Death by Review by David McClay

David McClay

Death by Review


The John Murray publishing house has several continuities running through its long history. Seven successive John Murrays at the helm between 1768 and 2002 is one. The premises at 50 Albemarle Street, occupied by the company from 1812, is another. The Quarterly Review, founded in 1809 and running until 1967, is a third.

Unsurprisingly, then, of the over 250,000 letters to the Murrays that survive, many are concerned with the Quarterly. Letters from editors, readers, reviewers and reviewed are among those that appear in a new collection I have edited to mark the 250th anniversary of the firm, Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher.

The Quarterly was founded by John Murray II with the assistance of the novelist Walter Scott, who was also a frequent contributor, reviewing a wide range of titles. Scott even anonymously reviewed his own anonymous Tales of My Landlord. It was his harshest review.

He was often more sympathetic when reviewing the works of others, and also conscious of the effects that a poor review might have on the author. He showed particular concern, for instance, that his review of his friend Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage might offend the poet. Writing to John Murray II, he explained:

You know how high I hold his poetical reputation, but besides, one is naturally forced upon so many points of delicate consideration, that really I have begun and left off several times, and after all send the article to you with full power to cancel it if you think any part of it has the least chance of hurting his feelings. You know him better than I do, and you also know the public, and are aware that to make any successful impression on them the critic must appear to speak with perfect freedom. I trust I have not abused this discretion… if you think it likely to hurt him either in his feelings or with the public, in God’s name fling the sheets in the fire and let them be as not written.

Scott’s supportive review of Emma didn’t entirely satisfy Jane Austen, who wrote to Murray, ‘I return to you the Quarterly Review with many thanks. The authoress of Emma has no reason I think to complain of her treatment in it – except in the total omission of Mansfield Park. I cannot but be sorry that so clever a man as the reviewer of Emma, should consider it as unworthy of being noticed.’

John Murray II’s lawyer and literary adviser Sharon Turner was concerned about overly personal or unnecessarily critical reviews. Not long after the appearance of the first issue of the Quarterly, he informed John Murray II that ‘to make an individual ridiculous merely because he has written a foolish, if it be a harmless book, is not, I think, justifiable on any moral principle… Where is the bravery of treading on a worm or crushing a poor fly? Where the utility? Where the honour?’ Such advice wasn’t always followed. John Wilson Croker opened his review of John Keats’s Endymion:

Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author’s complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty – far from it – indeed, we have made efforts almost as super-human as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books.

The savage review was said to have contributed to Keats’s untimely end. Byron wrote to Murray, ‘Is it true what Shelley writes me, that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review? I am very sorry for it, though I think he took the wrong line as a poet… I know by experience that a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author.’ Warming to this theme, he wrote in Don Juan:

John Keats, who was kill’d off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate.
’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article.

While Keats’s death had more to do with tuberculosis than criticism, others apparently were made sick by harsh reviews. Edmund Gosse wrote to his friend Thomas Hardy, ‘You have heard or will hear that the Quarterly Review has felled, flayed, eviscerated, pulverized and blown to the winds poor Me in thirty pages of good round abuse, “charlatan,” “gross ignorance,” “impostor,” and the like. It is rather shocking and keeps me awake o’nights and affects my liver.’

After publishing Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, John Murray III turned to Darwin’s fiercest critic, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who criticised Darwin’s evolutionary theory in his review as ‘a dishonouring view of Nature’ that was ‘absolutely incompatible’ not only with the word of God but also with the ‘moral and spiritual condition of man’. On receiving his copy, Darwin replied to Murray that the ‘article on the Origin seems to me very clever & I am quizzed splendidly; I really believe that I enjoyed it as much as if I had not been the unfortunate butt. There is hardly any malice in it, which is wonderful considering the source whence many of the suggestions came. The Bishop makes me say several things which I do not say, but these very clever men think they can write a review with a very slight knowledge of the Book reviewed or subject in question.’

Darwin’s temperate response was not matched by that of his supporters. The botanist Joseph Hooker wrote to Murray, ‘The article itself is astonishing & one does not know what to wonder at most – its eloquence, ability, utter misapprehensions of the facts of Darwin’s book, appalling ignorance of the rudiments of science, or incredible blunders… I am extremely sorry for it, though it will do Darwin’s book all the good in the world.’

The Murrays, of course, had long ago realised that controversy can be excellent marketing.

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