William Combe (1741-1823) was an English author of 'Doctor Syntax,'. He was born at Bristol in 1741. He went to Eton, where he was a contemporary of Lord Lyttelton, Fox, and Beckford; and to Oxford about 1760 or 1761, where he gave himself up to dissipation, and left without taking a degree. He had a legacy of 2,000l. and an annuity of 50l. to the age of twenty-four from his ' godfather,' Alderman William Alexander (d. 1762), who is believed to have been a nearer relation (see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iii. 547); and after passing a few months in town travelled for some years in France and Italy. In the latter country he met Sterne, then making the second tour described in the 'Sentimental Journey.'
Combe returned to England and took up the profession of the law, but whether as solicitor or barrister is not clear. He lived at an expensive rate in Bury Street, St. James's, and was a visitor at the 'Coterie,' a fashionable and exclusive assembly-room of the day. He was to be seen at watering-places, and, says a contemporary, writing after his death, 'came to Bristol Hotwells about the year 1768. He was tall and handsome in person, an elegant scholar, and highly accomplished in his manners and behavior. He lived in a most princely style, and, though a bachelor, kept two carriages, several horses, and a large retinue of servants. . . . He was generally recognized by the appellation of Count Combe' (Bristol Observer, 16 July 1823).
With an indifferent reputation for honesty (Dyce, Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, 1856, p. 116), embarrassed by debt, his fortunes were now at the lowest ebb, and he is said to have been successively a common soldier, a waiter at Swansea, a teacher of elocution, a cook at Douai College, and a private in the French army. He returned to England about 1771 or 1772, and tried authorship as a profession. The ' Heroic Epistle to Sir Wm. Chambers ' of William Mason has been sometimes attributed to Combe, whose first known publication was ' A Description of Patagonia ' (1774), compiled from the papers of the Jesuit Father Falkner.
He also wrote 'The Flattering Milliner, or a Modern Half Hour,' represented at the Bristol Theatre, 11 Sept. 1775, for the benefit of Mr. Henderson, but not printed. He is stated to have married about this time the mistress of Simon, lord Irnham, 'who promised him an annuity with her, but cheated him ; and in revenge he wrote a spirited satire' (Campbell, Life of Mrs. Siddons, i. 42). This was 'The Diaboliad, a poem, dedicated to the worst man in His Majesty's dominions' (1776), published at eighteen-pence. It passed through several editions ; a second part was issued in 1778. Its popularity caused Combe to follow with ' Diabo-lady,' ' Anti-Diabolady,' and a number of other versified satires, published in 1777 and 1778.
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The early intimacy with Sterne gave rise to 'Letters supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza,' printed in 1779. He had been obliged to live within the 'rules' of the King's Bench prison before 1780, when he published 'The Fast Day : a Lambeth Eclogue.' In the same year appeared the first volume of the spurious ' Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton,' being those of Thomas, the second baron, famous as 'the wicked Lord Lyttelton,' and as the hero of a well-known ghost story. A writer in the 'Quarterly Review' (December 1851) contends for the genuineness of these letters, and partly bases upon them an argument identifying Junius as Lord Lyttelton. They are admirably written, and are in a much more elevated strain of thought than most of Combe's compositions. Moore (Memoirs, ii. 201) and Campbell (op. cit. i. 41) tell, in somewhat different terms, the story of a quarrel between Lyttelton and Combe with reference to a Lady Archer.
During the next eight or nine years Combe produced nothing of importance with the exception of a new edition (enlarged and almost rewritten) of Anderson's ' Origin of Commerce.' In 1789 he made his first appearance as a political pamphleteer in a ' Letter from a Country Gentleman to a Member of Parliament,' with an answer by the writer himself, showing how speedily he had taken up the stock tricks of his new calling. His connection with Pitt and pension of 2001. may have commenced at this period. Other party pamphlets followed, besides Meares's ' Voyages ' (1790), and 'The Devil upon Two Sticks in England,' a prose tale, which was very successful. Between 1794 and 1796 Boydell produced two stately volumes on the Thames, to which the letterpress (six hundred pages) was contributed by Combe. He edited a number of publications, which are mentioned at the end of this article, and about 1803 became engaged on the staff of the 'Times,' losing his pension on the entry of the Addington ministry into power. 'Letters of Valerius,' contributed to that newspaper, were published in 1804.
