Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whyte-Melville, George John

WHYTE-MELVILLE, GEORGE JOHN (1821–1878), novelist and poet, born on 19 June 1821, was son of John Whyte-Melville of Strathkinness in Fifeshire, by his wife Catherine Anne Sarah, youngest daughter of Francis Godolphin Osborne, fifth duke of Leeds. Robert Whyte [q. v.] was his great-grandfather. The novelist was educated at Eton under Keate, and in 1839 received a commission in the 93rd highlanders. Exchanging in 1846 into the Coldstream guards, he retired in 1849 with the rank of captain, but on the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1854 he volunteered for active service, and was appointed major of Turkish irregular cavalry. After peace was restored he devoted himself to literature and field sports, especially fox-hunting, on which he soon came to be regarded as a high authority. He married, on 7 Aug. 1847, Charlotte, daughter of William Hanbury, first lord Bateman, by whom he had one daughter; but his married life was unhappy. To that misfortune perhaps may be traced the strain of melancholy which runs through all Whyte-Melville's writings. His literary powers, which he himself was always inclined to underrate, were considerable, and would have brought him greater fame had circumstances required him to put them to more diligent use. As Locker-Lampson remarks: ‘This notion of the smallness of his gift may have been fostered by his never having been a really needy man: he could always afford to hunt the fox, so the excitement of the chasse aux pièces de cent sous, which stimulates most authors, was denied him.’ As it was, Whyte-Melville devoted all the earnings of his pen, which must have been considerable, to philanthropic and charitable objects, especially to the provision of reading-rooms and other recreation for grooms and stable-boys in hunting quarters. Locker-Lampson observes in ‘My Confidences’ (p. 382) that Whyte-Melville never sought literary society, preferring the companionship of soldiers, sportsmen, and country gentlemen. Perhaps, had he been more assiduous in cultivating literary men, his reputation as an author might have stood higher with the general public, though he could scarcely have been a greater favourite with readers of his own class. From his intimate acquaintance with military, sporting, and fashionable life, Whyte-Melville could deal with it in fiction without any risk of falling into the ludicrous exaggerations and blunders which beset many writers who attempt to do so.

After his marriage in 1847 Whyte-Melville lived for some years in Northamptonshire, and then removed to Tetbury in Gloucestershire. An acknowledged arbiter of hunting practice and a critic of costume, he was careless to a fault in his own attire.

Most of Whyte-Melville's works were novels, though his volume of ‘Songs and Verses’ contains some lyrics of charming vivacity and tenderness, and all his writings, though appealing chiefly to sporting men, have attractions for general readers also, owing to the lofty tone of chivalry which pervades them and the reverent devotion expressed for the fair sex. Throughout all his works there is evident also an affection for classical lore, reflecting the training which Whyte-Melville received at Eton in the days of Dr. Keate.

Whyte-Melville was very fond of making young horses into finished hunters, but it was on an old and favourite horse, the Shah, that he met his death. On 5 Dec. 1878 he was hunting in the Vale of White Horse, the hounds had found a fox, and Whyte-Melville was galloping for a start along the grass headland of a ploughed field. His horse fell and killed him instantaneously. He was buried at Tetbury. A bust was executed by Sir Edgar Boehm (Cat. Victorian Exhib. No. 1075).

Whyte-Melville's father, who is mentioned in Locker-Lampson's ‘Confidences,’ survived him for five years, dying in 1883; Strathkinness then passed to his kinsman, Mr. James Balfour, who assumed the name of Melville in addition to his own.

Whyte-Melville's published works are as follows:

  1. ‘Captain Digby Grand: an Autobiography,’ 1853.
  2. ‘General Bounce; or, The Lady and the Locusts,’ 1854.
  3. ‘Kate Coventry: an Autobiography,’ 1856.
  4. ‘The Arab's Ride to Cairo,’ 1858.
  5. ‘The Interpreter: a Tale of the War,’ 1858.
  6. ‘Holmby House: a Tale of Old Northamptonshire,’ 1860.
  7. ‘Good for Nothing; or, All Down Hill,’ 1861.
  8. ‘Market Harborough,’ 1861.
  9. ‘Tilbury Nogo; an Unsuccessful Man,’ 1861.
  10. ‘The Queen's Maries: a Romance of Holyrood,’ 1862.
  11. ‘The Gladiators: a Tale of Rome and Judæa,’ 1863.
  12. ‘The Brookes of Bridlemere,’ 1864.
  13. ‘Cerise,’ 1866.
  14. ‘The White Rose,’ 1868.
  15. ‘Bones and I; or, The Skeleton at Home,’ 1868.
  16. ‘M. or N.,’ 1869.
  17. ‘Songs and Verses,’ 1869.
  18. ‘Contraband; or, A Losing Hazard,’ 1870.
  19. ‘Sarchedon: a Tale of the Great Queen,’ 1871.
  20. ‘The True Cross’ (a religious poem), 1873.
  21. ‘Satanella: a Story of Punchestown,’ 1873.
  22. ‘Uncle John: a Novel,’ 1874.
  23. ‘Riding Recollections,’ 1875.
  24. ‘Katerfelto,’ 1875.
  25. ‘Sister Louise; or, Woman's Repentance,’ 1875.
  26. ‘Rosine,’ 1875.
  27. ‘Roy's Wife,’ 1878.
  28. ‘Black but Comely,’ 1879 (posthumous).

[Burke's Landed Gentry; Allibone's Dict.; Annual Register; Baily's Magazine; Locker-Lampson's Confidences; private information.]

H. E. M.