*The Edinburgh Review
The Edinburgh Review
British periodical, 1802–1929
In 18th-century Britain, with the number of publications increasing enormously, there was a corresponding increase in the demand for periodicals that would enable readers to select from the mass, and to be offered judgments that they could repeat or contradict.
Earlier reviews, like the Monthly, attempted something like comprehensive coverage, with readers in mind like Lady Russell in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, who was said to “get all the new publications.” The foundation in 1802 of the Edinburgh Review marked the point at which any such attempt was abandoned; instead, a few items were given relatively elaborate consideration. As time went on, the books selected became fewer, the reviews discussing them longer—a development that underlined the salience of the reviewer in comparison to the books reviewed.
The earlier decades of the 19th century saw the emergence of the weightily anonymous reviewer. With the Edinburgh it was well known that the review was in the hands of a group of liberal-minded members of the Scottish capital’s establishment, and readers were usually able to recognize the mercurial eloquence of Francis Jeffrey, the editor after the first number, or the animated humor of Sydney Smith, who after editing the first number remained one of the most entertaining contributors, or the slashing vigor of Henry Brougham. But the review itself counted for more than the individuals who composed it, and there is a distinctive Edinburgh house style, supremely confident, determinedly enlightened and humane, avoiding bigotry and exalting good sense, but colored by a severity summed up in the motto that graced the title page of every number:
Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur—“The judge is condemned when the guilty are acquitted.” A presiding judge is a fitting emblem of the editor’s role as seen by Jeffrey and his colleagues and imitators. Many years later, Walter Bagehot was to give him the credit for inventing the trade of editorship—no longer a bookseller’s drudge, but “a distinguished functionary.” But more than that, to be an Edinburgh reviewer was to be a high priest of the Spirit of the Age, an implicit claim that annoyed the many authors whose work was treated unfavorably, and the even greater number of conservativeminded readers who found reformist views objectionable. Of the many rejoinders to the Edinburgh’s pretensions, at least one, Edward Copleston’s Advice to a Young Reviewer (1807), with its specimen review of Milton’s “L’Allegro,” is very telling. But nothing could undermine the Edinburgh’s commercial success, and this inevitably generated imitators, notably, in 1809, the Quarterly Review. Still, for many years the Edinburgh remained required reading even for those who found its views very disagreeable. Of the early contributors, Jeffrey and Smith retained the most enduring reputation, and their collected Edinburgh essays were widely read. Jeffrey has earned some notoriety for his dismissive reviews of Wordsworth, and he is probably best remembered for his opening words on The Excursion—“This will never do!” But while his ridicule of Wordsworth’s infelicities may now seem obtuse, it is not difficult to appreciate the pleasure a sympathetic reader might have felt at his flamboyant obliteration of a political opponent, e.g. “Though the learned author has not always the gift of writing intelligibly, it is impossible for a diligent reader not to see what he would be at” (in this instance a high Tory trying to discredit libertarian institutions). Sydney Smith shared in this destructive joie de vivre: when he and Brougham had drafted one such review, “we sat trying to find one more chink, one more crevice, through which we might drop one more drop of verjuice, to eat into his bones.” But Smith’s drollery is usually more humane than this would suggest, and much of it is in the service of a generous indignation against injustice, its perpetrators exposed by their absurdity. His imagination warms to a persecuting bishop or a suppressor of vice; landowners who set spring-guns and mantraps to protect their game do not, he allows, positively want to kill poachers, but if there is a choice between game and poacher, the less worthy must suffer—“the rustic without a soul,—not the Christian partridge—not the immortal pheasant—not the rational woodcock, or the accountable hare” (March 1821).
A startlingly high proportion of the first 20 years of the Edinburgh was written by the founding group, but as time went on new and even more talented writers joined them.
William Hazlitt contributed some 16 reviews between 1814 and 1830, and although they are recognizably his work, he is not there quite the fierce radical of the Examiner or the Yellow Dwarf. Thomas Carlyle contrived to gain admission for his idiosyncratic style, perhaps because he was an acknowledged authority on German literature; this was part of the process of introducing readers to an unfamiliar but crucially important agency of enlightenment. As for Thomas Babington Macaulay’s disquisitions upon a wide range of literary and historical subjects, these were probably the most widely admired productions of the Edinburgh Review, with a reputation extending far beyond readers of the periodical for which they were written.
Although Macaulay was very much a partisan of the liberalism with which the Edinburgh was associated from the outset, his frequently reprinted essays became part of the broad intellectual culture of the Victorian period to which the periodicals of the time contributed so weightily. In mid-century and afterwards, particularly during the long editorship of Henry Reeve (1855–95), the Edinburgh became just one of a number of serious journals devoted to keeping readers abreast of current information and discussion.
Sir Alfred Lyall’s articles on India are a fair example, including in 1884 an astonishingly far-sighted analysis of the contradictions between a bureaucratic ruling apparatus and the libertarian ideas cultivated by English education.
The Edinburgh Review continued until 1929, but perhaps was never quite the same after 1912, when its contributors began to be named, as in other journals. While anonymity continued, even though it was an anonymity designed to be penetrated, the immense pretensions of the original publication still left an afterglow. But those pretensions belonged to the world of the early 19th century, and could not be sustained indefinitely.
See also Periodical Essay
Clive, John Leonard, Scotch Reviewers: The Edinburgh Review, 1802–1815, London: Faber, 1957
Fontana, Biancamaria, Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society: The Edinburgh Review, 1802–1832, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985
Greig, James Alexander, Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1948
Koss, Stephen, The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain, vol. 1: The Nineteenth Century, London: Hamilton, 1981
Newton, Judith, “Engendering History for the Middle Class: Sex and Political Economy in the Edinburgh Review,” in Rewriting the Victorians: Theory, History and the Politics of Gender, London and New York: Routledge, 1992: 1–17
Pottinger, George, Heirs of the Enlightenment: Edinburgh Reviewers and Writers, 1800– 1830, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1992
Shattock, Joanne, Politics and Reviewers: “The Edinburgh” and “The Quarterly” in the Early Victorian Age, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989
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