For the next five or six years he appears to have been fully occupied with journalism, and in 'Letters to Marianne ' there are constant references to late hours at the office. 'There is another person belonging to this period ,' says Crabb Robinson, 'who is a character certainly worth writing about ; indeed I have known few to be compared with him. It was on my first acquaintance with Walter that used to notice in his parlour a remarkably fine old gentleman. He was tall, with a stately figure and handsome face. He did not appear to work much with the pen, but was chiefly a consulting man. When Walter was away he used to be more at the office, and to decide in the dernier ressort. His name was W. Combe' (Diary, i. 292). On the death of Pitt, Combe's pay was again stopped, and he addressed a long letter (in March 1806, from 12 Lambeth Road) to Lord Mulgrave, offering, without success, his venal services to the new administration (Gent. Mag. May 1852).
Between 1809 and 1811 Ackermann produced his 'Poetical Magazine,' for which Rowlandson offered him a series of plates depicting the varied fortunes of a touring schoolmaster. Ackermann applied to Combe to supply the letterpress to the illustrations, and this led to a connection between the author and artist which may be said to form the chief event of Combe's literary career. The ' Schoolmaster's Tour' made the fortune of the magazine, and was reprinted by Ackermann in 1812 as the ' Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque,' a royal octavo volume, price one guinea. In the preface to the second edition the author states : 'An etching or a drawing was sent to me every month, and I composed a certain proportion of pages in verse, in which of course the subject of the design was included ; the rest depended upon what would be the subject of the second, and in this manner in a great measure the artist continued designing and I continued writing till a work containing near ten thousand lines was produced, the artist and the writer having no personal communication with or knowledge of each other.
A writer in the 'London Cyclopaedia' (1829, vi. 427) who had known Combe states that he used ' regularly to pin up the sketch against a screen of his apartment in the King's Bench and write off his verses as the printer wanted them.' The title took the public fancy. Many imitations appeared, among them : 'Tour of Dr. Syntax through London,' 1820, 8vo ; 'Dr. Syntax in Paris,' 1820, 8vo ; and ' The Adventures of Dr. Comicus' [1825?], a parody, with burlesques of Rowlandson's engravings. It is doubtful whether Syntax would ever have attained much popularity without Rowlandson's plates, from which we best remember the doctor and his horse Grizzle. Much of Combe's verse is sad doggerel, and Syntax, in spite of considerable humor and kindliness, is apt to tire with his endless moralizing. Combe also wrote the text for three of Ackermann's finest and best known publications, the histories of Westminster Abbey, of Oxford, and of Cambridge. The success of Dr. Syntax led to further collaboration between Combe and Rowlandson in the 'Dance of Death' (1814-16) and 'Dance of Life.' The 'Dance of Death' contains some of Combe's best verse. Mrs. Syntax having been duly put to death at the end of the first 'Tour,' a 'Second Tour in Search of Consolation,' in similar style to the first, was brought out in the 'Poetical Magazine ' and completed in 1820. A 'Third Tour in Search of a Wife' was completed in 1821. Both of these passed through several editions, but never became so popular as the first 'Tour,' to which they are distinctly inferior both in point and interest. 'Johnny Quse Genus,' the history of the foundling left at the doctor's door (see 37th canto), is the last and poorest of the series. The ' Life of Napoleon ' (1815) and ' All the Talents ' have been wrongfully ascribed to Combe.
Combe's first wife is said to have died in January 1814, when he is said to have married Charlotte Hadfield, the sister of Mrs. Cosway. The second wife lived apart from her husband (Hotten, Life of Combe, pp. xxix-xxxi). The 'Letters to Marianne ' suggest that Combe was only once married. He appears to have had no legitimate children, and an adopted son offended him by marrying Olivia Serres, the so-called 'Princess Olive of Cumberland.' For over forty years Combe lived 'within the rules of the bench,' and does not seem to have greatly cared to change his situation. He died at Lambeth 19 June 1823, in his eighty-second year. A few weeks after his death a small volume entitled 'Letters to Marianne' (1823) appeared, consisting of letters and sonnets addressed to a Miss Brooke. They are dull billets-doux, written by a platonic lover of seventy to a young girl. The incidental circumstances of this attachment are described in 'Notes and Queries' (4th ser. iii. 570, &c.) In his prime Combe was remarkable for a graceful person, elegant manners, and a wide circle of acquaintances.
Poverty lost him the latter, and increasing age deprived him of something of his former distinguished appearance, but to the end of his life he retained the charms of an engaging address and attractive conversation. He was a water-drinker in days when such eccentricity was rare. His honesty has been questioned, he was sparing of the truth, he had a fine gentleman's indifference to debt, and his ideas of the rights of man in dealing with women were not severe. It may be said in his favor that his pen was free from vice. The following list shows how very extensive were his literary productions, but it is remarkable that during his life nothing appeared under his name. His numerous compilations include much good literary journeyman-work. Besides many contributions to the periodical press, he wrote over two hundred biographical sketches, seventy-three sermons, some of which were printed, and the following papers to Ackermann's 'Repository of Arts,' &c. ; the 'Modern Spectator,' 1811-1815; the 'Cogitations of Joannes Scriblerus,' 1814-16 ; the ' Female Tatler,' 1816-21 ; and the ' Adviser,' 1817-22. ' Amelia's Letters ' appeared in the same periodical between 1809 and 1811, and were republished after his death as ' Letters between Amelia in London and her Mother in the Country,' 1824, as a kind of set-off against the ' Letters of Marianne,' which gave much offense to all his friends.
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Combe's works are : 1. 'A Description of Patagonia and the adjoining parts of South America, by T. Falkner,' Hereford, 1774, 4to (compiled from Father Falkner's appendix). 2. 'The Diaboliad, a poem, dedicated to the worst man in His Majesty's Dominions,' London, 1776, 4to (also 1777, 1778). 3. 'Additions to the Diaboliad,' London, 1777, 4to. 4. 'The Diabo-lady ; or, a Match in Hell, a Poem, dedicated to the worst woman in Her Majesty's Dominions,' London, 1777, 4to (several editions). 5. 'Anti-Diabo-lady,' London, 1777, 4to. 6. 'The First of April, or the Triumph of Folly, a Poem, dedicated to a celebrated Duchess,' London, 1777, 4to (also in 1782). 7. 'A Dialogue in the Shades, between an unfortunate Divine [Dr. Dodd] and a Welch Member of Parliament, lately deceased [Chase Price],' London, 1777, 4to. 8. 'Observations on the case of Dr. Dodd,' London, 1777, 8vo. 9. 'Heroic Epistle to a noble D ,' London, 1777, 4to. 10. 'A Poetical Epistle to Sir Joshua Reynolds,' London, 1777, 4to. 11. 'A Letter to her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire,' London, 1777, 4to (on female education). 12. 'A second Letter to the Duchess of Devonshire,' London, 1777, 4to. 13. 'Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV [Ganganelli], to which are prefixed Anecdotes of his Life, &c., translated from the French,' London, 1777, 4 vols. 12mo (spurious ; see Querard, Supercheries, i. 753). 