Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, Oliver Madox

BROWN, OLIVER MADOX (1855–1874), author and painter, son of Ford Madox-Brown, the distinguished painter, was born at Finchley on 20 Jan. 1855. From early boyhood he showed remarkable capacity, both in painting and literature. One of his works, a water-colour named ‘Chiron, receiving the Infant Jason from the Slave,’ was begun when he was fourteen, and exhibited in the Dudley Gallery in the following year. At the same gallery in 1870 he exhibited a very spirited watercolour called ‘Obstinacy,' which represents the resistance of an unruly horse, whose rider is urging him ,towards the sea; ‘Exercise,’ a companion picture to the above, appeared the same year , on the walls of the Royal Academy. A scene from ‘The Tempest-Prospero and the Infant Miranda,' when sent adrift by the creatures of the usurping duke, found its way in 1871 to the International Exhibition at South Kensington. This was followed by a water-colour, ‘A Scene from Silas Mariner,’ exhibited, in 1872 at the gallery of the Society of French Artists in New Bond Street. These two latter works especially showed so much of idea, force of expression, and, with regard to the scene from ‘Silas Marner,’ so much beauty of execution, as to indicate that the lad, had he lived, would have signally distinguished himself as a painter. His youthful successes in art, however, were overshadowed by those which he achieved in literature, particularly in prose fiction. When thirteen or fourteen years old he wrote several sonnets, of which only two have been preserved. To these may be added another, written probably at a somewhat later date. These productions, if they do not fulfil all the technical conditions on which severe critics of the sonnet insist, have at least more than average correctness, and show, like his fragmentary blank verse poem, 'To All Eternity,' written a year or two later, originality of design, with force and dignity of expression surprising in one so young. Of a few lyric snatches the most have individuality, while the stanzas beginning—

Oh, delicious sweetness that lingers
Over the fond lips of love!

display, besides great wealth of imagery, the overflow of feeling that belongs to the genuine lyric. His first prose story, 'Gabriel Denver,' was begun in the winter of 1871, finished early in the following year, when he was seventeen, and published in 1873. The story was originally one of a wife's revenge upon her husband and the woman to whom he had transferred his affection. At the wish of his publishers the young author made important alterations. A spiteful cousin was substituted for the revengeful wife, and a happy denouement for a tragic one. The story, as originally planned, was, however, published under the title of 'The Black Swan' in his 'Literary Remains.' 'Gabriel Denver,' though on occasions it leans to over-analysis and substitutes accounts of emotions for the embodiment of them, reveals striking power in its treatment both of characters and events. Its descriptions, moreover, which combine realistic accuracy with imaginative suggestiveness, are often most impressive, while certain passages show a vein of deep reflection and speculation, to which perhaps no parallel can be cited from the works of juvenile writers. At times with such strange weird power is some crisis of the story presented that it seems to arrest the eye with its ominous significance. In 1872 the young novelist made considerable way in his story entitled 'Hebditch's Legacy,' which, though containing many examples of his power, both as a narrator and a psychologist, relies for its plot too much upon somewhat hackneyed motives and incidents. This story he never completed. The end was supplied by his editors from recollections of his design. The tale is included in his 'Literary Remains,' published in 1876. So early as 1872 he had begun his romance, called 'The Dwale Bluth,' an old North Devonshire name for the plant known as 'the deadly nightshade.' 'The Dwale Bluth' is a tragic story with a glamour of fate around it. It shows the writer's powers of description, chastened and matured, and his usual deep insight into character and motive. In this tale he also displayed a humour peculiar to himself, and a rare aptitude for portraying the natures and habits of children and animals. The work was also left uncompleted, an end in accordance with his intentions being again supplied from memory by his editors. Madox-Brown's 'Literary Remains' also contain two or three short stories written or dictated in the closing year of his life. In September 1874 he was attacked by gout. His seeming recovery from this was followed by hectic fever, and finally by blood-poisoning, he died on 5 Nov. 1874, the day of the month on which his first story, 'Gabriel Denver,' had been published in the preceding year. As to personal appearance his face was oval, his features were regular. In repose he had at times a rather weary look, but his grey eyes had a singularly animated and engaging expression in the society of those whom he liked. His disposition, though somewhat sensitive, was genial and sincere, his discernment was keen, his standard of life high, and his sense of its obligations deep and sympathetic. As an imaginative writer, whose career ended at nineteen, he was not, of course, faultless. His descriptions, for the most part daring and successful, are at times over-ambitious and over-elaborate; while in the opinion of some there is a suggestion of the morbid in the general choice of his themes. But for the union of Defoe-like truth of description with poetic touches that render the truth more vivid, and for a sympathetic imagination which, in dealing with human motives and passions, often seems to anticipate experience, Oliver Madox-Brown must stand in the van of young writers, who not only surprise by the brilliancy of their work, but retain admiration by its solidity. The 'Literary Remains' contain, besides the works already named as included, the writer's poems.

[Memoir prefixed to the Literary Remains; Biographical Sketch by John H. Ingram; Notice by P. B. Marston in Scribner's Magazine.]

W. M.