The Edinburgh Review under Francis Jeffrey
(October 1802-June 1829)
THE EDINBURGH REVIEW; OR, CRITICAL JOURNAL was launched on 10 October 1802 by ‘a distinct and marked set’ of energetic and talented but politically disfranchised young Scottish Whig lawyers – Francis Jeffrey, Francis Horner, Henry Brougham, John Archibald Murray – at the instigation of one member of the group who was neither a Scot nor a lawyer: the Rev. Sydney Smith, visiting the Scottish capital at the time as a tutor. ‘It happened to be a tempestuous evening’, wrote Jeffrey’s friend and biographer, Henry Cockburn, in 1852, ‘and I have heard [Jeffrey] say that they had merriment at the greater storm they were about to raise’. Accounts differ as to who exactly was involved at the planning stage – the philosopher Thomas Brown, lawyer Thomas Thomson, and surgeon John Thomson were certainly part of it, as was the Whig aristocrat Lord Webb Seymour, if only intermittently, and the Whig ideologue John Allen, if only in spirit; Brougham at first had been equivocal and only committed at the last minute. However, the storm anticipated in Cockburn’s colourful account did in fact eventuate. Some clever, scathing, but well informed reviews saw the Edinburgh erupt into the intellectual life of early nineteenth-century Britain. By the third issue, Francis Jeffrey had been installed as editor by its enterprising publisher, Archibald Constable.
In the age dominated in opinion by its two big Reviews, the Edinburgh and the Quarterly – an age that would last until around the middle of the nineteenth century – the Edinburgh was the first in time and remained first among equals, altogether enjoying long periods of ascendancy under each of its first two editors, Jeffrey and Macvey Napier (editor from 1829, when Jeffrey retired to take up the position of Dean of the Faculty of Advocates). Once Jeffrey’s son-in-law, William Empson, took over after the death of Napier in 1847 and the Edinburgh moved its editorial offices south to London, it would never again recover the prominence it had known – but by then the big reviews had generally ceded their influence to the newspapers, and the Edinburgh did manage to survive as an authoritative and ideologically coherent enterprise until 1929. This website is dedicated to the Edinburgh Review in its first and major phase, under Francis Jeffrey: volumes 1 to 49.
The first periodical in Britain devoted exclusively to publishing reviews of books had been the Monthly Review, established by Ralph Griffiths in 1749 and followed not long after in 1756 by the Critical Review, edited and managed by the novelist Tobias Smollett. Many more had followed, as publishers became more reliant upon reviewing, and reviewing itself became more central to the network of ancillary institutions servicing the publishing revolution of the late eighteenth century. In spite of this commercial pressure, however, the centrality and influence of periodical reviews had never been limited to the promotion of reading generally, or of specific books as commercial products. From the beginning, they were also engaged in the culture of ideas and opinions, the social currency of the expanding public sphere of the eighteenth century. And the culture of knowledge: by the early nineteenth century, the production and consumption of knowledge in Britain’s thriving lecture and print culture testified to an economic and emotional investment in knowledge per se and any one issue of the Edinburgh will be found to engage critically with a number of diverse disciplines or bodies of knowledge – as well as literature and philosophy, the emerging disciplines of natural philosophy (or ‘science’), historiography, anthropology, foreign policy, political economy, education – in ways that participated in and fuelled cultural wars that had become more open and divisive after the French Revolution. As it happens, by the time Edinburgh was under way, the ‘intelligent public’ invoked by early nineteenth-century periodical discourse was already breaking down into distinct areas of economic and class interest, and of amateur and academic specialisation, each with its own dedicated organ of expression or instruction. The Edinburgh’s dominance (with the Quarterly) of ideas, information, and opinions in the thriving periodical culture it inaugurated and accelerated marked a late moment before the ‘intelligent public’ would cede the custodianship of knowledge to specialists and professionals both inside and outside the academy.
