Lever, Charles James
- E. S. Tilley
Charles James Lever (1806–1872)
Lever, Charles James (1806–1872), novelist, was born on 31 August 1806 at 35 Amiens Street, Dublin, the second son of James Lever (d. 1833), and his wife, Julia, née Candler (d. 1833). Lever's father, a successful building contractor, had gone to Ireland from Lancashire in 1787, and his mother was of an Anglo-Irish family from Kilkenny. John, Lever's only sibling, was born in 1796 and spent his working years as a Church of Ireland clergyman.
Early life and education
As a child, Lever attended various private schools in Dublin; in October of 1822 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a pensioner. Never a very diligent student, Lever nevertheless graduated in the autumn of 1827 with a BA degree, and the friendships and associations he formed at Trinity among the sons of Ireland's protestant middle class would prove most enduring. In 1828 Lever travelled to Germany and enrolled at Heidelberg University, after short stays in the Netherlands and Austria. Lever found Germany greatly to his liking and frequently returned in later years.
Some time before 1830 Lever visited Canada, either as a doctor or as a tourist (the date is disputed by his biographers, as is his status on board ship), and his various adventures with the local populations, both settler and native, surfaced in print in Harry Lorrequer (1839) and elsewhere. Lever maintained in later years that he had spent some time living with an Indian tribe in the Tuscarora district of Canada (Stevenson, 17); eventually tiring of the life but being told the tribe would not allow him to leave, he escaped with the aid of an Indian named Tahata. When the two finally reached Quebec, a merchant friend of Lever's father arranged for his passage back to Ireland. Amazingly, Lever managed to bring back a canoe as a souvenir, which he is said to have used to navigate Dublin's canals.
Medical career and first writings
Back home, Lever took up his medical studies again as a resident student at Stevens' Hospital, attending lectures at the medico-chirurgical school in Park Street and Sir Patrick Dunn's Hospital. Despite failing his medical exams, Lever obtained the degree of bachelor of medicine from Trinity College in 1831. By the summer of 1832 a cholera epidemic had broken out and Lever was employed by the Clare board of health as doctor to the district of Kilrush and Kilkee. By all accounts he was a popular and successful physician, but he was profoundly affected by the poverty and disease of the area and even years later he was to write that 'to recall some of the incidents was an effort of great pain' (Stevenson, 39). As the epidemic abated, the offer of a dispensary at Portstewart, on the north shore of co. Londonderry, appealed to him at a time when money was scarce and his prospects in Dublin looked grim.
About September 1832 (no accurate document exists to authenticate the date) Lever married Kate Baker (d. 1870), daughter of W. M. Baker, master of the Royal Hibernian Marine School, and they installed themselves in Portstewart. In January of 1833 Lever's mother died and was buried in St Thomas's Church, Dublin. Lever's father died two months later in Tullamore, King's county, where he had gone in his grief after his wife's death to live with his son John. Lever then found himself heir to a half-interest in £500 p.a. and a house full of furniture, but with no family in Dublin and no base of operations there, his attachment to the city was broken. Despite some success, Lever soon realized that Portstewart would fail to supply enough work to keep his growing family happy (daughter Julia was born in 1833) and his gambling debts paid. Writing seemed to offer an easy way to make money. Lever's introduction to literature had really begun in his student days with various short pieces for Irish journals such as Saunders, the Cork Quarterly Magazine, the Dublin Literary Gazette, and the Irish National Magazine, but it was not until the birth of the Dublin University Magazine in 1833 that he found a home for his particular brand of Irish tale. Following in the steps of William Hamilton Maxwell's comic Irish sketches in Wild Sports of the West of Ireland (1832) and his military Stories of Waterloo (1834), Lever submitted one instalment of what was later to become The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer to the Dublin University Magazine. The serial was accepted and ran from February 1837; the book was issued in volume form in 1839 with illustrations by Phiz. Although the series did not appear under Lever's name, the identity of the author was soon discovered and Lever found himself much sought after. So began a lifetime of writing quickly, to order, with all of the concomitant difficulties surrounding serial publication at that time.
