Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lever, Charles James
LEVER, CHARLES JAMES (1806–1872), novelist, second son of James Lever, was born in Dublin, 31 Aug. 1806. Strangely enough in the case of a writer so characteristically Irish, his ancestry was entirely English on the paternal side, his father, a builder with some pretensions to rank as an architect, and a nephew of Sir Ashton Lever [q. v.], having come to Ireland from Manchester. From him Lever appears to have inherited his gift of vivid story-telling. His mother, Julia (originally Judith) Candler, was also of English descent. Lever, who in boyhood, as in manhood, was lively, ready, and full of fun, received a rather scrambling kind of education at various private schools, and in October 1822 entered Trinity College, Dublin, where, though always well conducted, he by no means distinguished himself as a student. He did not graduate until 1827, a delay which may be accounted for by the fact, if fact it be, that he went out to Quebec in charge of an emigrant ship in 1824; but such an interruption of his college career seems improbable, nor could he have had the requisite qualification. It is more likely that the voyage took place in 1829, when he is known on his own authority to have visited Canada. He had already, in 1828, travelled in Holland and Germany, spending some considerable time at Göttingen, where he studied medicine and imbibed a taste for German student-life, some of whose customs he afterwards endeavoured to acclimatise in Ireland. On his return to Dublin in 1830 he continued the study of medicine at Stevens's Hospital and the Medico-Chirurgical School, but failed to pass his examination. He nevertheless obtained the degree of bachelor of medicine from Trinity College at midsummer, 1831, and successively held appointments under the board of health at Kilkee, Clare, and Portstewart, Giant's Causeway. The cholera was then in the land, and the board was probably not very particular. In 1833 he lost both parents, and either contracted or avowed marriage with Miss Catherine Baker, an early friend of his youth. To this union his father had been strongly opposed. The lady had little or no means, and although Lever had inherited half of his father's not inconsiderable property, and seems to have enjoyed a fair practice at Portstewart, want of economy and heavy losses at cards soon brought his affairs into a very embarrassed condition. He began to turn his attention to literature as a resource. He had already contributed to the ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ then recently established, and in February 1837 he achieved his first, and perhaps his greatest, literary success, with the first instalment in that magazine of ‘Harry Lorrequer.’ Subsequent numbers only deepened the impression, but just as Lever's position seemed assured he forsook Ireland for Brussels in 1840, on an invitation from Sir John Crampton, secretary to the British embassy in Belgium. He seems to have thought that this patronage justified his description of himself as physician to the embassy, which he never was. He nevertheless obtained good practice and an entry to the best society, while his pen was exceedingly active, ‘Harry Lorrequer’ being immediately followed by ‘Charles O'Malley,’ which also first appeared in the ‘Dublin Magazine’ for 1840, and proved the most popular of all his works, and this by ‘Jack Hinton the Guardsman’ in 1843. These works are artless and almost formless; the influence of Maxwell is plainly discernible in them, and they are said to have owed something of their inspiration to McGlashan, the shrewd manager of the ‘Dublin University Magazine.’ But Lever's early novels display his best qualities at their best—his animal spirits and rollicking glee, his copious and effective anecdote, his power of vigorous, though by no means subtle, delineation of character within the range of his own experience.
Despite their imperfections, Lever's early writings made the fortune of the ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ and in April 1842 he returned to Dublin on accepting an invitation to become its editor, thus definitively abandoning medicine for literature. He greatly improved the staff of contributors to the magazine, and wrote for it one of his most characteristic novels, ‘Tom Burke of Ours,’ 1844. ‘Arthur O'Leary,’ 1844, followed. But Lever never felt very comfortable in his editorial chair. Politics could not be excluded, but they could not be introduced without serious offence to many, and from this and other causes Lever found himself exposed to a series of irritating squabbles, which tried his temper more severely than they need have done. He thought it necessary on one occasion to proceed to London to challenge Samuel Carter Hall [q. v.], and another time he was himself challenged by Dr. Kenealy, whose contributions he had been obliged to purge of much libellous matter. His card-playing also kept him poor, although it is asserted that he could and did discharge every debt. The most powerful cause, however, to drive him from Dublin was the danger he ran of absolute literary dearth. When confined to his editorial duties, he could no longer go about observing men and storing his memory with anecdote. His next considerable work, ‘The O'Donoghue,’ 1845, a romance of Killarney, owed its existence to a holiday spent in that district; in the next, ‘The Knight of Gwynne,’ 1847, one of his best books, he fell back upon history, and availed himself of contemporary memoirs of the union.
