Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Melmoth, William (1710-1799)

MELMOTH, WILLIAM, the younger (1710–1799), author and commissioner of bankrupts, son of William Melmoth the elder [q. v.] by his second wife, Catherine Rolt, was born in 1710, most probably in London. He is reported to have studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge (cf. Cole's manuscript Athenæ Cantabr.), and was certainly well educated and a good classical scholar. Bred to the law, he soon abandoned it in order to seek studious quiet in the country. He left London before 1739, and marrying about the same time, settled near Shrewsbury. There he wrote ‘Letters on Several Subjects,’ his first book, published in 1742, under the pseudonym of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne. His wife, the ‘Cleora’ of the ‘Letters,’ was Dorothy, daughter of William King (1685–1763) [q. v.], principal of St. Mary Hall, and she was the subject of his daintiest and most finished effort in verse, the ode written for the third anniversary of their wedding (Fitzosborne's Letters, 35). He afterwards contributed many fugitive anonymous essays and verse to the ‘World,’ but he chiefly occupied himself in his retirement in translating Pliny and Cicero. In 1746 appeared his ‘Letters of Pliny the Younger.’ The grace and accuracy of the work are remarkable, and partly explain Birch's extravagant praise; Warton placed it among works that are better than their originals. Even Mathias, in his ‘Pursuits of Literature’ (ed. 1798, p. 355 and note) has a pleasant word for it. A second edition was printed in 1747, a third in 1748. He had meanwhile collected material for a second volume of ‘Fitzosborne's Letters,’ which he published next year with a translation of the ‘De Oratoribus’ added to the closing letter. Bowyer brought out the two volumes of ‘Letters’ together in the same year, in the form that is now familiar. In 1753 he published his translation of Cicero's ‘Ad Familiares,’ with a careful study of Cicero's character in the running comment. His next work—a translation of the ‘De Senectute’—appeared in 1773.

In 1756 Sir John Eardley Wilmot had appointed Melmoth a commissioner of bankrupts, and his letter of thanks, dated 6 Dec. 1756, suggests that the office was more welcome than the easy circumstances of his earlier life would warrant (Memoirs of Wilmot, 1802, pp. 9–10). A few years later his wife died, and he broke up his home at Shrewsbury. In 1769 he had settled in Bath. There shortly afterwards he married Mrs. Ogle, a malicious rumour tracing a scene in Garrick's ‘Irish Widow’ to the circumstances of the engagement. The ‘De Senectute’ was followed in 1777 by the ‘De Amicitia,’ with a note on Roman friendship. The ‘Travels in Switzerland’ of William Coxe [q. v.] consist of letters addressed to Melmoth at this period (1776–9), and in the edition of 1801 Coxe expresses unstinted admiration of the latter as his literary guide (Advert. p. viii). In 1791 Jacob Bryant [q. v.], in his learned and foolish attempt to prove that Rome tolerated every religion except the Christian, attacked Melmoth for asserting in his ‘Pliny’ that the persecution under Trajan was due not to imperial bigotry, but to the principles of the Roman state. Melmoth vindicated himself in a pamphlet published in 1793, comparing his task, not without fitness, to that of Laberius. His last work was dedicated to his father's memory—the ‘Memoir of a late eminent Advocate,’ published in 1796. His ‘Fitzosborne’ reached the tenth edition that year, but in a letter to Wilmot, son of his old patron, he speaks of himself as weak, bedridden, and old. Melmoth was a familiar figure in Bath literary society of the close of the century. Mrs. Thrale described a meeting with him at Mrs. Montagu's in 1780, and drew from Johnson the characteristic snort, ‘From the author of “Fitzosborne's Letters” I cannot think myself in much danger. I met him only once, about thirty years ago, and in some small dispute reduced him to whistle’ (Boswell, Life, ed. G. B. Hill, iii. 422–4, iv. 272 n.) An interesting reference to Melmoth is in the ‘Notes from the Pocket Book of a late Opium Eater.’ ‘A lady who had been educated by Melmoth,’ writes De Quincey, ‘told me about 1813 that she had a trunk full of his manuscripts. As an article of literary gossip this may as well be made known, for some author writing a biographical dictionary may be interested in knowing all that can now be known of Melmoth, and may even wish to examine his manuscripts. … For my part I never looked into the “Fitzosborne's Letters” since my boyhood; but the impression I then derived from them was, that Melmoth was a fribble in literature, and one of the “sons of the feeble.” Accordingly I shrank myself even from the “sad civility” of asking to look at the manuscripts.’ Melmoth was of middle height, spare, with bright, quick eyes, and a deeply lined face. He died at No. 12 Bladud's Buildings, Bath, on 13 May 1799. There is a Latin epitaph on a tablet in Bath Abbey, but Melmoth was buried at Batheaston.

[The Memoir prefixed to the eleventh (1805) edition of Fitzosborne's Letters contains the most satisfactory account of Melmoth. But see also these Letters themselves, passim; Gent. Mag. 1791 ii. 759, 1794 i. 550, 989, 1797 i. 586–7, 1799 i. 261; Europ. Mag. xxxv. 214 (in both of which there are several errors in the dates given to his works); Monthly Review, viii. 340–1, xlix. 109–115, lvii. 461–6, and enlarged ser. xv. 251–2, xxiii. 269–70; Birch's Life of Tillotson, 1752, p. 362; Warton's Essay on Pope, 1782, ii. 325; Works of Pope, 1806, vii. 13; Nichols's Anecdotes, 1812, ii. 193–4, 215, iii. 40–2, iv. 163, v. 414, and Literary Illustrations, i. 613–16; Cole's Athenæ; Pearch's Collection, ii. 142–52; Dodsley's Collection, 1748, i. 185–96; Peach's Historic Houses in Bath, 2nd ser. p. 52; Bryant's Authority of the Scriptures, 1791, pp. 118–25; Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 32733, f. 411; Autograph Letters, 22, 171.]

J. A. C.