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Significant Scots
Henry David Inglis


INGLIS, HENRY DAVID.—This is one of a class of authors, unfortunately too numerous, who have failed in winning that literary reputation which their labours justly merited. How often it happens that, amidst a mass of neglected books ready to be sold by the pound as waste paper, some stray volume is picked up, which, on being opened, is found to contain an amount of learning, genius, and talent, such as would entitle its writer to a respectable place in the authorship of the present day! But who was he? No one can tell; for either his name has been slightly recorded, or allowed to pass away without notice. Among these victims of the world’s unjust neglect, we fear that David Henry Inglis has already been enrolled.

He was born in Edinburgh, in 1795. He was the only son of a barrister, who belonged to an ancient Scottish family: his maternal grandmother was daughter of Colonel Gardiner, who fell so nobly at Prestonpans. This lady was also the authoress of a heroic poem, which, even though written by a hero’s daughter, has ceased to be remembered. Through this ancestress, David Inglis was allied to the Earl of Buchan, and the Erskines. Being intended for the mercantile profession, he passed from the college to the counting house; but after devoting himself for a short time to business, he found that his affections lay elsewhere: the distinctions of literature, rather than the profits of mercantile speculation, were the objects of his aspirations. He was also anxious to visit foreign countries, and contemplate the scenes of great past events, and stirring living incidents, instead of being chained to the desk, and confined to the chapter of profit and loss. He therefore early became a traveller, and a writer of travels. His first work of this nature was entitled "Tales of the Ardennes," which he published under the assumed name of Derwent Conway; and this work was so favourably received by the public on its first appearance, that he was encouraged to continue in the same strain. His next production was "Solitary Walks through many Lands," a work of still higher talent than the preceding, and possessing passages and descriptions of great beauty, originality, and power. This was followed by "Travels in Norway and Sweden," and his "Tour through Switzerland, France, and the Pyrenees," both of which works appeared in Constable’s Miscellany. While these volumes were publishing, Inglis was employed as editor of a newspaper at Chesterfield; but the same impatience and yearning for travel that made him abandon the stool of the counting-house, soon drove him from the editorial chair, to resume his beloved life of wandering. He again started for the continent, and visited the Tyrol and Spain; and on returning home, he published two works, containing an account of his travels and observations in these countries. Of these volumes, his "Spain in 1830," was the most successful, and with justice, in consequence of the great amount of interesting information with which it was stored about that land of changes and disasters. After his return from Spain, Mr. Inglis again became editor of a newspaper, and, of all places in the world, the little island of Jersey was the locality in which he was fixed. A permanent stay in such a place was the last thing to be anticipated of such a man; and he had not, therefore, been long in Jersey, when he girded up his loins for fresh rambles and adventure. But whither was he now to wing his course, after he had pretty well exhausted the wide field of Europe? Luckily, a country quite at hand, even Ireland, had not as yet been the subject of his explorations, and thither accordingly his flight was directed. And that his tour was a useful one was well attested by his "Ireland in 1834." While the extensive information and impartial spirit of this work obtained for it a favourable reception from all parties, the correctness of his views on the condition of the country made it be frequently quoted in the House of Commons, during the important parliamentary debates about Ireland in 1835. It is seldom that the soundness and accuracy of an Irish tourist are stamped with such a high attestation.

Hitherto, as we have shown, the literary labours of Inglis had been well appreciated by the public; but still, this was not enough. As all the world is travelling everywhere, the individuality of each aspiring pilgrim, let him go where he will, is lost in a crowd; and let him write what marvels he may, "of the Alps and Apennines, the Pyrenean and the river Po," and "of the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi," there are others who behold them as well as himself, and are taking notes of them, to put them in a book. And thus his narrative, however ably written or full of interest, lasts only for to-day; for to-morrow a fresh tourist issues from the press, while the latest intelligence will be always accounted the best. It was thus that Inglis seems to have felt, when he found himself ousted successively from every country in which he had roamed so diligently, and about which he had written so well. Literary distinction was not to be won by travelling. Already he had written of what many have seen; but now let him tell what no man ever saw—let him create a world for himself, and fill it with the creatures and deeds of his own imagining. It was toward this department of fiction, also, that, amidst all his wanderings and authorship, his intellectual longings had been the most directed. His resolution was formed; his choice of a subject was fixed; and after the success of his work entitled, "Spain in 1830," he produced his novel of "The New Gil Blas," in which he endeavoured to embody Spanish life as it exists in the present day. It was the best of all his writings, for it combined truthful delineation with the highest efforts of fancy and creative power; and while he brought into it all the resources of his genius, and all the affections of his heart, he seems to have regarded it as the great effort by which, like Sir Walter Scott, he would open for himself a new world of distinction and success, after the old had been exhausted. But alas! For the unlucky title. Many thought that the first "Gil Blas" was enough, and would not read the second; many opened it, and then threw it aside, mistaking it for a mere paltry imitation; while the few who dared to read on, were troubled with thoughts of Le Sage at every turning of the leaf. And thus the unfortunate production was doomed at the very moment of its birth, and consigned to the fate of a Spartan ill-shapen infant, but without the formality of a Spartan inquest. It was a sore calamity to Inglis, who loved it with a mother’s love, and his lamentation over it could only find comfort in a lingering of hope. "Alas!" he would exclaim, "I fear I have written my ‘Gil Blas’ for posterity!" We suspect that posterity will have too many novels of their own to busy themselves withal instead of attending to those which their fathers neglected.

After his return from Ireland, Mr. Inglis began to prepare for publication his "Travels in the footsteps of Don Quixote," a work the nature of which is indicated by the title. Undeterred, also, by the failure of his chief attempt at fiction, he had already planned, and even commenced other works of a similar character, when his overtasked physical endurance gave way under such constant intellectual pressure; and a disease of the brain ensued, of which he died in London, before he had completed his fortieth year. His decease occurred on the 20th of March, 1835.


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