Thackeray visited Lever on his own Irish tour in 1842–3, and dedicated to him his ‘Irish Sketch Book.’ He frankly warned him against his literary tendency to extravagance, and in personal intercourse strongly advised him to quit Dublin for London. Lever, however, preferred the continent. In 1845 he resigned his editorship, and in May was living at Brussels, reduced, he says, to his last fifty pounds, but still apparently driving about with his carriage and pair. After wandering for two years with his family over Germany and Italy, and doing little work except desultory writing for magazines, he settled at Florence in August 1847. There he produced ‘The Martins of Cro' Martin,’ a fine picture of West of Ireland life; ‘Roland Cashel,’ 1850, the materials for which were partly drawn from his continental experience, and which especially illustrates the transition from his earlier to his later style; and ‘The Dodd Family Abroad,’ 1853–4, a picture of English life on the continent in which he appears more in the light of a reflective humourist than previously, and which, he says, was better liked by himself and his intimate friends, and less liked by the public, than any of his books. These works may be said to mark Lever's culmination as a novelist. To the same period belong ‘Tales of the Trains by Tilbury Tramp,’ ‘Diary and Notes of Horace Templeton,’ 1849, ‘Con Cregan,’ 1849 (published anonymously, and welcomed by the press as the production of a formidable competitor), ‘Maurice Tiernay,’ 1852, ‘Sir Jasper Carew,’ 1854, and ‘The Daltons,’ 1852. ‘A Day's Ride,’ published in ‘Household Words,’ and separately in 1863, was so unsuccessful that Dickens adopted the unusual course of announcing beforehand the number with which it would terminate.
In 1857 Lever was appointed British consul at Spezzia, an office which compelled him to live there, but which seems to have been otherwise almost a sinecure. His principal literary performances during his residence were: ‘The Fortunes of Glencore,’ 1857; ‘Davenport Dunn,’ 1859; ‘One of them,’ 1861; ‘Barrington,’ 1862; ‘Tony Butler,’ 1865; ‘A Campaigner at Home,’ 1865; ‘Luttrell of Arran,’ 1865; and ‘Sir Brook Fosbrooke,’ 1866, his own favourite among his novels, but not remarkably popular. ‘Cornelius O'Dowd upon Men, Women, and other things in general,’ 1864, a series of essays, originally appeared in ‘Blackwood,’ and obtained considerably more success than it deserved. It shows the man of experience and observation, but is in general such table-talk as one need not go far to hear, deficient in originality, pregnancy, and point. In 1867 he received the consulship of Trieste from Lord Derby, with the observation, ‘Here is six hundred a year for doing nothing, and you are just the man to do it.’ The increased salary scarcely atoned for the unsuitableness of the post. The climate and society of Trieste were detestable to Lever; his wife, to whom he was tenderly attached, sickened and died. He fell into confirmed bad spirits, though always able to rally under congenial circumstances—able, too, to produce a novel of considerable merit in his last fiction, ‘Lord Kilgobbin’ (1872). His other works of this period were: ‘Gerald Fitzgerald's Continental Gossippings;’ ‘The Bramleighs of Bishop's Folly,’ 1868; ‘That Boy of Norcott's,’ 1869; ‘Paul Gosslett's Confession,’ 1870. He could not, however, shake off his depression, which was partly occasioned by incipient disease of the heart, partly by the fixed idea, which, when his relation to his great contemporaries is considered, cannot but appear most groundless, that he had been unfairly treated in comparison with others, and had been left behind in the race of life. He visited Ireland in 1871, and seemed alternately in very high and very low spirits; after his return to Trieste he failed gradually, and died suddenly there, from failure of the heart's action, on 1 June 1872. He had continued to lose at cards to the last, yet his affairs were in perfect order, and his family was not unprovided for.
