John Forster

John Forster (1812–76)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 11, 329–331.

The friendship between RB and this talented journalist-historian-biographer spanned 40 years, despite occasional interruptions resulting from quarrels. The youngest of four children of Robert and Mary Forster, John was born about a month earlier than RB, on 2 April 1812, at Newcastle. His father was a cattle-dealer. After showing considerable literary skill in his early school days at Newcastle, Forster entered Cambridge in 1828. Almost immediately, however, he transferred to London, where he attended the University College and studied law at the Inner Temple. One of his fellow students at the newly-founded college, briefly, was RB, but apparently they did not then become acquainted. Forster plunged quickly into literary work and never practiced law, although he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1843.

While contributing to a number of periodicals, he became drama critic for The True Sun in 1832, and chief critic for The Examiner in 1833. His Lives of the Statesmen of the Commonwealth appeared in Lardner’s Cyclopædia in 1836–39 and as a separate work in 1840. The help which RB gave him on an early portion dealing with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was soon to bear further fruit in RB’s own Strafford (1837). While pursuing his work as a literary and drama critic, Forster also was editor of The Foreign Quarterly Review in 1842–43, of The Daily News (which he and Charles Dickens had founded) in 1846, and of The Examiner in 1847–56. Starting in September 1845 and for about ten years thereafter he was active in a popular amateur theatrical group headed by Dickens. His numerous published works in the 1850’s and beyond included biographies of Oliver Goldsmith (1854), Walter Savage Landor (1869), and Dickens (1872–74). He was working on a biography of Jonathan Swift at the time of his death and completed only the first volume, published in 1876.

He served as secretary to a governmental commission of lunacy from 1855 to 1861, then as a commission member until 1872. In 1856 Forster married Eliza Ann (née Crosbie) Colburn, widow of a prominent publisher. When Forster died, she generously relinquished her lifetime rights to his priceless collection of books, pictures, and manuscripts, allowing it to go immediately into the possession of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Forster and his wife were friends of Jane and Thomas Carlyle. In 1866, when Mrs. Carlyle died suddenly during a carriage ride, Forster was the person immediately called, Carlyle himself being away from London at the time. Forster’s own death occurred in early February 1876, and he was buried next to his sister in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Forster moved easily among the lions of the Victorian literary scene. Though he and RB were the same age, Forster was already well known and influential when RB emerged as the “author of Paracelsus” in 1835. He wrote, for The Examiner of 6 September 1835, the first really favourable review of Paracelsus which concluded: “It is some time since we read a work of more unequivocal power than this. We conclude that its author is a young man, as we do not recollect his having published before. If so, we may safely predict for him a brilliant career, if he continues true to the present promise of his genius. He possesses all the elements of a fine poet.” Forster followed this with a very long review in The New Monthly Magazine of March 1836. (The two reviews appear in The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 3, pp. 350–352 and 372–383.) The first of them was written prior to the first known meeting of RB and Forster, which occurred at William Charles Macready’s New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1835. Some time or other thereafter, RB gave and inscribed to Forster the famous copy of Pauline (1833) in which John Stuart Mill had made significant annotations and criticisms (Reconstruction, B20). RB’s Strafford (1837), however, received a mixed review by Forster in The Examiner of May 1837 (The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 3, pp. 400–402).

Meanwhile, EBB was coming to the attention of Forster, who favourably reviewed her contributions to the 1838 and 1839 Findens’ Tableaux (see The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 3, p. 299, note 6, and pp. 339–340; also vol. 4, p. 405). He called EBB’s “Romance of the Ganges,” in the 1838 issue, “incomparably the best poem in the work.” However, Forster did not actually meet EBB until 1851.

