Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542
The Irish novelist Charles James Lever (LEE-vur) was the son of English parents. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1822 to 1827; his classmates and escapades there provided material he would later use in his novels. He studied medicine at Göttingen, during which time he traveled widely in Europe and, as a ship’s doctor, to Canada, where according to legend he lived for a time with backwoods natives. He became a physician in 1831. The physicians’ licensing board had doubts about his serious intentions; however, as a cholera epidemic had increased the need for doctors, the board granted him a license. Lever practiced medicine first in County Derry, where he became acquainted with William Hamilton Maxwell. Maxwell’s hunting and soldiering novels, then in vogue, had a crucial influence on Lever’s own early fiction. The death of Lever’s parents allowed him to marry Kate Baker in 1833; they had opposed the marriage.
To eke out an income, Lever drew on his experiences for a string of anecdotes published serially in the newly founded Dublin University Magazine as The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer. The work appeared in book form in 1839. From 1840 to 1842, he was semiofficially connected with the British Embassy in Brussels, where retired British officers supplied him with details for the vivid battle scenes that characterize his novels.
Charles O’Malley, the Irish Dragoon, a good example of military romance, first appeared in the Dublin University Magazine, followed by Jack Hinton, Guardsman, and Tom Burke of “Ours.” Though critics scorned them, the public was so enthusiastic over Lever’s works that in April, 1842, he was invited to edit the magazine to whose success he had contributed. The circle of Irish contributors he assembled increased its circulation. However, his living expenses, including gambling losses, were so great, and ideological squabbles of the day so annoying, that Lever returned to Brussels, where his writings brought high prices. He went to Florence in 1847.
As he grew older, youthful zest gave way to a more reflective style, first evident in Roland Cashel. In 1857, he was appointed British consul at La Spezia, where he continued to write novels and articles, including the very successful “Cornelius O’Dowd” series of commentaries and reports on contemporary manners and politics. In 1867, he was transferred to Trieste, but he disliked the climate and hated the society. The death of his wife was the culminating blow. However, his last novel, Lord Kilgobbin, shows some of his old spirit. He died in Trieste of a heart condition.
Reading Lever’s best work is like listening to a born storyteller relating one anecdote after another about an interesting protagonist. Lever had no idea about plot or dramatic unity, but his characters, vigorous though never subtle, are unforgettable. One critic nominated Major Monsoon as a nineteenth century Falstaff, and Mickey Free as the Irish Sam Weller. Some maintain, however, that Lever defamed the Irish people and that his figures are not typical. In his preface to Major Barbara (pr. 1905), George Bernard Shaw acknowledged his own debt to Lever, particularly to the antiromantic A Day’s Ride. Critics in the late twentieth century also began to see much of note in Lever’s delineation of the Irish social context in many of his later works.
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