Letter from Scott to Gifford, 25 Oct 1808

Author(s): Scott, Sir Walter


8 pp
Oct 25 1808

By a letter from the Lord Advocate of Scotland in con
sequence of a communication between his Lordship & Mr Canning
on the subject of a new Review to be attempted in London I have
the pleasure to understand that you have consented to become
the editor a point which in my opinion goes no small way
to ensure success to the undertaking. In offering a few observations
on the details of such a plan I only obey the commands of
our distinguished friends without having the vanity to hope I can
point out any thing of consequence which must not have readily
occured to a person of Mr Giffords literary experience & eminence.
The task however having been so imposed on me I beg permissi
on to offer my sentiments in the miscellaneous way in which
they occur to me.

The extensive reputation & circulation of the Edinburgh Review
is chiefly owing to two circumstances. First that it is entirely un
:influenced by the Booksellers who have contrived to make most
of the other reviews mere vehicles for advertising & puffing off
their own publications or running down those of their rivals
Secondly the very handsome recompence which the Editor not
only holds forth to his regular assistants but actually forces
upon those whose rank & fortune make it a matter of indif
:ference to them. The Editor to my knowledge acts on the prin
:ciple that even Czar Peter working in the trenches must
accept the pay of a common soldier. This general rule re:
moves all scruple of delicacy & fixes in his service a num:
:ber of contributors who might otherwise have felt reluc:
tance to accept of compensation for their labour even

even the more because that compensation was a matter of
convenience to them. There are many young men of talent &
enterprize who are extremely glad of a handsome apology to
work for fifteen or twenty guineas, upon whose gratuitous
contributions no reliance could be placed & who nevertheless
would not degrade themselves by being hired labourers in
a work where others wrote for honour alone. From this I
deduce two points of doctrine first that the projected work
must be considered as independant of all bookselling influence
secondly that the contributors must be handsomely recom
penced & that it be a rule that each shall accept of the
price of his labour. Mr. John Murray of Fleet street a young
bookseller of capital & enterprize & who has more good sense
and propriety of sentiment than fall to the share of most of
his brethern paid me a visit some time ago at Ashestiel
and as I found he had held some communication with
Mr. Canning (altho indirectly) I did not hesitate to give
him my sentiments on these points of the plan & I found
his ideas most liberal & satisfactory.

The office of Editor supposing all preliminaries arranged as
of such consequence that had you not been pleased to under
take it I fear the project might have fallen wholly to
the ground. He must be invested with the unlimited power
of controul for the purpose of selecting curtailing and correct
=ing the contributions; and as the person immediately responsi
=ble to the Public & to the Bookseller that each Number
shall be published in its due time it will be the Editors
duty to consider & settle the articles of which it
shall consist & to take early measures for procuring them
from the persons best qualified to write upon the several
subjects of criticism. and this you will find so difficult


if entirely entrusted to auxiliaries that I foresee with pleasure
you will be soon compelled to appear yourself (occasionally
at least) in the field. At the same time if you think my
services worth acceptance as a sort of Jackal or Lions provi
=der I will do all in my power to assist in this trouble
=some department of Editorial duty. But there is another
point of consequence besides the task of providing & arran
=ging materials for each number. One very successful ex
=pedient of the Edinr. Editor & on which his popularity has
in some measure risen is the art of giving life & interest even
to the duller articles of his Review. He recieves for example
a criticism upon a work of deep research from a person
who has studied the book & understands the subject & if it
happens to be written which may often be the case in a
tone of stupefying mediocrity he renders it palatable by
a few lively paragraphs or entertaining illustrations of
his own or perhaps by generalising & systematising the
knowledge which it contains. By this sort of finessing he
converts without loss of time or hindrance of business
an unmarketable commodity into one which from its
general effect & spirit is not likely to disgrace those among
which it is placed. Such exertions on the part of an
Editor are indispensible to a well conducted review for
those who possess the knowledge necessary to review books of
research or of abstruse disquisition are sometimes unable
to put their criticisms however just into a readable far
less a pleasant or captivating shape & as their science can=
not be obtained “for the nonce” by one capable of writing
well the only remedy is that a man of talent for com
=position should revise their lucubrations. And I should
hope many friends & well wishers to the undertaking would

would be disposed to assist in this part of the task & altho
they might not have leisure to write themselves might yet
revise & correct such articles.

