Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forster, John (1812-1876)
FORSTER, JOHN (1812–1876), historian and biographer, was born at Newcastle on 2 April 1812. He was the eldest of the four children of Robert Forster and Mary his wife, daughter of the keeper of a dairy-farm in Gallowgate. Robert Forster and his elder brother, John, were grandsons by a younger son of John Forster, landowner, of Corsenside in Northumberland. Having nothing to inherit from the family property, the brothers became cattle-dealers in Newcastle; and Robert's children were chiefly indebted for their education to their uncle John, whose especial favourite from the first was his nephew and namesake. John Forster was placed by him at an early age in the grammar school of Newcastle. There he became the favourite pupil of the headmaster, the Rev. Edward Moises. Eventually he became captain of the school, as Lord Eldon and Lord Collingwood had been before him. A tale written by him when he was fresh from the nursery appeared in print. While yet a mere child he took delight in going to the theatre. In answer to remonstrances he wrote a singularly clever and elaborate paper, in June 1827, entitled ‘A Few Thoughts in Vindication of the Stage.’ On 2 May 1828 a play of his in two acts, called ‘Charles at Tunbridge, or the Cavalier of Wildinghurst,’ was performed at the Newcastle Theatre, written ‘expressly,’ as ‘by a gentleman of Newcastle,’ for the benefit of Mr. Thomas Stuart. Forster's success at school induced his uncle John to send him to Cambridge in October 1828, but within a month he decided to move on to London. By his uncle's help he was at once sent to the newly founded University College, and entered as a law student at the Inner Temple on 10 Nov. 1828. His instructor in English law at University College was Professor Andrew Amos [q. v.] Among his fellow-students and fast friends for life were James Emerson Tennent [q. v.] and James Whiteside [q. v.] In the January number of the ‘Newcastle Magazine’ for 1829 a paper of Forster's appeared (his earliest contribution to the periodicals) entitled ‘Remarks on two of the Annuals.’ In that year he first made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt, of whom he afterwards wrote: ‘He influenced all my modes of thought at the outset of my life.’ As early as March 1830 he projected a life of Cromwell. He was already studying in the chambers of Thomas Chitty [q. v.] In 1832 Forster became the dramatic critic on the ‘True Sun.’ He became a valued acquaintance of Charles Lamb; in 1831 Lamb had written to him: ‘If you have lost a little portion of my good will, it is that you do not come and see me oftener.’ In December 1832 both Lamb and Leigh Hunt were contributing to a series of weekly essays which Moxon had just then commenced under Forster's direction, called ‘The Reflector,’ of which a few numbers only were published. In 1833 Forster was writing busily on the ‘True Sun,’ the ‘Courier,’ the ‘Athenæum,’ and the ‘Examiner.’ Albany Fonblanque [q. v.], who had just become editor, appointed Forster the chief critic on the ‘Examiner,’ both of literature and the drama. In 1834, being then twenty-two years of age, he moved into his thenceforth well-known chambers at 58 Lincoln's Inn Fields. In 1836 he published in ‘Lardner's Cyclopædia’ the first of the five volumes of his ‘Lives of the Statesmen of the Commonwealth,’ including those of Sir John Eliot and Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford. Vol. ii., containing those of Pym and Hampden, appeared in 1837; vol. iii., giving those of Vane and Marten, in 1838; vols. iv. and v., completing the work in 1839, being devoted to the life of Oliver Cromwell. While engaged in the composition of this work he was betrothed to the then popular poetess, L. E. L[andon]. An estrangement, however, took place between them, and in 1838 Miss Landon married George Maclean. Forster for two years, 1842 and 1843, edited the ‘Foreign Quarterly Review,’ where his papers on the Greek philosophers bore evidence of scholarship. On 27 Jan. 1843 he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple. Besides writing in Douglas Jerrold's ‘Shilling Magazine’ ‘A History for Young England,’ Forster in 1845 contributed to the ‘Edinburgh Review’ two masterly articles on ‘Charles Churchill’ and ‘Daniel Defoe.’ His intimate personal friends by that time included some of the most intellectually distinguished of his contemporaries, and on 20 Sept. 1845 Forster, in association with several of these, began to take part in a series of amateur theatricals, which for ten years enjoyed a certain celebrity. As Ford in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ as Kitely in ‘Every Man in his Humour,’ as Ernani in Victor Hugo's drama so entitled, he took part in the ‘splendid strolling’ which, under the lead of Dickens and Lytton, was intended to promote, among other objects, the establishment of the Guild of Literature and Art. On 9 Feb. 1845 Forster was installed editor of the ‘Daily News,’ in succession to Dickens, but resigned the post in October. In 1847 he assumed the editorship of the ‘Examiner,’ succeeding Albany Fonblanque, and held the post for nine years. He was now rewriting, for the twelfth time, his unpublished life of Goldsmith. In 1848 it appeared in one volume, as ‘The Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith.’ Daintily illustrated by his friends Maclise, Stanfield, Leech, Doyle, and Hamerton, it won instant popularity. Six years afterwards Forster expanded the work into two volumes, with the enlarged title of the ‘Life and Times’ of Goldsmith. In this, as in more than one later instance, he marred the original outline by his greater elaboration, overcrowding his canvas with Goldsmith's contemporaries. When the first draft of the work was in preparation, Dickens humorously said of him that ‘nobody could bribe Forster’ unless it was with a ‘new fact’ for his life of Goldsmith. He contributed to the ‘Quarterly Review,’ in September 1854, a brilliant paper on Samuel Foote, and in March 1855 a sympathetic monograph on Sir Richard Steele. At the end of 1855 he was appointed secretary to the commissioners of lunacy, with an income of 800l. a year. He withdrew at once from the editorial chair of the ‘Examiner,’ for which he never afterwards wrote a line, devoting his leisure from that time forward exclusively to literature. On the appearance of Guizot's ‘History of the English Commonwealth,’ Forster, in January 1856, wrote a criticism of it in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ entitled ‘The Civil Wars and Oliver Cromwell.’ On 24 Sept. 1856 he married Eliza Ann, daughter of Captain Robert Crosbie, R.N., and widow of Henry Colburn, the well-known publisher. He began his happy home life at 46 Montagu Square, where he remained until his removal to Palace Gate House, which in 1862 he built for himself at Kensington. In 1858 he collected his ‘Historical and Biographical Essays’ in two volumes, among which there appeared for the first time his two important papers headed respectively ‘The Debates on the Grand Remonstrance’ and ‘The Plantagenets and Tudors, a Sketch of Constitutional History.’ In 1860 he published his next work, ‘The Arrest of the Five Members by Charles I, a chapter of History Rewritten,’ and in the same year he brought out, in a greatly enlarged form, ‘The Debates on the Grand Remonstrance, November and December 1641, with an Introductory Essay on English Freedom under Plantagenet and Tudor Sovereigns.’ In November 1861 Forster resigned his secretaryship to the lunacy commission on his appointment as a commissioner of lunacy, with a salary of 1,500l. a year. In 1864 he expanded his ‘Life of Sir John Eliot’ into two large volumes, and apparently intended to elaborate in the same way his other memoirs of the statesmen of the Commonwealth. The deaths, within six years of each other, of three of his intimate friends gave him, however, other occupation. Landor dying on 17 Sept. 1864, Forster saw through the press a complete edition of his ‘Imaginary Conversations,’ and in 1869 published his ‘Life of Landor’ in 2 vols. Upon the death of Alexander Dyce in 1869, Forster corrected and published his friend's third edition of Shakespeare, and prefixed a memoir to the official catalogue of the library bequeathed by Dyce to the nation. Dickens's death, on 9 June 1870, led to his last finished biography. His ‘Life of Dickens’ was published, the first volume in 1872, the second in 1873, and the third in 1874. His failing health had induced him, in 1872, to resign his office of lunacy commissioner. He survived all his relations, and felt deeply each successive death. His father died in 1836; his younger brother, Christopher, in 1844; his mother, who is described as ‘a gem of a woman,’ in 1852; his sister Jane in 1853; and his sister Elizabeth in 1868. Forster had long meditated another work, for which he had collected abundant materials. This was the ‘Life of Jonathan Swift.’ The preface to it was dated June 1875, but the first and only finished volume was not published until the beginning of 1876. The hand of death was already upon him while he was correcting the last sheets of vol. i. for the press. He died on 1 Feb. 1876, almost upon the morrow of the book's publication. He was followed to his grave at Kensal Green, on 6 Feb., by a group of attached friends, his remains being buried there beside those of his favourite sister Elizabeth.
Those who knew Forster intimately were alone qualified to appreciate at their true worth his many noble and generous peculiarities. Regarded by strangers, his loud voice, his decisive manner, his features, which in any serious mood were rather stern and authoritative, would probably have appeared anything but prepossessing. Beneath his unflinching firmness and honesty of purpose were, however, the truest gentleness and sympathy. Outsiders might think him obstinate and overbearing, but in reality he was one of the tenderest and most generous of men. A staunch and faithful friend, he was always actively zealous as the peacemaker. While he had the heartiest enjoyment of society he had a curious impatience of little troubles, and yet the largest indulgence for the weakness of others. It was regarded as significant that Dickens allotted to him, in Lord Lytton's comedy of ‘Not so bad as we seem,’ the character of Mr. Hardman, who, with a severe and peremptory manner, is the readiest to say a kindly word for the small poet and hack pamphleteer. By his will, dated 26 Feb. 1874, he bequeathed to the nation ‘The Forster Collection,’ now at South Kensington. The library of eighteen thousand books includes the first folio of Shakespeare, the first edition of ‘Gulliver's Travels,’ 1726, with Swift's corrections in his own handwriting, and other interesting books. The manuscripts in the collection embrace nearly the whole of the original manuscripts of the world-famous novels of Charles Dickens. These, with forty-eight oil-paintings and an immense number of the choicest drawings, engravings, and curiosities, were left by Forster to his widow during her life, and afterwards, for the use of the public, to the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington. Mrs. Forster at once, however, surrendered her own right, to secure without delay the complete fulfilment of her husband's intention.[The two principal sources of information in regard to the subject of this memoir, apart from the writer's own personal knowledge, are Professor Henry Morley's Sketch of John Forster, prefixed to the Handbook of the Forster and Dyce Collections, pp. 1–21, 1877, and the Rev. Whitwell Elwin's Monograph on John Forster, prefixed to the Catalogue of the Forster Library, pp. i–xxii, 1888. Reference may also be made to the Times of 2 and 7 Feb. 1876; Athenæum, 5 Feb. 1876; Alderman Harle's sketch of John Forster in Newcastle Daily Chronicle of 15 Feb. 1876, reprinted, in February 1888, in Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, ii. 49–54; Men of the Time, 9th edit. p. 413; Annual Register for 1876, p. 134.]