George John Whyte-Melville (19 June 1821 – 5 December 1878) was a Scottish novelist of the sporting-field and a poet.
Life and work
Major George John Whyte-Melville was born in 1821, at Mount Melville near St Andrews. He was a son of Major John Whyte-Melville and Lady Catherine Anne Sarah Osborne and a grandson on his mother's side of the 5th Duke of Leeds. His father was a well-known sportsman and Captain of St Andrews Golf Club. George was educated at Eton, entered the army in 1839, became captain in the Coldstream Guards in 1846 and retired in 1849. He married The Hon Charlotte Hanbury-Bateman in 1847, and they had one daughter, Florence Elizabeth, who went on to marry Clotworthy John Skeffington, 11th Viscount Massereene and 4th Viscount Ferrard.
After translating Horace in 1850, he published his first novel, Digby Grand, in 1853, which was a huge success. He went onto publish twenty-one novels and became a popular writer about hunting. Most of his heroes and heroines, Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honourable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be hunters. Some characters reappear in different novels, such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow.
Bones and I, or The Skeleton at Home, is an anomaly to the corpus of his work, since it is far from the worlds of the hunting field or the historical romance. Instead Bones and I centres upon an urban recluse who lives in a small, modern villa situated in a London cul de sac looking out upon "the dead wall at the back of an hospital." His most famous lyric is also unusual in its unexpected deep melancholy - the words to Paolo Tosti's song "Good-bye!" Several of his novels are historical, The Gladiators being the best known. He also published volumes of poetry, including Songs and Verses (1869) and Legend of the True Cross (1873). However, it is for his portrayal of contemporary sporting society that he is most regarded. Henry Hawley Smart is said to have taken Whyte-Melville as one of his models when he set out on his career as a sporting novelist. It is for the words to a song about hunting that he is perhaps best remembered: 'Drink, Puppy, Drink' (whose name will be familiar to readers of the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser, it being frequently mentioned as one of that anti-hero's favourite songs).
When the Crimean War broke out, Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry, but this was the only break in his literary career.
By a strange accident, Whyte-Melville lost his life whilst hunting 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse. Some say that his death inspired the well-known hunting song "John Peel". Although John Peel was a real-life huntsman in the Lake District, the author of the lyrics, John Woodcock Graves, was a close friend of Whyte-Melville. After a couple of drinks at Whyte-Melville's funeral, Graves scribbled some verses in tribute to Whyte-Melville. He used the melody of an old folk song, "Bonnie Annie".
His Songs and Verses (first published by Chapman and Hall in 1869) went through several editions. His other works include:
- Digby Grand (1853)
- Kate Coventry (1856)
- The Interpreter (1858)
- Holmby House (1860)
- Good for Nothing (1861)
- Market Harborough (1861)
- The Queen's Maries (1862)
- The Gladiators (1863)
- Brookes of Bridlemere (1864)
- Cerise (1866)
- Bones and I (1868)
- The White Rose (1868)
- M or N (1869)
- Contraband (1870)
- Sarchedon (1871)
- Satanella (1873)
- Uncle John (1874)
- Sister Louise (1875)
- Katerfelto (1875) (Katerfelto was the name of a famous, possibly mythical, stallion that lived on Exmoor in the early nineteenth century.)
- Rosine (1875)
- Roy's Wife (1878)
- Black but Comely (1878)
- Riding Recollections (1878)
Several of his novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
- "MR. J. G. WHYTE MELVILLE.". Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1875) (Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia). 2 September 1867. p. 2. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- ODNB entry for Smart by Thomas Seccombe, rev. James Lunt Retrieved 15 January 2013. Pay-walled.
- Henry, Frank (1914). Members of the Beaufort hunt, past & present. Cirencester: Standard Printing Works. pp. 1–80.
- Jessica Hinings, 'Melville, George John Whyte- (1821–1878)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 18 Oct 2013
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