14. 'The Duchess of Devonshire's Cow, a Poem,' London, 1777, 4to (two editions) . 15. 'An Heroic Epistle to the "Noble Author" of "The Duchess of Devonshire's Cow," ' London, 1777, 4to. 16. ' The Royal Register; or, Observations on the Principal Characters of the Church, State, Court, &c., male and female, with annotations by another hand,' London, 1777-84, 9 vols. 12mo (satirical sketches, with the names indicated by initials). 17. 'Perfection; a Poetical Epistle, calmly addressed to the greatest Hypocrite [John Wesley] in England,' London, 1778, 4to (on methodist love-feasts and the doctrine of perfection). 18. ' The Diaboliad,' pt. ii. London, 1778, 4to (several editions). 19. 'The Justification, a poem,' London, 1778, 4to, and ' The Refutation ' of the same, London, 1778, 4to. 20. ' The Auction ; a Town Eclogue, by the Hon. Mr.--,' London, 1778, 4to. 21. 'An interesting Letter to the Duchess of Devonshire,' London, 1778, 4to. 22. 'An Heroic Epistle to Sir James Wright,' London, 1 778, 4to. 23. 'An Heroic Epistle to an unfortunate Monarch, by Peregrine the Elder,' London, 1778, 4to (in praise of George LTI and the colonial war). 24. 'The Philosopher in Bristol,' London, 1778, 2 vols. sm. 8vo. 25. ' Letters supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza,' London, 1779, 2 vols. 12mo (Dyce (p. 117) describes Rogers as telling a scandalous story of the intimate relations between Combe and Eliza). 26. 'The World as it goes, a Poem,' London, 1779, 4to (see Walpole to Mason, 21 Oct. 1779, Cunningham's ed., vii. 262). 27. 'The Fast Day; a Lambeth Eclogue,' London, 1780, 4to. 28. ' Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton,' London, 1780-2, 2 vols. 8vo (spurious ; also 1807, 1816). 29. 'The Traitor, a Poem,' London, 1781, 4to. 30. 'Fashionable Follies, a Novel containing the History of a Puritan Family,' London, 1784, 2 vols. small 8vo (written by Thomas Vaughan ; a third, which is said to have appeared some time afterwards, was by Combe). 31. 'Authentic and interesting Memoirs of Miss Anne Sheldon [afterwards Mrs. Archer],' London, 1787, 4 vols. 12mo (see J. Smith, Comic Miscellanies, i. 17). 32. 'Letters between a Lady of Quality and a Person of Inferior Rank,' London, 1785, 2 vols. 12mo. 33. 'The Origin of Commerce from the Earliest Times, by Adam Anderson, carefully revised, corrected, and continued,' London, 1787-1801, 4 vols. 4to (Anderson's first edition appeared in 1764). 34. ' Letter from a Country Gentleman to a Member of Parliament on the Present State of the Nation,' London, 1789, 8vo (five editions). 35. ' An Answer to "A Country Gentleman's Letter," ' London, 1789, 8vo (also by the versatile Combe). 36. 'The Royal Interview, a Fragment,' London, 1789, 8vo (several editions). 37. 'Voyages made in 1788 and 1789 from China to the Northwest Coast of Africa, by Lieutenant John Meares,' London, 1790, 4to (compiled from Lieutenant Meares's papers ; an edition in 2 vols. was published in 1796. There was a controversy between Meares and Captain G. Dixon on the work). 38. 'The Devil upon Two Sticks in England, being a continuation of "Le Diable Boiteux" of Le Sage,' London, 1790, 4 vols. 12mo (second edition 1791, third edition, enlarged, 1810, 6 vols. 12mo). 39. 'The Royal Dream ; or, the P-- in a Panic, an Eclogue,' London,. 1791, 4to. 40. 'Considerations on the Approaching Dissolution of Parliament,' London, 1791, 4to. 41. 'A Word in Season to the Traders, Manufacturers,' &c., London, 1792, 4to. 42. ' A Critique on the Exhibition of the Royal Academy,' London, 1794, 4to. 43. 'The Schola Salerni, or Economy of Health,' London, 1794, 8vo. 44. 'The History of the River Thames,' London, Boydell, 1794-6, 2 vols. folio (coloured plates from drawings by J. Farington, R. A., with letter-press by Combe). 45. 'Narrative of the British Embassy [of Lord Macartney] to China in 1792-4, by aeneas Anderson,' London, 1795, 4to (compiled from Anderson's notes, also abridged, 1795, 8vo). 