A collected edition of his works in thirty-three volumes was issued between 1876 and 1878, and a reprint is now in course of publication. ‘The Commissioner, or De Lunatico Inquirendo,’ 1843, sometimes ascribed to Lever, is by G. P. R. James, although Lever contributed a preface. ‘The Nevilles of Garretstown,’ by the Rev. Mortimer O'Sullivan, is also wrongly associated with Lever's name, together with ‘The Mystic Vial,’ ‘The Heirs of Randolph Abbey,’ and ‘Major O'Connor, by the author of Charles O'Malley.’ ‘The Rent in a Cloud,’ 1869, though included in Lever's collected works, is believed to be by a daughter (cf. Notes and Queries, 7th ser. vi. 111–12).
Lever's novels, says Anthony Trollope in his ‘Autobiography’ (ii. 74–5), ‘are just like his conversation;’ and he adds: ‘Of all the men I have ever encountered, he was the surest fund of drollery. … Rouse him in the middle of the night, and wit would come from him before he was half awake.’ Lever's great misfortune was to be an author without sufficient literary vocation. Had his circumstances been easy, he probably would not have written at all. His earliest and most popular writings can hardly rank as literature, though their vigour and gaiety, and the excellent anecdotes and spirited songs with which they are interspersed, will always render them attractive. He is almost destitute of invention or imagination, his personages are generally transcripts from the life, and his incidents stories told at second hand. At a later period in his career he awoke in some measure to the claims of art, and exhibited more proficiency as a writer, with less damage to his character as a humorist, than might have been expected. The transition is marked by ‘Roland Cashel,’ but in ‘Glencore’ he first deliberately attempted analysis of character. His readers lamented the disappearance of his rollicking spendthrifts and daredevil heroes. But his later works exhibit fewer traces of exhaustion and decay than is usual with veteran writers. The effervescence of animal spirits has indeed subsided, but the residue is by no means tame or spiritless, and the loss of energy is largely compensated by greater attention to finish, and to the regularity of construction essential to the novel. Lever's best passages of incident and description in both his early and late novels are very effective; his diffuseness, which seldom amounts to tediousness, may be excused as the result of serial publication. He had so little of the artistic instinct that he could not, he tells us, write otherwise than from month to month.
For his military novels, like ‘Maurice Tiernay’ and ‘Tom Burke’—by many accounted his best work—he derived much information from ‘Victoires, conquêtes, désastres … des Français de 1792 à 1819’ (15 vols. 1835). ‘Tom Burke’ is especially valuable for its portrayal of the enthusiasm excited by Napoleon I, and of the life of the Irish exiles in Paris, which Miles Byrne depicted historically in his ‘Memoirs’ (1863). As a portrayer of Irish character Lever has been greatly overrated. His friend Major Dwyer justly observes that his aboriginal Irishmen are generally of a low class, his heroes and heroines almost invariably English or Anglo-Norman. He has done much to perpetuate current errors as to Irish character, not that the type which he depicts is unreal, but it is far from universal or even general. Instead, therefore, of taking rank as Ireland's chief humorist, he is positively unpopular with Irishmen of strong national feeling, who accuse him of lowering the national character. He has not, however, actually misrepresented anything, and cannot be censured for confining himself to the society which he knew; nor was his talent adapted for the treatment of Irish life in its melancholy and poetical aspects, even if these had been more familiar to him. In his own character he exhibited some admirable and many amiable traits. His failings were chiefly those incidental to the sanguine temperament, of which, alike in its merits and defects, he was a singularly unmixed example.
Lever's characteristic extravagances are cleverly parodied by Bret Harte in his tale by ‘a popular author’ entitled ‘Terence Deuville.’
[The chief authority for Lever's Life is the Biography by W. J. Fitzpatrick, 1879; see also Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; and Read's Irish Cabinet; for his early life see also two papers on ‘The Youth of Charles Lever,’ by a kinsman, Dublin Univ. Mag. 1880, pp. 465, 570. His novels are reviewed in Blackwood for August 1862; and his general literary character is rather severely estimated by Professor Saintsbury in the Fortnightly Review, vol. xxxii.]