- Lord Cockburn: Selected Letters
Henry Cockburn, Lord Cockburn, was a man hugely aware of the fate of his own manuscript reminiscences. His reputation as a man of letters and as a leading celebrity of nineteenth-century Edinburgh life rest principally on the posthumous Memorials of His Time (1856), still cherished as an insider’s nostalgic account of the lost era of the Scottish literati. But Cockburn was also a great letter writer, and his voluminous unpublished correspondence can be used to complement and flesh out important aspects of his published work, having the added advantage that they were not compiled explicitly for posterity. Cockburn wrote letters for many reasons: to keep in touch with friends and relatives; to seek or proffer professional advice; to report back on important happenings in Edinburgh to contacts in London; to gossip about notable local characters, and to update friends eager for news on the health of mutual acquaintances; even to enquire after a reliable new horse. Cockburn did not usually write letters with a view to how he would be judged by historians, making the surviving correspondence ripe with unguarded comments and light-hearted asides that cast fresh light on the carefully constructed image with which he presented readers in the Memorials. It is for this reason that Alan Bell has produced this fine collection of 180 letters, all published in their entirety for the first time.
Bell rightly acknowledges that his selection is light in certain topics that have been well treated before. Cockburn’s political views and his interest in governmental business, especially in his period as Solicitor-General for Scotland, are generally overlooked, as is his involvement as advocate, politician and judge in the Disruption in the Church of Scotland–although some letters do give an atmospheric insight into the progress of the reform agenda in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the years before 1832. Such omissions are well justified, and the interested reader is directed towards sources which do illuminate Cockburn’s views on such topics in print. Besides, there is a great deal more to keep historians of all denominations busy here. Cockburn’s significance as an early advocate of the conservation of the built fabric of Edinburgh is well represented in the collection, for instance, with regular interjections against the ‘tyrannical beasts who own rail ways’ matched only by Cockburn’s fulminations against the ‘disgraceful... apathy of the public to these matters’. Cockburn was also a passionate pioneer of the sympathetic redevelopment of ancient houses (with detailed commentary on his own efforts to improve Bonaly), taking issue with acquaintances who planned the wholesale demolition of such ‘worthy old towers’. But Cockburn also comes across throughout as a genial family man, constantly fussing over finding places for his ever-growing brood of sons and worrying about the health and well-being of his wife and daughters. The letters burst with sparkling insights into domestic life in the Cockburn’s privileged Scottish household, including one hugely entertaining letter in which the Law [End Page 364] Lord talks his married daughter through the intricacies of cooking perfectly scrambled eggs, noting ‘that the eggs had better be fresh. At least for ordinary palates and noses. But if rotten ones be preferred, this process brings out their flavour delightfully’.
As one might expect from his insightful commentary in the Memorials on the dying days of the Scottish Enlightenment, historians of reading and the social history of ideas will find a rich seam of material here too. From the letters Cockburn wrote to friends in London asking them to acquire specialist rare books for him, sparing no expense, to his explicit assessments of works like Tytler’s History of Scotland (‘a book which I have always liked; because it is the only readable connected history of Scotland’) and D’Alembert’s Sur la destruction des Jesuites (‘a most profound and interesting account of the progress of a faction at first below contempt to power almost irresistible’), it is clear that books were never far from Cockburn’s mind. Describing a...