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Macdonell, James (1841-1879) (DNB00)

MACDONELL, JAMES (1841–1879), journalist, born in 1841 at Dyce in Aberdeenshire, was eldest son of James Macdonell by his wife, Rachel Allardyce of Dyce. The father was of a Roman catholic family, which came originally from Glengarry in Inverness-shire. James, who showed intellectual gifts and predilections at an early age, was educated at Bell's school, Inverness, and at the parish schools of Dufftown and Rhynie. Owing to the death of his father (1858) he entered a mercantile office as clerk at the age of sixteen, but soon obtained other employment as a writer of leading articles in the ‘Aberdeen Free Press.’ In 1862 he went to Edinburgh on the staff of the ‘Daily Review.’ The brilliancy of his literary style attracted attention, and he was shortly afterwards invited to Newcastle to become, in spite of what he himself called his ‘extreme youthfulness,’ editor of the ‘Northern Daily Express.’ The newspaper rose rapidly under his guidance, and at twenty-two he found his services sought by two powerful editors—one of the ‘Scotsman,’ the other of the ‘Daily Telegraph.’ He joined the latter, and for ten years (1865–75) he was member of its staff, and was sent to act as special correspondent to France in 1870 and in 1871.

In 1875 he joined the staff of the ‘Times’ as a leader writer. One of his colleagues spoke of his leaders as ‘complete and finished essays, perfectly polished literary gems.’ Another says: ‘His style was at once fluent and incisive. He had keen, analytical perception. His meaning was never obscure, and his information was peculiarly accurate. Not a constitutional problem could be mooted on either side of the Atlantic of which he did not seem to have made an especial study. Of French politics, in particular, he had a real mastery.’ Macdonell died suddenly, at his house in London, 2 March 1879, at the early age of thirty-seven.

He married in 1870 Annie Harrison, a niece of Mary Howitt, and there were three sons of the marriage. Their house became a meeting-place of the best representatives of liberal journalism. As a conversationalist Macdonell was both brilliant and instructive.

Between 1865 and 1875 Macdonell wrote frequently for ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ ‘North British Review,’ and ‘Macmillan's.’ An article in the ‘North British Review’ (December 1867) on the ‘Natural History of Morals,’ designed to refute Buckle's theory as to the stationary nature of morals, excited unusual attention. His last work, edited by his wife and published after his death (1880), ‘France since the First Empire,’ is only a brilliant fragment; but it remains one of the most accurate and discriminating works on modern French politics.

[Private information; James Macdonell, Journalist, by W. R. Nicoll, M.A., 1890; Daily Telegraph, 1865–75; Times, 1875–9.]

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