Vital Signs

A Great Tradition Renewed

Literary feuds, like ideas, have consequences.  After Sir Walter Scott read a disparaging review of his Marmion in the Edinburgh Review, the bard of the Borders decided that what British life needed above all was a journal that would give his works more respectful treatment and would provide a powerful antidote to the Whiggish and increasingly influential Edinburgh Review.  The rest is literary and political history.

The Quarterly Review rapidly joined its great rival as one of the two most important British journals of the 19th century.  With the patronage of Scott, Robert Southey, and George Canning, under the guidance of remarkable editors, and published by the respected publisher John Murray II, it soon attracted the support of many members of the Tory establishment and numbered prime ministers, senior clergy, and eminent litterateurs among its contributors.  Those who wanted to inform and shape public opinion wrote for the Quarterly Review; those who wanted to understand public opinion had to read it.

The Quarterly Review’s first editor was William Gifford.  Gifford was the son of a Derbyshire glazier who went briefly to sea and later served as apprentice to a cobbler.  But he was fortunate enough to be talent-spotted by a local surgeon, William Cookesley, who paid for him to be released from his apprenticeship and to go to Oxford,...

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