Review: Joanna Shattock

The Edinburgh Review in the Literary Culture of Romantic Britain: Mammoth and Megalonyx

The subtitle of William Christie’s book is taken from an entry in Byron’s journal for 5 December 1813, in which the poet comments that seeing two (unnamed) individuals sitting together at dinner reminds him of the grave, where ‘all distinctions of friend and foe are levelled; and they – the Reviewer and the Reviewee – the Rhinoceros and Elephant – the Mammoth and Megalonyx – all will lie quietly together’. The Mammoth in this instance is the Edinburgh Review, the first and the most celebrated of the great nineteenth-century quarterly Reviews, founded in 1802. The Megalonyx, a name given to the recently discovered fossil bones of a giant ground sloth, the ‘giant-claw’, are three poets who came under its severest scrutiny: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron. By Christie’s account none was ever quite prepared to lie down quietly with the old enemy.

The mammoth could also be Jeffrey, the founding editor and the dominating force in the Review’s first twenty-seven years, his reign effectively spanning the three decades that constitute the Romantic era. It is ‘Jeffrey’s Review’, as his colleague Francis Horner once called it, which is Christie’s subject. The focus is on Jeffrey the editor, but also Jeffrey the reviewer, writing between fifteen and forty per cent of the articles in each number, reserving contemporary poetry and fiction largely for himself after Walter Scott’s departure in 1809.

The first two chapters explore the dynamic of the Review’s early years. One of Jeffrey’s crucial decisions was to select books for review rather than offering a survey of all current publications, as was the practice of the earlier monthly reviews. Another was the policy of paying generously for articles, by which Jeffrey hoped to attract gentlemanly contributors who might otherwise be anxious about a taint of Grub Street. The Edinburgh, as Christie reminds us, was the product of a coterie. Had Jeffrey encouraged more idiosyncratic writers like Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, Coleridge and Carlyle, and given them their head, the Review would have been more innovative and more varied in tone. On the other hand, he argues, it might not have lasted as long as it did.

Quarterly rather than monthly publication lent itself to the long view of a subject. The pretext for a review, as Christie points out, could be a book, but also a speech in the House of Commons, the transcript of a trial, a pamphlet, or the proceedings of a learned society. More often it was a policy, rather than a text, which was under review. The length of the review-essays varied, but could extend to fifty pages. Some were so information-packed that they became the germ of encyclopaedia articles, helped by the fact that the Encyclopaedia Britannica was one of Archibald Constable’s, the Edinburgh publisher’s other projects.

Christie’s title purports to place the Edinburgh Review in the ‘literary culture’ of Romantic Britain. He reminds us how the Romantic canon, once confined to six male poets, has been vastly extended in the last thirty years, in terms of both authors and genres. The periodical essay, and the reviews and magazines which contained them, are part of this extended canon, and as such warrant the scrutiny which Christie and others devote to them. The Review’s Scottishness was a matter of pride, as was its Edinburgh base, but it was not devoid of a certain cultural cringe, particularly when making its way against the Quarterly, the Westminster, and other London-centred reviews and magazines. Christie has a chapter on the early rivalry with Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which had, he suggests, an obsession with and a ‘curious dependence’ upon its older rival.

Jeffrey’s dominant position in the Edinburgh until 1829 earned him respect, admiration, but also resentment. Wordsworth in his later years probably unfairly attributed the decline in his reputation to Jeffrey’s attacks in the Edinburgh, beginning with his provocative dismissal of The Excursion (‘This will never do’). Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria was in part a response to the Edinburgh’s concerted attacks on the ‘Lake Poets’. But as Christie demonstrates, Coleridge shared many of Jeffrey’s views about Wordsworth’s poetry. Byron’s ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ had the Edinburgh and Jeffrey in its sights, but again, as Christie and other critics note, many of his specific criticisms of Wordsworth closely resembled Jeffrey’s.

Several of the chapters of the book originated as journal articles. This is not unusual for a monograph, but in this instance some of the joins are still visible. More careful editing would have helped to unify the volume. The last chapter, on Jeffrey’s ambivalent relationship with Carlyle, focuses on the writing of Sartor Resartus, written after Jeffrey had left the Review, and published, not in the Edinburgh, but in Fraser’s Magazine. Ultimately, this is a collection of illuminating essays on aspects of the Edinburgh under Jeffrey, rather than the grand narrative implied by the title.

William Christie. Pickering & Chatto. ISBN 9781851966226. £60.00

%d bloggers like this: