*The Spectator, 1828–
The Spectator, 1828–
British periodical, 1828–
From its beginning in 1828, the Spectator has consistently been regarded as one of the most influential weeklies in Britain. Its founders, Robert Rintoul, Douglas Kinnaird, and Joseph Hume, targeted an independent-thinking readership, “chiefly …the men of culture who like to listen to all sides of controversies, provided the argument is conducted with fairness and moderation” (1 May 1858); to a great extent, those people—men and women—continue to make up its readership. The first issue of the paper (5 July 1828) described itself thus:
The tone and character of the Spectator, the variety of its contents, and even its external form, peculiarly fit it for the use of respectable families. Its plan is entirely new, comprising (1) the whole news of the week; (2) a full and impartial exhibition of all the leading politics of the day; (3) a separate discussion of interesting topics of a general nature, with a view to instruction and entertainment at the same time; (4) a department devoted to literature, consisting of independent criticisms of the new books, with specimens of the best passages; (5) dramatic and musical criticism; (6) scientific and miscellaneous information.
Its early tradition of intellectual quality was a result not only of its resolute political independence, but also of the continuity provided by the long-term stewardship of its first four editors: Rintoul (1828–58), Meredith Townsend and Richard Holt Hutton (1861–97), and John St. Loe Strachey (1897–1925). Its quality may also owe something to the fact that those editors were also the proprietors, a situation which assured editorial independence. Since Strachey, some proprietors have also served as editor, but more often than not the two positions have been separate. Modern-era editors have changed with more frequency, too; the only long-term zothcentury editor has been J.Wilson Harris (1932–53).
Although Rintoul wrote very little for the paper during his editorship, he established what became known as the “Spectator style,” and through careful selection of his writers, judicious editing, and sheer force of will he put out a weekly newspaper that, with few exceptions, read as if it were written by a single individual. The Spectator style consisted of wellreasoned, simply written articles that, as Rintoul wrote to William Blackwood, exhibited “straightforwardness, and the preference of plain, strong sense to affected finery or to Cockney simplicity” (Margaret Oliphant, 1897). The political articles were informed by Rintoul’s liberal-radical leanings, and the literary criticism leaned toward a conservative, utilitarian view of the place of literature in society. The Spectator’s most influential essays under Rintoul included the series in support of the Reform Bill of 1832, and Anti-Corn Law legislation in 1846, and of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s scheme for emigration reform in the 1840s.
Although the Spectator regularly lost money through its early years, by 1840 the circulation had risen to a respectable 3500 per week and it began paying dividends.
Perhaps the paper’s marketability and the quality of the writing under Rintoul can best be judged by what happened after he sold the paper to Benjamin Moran in 1858. Moran installed Thornton Hunt as editor, and for the next three years Moran’s Journal (1948) recorded mounting losses as the circulation declined. Hunt tried to stamp his imprint on the paper, much as Rintoul had, but was unable to create a new Spectator style; instead, the paper lost much of its political influence through its support of pro-slavery factions in the United States, and, despite the publication of several occasional essays by Hunt’s famous father Leigh Hunt, did not seem to have a consistent literary position.
Townsend’s purchase of the paper from Moran, and his eventual partnership with Hutton, marked the beginning of a new Spectator style. The two re-established Rintoul’s independent liberal-radical political position and added to it an emphasis on theological questions. They also improved the quality of the paper’s literary criticism, jettisoning Rintoul’s utilitarianism for a more art-centered approach. But the two did not try to produce a paper consistent in style; on the contrary, Hutton’s essays were described by Virginia Woolf as a “voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas” (The Common Reader, 1925), while Townsend’s were described as “nervous, vivid, almost violent” (William Beach Thomas, 1928). Still, as Robert Blake said, “if their styles were diverse, unity was preserved by their common ideology” (1978). Townsend and Hutton were joined by some of the leading essayists of the day, including Francis Power Cobbe, Thomas Hughes, Walter Bagehot, Edmund Gosse, John Morley, Emily Faithful, Julia Wedgwood, Matthew Arnold, and A.C.Swinburne.
Under Hutton and Townsend, the Spectator’s most important political essays were those in support of the North during the American Civil War (a position which caused a momentary decline in circulation), the series attacking the Disraeli government over the Bulgarian atrocities, and those in opposition to Irish Home Rule. Hutton also wrote a number of important theological essays, which he later collected and published. A tone of high seriousness marked most of the Spectator’s essays; it was often noted that the paper was almost totally devoid of a sense of humor during the last half of the 19th century.
