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 tutored privately at home by the young Robert Lee then 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 1852, which was a huge success. He went on to 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, ride to hounds, or are would-be members of the hunt. 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 Papers 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 in 1878 whilst hunting; the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse. Having moved to Tetbury in Gloucestershire in about 1875, the better to follow the Beaufort and V.W.H hunts, he was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Tetbury, within a few feet of his property, Barton Abbotts.
It has been claimed that Whyte-Melville's 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 imbibing a quantity of alcohol at Whyte-Melville's funeral, Graves penned some verses in tribute to Whyte-Melville, set to the melody of a traditional folk song entitled, "Bonnie Annie".
At the instigation of his mother, Lady Catherine Melville, a memorial fountain was erected via public subscription to the memory of Whyte-Melville in Market Street, St Andrews, Fife in 1880; standing at a height of approximately 14 feet, this three-tier cascading fountain was constructed using sandstone and Dalbeattie granite and features four marble plaques dedicated to Whyte-Melville - these include his bust, family coat of arms, the arms of the Coldstream Guards, and a memorial inscription. Due to corrosion of internal pipe works, the fountain eventually fell into disuse (possibly in the 1930s) and was for many decades treated as a flower-bed, planted largely with roses, and during the summer months, with annual flowers. Sequel to a successful campaign by a local councillor and the St Andrews Merchants’ Association, the Whyte-Melville Memorial Fountain was restored, refitted with new piping and formally reconnected to the water mains on Wednesday 8 July 2015.
His Songs and Verses (first published by Chapman and Hall in 1869) went through several editions. His other works include:
- Digby Grand (1852)
- General Bounce (1854)
- 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.
- "Whyte-Melville, George John". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- "MR. J. G. WHYTE MELVILLE.". The Empire. Sydney: 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
- Visit St Andrews | Whyte-Melville Memorial Fountain
- UK Attraction | Whyte-Melville Fountain
- The Saint | Plans in full flow to return water to fountain
- Fife Today | Water flows again through fountain in heart of St Andrews
- Index to Victorian Periodicals 1804–1900. pp. 414–418. The Autobiography of Captain Digby Grand was published in Fraser's Magazine from November 1851 to December 1852.
- Index to Victorian Periodicals 1804–1900. p. 422–426. General Bounce was published in Fraser's Magazine in 1854 from January to December.
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