Henry Mackenzie is regarded by many as the “Scottish Joseph Addison.” Following education at Edinburgh’s high school and university, he studied law, and in 1765, at the age of twenty, he went to London for a time to study English exchequer practice. Upon his return to Edinburgh, he became the law partner of George Inglis, who was attorney for the Crown. Mackenzie later succeeded Inglis in that position. About the time he returned to Scotland from England, Mackenzie began to write The Man of Feeling, which was to become the most popular novel of its day. For several years after its completion the novel went from publisher to publisher without arousing sufficient interest to assure its publication. When it did appear in 1771, it was published anonymously, and an English clergyman named Eccles claimed to have written it. Although Mackenzie came forward to acknowledge his authorship of the book, the false claim was maintained even to Eccles’s having his claim commemorated upon his tombstone.
The Man of Feeling typifies the popular sentimental novel of late eighteenth century England in that it is a study of how a sensitive hero, Harley, responds sympathetically to real life problems. In such novels as The Man of Feeling, heroes of sensibility cannot last long. Mackenzie wrote two other novels, The Man of the World and Julia de Roubigné. He also attempted a career as a playwright, but his Prince of Tunis had only a limited success; his later plays can be described only as failures.
Mackenzie married Penuel Grant in 1776, and the couple had eleven children. Mackenzie was an important figure in Edinburgh life and society in his time, being a friend to such great and famous Scottish authors as Sir Walter Scott, who dedicated Waverly (1814) to Mackenzie and later edited an edition of his collected novels, and Robert Burns. Mackenzie was for many years a literary dictator in Edinburgh, active in literary societies and editing such journals as The Mirror (1779-1780) and The Lounger (1785-1787). He was also an enthusiastic hunter and lover of the outdoors.