The Quarterly Review and the Romantic Periodical Project

  1. Phase One of the Romantic Periodical Project, based at the University of Central England, aims to make electronic texts of the Quarterly Review available from its inception in 1809 up till 1822, when the involvement of William Gifford, its first editor, ceased, a date which conveniently corresponds to the end of conventional periodizations of Romanticism. No scholar of the Romantic period needs to be reminded that these years constituted an exceptionally turbulent and creative era in British political and cultural life. There are, however, remarkably few studies of British periodical culture during this crucial period, when the critical reputation of British Romantic writers was being shaped in surprisingly enduring ways. In this introduction, I shall be surveying some of the reasons for the comparative dearth of scholarship in this important area, and suggesting that the development of properly edited electronic texts of Romantic periodicals has the potential to transform our understanding of Romantic culture.

  2. It will surprise no one who is familiar with the current material and logistical pressures on scholarly work to hear that a major reason for lack of scholarship on Romantic periodicals is simply to do with the difficulties in arranging a sufficiently sustained level of access to the texts. Pioneering work on nineteenth-century periodicals, such as that of the Shines on the Quarterly Review in the 1940s, and more recently by Jonathan Cutmore, at Romantic Circles, has often been made possible by personal ownership of copies of these periodicals, in a way that is obviously beyond the reach of most scholars. My own sense of the need to make even a well-known periodical, such as the Quarterly Review, available electronically, was prompted by the disappearance of all pre-1850 periodical volumes in a local university library from open shelving. Whilst no doubt necessary from a conservation point of view, confining access to a rare books room effectively prevents considered scholarly investigation of periodicals in a world where competing demands on the scholar, and the requirement for research to result in a measurable output in a specified period of time, mean that materials classed as "secondary," or "background," will only ever be afforded very cursory attention if they cannot be studied in the evenings or weekends into which much research and writing has to be fitted.

  3. Current critical approaches, however, as evidenced by Paul Keen's recent Revolutions in Romantic Literature: An Anthology of Print Culture, 1780-1832 (Broadview 2004) emphasize as never before the role played by the material practices of print culture in the constitution of Romanticism. If much of the scholarly community is left without reliable and prolonged access to the periodicals of the time, which are the primary witnesses of Romantic print culture, these approaches threaten to become a kind of pseudo-historicism, in which arbitrarily privileged juxtapositions substitute for historically informed analysis. A historicist mode of understanding Romanticism demands a breadth of reference to the era's periodical culture which simply cannot be met by anthologization, however copious.

  4. Romantic periodicals were produced in very different historical and material circumstances from today's periodical publications. The influence of the essay-based periodical form introduced by Steele and Addison was still strong in the early nineteenth century, as Coleridge's periodical The Friend shows, so that numbers even of review-based periodicals such as the Quarterly Review had to meet expectations of coherence which simply don't apply to the periodicals of our own day. Even review-based periodicals were written by relatively small groups of contributors, whose anonymous articles were expected to conform to a unified editorial "voice," and were sometimes heavily edited to achieve this end.

  5. The review-essays of which periodicals such as the Quarterly Review consisted in any case only bore an oblique relationship to what had recently been published, with books published years previously being chosen for review on the basis of their relevance to current literary and political debates. As the inclusion of an index at the end of the first two volumes of the Quarterly Review indicates, review-based periodicals were often understood as quasi-encyclopaedic works of reference, a natural assumption in an age when encyclopaedias were published in installments. In this context, the well-known story of John Stuart Mill being made by his father to read through all the past numbers of the Edinburgh Review can be seen to reflect contemporaries' view of periodicals as coherent wholes, rather than just random assemblages of articles.

  6. These characteristics of Romantic-era periodicals mean that evaluating Romantic periodical culture involves forming an understanding of the inter-relationship between articles in the same, or adjacent, number, rather than just assessing the contents of an individual article. In the first number of the Quarterly Review, for instance, it is clear that the review of Southey's translation of the Cid should be understood in the context of the opening and closing articles on the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and that the review of a Sanscrit grammar is related to the article on the Baptist Missionary Society; likewise, the hostile review of a Unitarian-sponsored translation of the New Testament in the second number forms a significant context for the apparently rather dry review of a book on the Greek article in the third number.

  7. Even the best and most copious anthology cannot hope to reproduce these kinds of intertextual relationships, which have the potential significantly to modify our critical understanding of the reception of Romantic-era writers, given that the reviews through which their critical reputation was shaped often echo simultaneously published articles on entirely different subjects. Another significant benefit of making the texts of Romantic periodicals available in their entirety is that it helps to situate the work of Romantic writers in a British intellectual context which has been markedly under-researched in comparison to, for example, the German intellectual context of the same period.

  8. These general considerations, of course, could apply to the digitization of any Romantic periodical. The Quarterly Review in particular was chosen for Phase One of the Romantic Periodical project partly because of its cultural centrality, and partly because of its close ties to literary Romanticism through the involvement of Walter Scott and Robert Southey. It was preferred to its main rival, the Edinburgh Review, because, whilst there have been a number of studies of the early days of the Edinburgh, very little work on the Quarterly during the period of Gifford's editorship has so far been undertaken. This reflects a wider gap in historical understanding of British conservative culture during the Romantic period, for which the Quarterly Review, with its close ties to government circles, is particularly significant.

  9. Although many important digitization projects, such as Gale Publishing's Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, have been centered around making page images of the original available in searchable form, the production of electronic texts of the periodicals is central to the ambitions of the Romantic Periodical Project, despite the demand on scholarly labour such a commitment involves. The focus on text reflects the Project's aim of promoting scholarly engagement with Romantic periodicals (as opposed to developing a commercial product) since the availability of accurate electronic texts will allow the Project's work to be repurposed in a variety of forms, in a way that is not really possible with page images. Eventually, it is hoped that the electronic text of the Quarterly Review will act as a focus for online scholarly commentary of a kind which at the moment has no obvious outlet for publication, and become the centre of a database which summarizes developing scholarly understanding of the periodical.

Gavin Budge


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