The changes to reviewing practice introduced by the Edinburgh enabled periodical reviews to become a discursive force in the early nineteenth century. Where the Monthly and the Critical had published monthly and tried to discuss as many publications as possible, the Edinburgh published only quarterly, with a determination ‘to be distinguished, rather for the selection, than for the number of its articles’. And Constable paid well – ten guineas a sheet in the first instance (three to five times the rate offered in the eighteenth century), and this increased even more dramatically over the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Moreover, not only did Jeffrey have the freedom to boost payment to individual contributors, but in 1809 he negotiated with Constable and Longman to secure for the original contributors a percentage of the profits. By the 1820s, Jeffrey’s own income from the Edinburgh was upwards of £3000 a year. The princely remuneration offered to contributors very soon became public knowledge, a part of the myth of the Edinburgh in its own time and thus integral to its authority and reception.
Payment was not only generous, it was also compulsory. Contributors to the Edinburgh were commercially remunerated whether they liked it or not – Jeffrey’s way of enforcing an equality of status amongst all his reviewers, and perhaps also of sharing out his own anxieties. In spite of the profile possessed by the Edinburgh, and the power it was said to have wielded, the respectability of periodical reviewing remained a sore point with many of the professional and public figures who were swept up by the possibilities that it offered. Jeffrey, for one, could be precious about its proximity to the booktrade. Nevertheless, the comparative independence of the Edinburgh combined with its vaunted authority to secure for its contributors a dramatic rise in social status.
Under the editorship of Jeffrey, moreover, the book review gradually expanded. What in 1802 might have occupied two or three, at most ten pages, say, was soon running to twenty or thirty or even (by the 1820s) as many as fifty and sixty pages. (Macvey Napier was determined to reverse this trend when he took over in 1829, but still found himself obliged to publish reviews by Macaulay on Warren Hastings and on Bacon of 96 and 104 pages respectively.) More to the point, the priorities of book reviewing changed. In many cases the reviewer and his ideas on the topic in question took priority over the publication under review, which often became the occasion for a reflective (and self-reflective) political and cultural essay: a sustained, historical interpretation of a significant character or event designed to intervene and change the direction of history and culture (Jeffrey on the influence of the philosophes on the French Revolution, on Swift, on China, or on changes in literary culture since the Elizabethan period; Brougham on or Sydney Smith on Indian missionaries; Hazlitt on ‘The Periodical Press’ itself or Thomas Carlyle on ‘The Signs of the Times’). For this, the Scottish lawyers and other professionals who launched the Edinburgh drew on their intellectual heritage in the Scottish Enlightenment – they drew on its empirical, inductive approach to an encyclopedic range of ideas and disciplines; they drew on its ‘conjectural’ or philosophical historicism; they drew on its political economic and civic humanist priorities. In 1831, in the pages of the Edinburgh itself, Carlyle was looking apprehensively toward the day when ‘all Literature has become one boundless self-devouring Review’.
Its combination of anonymous reviewing with an air of historico-cultural omniscience also endowed the Edinburgh with a formidable critical voice when dismissing the efforts of individual authors (a voice soon taken up by the Quarterly and the other big reviews and magazines). As well as the selectivity promised in its advertisements, the Edinburgh practised a more consistent – and more consistently clever – form of critical severity, threatened in its motto Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur: ‘the judge stands condemned when the guilty are acquitted’. Its specifically literary criticism, moreover – its criticism of poetry and fiction – was conservative, tending to support the prevailing taste and to use it as a weapon against artistic innovation. Far from seeing itself as mediating between an author and his or her potential readers, the Edinburgh more often than not made authorship answerable to its readers. The ‘affectation of singularity’ Jeffrey detected in Wordsworth’s poetry, for example, was dismissed as a perverse challenge to what Jeffrey called the ‘common apprehension’. To counteract a tendency he interpreted as socially divisive, Jeffrey and his fellow reviewers adopted positions that were sometimes extreme in their lack of imagination and sympathy.
This had an enormous effect on writers no longer enjoying formal patronage and dependent for their livelihood on the sale of their works, and an enormous effect on Romantic writing itself. The uneasy relationship already subsisting between the reviewer and the professional author, dating back to the eighteenth century when they had been born and raised together by the needs of a radically revised and rapidly enlarging book trade, reached a point of critical tension with the often aggressive critical reviewing introduced by the Edinburgh. Jeffrey, notoriously, hounded Wordsworth throughout the early years of the nineteenth century, retarding Wordsworth’s reputation as a poet – even while, at the same time, he was able to enhance Byron’s reputation and make George Crabbe’s. Imaginative literature, moreover, while respected in the Edinburgh as one of society’s significant endeavours, was for Jeffrey and his reviewers only one endeavour among many. And no less than other social institutions, poetry and fiction could be subjected to historical scrutiny and a degree of demystification. Not surprisingly, the often antagonistic attitude taken by the Edinburgh and by other nineteenth-century Reviews played a crucial role in reinforcing the self-consciousness of authorship in the Romantic period. Indeed, it was the manifestly rapid development of competitive, commercial publishing and the proliferation of commercially viable publications like the periodical that helped to precipitate the Romantic redefinition and valorisation of ‘literature’ as a uniquely gifted imaginative form.
