Henry Brooke

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Brooke, Henry, a distinguished author, was born in 1706, at Rantavan, County of Cavan, four miles east of Virginia. His father was a wealthy and worthy parson; his mother, a Digby, was a woman of good sense and of good family, of whom Swift, in his occasional visits to the house, is said to have stood more in awe than of most country ladies. Henry Brooke was sent to school in the neighbourhood of Rantavan, then to Dr. Sheridan's, in Capel-street, Dublin; he graduated in Trinity College. While at college Swift prophesied wonders of him, only "regretting that his talent pointed towards poetry, which of all pursuits was most unprofitable."

In 1724 he proceeded to London to study law There he became the favourite of both Pope and Lyttleton. Some of his correspondence with the former is still extant. His studies were interrupted by the death of an aunt; he came back to Ireland to settle her affairs, and accepted the guardianship of her child, a beautiful little girl of twelve — Catherine Meares. He placed her at a boarding school in Dublin, and two years afterwards married her — he being twenty years of age, and she fourteen. Kingsley writes: "The marriage was as happy a one as this earth ever saw; the parents — Irish people not holding the tenets of Malthus — could not find it in their hearts to scold so pretty a pair of turtles, and left them to reap the awful fruits of their own folly in the form of a child per year." They had twenty-two children, only two of whom survived their parents.

Brooke is described at this time as "fresh-looking, slenderly formed, and exceedingly graceful. He had an oval face, ruddy complexion, and large soft eyes, full of fire. He was of great personal courage, but never known to offend any man. He was an excellent swordsman, and could dance with much grace." Shortly after his marriage he returned to London, where he wrote and published, under the eye of Pope, his poem of Universal Beauty. "Noticeable throughout is that Platonic and realist method of thought in which he persisted throughout life, almost alone in his generation, and which now and then leads him, young as he is, to very noble glimpses into the secrets of nature." It was not long before he came back to Dublin, and for eight years plodded on as chamber counsel, not without success. His having worked thus steadily at an uncongenial profession, in the hey-day of his youth and ambition, should redeem him somewhat from the imputation of want of perseverance. In 1736 we find him again in London, enjoying the intimacy of Pope, Lyttleton, and Pitt.

In 1738 he published an English metrical version of three books of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata. He next brought out his tragedy of Gustavus Vasa, "full," as Kingsley says, "of patriotisms, heroisms, deaths to tyrants, indefeasible rights of freemen, and other common-places, at which we can afford to sneer now so superciliously — it being not only the propensity but the right of humanity to kick down the stool by which it has climbed. The play itself is good enough; its style that of the time; its characters not so much human beings as vehicles for virtuous or vicious sentiments." It was eventually prohibited by the Lord Chamberlain on account of its political tendency. Brooke then published it, and sold 4,000 copies at 5s. each. He now took a villa at Twickenham, close to his friend Pope, and sent over for his wife and family; but was scarcely settled when he became alarmingly ill; native air was prescribed, and he returned home.

On his recovery, his friends expected him back in London, but much to their astonishment he sold his London house, and settled finally at Rantavan. This change of plan appears to have been adopted out of deference to his wife's fears that in his party zeal he might involve himself in political difficulties. Doubtless she also saw that the exciting life of London was not the best for him. " Henry Brooke was true lover and wise man enough to obey; to give up London, fame, and fashion, and in the society of a woman whom he had loved from childhood, and at whose death, at last, he pined away, henceforth to 'drink water of his own spirit;' and a nobler act of self-renunciation one seldom meets with. It stamps the man at once as what he was — pure, wise, and good." Not long after his return, he procured, through Lord Chesterfield, the quasi-sinecure government appointment of Barrack master of Mullngar, with a salary of, £400; but his able enquiry into the abuses of the Irish barrack system effectually debarred him from further chances of advancement. He wrote The Earl of Westmoreland, and other pieces, for the Dublin theatres, and in 1745, The Farmer's Letters, addressed to Irish Catholics, to dissuade them from participation in the Jacobite rebellion in Great Britain, besides several noble appeals in favour of the abolition of the Penal Laws, and advocating equal rights for the Irish people.

Later on he is said to have been one of the first conductors of the Freeman's Journal, then published on Audeon's-arch. At one time he was solicited by a large body of Dublin electors to stand for the city, but declined, believing the other candidate had "an acknowledged superiority." The greater part of his life was spent in the country. We have a delightful cotemporary account of a visit paid him in his (then) wild retreat at Rantavan — his love of gardening, of reclaiming land, and his affection for the peasantry, by whom he was surrounded — "you would think that Mr. Brooke was talking of his own children, they were all so dear to him; he prayed for them, and blessed them over and over again, with tears in his eyes." For a time he was obliged to mortgage his family estate and remove to Daisy-park, near Sallins, with his beloved brother Robert — the families of both brothers, as theretofore, living together in one house in perfect harmony. A remittance of £13,000 from a nephew, Colonel Robert Brooke, a successful soldier in India, put them in easy circumstances, and enabled Henry to return to Cavan, 1764, and build a lodge on the banks of Lough Mullagh, close by his former residence.

Two years afterwards the first volume of his great work, The Fool of Quality, appeared — the fifth and last volume was not published until 1770. Wesley declared it was "one of the most beautiful pictures that ever was drawn in the world; the strokes are so delicately fine, the touches so easy, natural, and affecting, that know not who can survey it with tearless eyes, unless he has a heart of stone." His later editor, Kingsley, while admitting that "the plot is extravagant as well as ill-woven, and broken, besides, by episodes as extravagant as itself," believes that one can learn from "this book more which is pure, sacred, and eternal, than from any which has been published since Spenser's Faerie Queene"

In this later period of his life we have him described: "He was drest in a long blue cloak, with a wig that fell down his shoulders; a little man as neat as wax-work, with an oval face, ruddy complexion, large eyes, full of fire. In short, he is like a picture mellowed by time." Mrs. Brooke died in 1772, just after the loss of a very dear daughter. From this time he shut himself up from the world with his beloved daughter Charlotte, and although his closing years were spent in Dublin, his retirement was so complete that he was believed by many to be dead. Charlotte afterwards told Miss Edgeworth that in these latter years he used, instead of his wont of walking up and down the room composing, to sit for hours gazing into vacancy. He died peacefully in 1783, aged about 77 — "as he lived, a philosopher, a gentleman, and a Christian."

Sources

49. Brooke, Henry, Memoir, prefixed to Fool of Quality: Edited by Rev. Charles Kingsley. 2 vols. London, 1859.

110. Dublin, History of the City: John T. Gilbert. 3 vols. Dublin, 1854-'9.

116. Dublin University Magazine (39). Dublin, 1833-'77.

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