Born: Bristol, 1741
Died: Lambeth, 1823
Known For: Doctor Syntax’s Three Tours, A Description of Patagonia, and the Adjoining Parts of South America (1774), The Diaboliad (1777), The R—l Register (1777-84), The English Dance of Death (1815-1816)
William Combe was one of the most prolific writers of his age, and yet so much of what we know comes from the stories of his reputation in society. Described by one biographer as “the most voluminous writer since the days of Defoe”, he wrote (according to his own notes) 100 books and 2000 newspaper articles.¹ Born in Bristol to a wealthy merchant father, Combe was educated at Eton, where he was a peer of Lord Thomas Lyttelton and Charles James Fox.² Between 1760 and 1761, he attended Oxford but left the university after a year. He moved to London, where he lived with William Alexander, an alderman and Combe’s godfather. Combe, although supported financially by both his father and godfather, found himself broke because of his lavish lifestyle and expensive tastes. He was known in London society for his wit and good nature, but he was also a controversial figure. The Table Talk of Samuel Rogers accounts at least one incident when he was accused of theft (pp. 113-14). In 1763, he left for a tour of Europe. In Italy, he met Laurence Sterne, who was then writing A Sentimental Journey (1768). He returned to England in 1766 and became a lawyer.
Despite his connections and society, Combe constantly found himself in debt, and much of his life was spent avoiding creditors. When Alexander died in 1766, shortly after Combe’s return to England, Combe inherited his fortune (which some sources place at 16,000 pounds and others at 20,000).³ Within four years, he squandered this fortune through large parties, gambling, and his “most princely lifestyle… [which included] two carriages, several horses, and a large retinue of servants”.4 Through his extravagance, he earned the name of ‘Count’ or ‘Duke Combe’. Combe began to support himself through his writing. His early work is uncertain. Hotten suggests his anonymity may have protected his earnings from debt collectors, and he may have had as many as a dozen pen names. Combe’s name was never signed to any of his works during his lifetime, and as late as the 1920s, there were only two editions of Doctor Syntax’s Three Tours–both posthumous–that would attribute him as the author.5
While his obituary referred to him as a bachelor, one story accounts that in 1774 he married the mistress of a nobleman in exchange for a stipend. Hamilton has identified this woman as Maria Foster, mistress of Francis, Lord Beauchamp. Horace Walpole, Beauchamp’s cousin, indicated that Maria had given Beauchamp a venereal disease and that Beauchamp gave her £500 plus a promised annuity of £300 when she married Combe. 5 This annuity was never granted. In revenge, Combe wrote The Diaboliad (1777).6 Maria supposedly went insane in 1791 and died in 1814.7 Hotten identifies Charlotte Hatfield as his second wife, who he likely met in 1810 when she was forty.
Between 1777 and 1784, Combe wrote the The R—l Register, a satire of prominent figures in society. In 1779, he wrote with Sterne Second Journal to Eliza: Letters Supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza, which Tobias George Smollett called “one of the best political pamphlets that have appeared of late years.”8 In the following years, Combe would publish heavily in journals, and by 1803, he was well-established as a prominent political writer. In the 1790s and later between 1804-1806, William Pitt the Younger’s political allies had patronized Combe to write on their behalf, paying him £200 a year.9
By 1808, Combe had fallen out of favor with the political establishment. He was in debtor’s prison when, two years later, Rudolph Ackerman, printseller of the Strand, contacted Combe with a proposition. Thomas Rowlandson had submitted a number of satirical prints depicting a clergyman and schoolteacher who had run off on a fashionable tour of the country to find the picturesque. Ackerman thought that Combe would be well-suited to writing the text to accompany the pieces. Combe quickly agreed. Every month, Rowlandson would contribute a sketch, and Combe would produce the poems to complement it. Thus, Doctor Syntax was born.
After Doctor Syntax’s first appearance in May 1810 (under the title The Schoolmaster’s Tour), the poems and prints took off in popularity. The first full volume of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque was published in 1812. The popularity of Doctor Syntax supplied Combe with work for a few years. In addition to the Doctor Syntax books, Combe and Rowlandson composed The English Dance of Death (1815-1816). Money problems still continued to plague him, and his health began to fail around 1820.
William Combe died in 1823 at the age of 82. With no children or heirs, he reportedly burned his manuscripts before his death.10
- John Camden Hotten. “The Life and Adventures of the Author of ‘Doctor Syntax’, in Doctor Syntax’s Three Tours in Search of the Picturesque, of Consolation, and of a Wife. London: Chatto and Windus, 1884, p. v.
- “Combe, William (1741-1823), Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 22, ed. Sir Leslie. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-22, p. 886.
- Hotten, in “The Life and Adventures”, records his inheritance as 16,000 (p. viii), but Alexander Dyce in the Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers (New York: D. Appleton, 1856) asserted it was 20,000 (p. 113). Another uncertainty is the relationship of Alexander to Combe. Thomas Campbell in Life of Mrs. Siddons (London: Effingham Wilson, 1834) called Alexander his uncle (p. 40), which Hotten would later reiterate (p. vi). The Dictionary of National Biography identified him as his uncle (p.886). Perhaps the most interesting account is from The Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, wherein Alexander was identified as a man who “‘ought to have been Combe’s father’ (that is, he had been on the point of marrying Combe’s mother)” (p. 113).
- Bristol Observer, 1823
- Harlan W. Hamilton. Doctor Syntax: A Silhouette of William Combe, Esq. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1969, p. 3.
- Ibid, p. 61-63.
- Campbell, p. 42.
- Hotten, p. xxix.
- Tobias George Smollett. The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, Vol. 48. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1779, p. 64.
- Hotten, p. xx-xxi.