Permit me to add that you Sir possess in a peculiar
degree a facility of the greatest consequence to the under=
taking in having access to the best sources of political
information. It would not certainly be advisable that the
work should in its outset assume exclusively a political
character. On the contrary the articles upon science & miscella
=neous literature ought to be such as may challenge competiti
=on with the best of contemporary reviews. But as the real
reason of instituting the publication is the disgusting & deleterious
doctrine with which the most popular of these periodical
works disgraces its pages it is essential to consider how
opposite & sounder principles can be most advantageously brought
forward. On this ground I hope it is not too much to expect
from those who have the power of befriending us in this respect
that they should upon topics of national interest furnish
the Reviewer confidentially & through the medium of the Editor
with accurate views of points of fact so far as they are
fit to be made public. This is the most delicate yet most
essential part of our scheme. On the one hand it is certainly
not to be understood that we are to be tied down to advo=
cate upon all occasions & as matter of course the cause of ad=
ministration. Such indiscriminate support & dereliction of in
=dependance would prejudice both ourselves & our cause in
the eye of the public. On the other hand the work will ob=
=tain a decided ascendance over all competition so soon as
the public shall learn (not from any vaunt of the conductors
but from their own observation) that upon political sub=
jects the new critics are possessed of early & of accurate in
=formation. The opposition have regularly furnishd the


Edinburgh review with this command of facts so far as they
themselves possessed them And surely you my dear Sir enjoying
the confidence of Mr Canning & other persons in power and
in defence of whose principles we are buckling our armour
may safely expect to be entrusted with the political infor=
mation necessary to give credit to the work & with the task
of communicating it to those whom you may chose to em=
ploy in laying it before the public.

Concerning the mode & time of publishing the Review perhaps
you will judge a quarterly publication most advisable. It
is difficult to support one of more frequent recurrence
both on account of the want of important books & the time
necessary to collect valuable materials. The name is of some
consequence at least in Mr Murrays estimation, for my=
self I think any one which has little pretension might
serve the turn. The English Review for example once conducted
by Gilbert Stewart might be revived under your auspices.
The search after regular correspondents whose contributions
can be relied upon ought to be begun but should not
stop the publication of the first No: I am not afraid
of finding many such when the reputation of the work
has been decidedly established by three or four numbers of
the very first order. Besides hunting about for these
persons would make the design public which should if
possible be confined to persons worthy of trust for it will
have a double effect if the first No comes on the public
by surprize without being prejudiced either by the unrea
=sonable expectation of friends or the artifices & misrepre=
sentations of the enemy. The first No should be out in
January if possible & might contain the following political articles
Foxes history Grattans Speeches & any book or pamphlet

which could give occasion for a distinct and enlightened view
of Spanish affairs. This last alone would establish the character
of the work. The Lucubrations of the Edinburgh Review on
that topic have done the work great injury with the public
& I think the sale of the publication might be reduced at
least one half by the appearance of a rival review which with
pretensions to the same height of literary talent & independence
of character should speak a political language more familiar
to the British ear than that of subjugation to France. After
all the matter is become very serious. From eight to nine thou:
sand copies of that review are quarterly dispersed & with all deference
to the information & high talents of the Editor (which nobody can
think of more highly than I do) much of this popularity is
owing to its being the only respectable and independent
publication of the kind. In Edinburgh or I may say in
Scotland there is not one out of twenty who reads the work
that agrees in political opinion with the Editor, but it is
ably conducted & how long the generality of readers will continue
to dislike the strain of politics so artfully mingled with copies
of information & amusement is worthy of deep consideration.
But I am convinced it is not too late to stand in the
breach. The first No. of our proposed Review if it can be compiled without the plan
taking wind & if executed with the talent which may reaso:
nably expected will burst among the Whigs (as they call
themselves) like a bomb. From the little observation I have
made I think they suffer peculiarly under cool sarcastic
ridicule accompanied by dispassionate argument. Having
long had a sort of exclusive occupation of the press
owing to the negligence of all literary assistance on the


