Whitehead, Charles (DNB00)

WHITEHEAD, CHARLES (1804–1862), poet, novelist, and dramatist, the son of a wine merchant, was born in London in 1804. He began life as a clerk in a mercantile house, but soon adopted literature as his profession. In 1831 he published ‘The Solitary,’ a poem in the Spenserian stanza, showing genuine imagination. The poem won the approval of Professor Wilson in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ,’ and of other critics of eminence. In 1834 appeared Whitehead's ‘Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen’ (probably written some years earlier, the least worthy of his productions), and ‘The Autobiography of Jack Ketch,’ a burlesque biography of the hangman, which contained a remarkable episodical story of serious intent, ‘The Confession of James Wilson.’ Whitehead's vivid blank-verse drama, ‘The Cavalier,’ the plot of which is laid in Restoration times, was produced at the Haymarket Theatre on 15 Sept. 1836, with Ellen Tree and Vandenhoff in the principal parts, and has been revived more than once, notably at the Lyceum Theatre in 1856.

Owing to the success of Whitehead's ‘Jack Ketch,’ Messrs. Chapman & Hall invited him to write the letterpress to a monthly issue of a humorous kind, to which Robert Seymour [q. v.] was to furnish the illustrations. Pleading inability to produce the copy with sufficient regularity, Whitehead recommended his friend Charles Dickens for the work. The publishers acted on the recommendation, and the result was the ‘Pickwick Papers.’ A further point of contact between Whitehead and Dickens consisted in Whitehead's revising in 1846 ‘The Memoirs of Grimaldi,’ which had been edited by Dickens in 1838 under the pseudonym of ‘Boz.’ Whitehead's masterpiece, ‘Richard Savage’ (1842), illustrated by Leech, a romance, partly founded on Dr. Johnson's life of Savage, was much admired by Dickens. It was dramatised, and the play ran for nearly thirty nights at the Surrey Theatre. A new edition of the novel, with an introduction by Harvey Orrinsmith, was published in 1896. Included in ‘The Solitary and other Poems’ (1849), a collected edition of Whitehead's poetical work, is his most remarkable sonnet beginning ‘As yonder lamp in my vacated room,’ which Dante Rossetti described as ‘very fine.’

Whitehead belonged to the Mulberry Club, of which Douglas Jerrold and other wits were members, and was acquainted with all the famous men of letters of his day. When ‘Richard Savage’ appeared he had every prospect of success in literature, but intemperance wrecked his career. He went to Australia in 1857, with the hope of recovering his position. He contributed to the ‘Melbourne Punch,’ and he printed in the ‘Victorian Monthly Magazine’ the ‘Spanish Marriage,’ a fragment of poetic drama possessing considerable merit. Whitehead's personal qualities, despite his infirmities of disposition, endeared him to those who knew him well, and an admirer of his literary talent gave him an asylum at his house in Melbourne, but he furtively made his escape from the restrictions of respectability. He sank into abject want, and died miserably in a Melbourne hospital on 5 July 1862. He was buried in a pauper's grave, and the authorities refused the request made by friends, when they heard for the first time of his sad end, to remove his remains to a fitting tomb. His publisher and warm well-wisher, George Bentley, described him as a ‘refined scholarly man … with thoughtful, almost penetrating eyes.’

Whitehead was a frequent contributor to magazines, particularly to ‘Bentley's Miscellany,’ He also published ‘Victoria Victrix,’ a poem (1838), ‘The Earl of Essex’ (1843), ‘Smiles and Tears,’ a series of collected stories (1847), and ‘A Life of Sir Walter Ralegh’ (1854).

[Mackenzie Bell's Charles Whitehead, a monograph, with extracts from his works.]

M. B-l.