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Henry Roscoe:
The Life of William Roscoe


Vol I. Contents
Chapter I. 1753-1781
Chapter II. 1781-1787
Chapter III. 1787-1792
Chapter IV. 1788-1796
Chapter V. 1795
Chapter VI. 1796-1799
Chapter VII. 1799-1805
Chapter IX. 1806-1807
Chapter X. 1808
Chapter XI. 1809-1810
Vol II. Contents
Chapter XII. 1811-1812
Chapter XIII. 1812-1815
Chapter XIV. 1816
Chapter XV. 1817-1818
Chapter XVI. 1819
Chapter XVII. 1820-1823
Chapter XVIII. 1824
Chapter XIX. 1825-1827
Chapter XX. 1827-1831
Chapter XXI.

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William Roscoe (1753-1831) was a significant figure in several walks of life but a dominant one in the civic life of Liverpool. He merits attention as a poet, biographer, collector, patron of the arts, banker, abolitionist, prison reformer, politician, and botanist, but it was his personal character that drew from his contemporaries what Washington Irving described in The Sketch Book (1819-20) as an “involuntary feeling of veneration.” How was it possible for a largely self-taught man, an inn-keeper’s son, to achieve so much? Henry Roscoe says that his father owed his success less to genius than “to qualities which every one possesses, and which, if duly cultivated, will lead to the same results" (2:429). These he identifies as energy, integrity, and benevolence. But as Irving recognized, Roscoe was an exceptional person living in extraordinary times.
Roscoe began his career as a Liverpool attorney. He was allied by marriage and professional connections to prominent mercantile families in the rising city and in the 1780s and 90s made a large fortune, presumably by canny investments. He retired from his legal career at the age of forty-three and shortly afterwards purchased Allerton Hall, the estate where his father had once been a butler. He then began a second career as a banker, but when his firm stopped payments in during the financial crisis of 1816 Roscoe was financially ruined. After becoming became a bankrupt in 1820 he spent much his remaining life attempting to support himself by producing an edition of Pope and new editions of his biographies of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Pope Leo X.
He prepared for his literary career by teaching himself languages and acquiring a taste for books and the fine arts. As his fortune grew he collected incunabula and Italian art, taking a particular interest in the Florentine merchant prince whose career he would emulate. The Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1796) made Roscoe famous, not only in Britain but in Europe and America. Roscoe’s wealth and fame enabled him to take an active role in public life; he was a founder of the Liverpool Athenaeum in 1797 and the Liverpool Botanic Garden in 1803. He was elected to Parliament in 1806 as a Foxite Whig, but finding practical politics not to his taste (no Lorenzo in that respect) he pursued the issues that mattered most to him—abolition, parliamentary reform, and prison management—in a long series of pamphlets. Roscoe was a fearless supporter of liberty, an outspoken pacifist, and ardent controversialist.
For Roscoe wealth and literary pursuits were subordinate to the greater ends of civic life. He patronized the painter Henry Fuseli, the sculptor John Gibson, and a host of lesser worthies. With his friends James Currie, Edward Rushton, and William Shepherd, Roscoe was a leader in Liverpool radical politics. As a young man he had attended lectures the Warrington Academy, and John Aikin and his family were lifelong friends. Roscoe was a prominent figure among the Unitarians and was closely affiliated with Quaker abolitionists. His early, courageous opposition to the slave-trade made him enemies in Liverpool but also aristocratic friends who were valuable to his civic ambitions. He carried on an extensive correspondence with botanists in England, scholars in Europe, and jurists in the United States. His social, familial, and financial connections with Liverpool merchants, though not commented on by his biographer, may have been the most important of his associations.
G. K. Chesterton speaks of “the whited sepulchre of the purely official biography” (preface to Forster’s Life of Dickens, 1927) and cold marble seems an apt metaphor for Henry Roscoe’s unhappy and obsequious biography. The best that can be said for it is that it is accurate as far as it goes. A youngest son, Henry Roscoe (1800-1836), like Cuthbert Southey, had to write the life of a man he had known only in old age. The elderly Roscoe is projected onto the more youthful man, resulting in a biography bereft of narrative, conflict, and intellectual development. “In taking even a cursory review of Mr. Roscoe’s life,” Henry writes, “the striking coherency of his opinions and conduct at every period of it will be visible” (2:429). But the first fifty years of his father’s life are very slenderly documented. It is difficult to imagine the retirement-loving scholar known to the biographer taking the risks that the younger and more ambitious man obviously took.
In 1833 few persons were alive who could have known William Roscoe in his formative years. William Shepherd had known him in the 1790s but there is no indication that Shepherd was consulted. Henry Roscoe’s chief source was the physician Thomas Stewart Traill who first met Roscoe in 1806; Traill’s 1832 memoir became the template for a life-and-letters that is reticent even by nineteenth-century standards. Not one personal anecdote of Roscoe is related. Roscoe’s opinions of books and writers are omitted from the correspondence. Apart from the occasional pious sonnet, domestic life is placed off limits; the biographer even suppresses the names of his own brothers and sisters. Roscoe’s places of residence are not described, nor the gardens or pictures in which he took such pleasure. Roscoe’s best-known poem—The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1807)—goes unmentioned, presumably because it would seem inconsistent with the “striking coherency” of the poet’s sober character.
A comparison of the correspondence as given by Henry Roscoe with that published in the 1832 Memoir and Correspondence of the late Sir James Edward Smith suggests that Roscoe could be a livelier correspondent than this sententious biography suggests. It is true that Henry Roscoe was handicapped by the fact that many of his father’s literary correspondents were still alive in 1833, which might explain why no account is given of his acquaintances with Samuel Rogers, Thomas Campbell, Maria Edgeworth, Bernard Barton, John Wilson, and James Hogg. But even were these letters available for publication it is doubtful that Henry Roscoe would have made much use of them. The few excerpted letters to Jane Roscoe from London show, as might be imagined, that Roscoe, for all his benevolent dignity, took pleasure mixing in the company of others.
The Life of William Roscoe was well received by the reviewers—mostly for the sake of its venerable subject, though the biographer was sometimes praised for his filial piety. It was reprinted once, in Boston in 1883. Henry Roscoe, a barrister, died of consumption in 1836.

David Hill Radcliffe