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Susan Matoff, Conflicted Life. William Jerdan, 1782-1869. London Editor, Author and Critic

Brighton, Portland, Toronto, Sussex Academic Press, 2011, 659 p. ISBN 978-1845194178
Laurel Brake
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Susan Matoff, Conflicted Life. William Jerdan, 1782-1869. London Editor, Author and Critic, Brighton, Portland, Toronto, Sussex Academic Press, 2011, 659 p. ISBN 978-1845194178

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1In most important ways, Matoff’s life of William Jerdan functions optimally—It provides a chronological narrative of Jerdan’s life and fortunes, period by period, indeed year by year; it shows detailed knowledge of nineteenth-century journalism, and indeed his journalism over his long working life, in its prodigious amount and variety, and his diverse jobs and affiliations, and it treats in bursts of detail both his private life, particularly as it is evident in his writing and editorial practices, and his financial status. Moreover, although journalism was Jerdan’s main form of writing, it is decidedly not his only form, and Matoff notes and discusses these: he wrote and published novels, poetry, translations, and plays as well as collections of criticism. Matoff’s Conflicted Life is undoubtedly a ‘thick’ biography, bound to be of interest to students of nineteenth-century media and print culture, as well as those with specific interests: in the weekly Literary Gazette—the most prominent and successful literary weekly of the 1820s and 30s, of which he was editor and sometime proprietor for some 33 years (1817–1850); in the practices of Henry Colburn as a powerful book publisher with a stable of periodicals; and in the poet LEL/Letitia Landon, whose work Jerdan nurtured from her adolescence and whose career he launched and endlessly supported, affiliating her so closely with the circulation and success of the Literary Gazette that critics called for her release, in her own interest. While Jerdan’s complex private life involving three families is recorded here, it at least is kept firmly in the background, lest its details make the cauldron of this narrative boil over.

2The only criticism I have of this work derives from its strengths: its openness to subjects that present themselves in the course of research of Jerdan are perhaps too easily embraced, meaning that single chapters announcing limits of a theme and a period in the subject’s life, are distended to accommodate in a fulsome manner subjects that arise; for example, in chapter 3 mention of Jerdan’s introduction of ‘A Review of New Works’ department into the Sun newspaper, which he was editing, is by means of his claim in his Autobiography published forty years later that this was the first feature of its kind in a newspaper. This in turn is framed as part of a larger case that the cessation of war left him free as an editor to pursue his literary interests as, although peace is repressive to the health of newspapers, the additional space afforded by the dearth of war allows literature in newspapers generally to flourish. In chapter 21 on the Autobiography, as in other chapters, multiple reviews of each of the four volumes are described in detail. Throughout, the publication of even the most minor material by Jerdan—short poems and sometimes doggerel—is not only noted, but often discussed and quoted. A balance between momentum and stasis is often hard won, and the reader risks being mired in yet another interesting facet or problem in any given ‘chapter’ of Jerdan’s life. One undoubted explanation for this generous inclusiveness is that Matoff’s life, surprisingly, is the first of this towering literary figure.

3The other enemy to momentum is repetition of types of material in the steady procession through the years: each chapter, for example, has a report on the state of the journal and Jerdan’s day to day problems, particular contretemps/issues that arise in the time frame of the chapter, a detailed discussion of Jerdan’s writing in the period, along with reviews of it, and the situation with LEL at this time. The overall effect of this wealth of detail on the reader is something akin to the confusion that arises from overload: there is probably too much information to take in, and the outlines of the chronology blur. This is not to say that the experience of reading it is unpleasant; it is just slow, rather like reading a daily life narrative and the miscellany that it involves, or nibbling at a very rich cake in tiny bites. Subsequently, having read Matoff, one would go to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for the trajectory of Jerdan’s life, and to various and indeed many passages here—as directed by the index—for chunks of information about how the print culture industry worked over 60 plus years, for example, of which Matoff has a firm grasp. Anyone reading this ‘life’ is bound to learn all manner of things, far beyond the subject of ‘Jerdan’; it is invaluable on the period, on journalism, and on the Literary Gazette. But part of me wanted a more graspable, shaped narrative; a timeline/chronology in the front matter might have helped.

4Jerdan’s life is probably not more ‘conflicted’ than most, if lives are examined in grainy close-up as his is here; for example, it does not seem more conflicted than Dickens’s biography, except for its stuttering end, in multiple bankruptcies which move it from mid-life achievement of great literary and social success to final poverty, isolation and ignominy. Following his loss of the Literary Gazette in 1850, Jerdan managed to compose and publish a four-volume Autobiography (1852–3), ‘rambling reminiscences of an elderly man’ (471), which itself plainly indicated it was said how he had reached this sorry state. In his subsequent marked decline, he scraped a very meagre living by odd contributions to Household Words, All the Year Round and Chambers’, and two series in the Leisure Hour, ‘Men I Have Known’ and ‘Characteristic Letters’. Living with the children of his third family, Jerdan managed alone, by means of steady financial support from friends, after his partner entered an asylum. However, despite the differences in the trajectory of success between Dickens and Jerdan, like Dickens studied close up, there is lots of interest in what Matoff captures of Jerdan and his world, especially his life as a journalist: the Literary Gazette itself; his relationship with his co-publishers proprietors; the role of editor he exemplifies; and his broader activities as a man of letters.

