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John Robertson

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Published : 30 Articles
Pen Names : None
Date of Birth : N/A
Death : N/A
Views : 5101

The Office Book gives no clue as to the identity of the contributor, but he is clearly the Robertson mentioned in Dickens's letters to Wills, September 18 and November 10 1855. The first letter indicates that in September Robertson sent to Dickens the article "Pierre Erard" accompanying it by a letter in which he addressed Dickens familiarly. Dickens sent Robertson's letter to Wills, remarking: "I don't know that I have the least knowledge of Mr. Robertson, though he addresses me as 'Dear Dickens'". Dickens accepted the article for H.W.; Wills recorded it in the Office Book as by "Robinson". There was obviously some confusion about the writer's address, for in November Dickens wrote from Paris: "There has called on me in my absence, a Mr. John Robertson, 15, Rue de Monceau, Faubourg St. Roule. I believe this to be the writer of the Erard paper". Wills was to ascertain whether Dickens's supposition was correct and, if so, to send the writer payment for the contribution. Wills recorded payment as made by cheque, November 16. His recording of "Robinson" as the contributor's name is clearly in error. Dickens's first letter establishes the writer as Robertson; his second letter almost as definitely establishes him as John Robertson. The writer, at all events, was the Robertson who contributed to H.W. during the following three and a half years. Like the writer of various of the articles assigned to Robertson, the writer of "Pierre Erard" is in Paris and is interested in contemporary happenings in France.


The articles assigned to Robertson give the following information concerning him: he was a Scotsman, a Protestant, born in Aberdeen; attended school in Aberdeen. Was a student at a university. From his boyhood years came his interest in fisher folk, in the sea, and in marine flora and fauna. Had a devout attitude toward "the vegetal and animal world": seeing it as "the work of a Divine Intelligence". Was impatient with the bookishness of "the savans" and had little use for antiquaries. Made various visits to Brighton. Lived for a time in London, but writes of that residence as in the past. Was familiar with London clubs and greatly interested in London's historical associations. In his walks, peopled the city with the ghosts of the great men who had once been there —Bacon, Shakespeare, and Cromwell being among his "principal London ghosts". During the 1850s lived in France, apparently in Paris; acquainted with some of English residents in Paris.

"Notes on the Fishers of the Scotch East Coast", Blackwood's, March 1842, assigned in the Wellesley Index to "Mr. Robertson" is by the H.W. contributor. Various observations and comments in the article correspond with the material given in Robertson's H.W. articles on Scottish and English coast folk.

Among the numerous Robertsons writing in the mid-century, at least three were born in Aberdeen: Joseph Robertson, record scholar, journalist, antiquary; James Craigie Robertson, historian, canon of Canterbury; and John Robertson, journalist. It is John Robertson, remembered for his association with John Stuart Mill and with the Carlyles, who seems to have been the H.W. contributor.

Accounts of Robertson appear in Bain, John Stuart Mill, p. 59n; Espinasse, Literary Recollections, chap. vii; Masson, Memories of London in the 'Forties, chap. i; references to him appear in Bain's Autobiography, in Mill's Autobiography, in the letters of the Carlyles, and occasionally in the writings of other contemporaries; Mill's letters to him appear in Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, ed. Mineka; the record of his admission at Lincoln's Inn and his call to the bar appears in Records of ... Lincoln's Inn; a brief notice of him is given in Boase, Modern English Biography (1892-1921).

According to these sources, the facts of Robertson's life are as follows: b. ca. 1811, d. 1875. Educated at University of Aberdeen and University of Glasgow, intended for the ministry. Went to London "as a literary adventurer" (Masson), Admitted at Lincoln's Inn, 1834; called to the bar, 1839. Meanwhile, had become connected with Morning Chronicle—as a reporter, according to Boase, as "a prominent political contributor", according to Espinasse. Contributed an article on Bacon to London Review, 1836; one on Shakespeare to London & Westminster Review, 1836; both articles elicited praise. Was acting editor of London & Westminster Review during Mill's proprietorship of the periodical, 1837-1840; aroused anger of Carlyle by cancelling his engagement to write article on Cromwell, which Robertson decided to write himself. On Mill's relinquishment of the Review, was "once more adrift in the London world" (Masson), Wrote for London newspapers and was correspondent for several provincial papers. In the early 1840s had some hope of being returned M.P. for a Scottish constituency; hope did not materialize. Was member of Reform Club. Was active in organizing the short-lived Society of British Authors, 1843 (Besant, "The First Society of British Authors", Contemporary Review, July 1889). According to Bain (John Stuart Mill), "disappeared from London" about 1844 "and was afterwards rarely heard of"; according to Espinasse, "little or nothing was seen or heard" of him in public after 1848; appears to have visited the Carlyles last in 1849. Espinasse states that Robertson "made, I believe, a good marriage" later in life, after having had at least one matrimonial hope demolished by his too evident indication that he wanted a wife "chiefly to make her of use to him in his literary labours". Masson remarks, without explanation, on "what a strange romance, tragic on the whole", Robertson's life would seem "if it could be all told". What that life was after the 1840s no one seems to have recorded. Boase states that Robertson died at Old Gore, Hereford, and was buried in Brighton.

Robertson's brief prominence as "a stirring man" in the London journalistic world made him acquainted with numerous contemporaries besides those mentioned above. He was introduced to Lord Melbourne and Lord Normanby; he was acquainted with Crabb Robinson; he was a friend of Louis Blanc and of Bulwer-Lytton. Forster knew him at least by repute (Garnett, Life of W. J. Fox, p. 195). Geraldine Jewsbury and Harriet Martineau, who later became contributors to H.W., were acquainted with him.

No contemporary seems to have recorded that Dickens and Robertson were acquainted; there were opportunities for such acquaintance. Dickens was reporter for the Morning Chronicle, 18,46; Robertson was connected with the same periodical. Dickens presided at the second meeting ofthe Society of British Authors; Robertson was a prime mover of the organization. From Thackeray, in conversation, and from Mrs. Carlyle, in a letter, Dickens heard of Robertson, and to Mrs. Carlyle's letter he sent a reply (Jane Welsh Carlyle, Letters to Her Family, pp. 188-189).

This Robertson seems the most likely writer to be the "Mr. John Robertson" of Paris who addressed the conductor of H.W. as "Dear Dickens" and became a contributor to his periodical.

Dickens liked "Pierre Erard"; the opening section of "Captain Doineau" he found overlong and confused; Wills was to alter it (to Wills, September 18 1855; September 28 1857: MS Huntington Library).

In the Office Book, "An Immeasurable Wonder" is recorded as by Robertson "per F. Buckland": the Buckland notation is marked out.

For Robertson's connection with "A Companionable Sparrow" and with Miss Fitton, and for his appropriation of some of her writing, see Sarah Mary Fitton. See, also, " Friend of Robertson".

Author: Anne Lohrli; © University of Toronto Press, 1971.

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