Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fonblanque, Albany

FONBLANQUE, ALBANY (1793–1872), journalist, was born in London in 1793, and was the third son of John de Grenier Fonblanque [q. v.], jurist. He was intended for service in the royal engineers, but his education at Woolwich having been interrupted for two years by a dangerous illness, he studied law under Chitty. Before he was twenty, however, he had gained such success as a contributor to newspapers as to determine him to devote himself entirely to journalism. His career was again interrupted by a serious attack of illness, but upon his recovery he resumed his journalistic labours, chiefly upon the ‘Morning Chronicle’ and the ‘Times.’ In 1820 he married, and, after a short engagement on the ‘Atlas,’ became in 1826 principal leader writer upon the ‘Examiner,’ which found in his brilliant pen a substitute for Leigh Hunt, whose connection with the paper had ceased upon his departure for Italy. He was intimate with Bentham, the Mills, Grote, and the chiefs of the utilitarian school in general, and was a leading contributor to the ‘Westminster Review’ from its establishment in 1823. The publishers of the ‘Examiner’ were deeply embarrassed, and about 1828 the paper was purchased by the Rev. Dr. Robert Fellowes [q. v.], author of ‘The Religion of the Universe.’ Dr. Fellowes, in September 1830, placed the entire management in Fonblanque's hands, and sold the paper to him a few years afterwards. Its reputation as the chief organ of high-class intellectual radicalism was recognised by a subscription to defray the cost of improved machinery to allow of its being issued at a lower price. The contribution took the form of a prepayment of subscriptions for ten years, and the measure produced a large increase of circulation. Fonblanque, in an unpublished letter, gives W. J. Fox and Stuart Mill the chief credit for their exertions in accomplishing the end in view. Mill had already regularly contributed letters which aroused the attention of Carlyle; and Disraeli, then coquetting with radicalism, was among the subscribers. In 1837 Fonblanque republished his most remarkable articles of the preceding ten years, under the title of ‘England under Seven Administrations.’ Macaulay disputed the wisdom of the step. ‘Fonblanque's leading articles in the “Examiner,”’ he tells Macvey Napier, ‘were extolled to the skies while they were considered merely as leading articles. … Fonblanque had not considered that in that form they would be compared, not with the rant and twaddle of the daily and weekly press, but with Burke's pamphlets, with Pascal's letters, with Addison's Spectators and Freeholders.’ This is evidently true, and yet the publication has preserved Fonblanque from becoming a mere nominis umbra. The book counts among the authorities for the history of the period, and brings together the choicest examples of the indomitable spirit and caustic wit which constituted his chief distinction as a journalist.

The publication of the ‘Seven Administrations’ indicated the high water-mark of Fonblanque's public influence. It was the time when, as a eulogist in the ‘Scotsman’ said, ‘an epigram in the “Examiner” went off like a great gun, echoing all over the country.’ This position could not but be affected by the decline of the liberal party in reputation from 1836 onward, and its ultimate rehabilitation through the acceptance of new ideas, chiefly of financial and commercial reform, which Fonblanque, though approving, could not make his own. In the divisions among his own section of the party he inclined rather to the support of the whig cabinet than to the combative radicalism of Mill. The two schools of old-fashioned London radicalism and of Benthamite utilitarianism, with both of which Fonblanque had intimate affinities, waned more and more, and when at length in 1847 the liberals were returned to office, Fonblanque consented to relinquish the editorship of the ‘ Examiner,’ and accepted an appointment, apparently most uncongenial to a wit and satirist, in the statistical department of the board of trade. He had been offered the government of Nova Scotia, but he could not tear himself away from London. The editorship of the ‘Examiner’ passed into the hands of John Forster (1812–1876) [q. v.] Fonblanque, however, remained proprietor until 1865, and continued until about 1860 to contribute articles distinguished by all his old pungency, though less and less abreast with the spirit of the new time. He felt himself entirely out of place as the board of trade's statistician. Traditions linger in the office of his late arrivals, his early departures, his panics when called upon for official information, his general inaccessibility, but gentle and almost mournful courtesy to those with whom he deigned to communicate. He was understood to suffer from domestic troubles, and his health was never good. He dropped almost entirely out of society for the last ten years of his life, and was rarely to be seen except in the library of the Athenæum, or absorbed in a game of chess at the St. James's Club. He died 13 Oct. 1872. A second collection of his leading articles, with a memoir by his nephew, Edward Barrington de Fonblanque, was published in 1874. Fonblanque is one of the few English journalists who, merely as such, have gained a permanent place in literature. This is due partly to his gifts of humour and sarcasm, partly to the republication of his best work, but chiefly to his instinct for literary form. The finish and polish of his articles give them a literary value independent of the subject. Fonblanque wrote slowly and rewrote much. He did not consider his early articles in daily newspapers worth reprinting, and when at a later period he was tempted by great offers to write in the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ he felt himself unequal to the task and soon abandoned it. No editor, perhaps, has ever more strongly impressed his personality upon his journal, or habitually written in a more individual and recognisable style, even to the risk of monotony. His slowness of composition makes the great extent and overwhelming proportion of his contributions to the ‘Examiner’ the more remarkable. His negative bent made him before all things a censor and a critic, and disabled him from taking broad surveys of measures and men. His strong positive views on legislation, derived from Bentham, made his journalistic work in that department more fruitful if less brilliant. In politics he was no revolutionist, but a staunch radical reformer, whose hostility to abuses did not involve hostility to institutions, some few excepted, which he thought decisively condemned by his utilitarian standard. He may be taxed with occasional injustice to individuals, but not with deliberate unfairness; he was in purpose thoroughly impartial, and never employed his powers of satire for the mere sake of giving pain. Being sarcastic he naturally passed for a cynic, but the character did him great injustice. He seems to have been shy and sensitive, patient in a never-ending contest with ill-health and domestic unhappiness, scrupulously honourable and delicate in all personal relations, and subdued in manner, except when he held the pen or became animated in discussion. All his friends who have left notices of him celebrate his social charm and his disinterested kindness. He was a brilliant talker, a finished scholar, and a theoretical student of music and art.

[Life and Labours of Albany Fonblanque, ed. E. B. de Fonblanque, 1874; H. R. Fox Bourne's English Newspapers, vol. ii.; Horne's Spirit of the Age, vol. ii.; obituary notices in Examiner, Daily News, and Scotsman.]

R. G.