5One undoubted strength of this Life is its detailed attention to the Literary Gazette, a weekly whose reputation has routinely been eclipsed by its imitator and successful rival, the Athenaeum (1828 ff), which had the good fortune not to be owned and answerable to a book publisher. Where the Athenaeum under Dilke, if not originally, made its reputation by claiming to be free of puffing and the control of publishers, the Literary Gazette for a long period counted both Colburn and Bentley as majority proprietors along with Jerdan, who was editing it. Jerdan was constantly having to evade the control and paid paragraphs of his fellow owners: irked by adverse criticism of a title, Colburn even set up a weekly rival, the Athenaeum, which in time was to overtake the Gazette. Jerdan’s correspondence quoted here shows his numerous attempts to fight for the credibility of his publication, which also depended on ‘preference’ from the publishers to the earliest access to new titles, without which the Literary Gazette could not be first with reviews. Given that Jerdan retained the mode of publishing lengthy extracts in his reviews, publishers relied on this first exposure as adverts for sales, and rewarded it with paid advertising. Rival journals and critics accused the Gazette of offering ‘previews’ of books rather than ‘reviews’. As editor Jerdan was also constantly hunting nervously for both news and talent, in order to maintain the primacy of the Gazette. Once he found and began to shape LEL’s career, he opted to connect her poetry intimately with that of his journal, and Matoff claims that the shape and emphasis of the Gazette changed to accommodate her poetry, a genre of literary work not commonly included in weeklies at the time. This reflected his aesthetic taste, in that Jerdan never took to the strenuous romanticism of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, preferring the poetry of LEL and Charles Swain. Similarly early, Jerdan developed a lifelong taste for visual art, and the Gazette’s astringent and admonitory art reviews, probably written by both himself and LEL, were an addition to the usual contents of weeklies of the day.

6Matoff illustrates the literary ‘system’ of the day vividly and the pressures it put on Jerdan on a number of occasions. The article in which he finally exposes and denounces it publicly, ‘The Cut-and-Dry System of Criticism’ (LG, 17 April 1830) is treated in detail, as is his series of eleven articles on ‘The Publishing Trade’ (LG, Jan 1834 ff) that were directed at the SDUK (the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) and its dissemination of poor literature and cheap books for working people, allegedly for the circulation of knowledge, but actually, overwhelmingly it is alleged, for profit. In this same period, Jerdan expressed his frustration with the magazine model in a satiric piece (possibly written with Thomas Hook) ‘A Model for a Magazine’ appended to a spoof travel book, A Personal Narrative of a Journey (1829). In Matoff’s documentation of fledgling writers whom Jerdan generously and strenuously supported (such as LEL, James Hogg and William Maginn), and her reiterated exposure of Jerdan’s pinched position between his publishers and his paper, she shows clearly both the power and weakness of one of the most famous literary journalist-editor-proprietors of the day. From the earliest days of Jerdan’s London career, as editor of the Sun, Matoff indicates that such rocky relations were characteristic among proprietors, with a deleterious effect on the particular paper in question.

7Jerdan’s finances were similarly hand to mouth, and largely insecure, showing another facet of this barely established profession in the first part of the nineteenth century. Whereas Dickens’s limited investment in journalism, backed by a managing editor in Wills and other staff, afforded him the grounding of a regular income, which his fiction, when it sporadically appeared, then supplemented, Jerdan who was proprietor, sole editor, and a journalist who wrote most of the copy himself of a more miscellaneous and newsy weekly had to supplement what he experienced as the financial ups and downs of journalism, with bits and pieces of other literary output. The scope of the Gazette required an alertness to weekly news on its editor’s part that Dickens’s weeklies did not. As his critics allege, Jerdan seems to have had ample success at the height of the Gazette, and financial remuneration, but the breadth of his interests and the expenditure of his energies left him often in want of funds, if not friends: he was for example a founder member of the Literary Fund, the Royal Society of Literature, the Geographical Society and the Garrick Club; these activities, along with his fondness for drink and the good life and his sponsorship of those in need, such as LEL’s family after her father died, took a high proportion of his time and money.

8This larger than life figure and the prodigious amount of work he did, much of it journalism, are well served by Matoff. The world she represents here provides a vivid glimpse of what it meant to function as a writer-journalist in the unstable world of the parvenu or self-made literary man before literature was dignified or a profession, and culture an industry. This is the uncertain world of Jerdan’s contemporaries and fellow writers such as Bulwer, Dickens and Maginn whose lives have been written, but Leigh Hunt is the slightly younger figure with whom Matoff and some nineteenth–century critics frequently compare him.

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Laurel Brake, « Susan Matoff, Conflicted Life. William Jerdan, 1782-1869. London Editor, Author and Critic », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Laurel Brake

Birkbeck College

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