Perhaps there is no single feature of the English literary history of the nineteenth century, not even the enormous popularisation and multiplication of the novel, which is so distinctive and characteristic as the development in it of periodical literature.
—George Saintsbury , quoted by Laurel Brake, Subjugated Knowledges: Journalism, Gender and Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1994), 1.
The periodical, long the least prestigious and most nearly invisible element in this cultural effort [the democratisation of public writing and reading], is in fact its matrix. It is through journalism that writing for the market becomes a viable way of making a living, and that new prose forms emerge, novels as well as diverse kinds of 'journalism,' from the essay to reportage. For the first time the public became aware of written discourse in its printed form as both a commodity to be purchased and possessed and a leisure pursuit.
—Marilyn Butler, "Culture's medium: the role of the review," in Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism (1993), 121-22.
- The subject of this website is the Quarterly Review, an early nineteenth-century political-literary journal founded in England in March 1809 by John Murray, the illustrious London publisher. The journal was established by a small number of powerful literary and political mandarins, namely Walter (later Sir Walter) Scott, poet and novelist who in social, philosophical, and literary terms was a Romantic conservative and in Scottish political terms, a Unionist; by John Murray, whose father, also John Murray, had emigrated from Scotland in the previous century; and by George Canning, the brilliant, scheming leader of a liberal conservative faction in the Tory party. With their supporters and under the editorial tutelage of a fascinating if morally complicated man, William Gifford—who was a close literary associate of Canning's and was also well known to Scott and Murray—these men developed a journal that rapidly gained a high reputation among its largely middle-class English readership. By its supporters the Quarterly came to be looked up to as the repository of privileged knowledge gleaned from inside the highest Government circles. By its detractors the Quarterly became a dark agent of Government control, or as Hazlitt even more colourfully implied, the literary embodiment of the secret police.
Formation and early success
- With the formation of the Quarterly Review in early 1809, John Murray promoted his firm as a supporter of the Tory establishment—and trumped his Scottish rival Archibald Constable, publisher of the Whiggish Edinburgh Review. By helping to establish it, Walter Scott, the poet and soon-to-be novelist, sought to promote his Union politics—and avenged himself on Constable for some harsh reviews that had appeared in the Edinburgh. By throwing his political weight behind it, George Canning, the statesman, advanced his programme of liberal conservative reform—and extended his effort to influence the press. Robert Southey, in a series of brilliant articles, promoted a philosophy of social reform that greatly resembles the modern welfare state—and helped feed his and Coleridge's families. And John Barrow introduced readers to new cultures, initiated a renewed search for the Northwest Passage and for the source of the Nile—and advanced his career at the Admiralty.
- A study of the Quarterly is therefore a study of one aspect of these men's careers. It is also a study of their supporters and of the cultural networks to which they belonged, the groups of powerful men in parliament, the church, the civil service, the universities, and law who came together as writers for or supporters of the journal. To read the Quarterly Review, then, is to trace the influence in early nineteenth-century Britain of: a political group, the London Canningite liberal conservatives; an early parliamentary pressure group, the Saints; loosely-defined literary associations such as the Norfolk Quaker literary circle and the conservative Romantics; academic groupings, including the Cambridge Porsonian classicists; and groups in the Established church, the Evangelicals, the orthodox High-and-Dry, the liberal Oxford Oriel Noetics, and members of the pre-Tractarian group, the Hackney Phalanx.
An influential journal
- Under the Quarterly Review's first editor—Canning's literary protégé William Gifford—the periodical soon eclipsed the liberal Edinburgh Review in readership, probably in influence, and, in some articles at least, in the quality of its writing. It offered readers a conservative response to the cultural pressures initiated by the French Revolution, and it did so from the point of view of the informed Government insider. The journal was not always (or perhaps not even very often) influential in shaping government policy, but popular belief that it had access to Cabinet secrets gave it power to shape opinion among the nation's conservative reading public.
- The journal also, for better or worse, could make or break literary fortunes. It earned a place in the history of Romanticism by publishing seminal reviews of Wordsworth, Austen, and Scott, slashing reviews of Hunt, Hazlitt, and Shelley, and a most infamous review of Keats. Unlike its Edinburgh Whig counterpart, it was sympathetic to the conservative Romantics, and, with Murray as Byron's publisher and Gifford as Byron's respected literary adviser, the journal published reviews of Byron's work that are essential reading for reception theorists and literary historians.
- Judged by its reputation and reach, the Quarterly was, with the Edinburgh, one of the two greatest journals of the nineteenth century. As such, the Quarterly is an important subject for students of British and general European culture; it is of particular interest (or ought to be) to students of business and publishing history. The world may have forgotten, but the Murray family well remembers, that a good portion of the company's fortune and its fame derived as much from its flagship journal the Quarterly Review as from its association with Lord Byron. That is why on the walls of the first floor drawing room of 50 Albemarle Street (until recently the company's venerable headquarters), taking pride of place alongside a portrait of Lord Byron are hung the portraits of the Quarterly's early editors, Gifford and Lockhart, and the journal's two most reliable contributors, Southey and Barrow.
Conservative or reactionary?
- The Quarterly continues to be mischaracterized as a fiercely reactionary Tory publication along the lines of the ultra-conservative newspaper John Bull. To describe it thus is to apply with little discrimination an unhelpful epithet—a tactic excusable for Hazlitt, Hunt, or Shelley, less so for the disinterested literary historian. Under a later editor, John Gibson Lockhart, the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, Murray's journal did become the arm of the Ultra Tories and the Country Tory party. The Quarterly, however, as founded by George Canning, Walter Scott, and John Murray, was the literary organ of Canningite liberal conservatism. It was therefore meant to be moderate and accommodating. Murray initially tried to make it so as his aims were as much commercial as ideological. Early on he approached James Mill for an article (Gifford refused to accept it) and he even solicited Leigh Hunt to contribute to an essay on the drama (but Hunt caustically refused to write for the Quarterly).
- In contrast with other shades of conservatism of that time, Canningite politics was meliorist and pragmatic, and a fair amount of the political and literary commentary in the journal adopts this tone. Alas, some of the material published in the Quarterly under Gifford was vituperative. In their writing, two of the journal's principals, William Gifford himself and John Wilson Croker, exercised pitbull political instincts. Their slashing tone sorely disappointed Robert Southey, among other Quarterly Review contributors who in joining the Quarterly had hoped to set an example in "moral reviewing" better than they had found in the sometimes partisan and often anti-Christian Edinburgh Review. But Gifford and his leading literary advisor, George Ellis, recognized that to combat the Edinburgh the Quarterly had to follow Francis Jeffrey's lead in at least one respect: the ponderously learned, politely moral articles Gifford received from Oxford dons and country curates had to be made in Jeffrey's word, "popular". They became so under Gifford's editorial pen by his adding "spice" to the reviews.
- Despite Gifford and Croker, and despite the often-murderous tone of political writing in that age, at least some of the writing in the early Quarterly is temperate, even progressive. The Quarterly published articles advocating limited constitutional reforms and it took up a position similar to its Whig counterpart in favour of liberal economic measures. The Quarterly has also been characterized as the time-serving mouthpiece of Tory government, a "link that connect[ed] literature with the police", as William Hazlitt put it. But Gifford and his coadjutors demonstrably refused to be dictated to by the Prime Minister or other members of government. Nor was the journal by any measure merely an instrument of social control, for in its pages Southey, inspired by a Romantic Conservative philosophy of social reform (that he shared with Coleridge), published a distinguished body of work calling for sweeping social and moral adjustments.