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William Jerdan:
The Autobiography of William Jerdan


Ch. 1: Introductory
Ch. 2: Childhood
Ch. 3: Boyhood
Ch. 4: London
Ch. 5: Companions
Ch. 6: The Cypher
Ch. 7: Edinburgh
Ch. 8: Edinburgh
Ch. 9: Excursion
Ch. 10: Naval Services
Ch. 11: Periodical Press
Ch. 12: Periodical Press
Ch. 13: Past Times
Ch. 14: Past Times
Ch. 15: Literary
Ch. 16: War & Jubilees
Ch. 17: The Criminal
Ch. 18: Mr. Perceval
Ch. 19: Poets
Ch. 20: The Sun
Ch. 21: Sun Anecdotes
Ch. 22: Paris in 1814
Ch. 23: Paris in 1814
Ch. 24: Byron
Ch. 1: Literary
Ch. 2: Mr. Canning
Ch. 3: The Sun
Ch. 4: Amusements
Ch. 5: Misfortune
Ch. 6: Shreds & Patches
Ch. 7: A Character
Ch. 8: Varieties
Ch. 9: Ingratitude
Ch. 10: Robert Burns
Ch. 11: Canning
Ch. 12: Litigation
Ch. 13: The Sun
Ch. 14: Literary Gazette
Ch. 15: Literary Gazette
Ch. 16: John Trotter
Ch. 17: Contributors
Ch. 18: Poets
Ch 19: Peter Pindar
Ch 20: Lord Munster
Ch 21: My Writings
Ch. 1: Literary Pursuits
Ch. 2: Literary Labour
Ch. 3: Poetry
Ch. 4: Coleridge
Ch 5: Criticisms
Ch. 6: Wm Gifford
Ch. 7: W. H. Pyne
Ch. 8: Bernard Barton
Ch. 9: Insanity
Ch. 10: The R.S.L.
Ch. 11: The R.S.L.
Ch. 12: L.E.L.
Ch. 13: L.E.L.
Ch. 14: The Past
Ch. 15: Literati
Ch. 16: A. Conway
Ch. 17: Wellesleys
Ch. 18: Literary Gazette
Ch. 19: James Perry
Ch. 20: Personal Affairs
Ch. 1: Critical Glances
Ch. 2: Personal Notes
Ch. 3: Fresh Start
Ch. 4: Thomas Hunt
Ch. 5: On Life
Ch. 6: Periodical Press
Ch. 7: Quarterly Review
Ch. 8: My Own Life
Ch. 9: Mr. Canning
Ch. 10: Anecdotes
Ch. 11: Bulwer-Lytton
Ch. 12: G. P. R. James
Ch. 13: Finance
Ch. 14: Private Life
Ch. 15: Learned Societies
Ch. 16: British Association
Ch. 17: Literary Characters
Ch. 18: Literary List
Ch. 19: Club Law
Ch. 20: Conclusion

