Charles James Lever

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Lever, Charles James, novelist, was born 31st August 1809,[241] in Dublin, where his father was a professional man. He took his B.A. degree at the University of Dublin in 1827, and four years afterwards that of Bachelor of Medicine. Of a mercurial temperament, and endowed with a keen relish for social pleasures, medicine was little congenial to him. Nevertheless he pursued it with diligence, completed his studies at Gottingen, and entered upon practice in Ireland. When cholera was raging in 1832 he was settled in one of the northern counties, and acquired considerable reputation for his skill and devotion towards his patients. He was one of the early contributors to the Dublin University Magazine, first published in 1833. Gaining confidence by the reception accorded to some articles, he commenced his first novel, Harry Lorrequer, in the columns of that periodical in February 1837; and with each succeeding number the genius and power of the author appeared to expand, and the popularity of the tale increased. For a time, however, he was unconscious of the resources of his intellect, and little disposed to devote himself to literature as his profession.

In 1840 he obtained the position of physician to the British Embassy at Brussels. On the completion of Harry Lorrequer the same year, he found himself taking rank amongst British novelists of reputation. Charles O'Malley followed — its success was also complete — he gave up his position in Brussels, and adopted literature as the business of his life. Returning to Dublin in 1842, he undertook and held for three years the editorship of the University Magazine, and gathered around him the most eminent literary men in Ireland — Carleton, Samuel Ferguson, Wilde, MacCarthy, Butt, Waller — and the Magazine attained the summit of its success.

About 1845 he obtained a diplomatic post in Florence, and thenceforward resided permanently abroad, occasionally visiting England and Ireland, and continuing to write for various periodicals with unwearied industry and increasing reputation. In 1858 he was appointed Vice-consul at Spezzia, and in 1867 at Trieste. The University of Dublin conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1871. He passed away painlessly in his sleep, after an illness which, though sudden in its termination, was of short duration, at Trieste, 1st June 1872, aged 62. For some years before his death he contributed a series of interesting papers on current events to Blackwood's Magazine, under the signature of "Cornelius O'Dowd." Altogether he wrote some twenty novels, which have enjoyed a wide popularity.

His merits are thus estimated by the Athenaeum: "A writer of the romantic novel — before the novel had taken to the embodiment of the earnest realities of life of the present day, as it did in the hands of the Brontes, Miss Mulock, Mrs. Lewes, and Thackeray, where there is little exaggeration or over-colouring — in the novels of Lever the grotesque element is always present in a greater or less degree, lapsing occasionally into the caricature; yet his portraits never violate nature to an extent to offend, and generally conduce to heighten the picturesque effect and enhance the sense of enjoyment. As a depicter of Irishmen and Irish manners, he describes a phase which none of his contemporary countrymen, except perhaps Maxwell, successfully touched upon — that of the higher-class society, the impulsive, dashing soldier, the old Milesian squire, the adventures of war, the incidents of the camp, the gaieties of the ball-room, the sports of the hunting field and the race-course. In the portrayal of all these, from an Irish point of view, he is unrivalled. You see transparently throughout his novels the experiences of the man of the world, who scans with a keen eye and a quick intellect all the phases of society, and who reproduces these experiences in vivid, genial, dashing pictures, ever warm with the sunshine of wit and gaiety. In all this we think Lever has no rival. But in another field he is no unworthy competitor of Carleton, the Banims, or Gerald Griffin — we mean in depicting middle-class and peasant life. If he has not all the simple pathos of Carleton, he has at least as much humour; and 'Mickey Free' is as fine a creation of the bold, clever, ready-witted, free-and-easy Irishman, as any novelist has produced. Some of Lever's songs are admirable of their kind... Charles Lever was a mannerist — as, indeed, were Dickens, Thackeray, and most novelists of the day... Lever was one of the best causeurs and raconteurs to be met with, and managed conversation with singular tact, never seeking to monopolize the talk, but, by the felicity of some remark thrown in at the right moment insensibly attracting the attention of all, till he was master of the situation, and then went off in one of his characteristic sallies."

It is much to his honour that diplomatic service never dimmed the independence of his political expressions.

Sources

15. Athenaeum, The—Principally referred to under No. 233.

41a. Biography, Hayden's Universal Index of. Edited by J. B. Payne. London, 1870.

124. Encyclopaedia Britannica. London, 1860.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

241. Men of the Time. London, 1856-'75.

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