By May of 1837 Lever had left Ireland for Brussels in search of a more lucrative medical practice; he found it among the expatriate families there who were as charmed by his newly found fame as an author as they were by his skill as a doctor. In July 1837 the Levers' son Charles was born, followed in August 1839 by their daughter Kate. The success of Harry Lorrequer was soon followed by Charles O'Malley: the Irish Dragoon, also in the Dublin University Magazine in 1840, and published by Curry in 1841, and Our Mess (vol. 1, Jack Hinton, the Guardsman; vols. 2 and 3, Tom Burke of ‘Ours’ in 1843–4. These early works owe perhaps more to the eighteenth-century style of comic sketch than to nineteenth-century realism. Lever admired Maria Edgeworth as much as Walter Scott, and his novels continued to have a regional focus, an Irish voice, and a historical dimension associated with the Anglo-Irish middle-class view of Ireland's place in the empire. Despite a series of more lucrative offers throughout his career from English publishers such as Bentley, Lever always felt a sense of loyalty to Ireland and its beleaguered publishing industry, which had never recovered from the restrictions placed on it by the Act of Union in 1800. In 1841 Lever was invited to become editor of the Dublin University Magazine—an offer he accepted over Bentley's one of the editorship of his Miscellany, saying simply that to edit Bentley's journal would entail living in London.
Editorial duties and mid-century fiction
In 1842 Lever gave medicine up for ever and moved to the sort of house his characters would have felt at home in, a Jacobean mansion called Bridgehouse, at Templeogue, 4 miles south-west of Dublin. The house became a mecca for those interested in fine hospitality and witty conversation. The young Thackeray visited Lever there, looking for material for his Irish Sketch Book (1843), later dedicated to Lever. An anonymous obituary in the Dublin University Magazine highlights Lever's expansive personality:
We well remember those pleasant noctes,—the beaming face of our host, every muscle trembling with humour, the light of his merry eye, the smile that expanded his mouth, and showed his fine white teeth, the musical ringing laugh that stirred every heart, the finely-modulated voice uttering some witty mot, telling some droll incident, or some strange adventure. Indeed, Lever was one of the best causeurs and raconteurs to be met with, and managed conversation with singular tact; never seeking to monopolise the talk, but, by the felicity of some remark thrown in at the right moment, insensibly attracting the attention of all, till he was master of the situation, and then went off in one of his characteristic sallies. How many of his witty sayings and racy anecdotes are still in the memory of his friends!Charles Lever, Dublin University Magazine, July 1872, 106
The life of an editor, though, was not all that Lever had imagined. He found the unrelenting drudgery uncongenial, and nationalist feeling in Ireland militated against his brand of self-parody. He was savagely attacked by William Carleton in The Nation in October 1843 for 'disgusting and debasing caricatures' of Irishmen (Stevenson, 141) and denounced by devout Catholics for his depiction of jolly priests. His defence in the Dublin University Magazine of Thackeray's ironic portrayal of Ireland further incensed an increasingly politicized readership. Despite these criticisms, circulation of the magazine under his editorship rose to 4000 copies per month, the highest figure it ever attained. Lever was often guilty of indiscretion in his editorials and of making the influential the butt of practical jokes, but he had hoped, perhaps innocently, to translate his fame as a writer into some sort of governmental post on the continent that would allow him to live and write easily.
By February of 1845, having given up both his editor's chair and trying to win favour with the government, Lever had moved his family back to Brussels. He would never live in Ireland again. His few years in Dublin produced numerous short pieces for the Dublin University Magazine, as well as serials and works issued in volume form: Arthur O'Leary: his Wanderings and Ponderings in many Lands (1844), Nuts and Nutcrackers (1845), Tales of the trains, being some chapters of railroad romance, by Tilbury Tramp, queen's messenger (1845) (both collections of short pieces from the magazine), The O'Donoghue: a Tale of Ireland Fifty Years Ago (1845), and St Patrick's Eve (1845). Further wanderings in Germany and Italy led the family to settle eventually in Florence in 1847, Lever supporting their wanderings through further contributions to the Dublin University Magazine, the sale of the family home in Dublin, royalties, and more novels. The Knight of Gwynne: a Tale of the Time of the Union (1847) is one of Lever's best books, the work of mature imagination, dealing sensitively with the political wrangling and self-interest surrounding the passing of the Act of Union in 1800. Travel formed the basis for new plots: Roland Cashel (1850), a rather dark satire of Dublin middle-class life, Confessions of Con Cregan, the Irish Gil Blas (1850), and Diary and Notes of Horace Templeton Esq., Late Secretary of Legation at --- (1848), which concerns the ramblings of a civil servant come to Italy to die.
