IT is a great misfortune to English literature that the
pencil of John Leech never lent its aid to the pen of Whyte-Melville, an
alliance of author and artist as natural as the - memorable one between Boz
and Phiz. They were contemporary: each excelled in the delineation of the
chase: each delighted in portraying the most charming phases of young
womanhood and the graces and foibles of young men. It is doubtful whether
John Jorrocks and the rest of Surtees' inimitable gallery would ever have
become the very household gods of the hunting-box had Leech not been
enlisted to enliven the chronicle by his art. But Whyte-Melville was a
careless author ; he cared little, that is, for the form in which his books
were published. Writing for his own amusement and that of his friends, he
devoted all the proceeds of his labour to philanthropic and charitable ends,
especially to the establishment and maintenance of reading- rooms and other
means of recreation for grooms and stable-boys. He seems to have had none of
that parental conceit in his work that renders a writer fastidious about
paper, type, and other bibliographic millinery, reflecting in that respect
the indifference he always showed in his own costume; for although he was
extremely critical about the dress of others, and was an acknowledged
arbiter of how a man should be turned out for hunting, lie himself never
wore in the field anything more elaborate than a black coat and hunting
It is not too late to attempt an edition of Whyte-Melville's
writings more worthy of their quality than those which have gone before.
These novels may not rank high as "human documents"—which seems to be the
term applied to stories of the failure of energy and commonsense to steer a
character through ordinary temptation and the results of puzzle-headedness;
they may be deficient in variety of characters represented, the same types
recurring under different names in successive combinations ; the problems
presented for solution may fade into insignificance before some of those
with which certain more recent writers entertain their readers. But as long
as chivalry in man and tenderness in maid have any hold upon English
readers— as long as people take delight in descriptions of honest
love-making, adventure and field sports, or find amusement in gentle satire
of well-to-do folk and kindly raillery at the foibles of all classes —as
long as the public is not too critical to enjoy pictures of the general
prevalence of good over evil in the world as we have it-SO long shall
Whyte-Melville find high favour with wholesome minds.
The son of a
Scottish laird—Mr. John Whyte-Melville, of Mount Melville in Fife. J. G.
Whyte-Melville was born in 1821, and went, in process of time, to Eton,
after the manner of many of his kind. The reputation of Eton for scholarship
never, perhaps, exceedingly high, was probably at its lowest in the
"thirties"; yet, as has happened to other boys who have passed in and out of
her gates without distinction, young George acquired in that school a loving
reverence for Latin writers which endured throughout his life and left its
stamp on all his writings.
In 1839 he obtained a commission in the army,
and, having exchanged into the Coldstream Guards in 1846, retired in 1849.
Five years later, on war being declared with Russia, he volunteered for
active service, and was employed throughout the campaign as a major of
Turkish Irregular Cavalry. Returning to England after peace was declared,
Whyte-Melville indulged his passion for country life, and generally spent
the winter in hunting quarters in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire,
latterly in Gloucestershire; while in summer he was most often to be found
on the links of his native St. Andrews in clays before golf had fired, as an
apocalypse, the fancies of men besouth the Tweed. Himself a bold and good
horseman, very modest withal, he was always more disposed to turn an
appreciative eye on the performances of others than to invite attention to
Many a story is told even now of his quiet humour and old-lash
iotied, never-failing courtesy. One day, as he stood at the edge of the
pavement, waiting to cross an excessively muddy street, a lady's carriage
drew up smartly in front of a shop before which he was standing, splashing
him from head to foot with filthy mire, an assault of a kind calculated to
upset the equanimity of the mildest of men.
"Oh, Major Melville,"
exclaimed the lady, a Friend of his, ''I am so sorry."
"It doesn't matter
a bit," said he; ''I always say you drive the best-actioned horses in
Readers of Whyte-Melville's novels cannot fail to be struck by a
constantly recurring note of melancholy which runs through them all,
especially in reference to women. Therein may be traced the effect of his
own lifelong disappointment. It behoves one to deal reverently with the
domestic life, even of the departed, but it was matter of common knowledge
to all his acquaintance that his marriage did not turn out happily. Probably
there were faults on both sides—in what quarrel can it be said that there
are not? At all events one seems to recognise some consciousness of this and
unavailing regret in such passages as the following, spoken by "Uncle John"
to Algernon Lealey, who was about to marry
"There is but one hit of advice
I can give. Don't start with too exalted an idea of your goddess. She must
come down from her pedestal sometimes. When she does not agree with you.
don't be provoked with her because she is your wife, but listen to her
courteously, though she is talking nonsense, as you would to any other lady.
