William Maginn, who died one hundred and seventy years ago today in Walton-on-Thames, aged just forty-nine, was one of the heroic figures of the rumbustuous world of the early Victorian periodical press.
Maginn moved from his native Cork to London in 1824 and was almost immediately appointed Paris correspondent of The Representative, a new paper set up by Scottish publisher John Murray. In Paris, it was said, he “drank much and wrote little”. He was soon brought home and the paper did not long survive. Maginn moved to the ultra-Tory Standard, but came into his own as editor of Fraser’s Magazine, founded in 1830. Fraser’s, according to John Gross (in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, 1969), was “crammed with doggerel, innuendo, burlesque, furious insults, scholarship run mad”, all under the auspices of the (fictional) editor and lord of misrule, “Oliver Yorke”.
Thomas Carlyle found Fraser’s an invaluable source of income, but thought the magazine itself “a chaotic, fermenting, dung-hill heap of compost”. He could not keep up with the regular carousing of its team of contributors (he himself took his wine watered) and was eventually glad to leave behind Oliver Yorke and his “all-too Irish mirth and madness”.
Maginn had been a child prodigy, entering Trinity College Dublin and confounding the professors with his knowledge of the classical languages at the age of eleven. He had been taught by his schoolmaster father, an apparently humane man who nevertheless could not resist cramming his clever son and pushing him out into the world as a marvel and an advertisement for the achievements of his school. To Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he eventually added a clutch of modern languages and in honour of his learning he was chiefly referred to by his colleagues simply as “the Doctor”. He also wrote squibs under the pseudonym Sir Morgan O’Doherty.
The drink was to get him in the end. “Maginn’s career,” writes Gross, “is a reminder that economic conditions are never quite enough in themselves to account for the calamities of Grub Street [the literal, in nineteenth century London, and metaphorical, ever since, home of the poorly paid hack writer]. A man of his stamp would have come to grief in any period, and all the patronage in the world would hardly have sufficed to damp down his talent for self-destruction.”
His friend John Gibson Lockhart offered a fine epitaph:
Here, early to bed, lies poor William Maginn,
For your Tories his fine Irish brains he would spin …
But for all his brains, he had the good man’s weakness, which got him in the end:
But at last he was beat, and sought help of the bin,
(All the same to the Doctor, from claret to gin)
Which led swiftly to jail, with consumption therein;
It was much, when the bones rattled loose in his skin …
Barring drinks and the girls, I ne’er heard of a sin,
Many worse, better few, than bright broken Maginn.