46. 'Letter to a Retired Officer on the Court-martial held 27 Nov. 1795, &c., for the trial of Colonel J. F. Cawthorne,' London, 1795, 4to. 47. ' Two Words of Counsel and one of Comfort,' London, 1795, 4to. 48. 'Carmen Seculare ; an Ode inscribed to the President and Members of the Royal Academy,' London, 1796, 8vo. 49. 'Voyage to the South Atlantic and round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, by Captain James Colnett,' London, 1798, 4to (compiled from Captain Colnett 's notes). 50. 'History of the Campaigns of Count Alexander Suwarow Rymniski, by F. Anthing, transl. from the German,' London, 1799, 2 vols. 8vo. 51. 'Memoir of the Operations of the Army of the Danube under the command of General Jourdan, transl. from the French,' London, 1799, 8vo. 52. 'Official Correspondence to the period of the Dissolution of the Congress of Rastadt, with an English translation,' London, 1800, 8vo. 53. 'Report of the Commission of Arts to the First Consul Bonaparte on the Antiquities of Upper Egypt, by L. M. Ripault, transl. from the French,' London, 1800, 8vo. 54. 'Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt by C. S. Sonnini, transl. from the French,' London, 1800, 4to. 55. 'Voyages from Montreal through the continent of North America 1789-93, by A. Mackenzie,' London, 1801, 4to (compiled from Sir Alex. Mackenzie's notes), 56. 'The History of the Mauritius, composed principally from the papers of Baron Grant, by his son, C. Grant,' London, 1801, 4to (compiled by Combe). 57. 'The Life, Opinions, and Adventures of G, Hanger, written by himself,' London, 1801, 2 vols. 8vo (compiled from Captain Hanger's papers and suggestions). 58. ' Letter to Wm. Pitt on the Influence of the Stoppage of Issues in Specie ; on the Prices of Provisions and other Commodities,' London, 1801, 8vo (Combe claims to have written this, which bears the name of Walter Boyd) 59. 'Plain Thoughts submitted to Plain Understandings upon a prevalent Custom dangerous to the Establishment,' London, 1801, 8vo. 60. 'Journal of the Forces which sailed from the Downs in April 1800 on a Secret Expedition under Lieutenant-general Pigot, by ^Eneas Anderson,' London, 1802, 4to (compiled from Anderson's materials). 61. 'Clifton, a Poem, in imitation of Spenser,' Bristol, 1803, 4to. 62. 'The Pic-nic,' London, 1803, folio (a periodical; see J. Smith, Miscellanies, i. 17). 63. 'The Letters of Valerius on the State of Parties, the War, &c., originally published in the "Times,"' London, 1804, 8vo: 64. 'Translation of General Gordon's Defence of his Conduct during the French Revolution,' London, 1804, 8vo. 65. 'Fragments after Sterne, by Isaac Brandon' [pseud.], London, 1808, 12mo. 66. 'A Review of an important period involving the State Proceedings on the late King's first illness,' London, 1809, 8vo. 67. ' The Microcosm of London, or London in Miniature,' London, Ackermann, 1809-10, 3 vols. 4to (104 coloured plates by Rowlandson and Pugin, text of the first two volumes by W. H. Pyne, and of the third by Combe). 68. ' The Thames, or Graphic Illustrations by W. B. Cooke, from original drawings by Samuel Owen,' London, Ackermann, 1811, 2 vols. royal 8vo (letter-press by Combe). 69. ' The Life of Arthur Murphy, by Jesse Foot,' London, 1811, 4to (compiled from the papers, &c., of Foot). 70. 'The History of the Abbey Church of St. Peter's, Westminster,' London, 1812, 2 vols. 4to (with eighty-four coloured plates after Pugin, Huett, and Mackenzie). 71. 'The Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque,' London, Ackermann, 1812, royal 8vo (first separate publication with thirty-one coloured plates by Rowlandson. The original illustrations were re-etched. Five editions were issued between 1812 and 1813; the ninth in 1819. One with illustrations (poor imitations of Rowlandson) by Alfred Crowquill (A. H. Forrester), published by Ackermann in 1838. A Dutch translation (by K. L. Rahbek) appeared in 1820, one in French, 'Le Don Quichotte Romantique,' in 1821, and a German one at Berlin in 1822). 