By February of 1850 Lever had started writing the opening chapters of two books concurrently, a practice engaged in occasionally before this time but now become the rule: Maurice Tiernay, the Soldier of Fortune, which ran in the Dublin University Magazine from April 1850 to December 1851 (volume form, 1855), and The Daltons, or, Three Roads in Life (1852). The efforts were patchy; friends urged Lever to take more time to write, lest his work become repetitive. Lever's reply reveals how close he felt to desperation: 'But how am I to live meanwhile? While I am training for the match I'll die of hunger' (Downey, 1.312–13). A daughter, Sydney, had been born in 1849; Lever had lost money when the Irish publishing firm of Curry was bankrupted; insurance premiums were due; his son Charles was proving difficult to place in a suitable profession; and the sort of life that he desired on the continent was always expensive. Looking to Dublin again for encouragement and recognition, Lever published Sir Jasper Carew, his Life and Experiences in 1855, The Dodd Family Abroad (1854), whose adventures sound much like the Lever family's own, and The Martins of Cro' Martin (1856).
Civil service and later literary work
Lever had never given up hope of securing some kind of employment in the civil service, and the late 1850s brought a renewal of rumours of posts to be offered once a Conservative government gained power. Late in 1858 he was appointed vice-consul at La Spezia at a salary somewhat less than £300 per annum: 'as I like the place, and there is nothing—actually nothing—to do, I have thought it best to accept it' (Stevenson, 236). In fact the post suited Lever admirably. It provided a small measure of financial security, and allowed him to get on with the business of writing. Several novels followed from Italy in quick succession: The Fortunes of Glencore (1857), Davenport Dunn: a Man of our Day (1859), Gerald Fitzgerald, ‘the Chevalier’ (1859), and One of them (1861).
Lever's relations with Dickens had been amiable for some time; October 1859 saw the two negotiating for a new serial for All The Year Round, and A Day's Ride: a Life's Romance began its monthly appearance in August of 1860. Despite Dickens's best editorial efforts, the story was a failure. Lever was writing One of them at the same time as A Day's Ride, and seems to have felt that the serial project was of less importance than the volume for Chapman and Hall. Dickens wrote to Lever with bad news on 6 October 1860:
Whether it is too detached and discursive in its interest for the audience and the form of publication, I cannot say positively; but it does not take hold. The consequence is, that the circulation becomes affected, and that the subscribers complain.Dickens to Lever, 6 Oct 1860, Letters of Charles Dickens, 9.321
As a result, Dickens decided to run Great Expectations alongside the remaining parts of Lever's novel, and Lever suffered the humiliation of having his story relegated to the magazine's back pages.
The early years of the next decade were marred by the ill health of Lever's wife, and the mounting debts and dissolution of his son, who suffered an internal haemorrhage and died in 1863 at the age of twenty-six. The furious production of Lever's early years as a writer began to slow, and his work took on a more studied appearance. In February of 1864 he began a series of anonymous occasional pieces for Blackwood's Magazine. Topical and amusing, the essays were edited by John Blackwood whenever Lever's enthusiasms threatened to border on the slanderous. The arrangement lasted until May 1872, Blackwood publishing selections under the title Cornelius O'Dowd upon Men and Women and other Things in General in several volumes (1864, 1865). Lever's frequent outrage at the vagaries of Italian and English politics would often be worked off by writing another 'O'Dowd'. Other novels of the period include Barrington (1863), Luttrell of Arran (1865), Tony Butler (1865), A Rent in a Cloud (1865), and Sir Brook Fossbrooke (1866). Ill health and flagging spirits dogged Lever during the latter half of the decade. In February of 1867 he took up the consulship at Trieste, a location that proved insalubrious. In a letter to John Blackwood, Lever laments, 'Trieste means no books, no writing, no O'D., no leave nor go of any kind, but moral death, and damnation too' (Stevenson, 275). Serials for St Paul's and the Cornhill Magazine became The Bramleighs of Bishop's Folly (1868), Paul Goslett's Confessions in Love, Law, and the Civil Service (1868), and That Boy of Norcott's (1869).
