John Wilson was born in Paisley on 18 May 1785. His mother, Margaret Sym, was a descendant of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose; his father was a businessman who died in 1795, leaving Wilson a fortune. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as a poet and athlete. His long blond hair, powerful physique and taste for exhibitionism all helped get him noticed.
After graduating he bought the small estate of Elleray in Windermere (now a girls’ school), where he was a friend of the Wordsworths and Thomas de Ouincey. In 1811 he married Jane Penny, the daughter of a Liverpool merchant, and in 1812 he published his first collection of poems. In 1814 financial problems forced him to move to Edinburgh where he qualified as an advocate, but never practised.
Wilson joined the literary circle of the publisher William Blackwood (1776-1834), and became friendly with John Gibson Lockhart and James Hogg. In 1817 Blackwood launched the “Edinburgh Monthly Magazine” under the editorship of James Cleghorn and Thomas Pringle, but he sacked them after six issues, and Wilson and Lockhart stepped in to edit the journal under the new name “Blackwood’s Magazine”. It would become a Tory counterpart to the Whig-supporting “Edinburgh Review” edited by Francis Jeffrey, and the first issue included a “Translation from an ancient Chaldee Manuscript, supposed to have been written by Daniel”, purporting to be based on a manuscript unearthed in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale (Salle 2d, no. 53, B.A.M.M.). In fact it was a satirical attack on the Whigs, written in Old Testament style and concocted by Wilson, Lockhart and Hogg. It caused a furore, and Wilson fled temporarily to Elleray; but the scandal had made him famous.
In 1820 the pro-Tory Town Council appointed Wilson to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, a post for which he was hardly qualified. For his lectures, Wilson had to rely on notes supplied by his friend Alexander Blair, Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at University College, London. Wilson probably managed to become something of an expert on the subject by the time he retired in 1851; certainly, his powers of oratory went down well with his students.
He published two novels in the 1820’s (“The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay” and “The Foresters”), and he continued to edit “Blackwood’s Magazine”, using it to promote the Tory cause and his own opinions. The long-running column “Noctes Ambrosianae” (1822-35) took the form of supposed conversations at Ambrose’s Tavern, a real Edinburgh pub (now gone). More than half of the pieces were by Wilson, who appeared as “Christopher North”. Hogg was “The Ettrick Shepherd”, and was praised and savaged by turns; other regulars were “Timothy Tickler” (Robert Sym), “Ensign O’Doherty” (William Maginn) and “The Opium Eater” (Thomas De Quincey).
Wilson was one of Edinburgh’s literary lions, though as so often happens with great critics, his own works, and his judgements, have proved much less durable than the works of some he honoured with his damning wit. It is not for his poems and novels that he is remembered, but for the colossal position he created for himself in the Scottish intellectual world. Lockhart moved to London in 1825; so did Francis Jeffrey not long afterwards, and Thomas Carlyle installed himself in Chelsea in 1834. With the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832 and James Hogg three years later, Wilson was a big fish in a rapidly drying pool. He died on 3 April 1854, and his complete works were edited in twelve volumes (1855-58) by his son-in-law James Frederick Ferrier, nephew of Susan Edmonstone Ferrier. Wilson’s last home, at 6 Gloucester Place, is now the Christopher North House Hotel. AC
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