Strachey, who succeeded Hutton and Townsend as editor and proprietor, wrote most of the leaders and a large number of literary reviews during his first 15 years as editor. His regular contributors, including J.B.Atkins, Stephen Gwynn, C.J. Cornish, and Lord Cromer, did not approach the quality of earlier writers. However, Strachey doubled the paper’s circulation from 11,000 to 22,000 in his first five years by producing simple, direct prose in support of such diverse issues as free trade, state-controlled alcohol sales, and Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and prose. Unfortunately he worked himself into a serious illness toward the end of World War I and had to cut back his literary and editorial contributions to the Spectator. Circulation plunged to just over 13,000 in 1922, and Strachey turned over the operational control of the editorial office to Sir Evelyn Wrench.
In 1925, upon Strachey’s retirement, Wrench took over as both proprietor and editor.
Through the next three decades the Spectator maintained its respected position among the British weeklies. J.Wilson Harris continued the tradition of liberal independence politically while promoting a rather traditional critical position in the arts. He also increased circulation to a high of 53,500 in 1946. From the 1960s on, the Spectator has continued to provide a combination of thoughtful political essays and irreverent social criticism, seizing a position that Christopher Booker (1978) has described as midway between Anarchic Reaction and Boring Triviality. Its circulation reached 94,000 at its 150th anniversary in 1978, and its contributors included Richard Ingrams, Auberon Waugh, Richard West, Patrick Marnham, Jeffrey Bernard, Taki, and Michael Heath, who were also the core contributors to the notorious Private Eye.
Speaking of the Spectator’s readers in 1975, George Hutchinson said: “There is, I believe, a durable if not permanent minority who like and value good writing, considered, unhurried argument and sound information presented at substantial length when occasion requires, free from irrelevance and invested with the independent expert authority frequently encountered among their contributors” (Robert Blake). The reader Hutchinson described sounds remarkably like the Spectator reader in 1828. Clearly, Rintoul’s formula succeeded beyond what even he might have imagined.
Atkins, J.B., “St. Loe Strachey’s Spectator,” Spectator, special supplement, 15 May 1953:xxx
Blake, Robert, “A History of the Spectator,” Spectator, 23 September 1978:30–35
Booker, Christopher, “An Untimely Obituary,” Spectator, 23 September 1978:37–39
Colby, Robert A., “‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’: The ‘Spectator’ as Critic,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 11 (June 1956): 182–206
Escott, T.H.S., Masters of English Journalism, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1970 (original edition, 1911)
Fulton, Richard D., “Spectator,” in British Literary Magazines, vol. 2, edited by Alvin Sullivan, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986
Fulton, Richard D., “Spectator,” in British Romantic Prose Writers, 1789–1832, 2nd series, edited by John R.Greenfield, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 110, Detroit: Gale Research, 1991
Grant, James, The Metropolitan Weekly and Provincial Press, vol. 3 of The Newspaper Press, London and New York: Routledge, 1872
Graves, C.L., “The Spectator in the Eighties and Nineties,” Spectator, centennial supplement, 3 November 1928:16–17
Harrop, A.J., “Rintoul and Wakefield,” Spectator, centennial supplement, 3 November 1928:10–11
Hogben, John, Richard Holt Hutton of ‘The Spectator’, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1899
Jump, John D., “Matthew Arnold and the Spectator,” Review of English Studies 25 (1949):61–64
Leroy, Gaylord C., “Richard Holt Hutton,” PMLA 56 (1941): 809–40
Oliphant, Margaret, Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons, Their Magazine and Friends, New York: AMS Press, 3 vols., 1974 (original edition, 1897–98)
“The 6,000th Spectator,” Spectator, 25 June 1943:586–87
“The Spectator,” Nation and Athenaeum 44 (November 1928): 168–69
Strachey, Amy, St. Loe Strachey: His Life and His Paper, London: Gollancz, 1930
Strachey, John St. Loe, The Adventure of Living: A Subfective Autobiography, London: Hodder and Stoughton, and New York: Putnam, 1922
Tener, Robert H., “Richard Holt Hutton,” Times Literary Supplement, 24 April 1959:241
Tener, Robert H., “Swinburne as Reviewer,” Times Literary Supplement, 25 December 1959:755
Tener, Robert H., “The Spectator Records, 1874–1897,” Victorian Newsletter 17 (1960):33–36
Tener, Robert H., “Spectatorial Strachey,” Times Literary Supplement, 31 December 1964:1181
Thomas, William Beach, The Story of the Spectator, 1828–1928, London: Methuen, 1928
“The Truth Behind the Facts,” Spectator, 23 September 1978:3
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