Lever was devastated by the death of his wife Kate in April of 1870, and despite being in poor health himself, decided to make one last journey to London and Ireland to gather material for what was to be his final novel, Lord Kilgobbin: a Tale of Ireland in our Own Time (1872). The trip confirmed his status in the literary world; constant engagements precluded seeing anything much of the country, though they proved gratifying to his ego. In the spring of 1871 Lever was awarded an honorary degree of LLD from Trinity College, news of which reached him back in Trieste. John Blackwood and his family visited Lever at the Villa Gasteïger in May 1872 where they found him rather weak but in good spirits. On 1 June 1872, however, Lever died of heart failure. He was buried on 3 June in the British cemetery at Trieste. His reputation has suffered much since his death. He is chiefly remembered for his first two novels, whose comic depictions of stage Irishmen and women angered writers like Yeats and Lady Gregory. But this is to ignore, as Yeats did, his later work: considered, often deeply critical both of English attitudes toward Ireland and of the prevailing Irish Ascendancy view of the people. The fault lies partly with nineteenth-century publishing practices—forcing authors to write too quickly, and too much—and partly with an audience that was ultimately unwilling to see beyond stereotypes.
- L. Stevenson, Dr Quicksilver: the life of Charles Lever (1939)
- E. Downey, Charles Lever: his life in his letters, 2 vols. (1906)
- W. J. Fitzpatrick, The life of Charles Lever, new edn 
- T. Bareham, ed., Charles Lever: new evaluations, Ulster Editions and Monographs, 3 (1991)
- M. Sadleir, Dublin University Magazine: its history, contents and bibliography (1938), vol. 5, no. 4 of The Bibliographical Society of Ireland papers
- R. McHugh, ‘Charles Lever’, Studies, 27 (1939), 247–60
- A. N. Jeffares, ‘Lever's Lord Kilgobbin’, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, new ser., 28 (1975), 45–57
- W. J. McCormack, Ascendancy and tradition in Anglo-Irish literary history from 1789 to 1939 (1985)
- B. Sloan, The pioneers of Anglo-Irish fiction: 1800–1850 (1986)
- J. S. Crone, A concise dictionary of Irish biography (1928)
- [J. H. Slingerland], ‘The Dublin University Magazine, 1833–1877, and the University Magazine, 1878–1880’, Wellesley index, 4.193–213
- S. Haddelsey, Charles Lever: the lost Victorian (2000)
- Hunt. L., corresp. and notebooks
- Morgan L., notebook
- NL Ire., ‘Downey List’, MS 10061(4)
- Princeton University Library, New Jersey, corresp. and literary MS
- Ransom HRC, papers
- Royal Irish Acad., journals
- U. Cal., Los Angeles, corresp.
- BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, Loan MS 96
- Herts. ALS, letters to earl of Lytton
- NL Scot., corresp. with Blackwoods
- S. Louer, portrait, 1842, repro. in Downey, Charles Lever, vol. 1
- S. Pearce, chalk drawing, 1849, NG Ire.
- Dalziel, woodcut, BM
- J. J. E. Mayall, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
- H. T. Ryall, stipple (after S. Louer), NPG
- R. Taylor, woodcut (after a photograph by C. Watkins), NPG; repro. in The Illustrated Review (1 July 1871)
- photograph, repro. in Downey, Charles Lever, vol. 2
- wood-engraving (after a photograph by C. Watkins), NPG; repro. in ILN (15 June 1872)
Wealth at Death
under £4000: probate, 16 Oct 1872, CGPLA Eng. & Wales