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William Jerdan (1782-1869) was for more than three decades editor of the Literary Gazette, a weekly paper that published or reviewed most writers working in the first half of the nineteenth century. Jerdan began work on his four-volume Autobiography shortly after his forced retirement in 1850, compiling what he anticipated would be valuable information about the publishing trade and its more obscure denizens. Many of Jerdan's friends were antiquaries and he writes like an antiquary himself, producing a book rich in factual detail but impoverished in style and structure. About a quarter of the whole is given to the author's life, another to his work, and the remainder to “illustrations”—anecdotes, letters, poems, and documents. These include a manuscript play by Thomas Hood, an aborted life of the poet James Thomson, and a prospectus for the Royal Geographical Society.
Jerdan was born and raised in Scotland, a younger son of a gentleman of but middling means. In 1806 he established himself in London, working as a journalist, political reporter, and miscellaneous writer. He contributed to The Satirist, a scandal-magazine which he purchased in 1812, and was editor of The Sun, a Tory daily, until he had a falling-out with the proprietor, John Taylor. In 1817 he became editor of the recently-founded Literary Gazette, which under his direction became, after the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, the dominant literary journal of the 1820s. Through reviews in the Gazette readers formed their first impressions of new publications, making the journal of some consequence to authors and publishers who sometimes assailed its editor with bribes or threats. After 1830 the Gazette lost ground to a rival weekly, The Athenæum, but continued to be influential.
The 1820s were Jerdan's years of glory and take up most of his autobiography. He credits himself with launching the careers of the poets Bryan Waller Procter and L.E.L. and the novelists Bulwer Lytton and W. H. Ainsworth; William Maginn, Lady Blessington, and many lesser lights first appeared before the public in his pages. Jerdan purchased a mansion, Grove House, and became a man about town: in addition to his literary associations he was patronized by George Canning and had other political contacts in William Gifford and John Murray; he belonged to social clubs and learned societies, several of which he was instrumental in founding. But he was living beyond his means, and in 1834 lost nearly all to creditors. The Autobiography passes lightly over the dark days that followed and concludes with an account of how Jerdan was rescued in 1850 by his former friends and associates.
Perhaps not many have read the four-volume Autobiography from stem to stern—a work that in scale and substance recalls Richardson's Clarissa. The protagonist pours over his old correspondence, reflecting on choices made and taking stock of his moral virtues and failings. Later volumes respond to what reviewers were saying about the earlier volumes, affording the author opportunities to insist that he did have a plan for his sprawling work and that in any event that it is his life and he would tell it as he pleased. If the design tends to get lost in a welter of digression, there is a novelistic component nonetheless: the crash and redemption in the fourth volume are carefully prepared for, and if not so moving as the parallel events in Lockhart's Life of Scott it is only because William Jerdan was a less compelling figure.
We are told at the outset that his begetting sin was pride, a judgment borne out by events but also mitigated by circumstances. Jerdan shows us how he was bombarded by interested flatterers, though one cannot help but notice that the praise was usually offered up by second-raters and not the haughty spirits of his age. It is a moot point whether he was shaping taste or being shaped by it. If the reputations established by his journal did not last, the Literary Gazette and the Autobiography remain valuable for recording what was thought at the time as opposed to what history has chosen to remember. In the end it was Jerdan's services to literature more than his reputation as a writer or critic that proved his salvation.
Jerdan is candid about the publishing business but not about his domestic life. He was twice married but barely mentions the first marriage and says nothing of the second. Such silence was customary, but in Jerdan's case it amounts to concealment. In a London Review of Books essay of 21 September 2000 Cynthia Lawford demonstrated that rumors of an affair with Letitia Elizabeth Landon were not only true, but that L.E.L. had three children by Jerdan. It is apparent from the Autobiography her advent was a turning point in his life and the fortunes of the Literary Gazette; when he writes that he is emotionally incapable of discussing her death one is inclined to believe him. Jerdan was left with three families to support, no small task for a nineteenth-century journalist. Of this he says nothing.
His relationship with Byron is much less central to the narrative but also of interest. We learn (in volume four) that they had been neighbors in 1807-08 when Byron had been staying in London, and that Byron's dog had trampled Jerdan's garden. Perhaps it was that, or politics, or dandyism that set Jerdan off, but whatever it was, he was among the very first to take a pop at the poet, writing in The Satirist. Jerdan was among the select few to whom Byron sent a challenge, provoked by comments on his marriage and subsequent separation printed in The Sun. Douglas Kinnaird, a mutual friend, succeeded in quashing the matter. Jerdan also managed to get on the wrong side of Walter Scott, becoming one of the few to be refused an invitation to Abbotsford. All this he is willing to tell us.
With the exception of those from L.E.L. and a few others, the 250 letters reprinted in the Autobiography consist chiefly of business notes. They indicate how the publishing system worked by exchanging information, compliments, gifts, visits, and the occasional threat. The letters illustrate how much Jerdan, who like most professional writers struggled with the need to produce oceans of text on tight deadlines, valued the occasional relaxation of a country-house visit. They show how business was conducted in the various learned and charitable societies that consumed so much of his attention—Jerdan was generous with time, talent, and money, striving to do what he could for the struggling writers whose lives he would later chronicle.
Some fairly innocent comments about John Wolcot (Peter Pindar) in the first volume provoked a testy response from Cyrus Redding, and perhaps for that reason Jerdan is more reticent than he might otherwise have been in writing about others, even when long dead. Perhaps too a fear that the truth might come out about his relationship with L.E.L. dissuaded him from reflecting on the behavior of his contemporaries. Certainly he knew more than he is willing to tell and is quick to forgive the few failings in others he does mention. That William Jerdan had an edge to his character is apparent from his early work at The Satirist, his lifelong fondness for epigrams, and various quarrels and personal resentments. But in the Autobiography he strives to be on his best behavior and his pen-portraits suffer accordingly. As if in compensation, he is more specific and illuminating about money than his contemporaries were wont to be.
The Autobiography is perhaps most valuable for what it reveals about the personal and institutional connections operating behind the scenes in literary London. Jerdan's friends—he describes hundreds of people as friends—worked in the Foreign Office, the Post Office, the Records Office, and the Admiralty; they were lawyers, physicians, politicians, country squires, explorers, peers, and wealthy industrialists; they were writers, painters, printers, architects, and engineers. What they all had in common was an interest in literature; if not writers themselves (many were, at least in small ways), they served the interests of writers by providing information, serving on boards, and supplying work and patronage. More than anything else, it was Jerdan's desire to document this strong if ephemeral social infrastructure that accounts for the distended form of his book.

David Hill Radcliffe