31 MAY 1957, Page 29


Gay Coloured Ribbons

By LORD DAVID CECIL Aa footnote is interesting for the light it throws on something else, something of more intrin- sic and permanent interest, so also is a footnote book. Consider the present example.* It is con- cerned with the founders and first contributors to the Edinburgh Review. This was the most im- portant and influential journal of the early nine- teenth century. But journalism is, of its nature, an ephemeral thing. The liveliest newspaper is unreadable a day after publication, and, though the Edinburgh Review was too solid and brilliant an affair to fade in twenty-four hours, yet it was too exclusively the product of its period to have much to say to us nowadays.

However, it does shed light on subjects of more permanent interest than itself. Political light first of all; it expressed the section of opinion that controlled the progressive party that turned Whigs into Liberals. It also illuminates the history of ideas; for it was the chief reading of the intelli- gentsia of its time. The sort of people who now read the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian, then read the Edinburgh Review. From its every paragraph exhales the charac- teristic atmosphere of their clever, confident, limited minds. Cleverness and limitations alike appear in its literary criticism. The Edinburgh Review shows us how the typical intelligent man of the time enjoyed the new romanticism while it told a good story and extolled liberty, but turned from it with scorn when it irradiated the world with 'the light that never was on sea or land, the consecration and the poet's dream.'

A footnote to intellectual history, to political history and to literary history—such is Mr. Clive's book. It is an excellent book, too; first of all .because Mr. Clive knows his job thoroughly well. In terse, straightforward language he tells us the relevant facts crisply and vividly and is able to draw general conclusions from them in a convincing fashion. Once or twice, perhaps, he seems too much concerned to conciliate modern opinion. There is 'something unneces- sarily apologetic in the tone in which he explains that the first Edinburgh Reviewers did not think that democratic and social equality were good things. Surely many wise men have agreed and still agree with them about this. On the whole, however, Mr. Clive is as sensible as he is readable.

Further, he has found a subject which it is easy to make readable. The Edinburgh Review was a unique phenomenon in the history of the higher journalism. It was started casually enough as a result of a conversation late at night between a handful of clever young men in Edinburgh, who thought • it might be amusing to start a SCOTCH REVIEWERS: TliE EDINBURGH. REVIEW, 1802-1815. By John Clive. (Faber and Paber, 25S.) review, but had no notion of making a world- wide success of it. Indeed, they only printed 750 copies of the first issue. In twelve years, however, the circulation had risen to 13,000. As each copy was reckoned to be read by three people, this meant a real circulation of nearly 40,000 copies.

A very varied 40,000, too; though every article was 'serious,' their readers were far from being confined to the 'serious' members of society. On the contrary, the Review, said an observer, had 'much reputation with all the Eton boys. the Gentlemen-Commoners of Oxford, and 'Ladies who marked their progress in a book with a bit of fine, pink ribbon.' Nor were its readers con- fined to those who shared its opinions. Its tone was openly, even combatively, Whig, and old Lady Salisbury was the queen of the true-blue Tories. Yet, says Creevey of her, 'She is reclining on a sofa reading the Edinburgh Review . . . her dress is white muslin properly loaded with garniture, and she has just put off a very large bonnet profusely gifted with bright lilac ribbons. leaving on her head a very nice lace cap, not less adorned with the brightest yellow ribbon.' Pink. lilac and yellow—the path of the Edinburgh Review seems to have been strewn with gay coloured ribbons.

Its fame gradually extended across the Channel. where it was read, if possible, with even greater admiration than in England. And by the most awe-inspiring persons; Stendhal, Madame de Stael and Napoleon himself vied in its praise, Indeed, Madame de Stael said that 'if sonic being from another climate were to come to this and desire to know in what work the highest pitch of human intellect, might be found, he ought to be shown the Edinburgh Review.' .

What was the cause of this wonderful success? Partly that the Edinburgh Review fulfilled a new need. It provided solid and stimulating mental fare in. an easy and concentrated form. The hustling, bustling, serious-minded nineteenth cen- tury, an more especially that middle class who controlled its destinies, liked its reading to be profitably full of facts and thoughts. But few readers had the time to gather these from the weighty, many-volumed works in which serious thinkers and historians of former ages had ex- pressed themselves. The typical Edinburgh Re- view article gave them the same thing in a shortened form; a history book or a treatise on political economy boiled down to thirty or forty pages and clarified from technical jargon.

Moreover, it was also entertaining. The Review purported to instruct. But Jeffrey, its editor, and his collaborators knew perfectly well that if they were to sell their magazine they must also amuse. 'To be learned and right,' he said, 'is no doubt die first requisite—but to be ingenious and original and discursive is perhaps something more than the second in a publication which can only do good by remaining popplar—and cannot be popular without other ,attractions than those of mere truth and correctness.' Chief among these other attractions was rudeness. Jeffrey realised that nothing is more insipid in a journal than too , much fairness and good manners. '1 think we should make one or two examples of great de- linquents in every number,' he said. The Review became celebrated for the vigour of its invective, genial in .Sydney Smith, boisterous in Brougham, acid in Jeffrey himself. Breathless and exhilarated readers watched these duellists of the pen exuberantly pinking their opponents.

Yet never in such a way as to be shocking.

Here was another cause of the Edinburgh Re- view's success. Though its manner was lively and daring, its views were, on the whole, cautious and respectable. Speaking in public-school terms, it might be said to express Wykehamist views in a Harrovian manner. In politics it was steadily progressive, in favour of Catholic Emancipation, humanitarian reforM, and, after a little hesita- tion, of the anti-slavery movement. But it was firmly against Radicalism, extreme democracy, or anything that could be faintly connected with the excess of the French Revolution. Similarly in literature it could set itself up against what was generally considered the cold formality of the past and yet make fun of Wordsworth's mystical communings with idiot boys and elderly beggars. The rowing invective, the stinging wit, the typical slashing, dashing Edinburgh style was•enlisted on the side' of moderation. Nothing could have ap- pealed to the taste of its readers more. The jokes and the abuse entertained them, but, sinee they were used on the side of moderation, they could not feel them to be subversive and dangerous. On the contrary, it was delightful to find how sparkling and daring moderate views could be made to appear. Perhaps, the readers excitedly wondered, they were not so moderate after all.

Perhaps they themselves, without knowing it, had been making the best of both worlds, holding opinions that were at once splendidly .audacious and comfortingly safe. This was indeed a pleasant possibility !

The Edinburgh Review was a success, then, be- cause it satisfied a practical need and played with skill on the vanity of mankind. But it has a higher claim to fame. It also provided a platform for Sydney Smith, one of the wisest, wittiest and most lovable of Englishmen. Here is a quotation from his .review of the Rev. Dr., W. Langford's Anniversary Sermon of the Royal Humane Society

An Accident which happened to the gentle- man engaged in reviewing this Sermon, proves, in the most striking manner, the importance of this charity for restoring to life persons in whom the vital power is suspended. He was discovered. with Dr. Langford's discourse lying open before him, in a state of the most profound sleep; from . which he could not, by any means, be awakened for a great length of time. By attending, however, to the rules prescribed by the Humane Society, flinging in the smoke of tobacco, applying hot flannels, and carefully rezioving the discourse itself to a great distance, the critic was restored to his disconsolate brothers.

Perhaps, since Sydney Smith wrote for the Review, this book is not a footnote after all.