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Mackenzie, Henry (1745-1831) (DNB00)


MACKENZIE, HENRY (1745–1831), novelist and miscellaneous writer, was born in August 1745 at Edinburgh, where his father, Joshua Mackenzie, was a physician of eminence. His mother was Margaret, eldest daughter of Hugh Rose of Kilravock, of an old Nairnshire family (Burke, Landed Gentry, p. 1189). He was educated at the high school and university of his native city, and in boyhood showed so much intelligence that he was allowed to be present, as a sort of amateur page, at the literary tea-parties then the fashion in Edinburgh. He was articled to an Edinburgh solicitor, in order to acquire a knowledge of exchequer business. In 1765 he went to London to study the methods of English exchequer practice, and returning to Edinburgh became the partner of his former employer, George Inglis, of Redhall, whom he succeeded as attorney for the crown in Scotland. He soon began to write a sentimental novel, largely under the influence of Sterne. It was entitled ‘The Man of Feeling,’ and its style was remarkable for perspicuity. But the sensibility had a tendency to grow lackadaisical, and booksellers long declined to publish it even as a gratuitous offering. At length, in 1771, it appeared anonymously, and the impression it produced was very soon compared to that made at Paris by ‘La Nouvelle Héloise.’ Subsequently a Mr. Eccles, a young clergyman of Bath, was tempted to claim its authorship, and in support of his pretension produced, as the original manuscript of it, a transcript of the work made by himself, with erasures and interlineations. Though Mackenzie's publishers issued a formal contradiction and disclosed his responsibility, yet on the death of Eccles in 1777 his epitaph opened with the line: ‘Beneath this stone the Man of Feeling lies’ (Boswell, Johnson, 1848 edit. p. 122 and brother's note). In 1773 appeared, also anonymously, Mackenzie's ‘The Man of the World,’ the hero of which was intended to be a striking contrast to ‘The Man of Feeling;’ but its complicated plot and its tedious length injured its literary value. In 1777 appeared, again anonymously, Mackenzie's pathetic ‘Julia de Roubigné,’ a novel in letters, suggested by a remark of Lord Kames [see Home, Henry] that a morbid excess of sentiment, naturally good, often brought misfortune and misery on those who indulged in it. Talfourd, like Christopher North, regarded ‘Julia’ as the most ‘delightful’ of the author's books. Allan Cunningham found it ‘too melancholy to read.’

Meanwhile in 1773 Mackenzie had successfully produced a tragedy, ‘The Prince of Tunis,’ at the Edinburgh Theatre. His other plays were the ‘Shipwreck,’ a version of Lillo's ‘Fatal Curiosity,’ ‘injudiciously spun out to five acts,’ presented at Covent Garden 10 Feb. 1783; ‘The Force of Fashion, a Comedy’ (1789); and the ‘White Hypocrite’ (1789). These were all unsuccessful (cf. Genest, vi. 310; Gent. Mag. 1831, i. 183).

Mackenzie belonged to a convivial and literary club all the members of which, except himself, were young Edinburgh advocates, and at his suggestion they established a weekly periodical on the model of the ‘Spectator.’ It was entitled the ‘Mirror,’ and was the first Scottish periodical of the kind. It appeared, under Mackenzie's superintendence, weekly from 23 Jan. 1779 to 27 May 1780, when it was reissued in volume form. Of the hundred and ten papers which it contained, forty-two were written by Mackenzie. Occasionally he followed so closely in Addison's footsteps as to suggest plagiarism (cf. Notes and Queries, 5th ser. ii. 325). Among Mackenzie's chief contributions were two pathetic stories, ‘La Roche,’ one of the characters in which was an idealised portraiture of Mackenzie's friend, David Hume the philosopher, and ‘Louisa Venoni.’ Both tales were translated into French and Italian, and of the many reprints of them, that in vol. i. of ‘Classic Tales, Serious and Lively’ (1806), is noticeable, because Leigh Hunt, the editor of the series, prefixed to it a discriminating essay on the writings and genius of Mackenzie. Selections from the ‘Mirror,’ with a eulogistic notice of Mackenzie, were published at London in 1826 by Robert Lynam [q. v.] With the aid of former contributors to the ‘Mirror,’ and again under Mackenzie's superintendence, a periodical of the same kind, ‘The Lounger,’ was issued from 6 Feb. 1785 to 6 Jan. 1787. Of its hundred and one papers, fifty-seven were written by Mackenzie. One of them, that for 9 Dec. 1786, was a glowing tribute to the genius of Burns, the first edition of whose poems had been published in the preceding July, and it included an appeal to the Scottish public to exert itself to avert Burns's contemplated migration to the West Indies.

Mackenzie was one of the earliest members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In volume ii. of its ‘Transactions’ was published his ‘Account of the German Theatre,’ a paper read before it 21 April 1788. He did not then know German, and his acquaintance with the contemporary German drama was derived solely from French translations. Nevertheless his paper excited so much attention that Sir Walter Scott ascribed to it the beginning in Scotland of that general interest in German literature which had so marked an effect upon himself (Lockhart, Life of Scott, 1850 edit. p. 56). It is said that, after studying German, Mackenzie published in 1791 ‘Translations of the Set of Horses by Lessing, and of two or three other Dramatic Pieces’ (cf. Allibone, Dict. p. 1177), but there is no trace of the work in the catalogue of the British Museum Library or in that of the Edinburgh Advocates' Library. Among his other contributions to the ‘Transactions of the Edinburgh Royal Society’ were memoirs, in the volume for 1796, of Lord Abercromby, the Scottish judge, and William Tytler of Woodhouselee, the champion of Mary Queen of Scots. Mackenzie was also one of the most active members of the Highland Society of Scotland. To vol. i. of its ‘Prize Essays and Transactions’ (1799–1824) he contributed an ‘Account of its Institution and Principal Proceedings,’ and to each of the succeeding five volumes an account of its principal proceedings during the period embraced in it. He was the convener and chairman of its committee appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the poems of Ossian, and drew up its report (published in 1805), the gist of which was that Macpherson had greatly altered and added to fragments of poetry which were recited in the highlands of Scotland as the work of Ossian [see Macpherson, James, 1738–1796].

Mackenzie also wrote much, though always anonymously, on contemporary politics. Of his political writings the only one which he subsequently acknowledged was his elaborate defence of Pitt's policy, in a ‘Review of the Principal Proceedings of the Parliament of 1784,’ which he wrote at the instance of his friend Henry Dundas, first viscount Melville [q. v.] According to his own statement it was ‘anxiously revised and corrected’ by Pitt himself. ‘The Letters of Brutus to certain Celebrated Political Characters,’ issued collectively in 1791, and strongly Pittite in tone, Mackenzie contributed to the ‘Edinburgh Herald’ in 1790–1. Another volume, ‘Additional Letters of Brutus,’ brought them down to February 1793. In 1793 appeared, still anonymously, his abridgment of the depreciatory ‘Life of Thomas Paine, by Francis Oldys,’ one of the pseudonyms of George Chalmers [q. v.] Mackenzie's services to the constitutional cause, as it was then called, were recognised when, in 1804, through the joint influence of Henry Dundas and George Rose, he was appointed to the lucrative office of comptroller of taxes for Scotland, which he held until his death. It required and received from him unremitting personal attention.

In 1807 his three principal fictions, with some of his tales and sketches in the ‘Mirror’ and the ‘Lounger,’ were issued at Edinburgh in three volumes as ‘The Works of Henry Mackenzie.’ There being only the printer's and not a publisher's name on the title-page, the edition appears to have been a surreptitious one. Accordingly, in the following year Mackenzie issued an edition of his ‘Miscellaneous Works,’ in eight volumes. It contained, in addition to most of the writings mentioned in this article, the life of Thomas Blacklock [q. v.] prefixed to the edition of Blacklock's poems issued in 1793, with some poems and dramatic pieces. His only subsequent work of any note was his account of the life of John Home [q. v.], which was read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh 22 June 1812, and which, with an appendix, was prefixed to the 1822 edition of Home's ‘Works.’

During his later years Mackenzie occupied a unique position in Edinburgh and Scottish society. He was a connecting link between successive generations. He had shot almost every kind of game on land which he lived to see covered by the New Town of Edinburgh. He had been the intimate friend of such Scottish literary celebrities of the eighteenth century as David Hume, John Home, and Robertson the historian, and he survived to enjoy the friendship of Sir Walter Scott and to witness the decline and fall of his fortunes. Lockhart (pp. 432, 433) gives a sketch of Mackenzie in his seventy-sixth year taking part at Abbotsford in a hunting expedition with Scott, Sir Humphry Davy, and Dr. Wollaston. He wore a white hat turned up with green, green spectacles, green jacket, long brown leather gaiters, and a dog whistle round his neck. ‘Mackenzie, spectacled though he was, saw the first sitting hare, gave the word to slip the dogs, and spurred after them like a boy.’ Scott, who calls him ‘The Northern Addison,’ heard him, in his eightieth year, read a paper on ‘Dreams’ before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and describes him as being still a sportsman and an angler, keenly interested in literature, and ‘the life of company, with anecdotes and fun’ (ib. p. 583).

Mackenzie died 14 Jan. 1831. He had married in 1776 Miss Penuel Grant, daughter of Sir Ludovick Grant, by whom he had eleven children. Lord Cockburn (Memorials, edit. of 1856, p. 265) speaks of the ‘excellent conversation,’ of his ‘agreeable family,’ and of his ‘good evening parties,’ which made his house ‘one of the pleasantest.’ ‘The title of “The Man of Feeling,”’ Lord Cockburn adds, ‘adhered to him ever after the publication of that novel, and it is a good example of the difference there sometimes is between a man and his work. Strangers used to fancy that he must be a puerile, sentimental Harley’—the Man of Feeling of his fiction—‘whereas he was far better—a hard-headed, practical man, as full of practical wisdom as most of his fictitious characters are devoid of it, and this without impairing the affectionate softness of his heart. In person he was thin, shrivelled, and yellow, kiln-dried with smoking, with something, when seen in profile, of the clever, wicked look of Voltaire.’

A fine portrait of Mackenzie, by Sir J. Watson Gordon, is in the possession of Messrs. Blackie & Son of Edinburgh; it was engraved by S. Freeman for Chambers's ‘Eminent Scotsmen.’ Another portrait, by Raeburn, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. A third portrait, by W. Staveley, painted for Lord Craig in 1836, and a bust by Samuel Joseph are in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

[Mackenzie's writings; Sir Walter Scott's Miscellaneous Prose Works (1841), vol. i. and Journal, ii. 370; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Maginn's Works, 1885, i. 26; Gent. Mag. 1846, ii. 565; Wilson's Noctes Ambrosianæ, passim; Brit. Mus. Cat., which wrongly credits him with a worthless novel, The Man of Honour, 1834; authorities cited.]

F. E.