In Jeffrey’s time, the Edinburgh numbered amongst its contributors, besides the original set of friends, Walter Scott (who would abandon it in 1809 to help set up the Quarterly Review in opposition); Thomas Moore; William Hazlitt; James Mill (who would also abandon it, and later set up the Westminster Review); James Mackintosh; Macvey Napier; historian Henry Hallam; classicist Peter Elmsley; orientalist Alexander Hamilton; scientists John Playfair and Gregory Watt; political economists Thomas Malthus and J. R. McCulloch; Francis Palgrave, Thomas Carlyle, and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Given the antipathy of personal and political opinion represented by the likes of Brougham and Scott, say, or Macaulay and Carlyle, it is hard to imagine a more volatile ideological mixture. In spite of obvious discrepancies, however, Jeffrey was able to wield a comprehensive authority, suggesting books and topics for review and letting his contributors know in advance what line he expected them to take or what degree of ideological deviation he would tolerate. He once defensively described his position as that of a ‘feudal monarch’ with only tenuous control over his barons, but the description only holds true of his sometimes vexed (but always productive) relationship with Henry Brougham, and the truth is Jeffrey exercised more control than he ever let on to other people. Jeffrey’s editorial intervention and the social and ideological coherence of the original group of Scottish Whig intellectuals ensured that the Edinburgh managed a collaborative balance that was as real as it was rhetorical.
It was precisely its geographical and intellectual distance from the larger, politically and economically dominant London that gave to early nineteenth-century Edinburgh a critical advantage or vantage point. ‘This town, I am convinced’, wrote Sydney Smith to Archibald Constable, in a famous letter of April 1803 laying down the conditions that would ensure the continuation and success of the Edinburgh enterprise, ‘is preferable to all others for such an undertaking, from the abundance of literary men it contains, and from the freedom which at this distance they can exercise towards the wits of the South’. In a variety of ways, the Edinburgh’s choice of text, topic, and treatment reflected Scottish intellectual priorities as well as what John Gibson Lockhart called ‘the national prejudices of Scotchmen’.
With regard to its politics, the Edinburgh was able until 1808 to remain comparatively non-partisan – or, more accurately, uncontroversially partisan. By then, however, it had become apparent to everyone where its political allegiances lay. An inflammatory article of October 1808 on the Spanish people’s resistance to Napoleon, damning Spain’s moribund, self-serving aristocracy, confirmed an adversarial liberal Whiggism. Far from merely towing the party line – and political historians are not convinced that there was such a thing as a party line during the period – the Edinburgh helped to shape Whig policy in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Whigs were a composite and divided party and those ideologues that eventually did emerge – Jeffrey, Allen, Brougham, Horner, Mackintosh, Lord John Russell, Macaulay, McCulloch – all wrote for the Edinburgh and were otherwise influenced by its earlier essays. In terms of policies, its position emerged clearly enough: the Edinburgh was suspicious of the royal prerogative and of the war with France; it was consistently, often aggressively supportive of religious toleration, attacking the Test and Corporation Acts excluding Dissenters from public office and hammering away at Catholic Emancipation until it finally took place in 1829; it was as vocal on issues of civic corruption (against the sale of army commissions, for example) as it was in support of civil liberties (freedom of speech and the press; habeas corpus). And it was unrelentingly reformist on issues of political representation, so that it was no accident that, as Lord Advocate of Scotland, Jeffrey should have been responsible for drafting the Scottish counterpart of the Great Reform Act of 1832, or that, as Lord Chancellor of Britain, Henry Brougham should have been so instrumental in the passage of the bill itself. But that was after the ninety-eighth number of June 1829 when Jeffrey handed over his editorship to Macvey Napier, and beyond the scope of this website.
University of Sydney
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