Lever, Charles James (1806–72), novelist, was born 31 August 1806 in Dublin, younger of two sons of James Lever, a contract builder from Lancashire who worked on the Custom House and Maynooth College, and Julie Lever (née Chandler), also of English descent, who was from Kilkenny. From the age of three, Charles attended various academies in Dublin, and biographers agree that he was a lively and precocious child who was much inclined to pranks. He entered TCD (1822) and obtained a BA (1827). After a period of travel in Holland and Germany in 1828, where he studied medicine at Göttingen, as well as a trip to Canada either in 1824 (Fitzpatrick) or 1829 (Downey, Stevenson), Lever returned to Dublin to pursue further medical study at the Royal College of Surgeons and TCD, although he failed his medical exams once (1830) before obtaining an MB from Trinity in 1831. During the cholera epidemic of 1832 Lever was employed as a dispensary doctor at Kilrush, Co. Clare, as well as at Portstewart, Co. Londonderry, where he remained for five years. Before departing for Portstewart, Lever married (16 November 1831) his childhood sweetheart Kate Baker, with whom he had three children: Julia (b. 1833), Charles (1837), and Sydney (1849).
The turbulence and unsettledness evident in this basic outline of Lever's early life would influence both the form and subject matter of his literary works. Although he was modestly successful at Portstewart, his growing family, ostentatious lifestyle, and gambling debts led him to seek increased remuneration through a change of venue (1837) from Ireland to Brussels, where he set up a more lucrative medical practice for English expatriates, as well as through various literary endeavours. Lever's career as a novelist thus began in 1836, when he started writing The confessions of Harry Lorrequer (1839) for serial publication in the Dublin University Magazine; this was soon followed by Charles O'Malley (1840) and Jack Hinton (1843). Lever's chosen genre, especially in these early works, was an innocuous version of what W. J. McCormack defines as the ‘Victorian picaresque – an apparently shapeless quest by the hero through unfamiliar and yet entertaining landscapes and incidents which never threaten real violence or any real offence to moral decorum’ (Ascendancy and tradition in Anglo-Irish literary history from 1789 to 1939 (1985), 199). Such a format was ideal not only for the demands of serial publication, but also as an outlet for Lever's own peripatetic experiences and nomadic lifestyle. For example, apocryphal stories of his itinerant existence in Canada, where, his biographers report, he had ‘gone native’ ‘to seek the experiences of forest life with an Indian tribe’ (Fitzpatrick, 38), surface in five of his novels, including Harry Lorrequer, Charles O'Malley, Arthur O'Leary (1844), and Roland Cashel (1849), and most prominently in The confessions of Con Cregan, the Irish Gil Blas (1850). These early works would prove immensely popular and help Lever to leave Brussels and abandon medicine for a full-time literary career in Dublin, after securing the editorship of the Dublin University Magazine (1842–5); but they would also become stigmatised by a host of detractors, ranging from Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), who dismissed Lever's characters as ‘common stage-Irish’ (The Nation, 10 June 1843), to William Butler Yeats (qv).
However, despite these charges levelled against his early representations of the Irish national character, Lever's novels were becoming more socially engaged, formally accomplished, and sombre in tone with the onset of the famine, although even his latest novels frequently retain a picaresque outline to frame his maturing sensibility. This transition in style is first evident in Tom Burke of ‘Ours’ (1844), a sympathetic portrayal of an Irish insurgent during the rebellion of 1798, and then in the short novel St Patrick's eve (1845), which draws on his experience of the cholera epidemic to depict the plight of the Irish peasantry – a theme he would revisit in The O'Donoghue (1845), The knight of Gwynne (1847), and The Martins of Cro’ Martin (1856). In each of these works, Lever endorses a political prescription of social responsibility and reformed landlordism to quell agrarian unrest. Yet while resident in Dublin, he also tried to recreate the lifestyle of earlier generations of feckless Anglo-Irish gentry, becoming a semi-accomplished rider, hosting all-night card parties, and holding court in a Jacobean mansion in Templeogue, where he was visited by Thackeray, who dedicated his Irish sketch-book to Lever in 1843.
Lever remained in Dublin till 1845, when he resigned from the Dublin University Magazine and led his family on a two-year Grand Tour of continental Europe, before relocating to Florence in 1847. His epistolary novel The Dodd family abroad (1854) is indirectly based on this unsettled period and satirises a diverse array of traveller types, ranging from intrepid Anglo-Irish families to Polish refugees; in a similar vein, Lever would publicly fulminate in Blackwood's (1865) against the rise of Cook's tours and the burgeoning popularity of institutional tourism as a form of recreational travel. To maintain his family in Florence, Lever wrote at a frenetic pace, completing ten novels in as many years, and frequently composing more than one at the same time for different publications, while having to rewrite various episodes from memory whenever his proofs were lost in transit. His financial burden was somewhat alleviated by his appointment (1858) as British vice-consul at La Spezia, a sinecure of sorts, although this did not diminish his literary output. Indeed, it was the popular failure of Lever's novel A day's ride (1863) in Dickens's periodical All The Year Round that spurred Dickens to serialise Great expectations (1861) in order to arrest declining circulation.
Lever's final years were sorrowful ones. In 1863 his profligate son Charles, who had been living in the mould of Lever's early characters, leaving his father much indebted, died prematurely at the age of 26; soon thereafter, Lever's own health declined and his wife Kate was invalided. In 1867 he was promoted to the consulship at Trieste; but the increase in salary could not compensate for his intensifying sense of isolation, especially after the death of his wife (1870), who predeceased him by two years. Despite his personal hardships, however, Lever completed his finest work, Lord Kilgobbin, shortly before his death (1 June 1872); he was buried on 3 June in the British cemetery in Trieste.
A minor masterpiece, Lord Kilgobbin appears on the surface to be a Big House novel of ascendancy decline – a theme already anticipated in Lever's later works, such as Barrington (1863), Luttrell of Arran (1865), and Sir Brook Fosbrooke (1866) – but it complexly interweaves a beleaguered Anglo-Irish perspective with a sympathetic portrayal of Fenian nationalist agitation, European diplomatic intrigue, and an embryonic sense of alienation to expose Ireland's cultural and political malaise in a remarkably cosmopolitan frame of reference and in a prescient light. With a total of thirty-two novels, Lever was one of the most popular and prolific Anglo-Irish writers of the Victorian period, although his literary reputation has subsequently fallen into steep decline. Dismissed in his day by Irish critics as a throwback to Anglo-Irish frivolity and by English ones for his increasingly uncongenial politics, Lever and his legacy have only recently begun to be critically reappraised in a more favourable light, and his later novels in particular are gradually becoming more recognised as literary works of considerable merit.