What is known of RB’s sometime-troubled relationship with Forster from 1835 to 1846 mainly centers around the poet’s works. Macready, in a diary entry for 12 April 1837, cites a tiff over RB’s Strafford. There was apparently another disagreement in 1840, causing Forster to seek advice from William Johnson Fox and Eliza Flower (SD1136) on how to patch it up. Forster seems to have treated RB unfairly in connection with the latter’s A Blot in the ’Scutcheon (1843). Forster showed the manuscript of this play to Dickens, who—on 25 November 1842—wrote a letter praising it highly. Forster never mentioned this much-needed praise to RB, though Dickens expressed willingness that he do so, and RB only learned of it some 30 years later (see The Brownings’ Correspondence biographical sketch of Dickens, vol. 5, p. 368; also Reconstruction, E579). Forster’s review of Colombe’s Birthday, published in The Examiner of 22 June 1844, was not wholly unfavourable, but it concluded: “As far as he [RB] has gone, we abominate his tastes as much as we respect his genius.” A rift resulted which lasted for more than a year. In September 1845, however, Forster invited RB to attend one of Dickens’s amateur theatrical performances, and RB reported to EBB on 15 October 1845 that “Mr Forster came yesterday & was very profuse of graciosities … so we will go on again with the friendship, as the snail repairs his battered shell–” Although it is difficult to determine who began or exacerbated these disagreements, there is some evidence that indicates Forster may have been the more culpable party. In a letter to Edward Moxon, Tennyson once remarked that he “found Forster rather sore at my non-acknowledgement of his critique in that journal [The Examiner]. When you see him remember me to him as kindly as you may—he is a good fellow but overworked and falls into crotchets about his friends” (Tennyson, I, 293).

EBB’s reactions to Forster’s reviews of her work, on the other hand, were not complicated by any personal association. In discussing her Poems on 5 October 1844, the Examiner gave some compliments, but also said of the author: “The art of knowing what to keep and what to reject, she has not attained.” Yet in a letter of 8 October 1844 to John Kenyon (no. 1734), in which she attributed the review to Forster, EBB said: “I am more than contented .. delighted with it.” At about the same time, in a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon (no. 1733), she called Forster “the ablest of English critics.” Forster wrote a generally favourable review of RB’s Luria and A Soul’s Tragedy for The Examiner of 25 April 1846. In a letter to RB two days afterward, EBB wrote: “Very good Examiner!– I am pleased with it & with Mr. Forster for the nonce, though he talks a little nonsense here & there, in order to be a true critic.”

The RB-EBB marriage took Forster, along with most other people, completely by surprise. Dorothy Hewlett says in Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1953, p. 196) that when Forster, as editor of The Daily News, saw a proof of the marriage announcement, he thought it was a hoax until shown the original manuscript in Sarianna Browning’s handwriting. Forster, along with Bryan Waller Procter and Thomas Noon Talfourd, helped RB to prepare his Poems (1849) for the press. Forster introduced RB to Chapman & Hall, who printed that work and continued as the Brownings’ publishers until 1864. The poets saw Forster on both of their London visits during the 1850’s; he gave a dinner in their honour in 1851.

Some years later, RB and Forster became jointly involved in managing the affairs of the aging and tempestuous Walter Savage Landor, who—like RB—was in Italy at the time. A book of Selections from the Poetical Works of Robert Browning, edited by Forster and Procter, was published in 1863. Appearing in that same year was a three-volume set of RB’s Poetical Works, made ready by the poet himself, who dedicated it to Forster as his “promptest and staunchest helper.” But despite affirmations of this kind, the relationship between the two remained unsteady. R.C. Lehmann, in Memories of Half a Century (London, 1908), stated that Forster sought to exercise “a kind of patent-right or ownership” (p. 112) over RB after the latter returned to London in 1861, and that RB may have found the situation irksome. Lehmann, quoting from reminiscences of his father, described a dinner party during which RB and Forster “began to nag at each other,” with RB finally “seizing a decanter” and threatening to pitch it at Forster’s head (p. 113). Yet clashes were followed by reconciliations, in part at least. A letter written by Forster on 25 December 1868 acknowledges a condolence from RB and goes on to say: “I am not going to revert to anything painful in the past. All that, is gone for ever from my thoughts.” On 1 December 1875, about two months before his own death, Forster wrote to congratulate RB for The Inn Album, which had just appeared. On the following day, RB replied: “It would be strange indeed if I were not proud at in any way pleasing you in my last work … I am happy you recall our old days and conversancy—my own friendship was too vital to succumb at the interruption of that. Nor have I at all doubted of your good will to me.”


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