The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VI. Reviews and Magazines in the Early Years of the Nineteenth Century

§ 4. The Quarterly Review

The true causes that brought The Quarterly Review into existence are clear enough. The time had come, and the man, to challenge and dispute vigorously the domination of the great Scottish whig organ. Scott had good reason to fear that whig politics, by its instrumentality, were being disseminated in the most jealously guarded of tory preserves. “No genteel family,” he writes to George Ellis, “can pretend to be without the Edinburgh Review; because, independent of its politics, it gives the only valuable literary criticisms that can be met with.” It was, indeed, high time, in the public interest, that the arrogant dictatorship of The Edinburgh, on all subjects literary and political, should be disputed by some able antagonist worthy of its steel. Thus, it happened that The Quarterly, unlike The Edinburgh, was founded with a distinctly political object and by party politicians of high standing, to avert the dangers, threatened by the spread of the doctrines of whigs and reformers, to church and state. The first move had already been made by John Murray the publisher, who, in September, 1807, had written to Canning that the time was favourable for starting a new political organ. Canning, at that time, made no reply. Now, however, Scott made a strong appeal to Canning and George Ellis and Croker to give their direct assistance to the new venture and to gain for it the countenance and help of other party leaders in London. Scott was himself much pressed to undertake the editorship. This he declined, successfully pressing its acceptance on Gifford, who, with Canning and Ellis, at the end of the century, had been a main supporter of The Anti-Jacobin. “The real reason,” wrote Scott to Gifford, in October, 1808, “for instituting the new publication is the disgusting and deleterious doctrines with which the most popular of our Reviews disgraces its pages.” But Scott, though a strong tory, could never have become a narrow or servile partisan; and he adjured the new editor to remember that they were fighting for principles they held dear, and against doctrines they disapproved; and that their ends would not be best promoted by mere political subserviency to any administration or party.

Indeed, Scott, writing to George Ellis, went so far as to say that he did not wish the projected review to be principally or exclusively political. That might even tend to defeat its purpose. What he wanted was to institute a review in London, conducted totally independent of book-selling influence, on a plan as liberal as that of The Edinburgh, its literature as well supported and its principles English and constitutional. Scott worked assiduously to make the first number a success, writing himself four articles, making nearly a third of the whole, and recruiting to the standard of The Quarterly, Southey, Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Rogers, Moore and “others whose reputations Jeffrey had murdered, and who are rising to cry woe upon him, like the ghosts in King Richard.” Southey, the poet laureate, was a most voluminous contributor, and Gifford suffered much from him for having to compress his essays within the necessary limits, giving, thereby, no little offence to one whom, nevertheless, he regarded as “the sheet anchor of the Review.”

There could be no question from the first as to the ability of the new journal. Yet, its first number (February, 1809) met no such reception as had greeted the birth of The Edinburgh. Its tone was literary rather than political. It contained much that was well worth reading, little to dazzle or startle the world. The publisher was not without anxiety for the future; and his editor Gifford, great as was his literary ability, was certainly one of the least businesslike and most unpunctual of men. The second number was not ready till the end of May, the third till the end of August, when it was found by Ellis (a very candid friend and supporter) to be, “though profound, notoriously and unequivocally dull.” Murray asserted that The Quarterly was not yet paying its expenses; and it was not till the fourth number (which was some six weeks behind time) that an article appeared which excited general admiration, and which, in the publisher’s opinion, largely increased the demand for the Review. This, strangely enough, was an article, and by no means a condemnatory one, on the character of Charles James Fox. Henceforward, the circulation grew steadily, and, in the years 1818 and 1819, when it appears that each of the great reviews reached its maximum circulation, The Edinburgh and The Quarterly sold almost the same number of copies, namely, 14,000.