill and History of the Penny Postage). His mother, Ellen Tilt, daughter of Joseph Maurice, was of Welsh, and, through her mother, Theodosia Bache, of Huguenot origin. Educated at his father's school, he imbibed in youth strictly liberal principles. On 1 March 1855 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, and there came under other influences. William Fulford, editor of the 'Oxford and Cambridge Magazine,' introduced him to the circle of Burne Jones, William Morris, and Rossetti, and he joined the Old Mortality Club, of which Swinburne, Professor Dicey, Professor Nichol, and Mr. Bryce were members. Ill-health condemned him to an 'honorary' fourth class in literæ humaniores. He graduated B.A. in 1858, and proceeded B.C.L. in 1866 and D.C.L. in 1871.

Eager to marry, he adopted the family vocation of private schoolmaster. In 1858 he became an assistant in his father's school, and ten years later succeeded to the headship on his father's retirement. The contemporary development of the public schools, the deterioration of Tottenham as a suburb, and Hill's over-anxious and valetudinarian temperament militated against his success. He and his wife continued the work under a sense of increasing strain until his health broke down seriously in 1876. Prematurely aged, he was henceforth a chronic invalid.

From 1869 onwards Hill was a frequent writer for the press, mainly of pungent criticisms in the 'Saturday Review.' After two winters in the south Hill found the rest and quiet he needed at Burghfield in the Reading district. There he devoted himself to the elucidation of the literary anecdote and literary history of the later eighteenth century, concentrating his main attention on the life of Dr. Johnson. In 1878 he published, with a dedication to his uncle, Sir Rowland Hill, 'Dr. Johnson: his Friends and his Critics,' wherein he reviewed the judgments passed on Dr. Johnson by Macaulay, Carlyle, Goldsmith, Boswell, and others, and depicted the Oxford of 1750. Next year he edited Boswell's correspondence with Andrew Erskine and the 'Tour in Corsica.' Hill interrupted his Johnsonian studies in order to write a life of Sir Rowland Hill (1880, 2 vols.). The account of the Hill family and ancestry is excellent, but the historical portions from the pen of the postal reformer are heavy. In 1880 also he wrote 'Gordon in Central Africa, 1874-1879,' from original letters and documents belonging to Gordon's sister (2nd edit. 1899). The loss of his favourite son, Walter, caused further delay in the resumption of his Johnsonian work. In 1881 the Clarendon Press consented through Jowett's influence to his proposal for a new edition of 'Boswell's Life' upon a classical scale. It was eventually published in six volumes (with a dedication to Jowett as 'Johnsonianissimus') in 1887, after nearly twelve years intermittent work, much of it done on the Riviera or Lac Leman. The edition was accepted as a masterpiece of spacious editing. The index, forming the sixth volume, is a monument of industry and completeness. Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, a preceding editor of Boswell, alleged inaccuracy and inadequacy, but Hill's work was valiantly defended by Sir Leslie Stephen. Hill pursued his Johnsonian exegesis in seven further volumes: 'Johnson's Letters' (1892, 2 vols.); 'Johnsonian Miscellanies' (Lives subsidiary to Boswell) (1897, 2 vols.), and 'Johnson's Lives of the English Poets' (1905, 3 vols.), specially valuable from the wealth of annotation, which was revised for the press after his death by Hill's nephew, Mr. Harold Spencer Scott. In 1887 he edited for the first time nearly ninety interesting 'Letters of David Hume to William Strahan.' This book he dedicated to Lord Rosebery, who had purchased the manuscript letters at Jowett's suggestion.

In the autumn of 1887 Hill settled in Oxford at 3 Park Crescent, and his pen remained active on his favourite theme. He was made an honorary fellow of his old college (and Dr. Johnson's) and greatly enjoyed the social amenities of university life. He became the 'prior' (1891-2) and oracle of the Johnson Club in London. In 1889 he made a tour in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson in Scotland, which he described in 'Footsteps of Samuel Johnson (Scotland), with Illustrations by Lancelot Speed.' In 1890 he published a miscellaneous volume, 'Talks about Autographs.' In 1892 Hill left his Oxford house and divided his time thenceforth between his favourite winter residences, Clarens and Alassio, his daughter's house, The Wilderness, Hampstead, and a cottage at Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire. In 1893 he and his wife visited a daughter settled at Cambridge, near Boston, Massachusetts, and he wrote an instructive volume on Harvard College, which was warmly acclaimed in New England for its friendly tone of comparison. Williams College conferred a doctorate upon him on 10 Oct. 1893. In 1897 his 'Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti to William Allingham' renewed memories of the Old Mortality Club at Oxford and of the old house in Red Lion Square where Burne Jones and William Morris had their rooms.

He died at Hampstead on 27 Feb. 1903, and was buried at Aspley Guise by the side of his wife, who predeceased him barely four months. He had married Annie, daughter of Edward Scott of Wigan, in the parish church there on 29 Dec. 1858, and by her he had five sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Maurice (b. 1859), is K.C., and his third son, Leonard Erskine, M.B., F.R.S., is professor of physiology at London Hospital.

A crayon drawing by W. R. Symonds, of 1896, reproduced as frontispiece in 'Talks about Autographs,' is in the common room of Pembroke College, Oxford, to which he bequeathed his Johnsonian library; a portrait by Ellen G. Hill, dated 1876, is reproduced as frontispiece to the 'Letters' of 1906.

Hill was the benevolent interpreter of Johnson's era to his own generation, and brought to his work a zeal and abundant knowledge which gave charm to his discursiveness. In addition to the works already cited he edited Johnson's 'Rasselas' (Oxford, 1887); Goldsmith's 'Traveller' (Oxford, 1888); 'Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson' (Oxford, 1888); Lord Chesterfield's 'Worldly Wisdom: Selection of Letters and Characters' (Oxford, 1891); 'Eighteenth Century Letters, Johnson, Lord Chesterfield' (1898) and Gibbon's 'Memoirs' in the standard text (1900). He also issued in 1899 'Unpublished Letters of Dean Swift' (the dean's correspondence with Knightly Chetwood of Woodbrook, 1714-31, from the Forster Collection, since embodied in Ball's new 'Swift Correspondence'). There appeared posthumously his 'Letters written by a Grandfather' (selected by Hill's younger daughter, Mrs. Lucy Crump, 1903) and 'Letters of George Birkbeck Hill' (arranged by Mrs. Crump, 1906).

[Brief Memoir of Dr. Birkbeck Hill, by Harold Spencer Scott, prefixed to Lives of the English Poets, vol. i. 1905; Hill's published Letters, 1903, 1906; The Times, 28 Feb. 1903, 9 Nov. 1906; Percy Fitzgerald's hostile Editing à la mode—an examination of Dr. Birkbeck Hill's new edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson (1891), his A Critical Examination of Dr. B. Hill's Johnsonian Editions (1898), and his James Boswell, an autobiography (1912); personal knowledge and private information.]

T. S.