on the part of those who thought their good cause should
fight its own battle they seem to feel with great acuteness
any appeal to the reading public like champions who
having been long accustomed to push have lost the art
of parrying. Now suppose that upon a foe of this humour
our projected work steals out only drawing the attention of
the public by the accuracy of its facts & the state of its
execution without giving them the satisfaction of bidding
a public defiance I conceive that that their indignation
expressed probably through the Edinr Review will soon
give us an opportunity of coming to close quarters with
that publication should it be thought advisable & that
with a much better grace than were we to announce a
previous determination of hostility. In the mean while I am
for gliding into a state of hostility without a formal declaration
of war & if our [forces for] one or two numbers be composed
of volunteers & amateurs we will find it easy when our
arms have acquired reputation to hire troops of condot=
=tieri & to raise & discipline regular forces of the line.
You are a much better judge than I can be who are fit
to be put into the van of the battle — you have the Ellis's
the Roses cum plurimes aliis — we have lost a host in Mr
Frere & can only hope he is serving the common cause
more effectually in another capacity. You can never want
scholars while Oxford stands where it did. Richad Heber
was with me during Murrays visit & knowing his zeal for
the good cause I availd myself of his advice: his brother
Reginald would be a most excellent coadjuter & I
doubt not to get his assistance. I believe I can command
some respectable assistance here but I rely much on

on that of Mr William Erskine the Advocates brother in law
& my most intimate friend. I think we can get you both
some scientific articles & some Scotch metaphysics which
you know are fashionable however deservedly or otherwise
My own studies have been rather limited but I
understand in some sort literary antiquities & history & have
been reckoned a respectable tirailleur in the [quizz][¿]
department of the Edinr Review in which I wrote occasionally until these last two
years when its tone of politics became so violent; I only
mention this lest you should either estimate my talents
by my zeal (which would occasion great disappointment)
or think me like many good folks more ready to offer
advice than assistance. Mr Murray seems to count upon Mal=
thus for the department of political economy & if you approve I
could when I come to town sound [Matthias] whose study of
foreign classics has been [proceeding exten][¿] [It is certain some]
push must be made at first for if we fail we shall disgrace
ourselves & do great injury to our cause I would not willingly
be like my namesake, Walter the pennyless, at the head of a
crusade consisting of a disorderly rabble & I judge of your
feelings by my own. But “screw your courage to the stick
=ing place & we'll not fail.” Supposing the work conducted
with spirit the only ground from which it can be assaild
with a prospect of success would be a charge of its being con
=ducted entirely under ministerial influence. But this may
be parried first by labouring the literary articles with as
much pains as the political & so giving to the review a
decided character independent of the latter department &
further the respect of the public may be maintaind by
the impartiality of our criticism. I would not willingly


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Letter from Scott to Gifford, 25 Oct 1808

Document Information

Document ID 189
Title Letter from Scott to Gifford, 25 Oct 1808
Year group 1800-1850
Genre Personal writing
Year of publication 1808
Wordcount 2442

Author information: Scott, Sir Walter

Author ID 47
Title Sir
Forenames Walter
Surname Scott
Gender Male
Year of birth 1771
Place of birth Edinburgh, Scotland
Occupation Author, solicitor
Father's occupation Solicitor
Education University
Locations where resident Edinburgh
Other languages spoken Latin