72. 'Six Poems, illustrative of engravings by H.R.H. the Princess Elizabeth,' London, 1813, 4to. 73. 'Poetical Sketches of Scarborough,' London, 1813, 8vo (twenty-one plates, after James Green ; text by J. P. Papworth, Wrangham, and Combe). 74. 'A History of the University of Oxford,' London, Ackermann, 1814, 2 vols. large 4to (with coloured plates). 75. 'A History of the University of Cambridge,' London, Ackermann, 1815, 2 vols. large 4to (coloured plates). 76. ' The English Dance of Death, from the designs of T. Rowlandson, with metrical illustrations,' London, 1815-16, 2 vols. 8vo (first brought out in the 'Repository of Arts ;' Rowlandson sent in the plates within the first fortnight, and Combe supplied the verse before the end of the month). 77. 'The History of the Colleges of Winchester, Eton, and Westminster, with the Charter House, the Free Schools of St. Paul's, Merchant Taylors', Harrow, Rugby, and the School of Christ's Hospital,' London, 1816-1817, 4to (originally produced in twelve, monthly parts at 12s., with coloured illustrations ; Combe wrote all the letterpress with the exception of the accounts of Winchester, Eton, and Harrow). 78. ' The Dance of Life, a Poem,' London, 1816, 8vo (with twenty-six illustrations by Rowlandson, first issued in the ' Repository '). 79. 'Narrative of a Voyage in H.M.'s late ship Alceste along the Coast of Corea to the Island of Loochoo by John McLeod,' London, 1817, 8vo (see Memoirs of Thomas Moore, ii. 201). 80. 'The Antiquities of York, drawn and etched by H. Cave,' London, 1818, large 4to. 81. 'The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of Consolation, a Poem,' London, 1820, royal 8vo (with twenty-four coloured plates by Rowlandson). 82. 'The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of a Wife, a Poem,' London, 1821, royal 8vo (with twenty-four coloured plates by Rowlandson. Like the second Tour, first issued in monthly parts, neither passed through so many editions as the first Tour. The 'Three Tours,' with Rowlandson's eighty plates reduced, were issued by Ackermann in 1826, 3 vols. 16mo, at a guinea; frequently reprinted). 83. 'A History of Madeira,' with twenty-seven coloured engravings, London, 1821, 4to. 84. 'Johnny Quae Genus, or the Little Foundling,' London, 1822, royal 8vo (with twenty-four coloured plates by Rowlandson, first issued in monthly parts like the Tours). 85. 'Letters to "Marianne," by William Combe,' London, 1823, 12mo (with silhouette portrait of William Combe and facsimile of his handwriting. The copy in the British Museum is that described in 'Notes and Queries' (4th ser. iii. 570, &c.) as having belonged to one who knew all the persons mentioned in it, and who added names to the initials. It includes autographs of Combe in a neat and elegant writing, cuttings from newspapers, and other interesting memoranda). 86. 'Letters between Amelia in London and her Mother in the Country, by the late Win. Combe,' London, 1824, 16mo.
[Biographies in the Times, 20 June 1823; Ackermann's Repository of Arts (1823), 3rd ser. ii. 87; Gent. Mag. August 1823. J. C. Hotten contributed a life to his edition of Dr. Syntax's Three Tours (1869), small 8vo, severely criticised in Notes and Queries. 4th ser. iii. 545-8, 569-73, and 589. The volume also contains a useful bibliography, based upon Combe's own list, given in Gent. Mag., May 1852. See also Adolphus's, Memoirs of John Bannister, i. 290; Note on the Suppression of Memoirs by Sir E. Brydges, Paris; 1825, 8vo; J. Grego's Rowlandson the Caricaturist, 1880, 2 vols. 4to; and Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ii. 547, iv. 14, 15, 86, 90, 111, 129, 201, vi. 90; 5th ser. i. 153.]
Henry Richard Tedder, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11. pgs. 430-435.