...Above all, never attempt to reason with her as you would with a man." -
Passages of similar significance may be found ill the novels, but perhaps
nowhere do these feelings receive such clear expression as in the remarkable
budget of essays entitled Bones and I:—
"If Clebs (in search of a wife)
expects to find a perfection really exist which he thinks he has discovered
while dazzled by the glamour surrounding a man in love, he deserves to he
disappointed, and he generally is. . . . What is it we expect to find? In
this matter of marriage, more than in any other, our anticipations are so
exorbitant that we cannot be surprised if our come-down is dis- heartening
Where is the maiden of mortal strain,
That may match ith the Baron of Triermain?
She must be lovely, constant
Holy and pure, and humble of ifl]fld,' etc.
"Yes, she must
be all this, and possess a thousand other good qualities, many more than are
enumerated by lago, so as never to descend for a moment from the pedestal on
which her baron has set her up. Is this indulgent—is it even reasonable? Can
he expect any human creature to be always dancing on the tight rope? . Men
are very hard in the way of exaction on those they love. All 'take' seems
their motto, and as little 'give' as possible. If they would but remember
the golden rule, and expect no more than should be expected from themselves,
it might be a better world for everybody."
And then, as if recollecting
that the shortcoming had not been all on his own side, Whyte- Melville ends
the colloquy with Bones, by making his fleshless companion observe-
never knew but one woman who could understand reason, and she wouldn't
listen to it!
For an unprofessional writer, Whyte-Melville's literary
diligence was remarkable. Few men, who, like him, were independent of and
indifferent to the pecuniary fruits of their labour, would have cared to
undergo the drudgery necessary to producing twenty-eight separate works in
twenty-six years. But Whyte-Melville was a born storyteller, and from the
first he never lacked an audience. Man of the world in the best sense, he
gave the impression of one who never lost consciousness of something beyond
the world. His writings abound in passages of true philosophy, not less
profound because expressed in terms suggestive of levity. Perhaps the
chapter on "Gourds" in Bones and I is as characteristic of his style as any
that could be chosen. He excelled as a delineator of the phases of
fashionable life, and enjoyed an advantage over many novelists who attempt
to deal with it, in that his perfect and daily familiarity with its ways and
peculiarities steered him clear of those blunders which so often raise a
smile at the expense of observers less perfectly qualified than
But he was at his best—and therein almost unrivalled—in
describing the incidents of the hunting-field. " Nimrod" could stir the
pulses of his readers by recounting the business of the chase and the
performance of individuals; Surtees had the knack of throwing a lifelike
picture on the screen and imparting a sense of wind and weather, of scents
and sounds, of life and movement in the open air and a wild country. But
neither of them had the secret of Whyte-Melville's glamour, which invested
the rapturous reality with an air of romance and gave to technical details
the momentous import of the operations of war; neither of them kept before
his readers, as Whyte-i\ielville did, the ideal of a cultivated,
accomplished, lofty-minded, warm-hearted English gentleman. To him must be
given the palm among all who have hitherto celebrated the glories of the
noblest among British field sports.
Whyte- Melville's end came in the way which, had the choice rested with
him, he probably would have preferred. He had rented a small house at
Tetbury in Gloucestershire, which a friend once criticised as being too near
"Perhaps it is," replied Whyte-Melville, for some tastes;
but the closer the better for a hunt- in mail they will not have so far to
Careless, almost flippant words, but of unforeseen
significance. Not long afterwards, on the 5th of December 1878, the speaker
was out with the Vale of White Horse hounds. They had found a fox, but were.
still in cover; Whyte- Melville, stealing forward for a start, was galloping
along the grass headland of a ploughed field oil favourite hunter, the Shah.
No one saw what happened; the good horse must have crossed his legs and
fallen oil rider, who was found stone dead. They took him to his little
house in Tetbury, whence, to repeat his own words, they had "not so far to
carry him," when they laid him in the churchyard hard by.
There was one
high-minded gentleman the less in this world—one generous soul the more
among the shades.
There is a complete collection of his books on the
Internet Archive and
there seems to be a complete set with the Title starting with [Works (Volume