1902 Encyclopedia > Francis Jeffrey

Francis Jeffrey
Scottish judge and literary critic

FRANCIS JEFFREY (1773-1850), a judge in the Scottish Court of Session, with the title of Lord Jeffrey, was the son of a depute-clerk in the supreme court of Scotland, and was born at Edinburgh, 23d October 1773. After attending the High School six years, he studied at the university of Glasgow from 1787 to May 1789, and at Oxford from September 1791 to June 1792. Having in the following winter begun the study of law at Edinburgh University, he became a member of the Speculative Society, in the debates of which he measured himself not disdvantageously with Scott, Brougham, Francis Horner, the marquis of Lansdowne, Lord Kin-naird, and others.

He was admitted to the bar on December 18, 1794, but, having abandoned the Tory principles in which he had been educated, he of course found his father's connexion of little advantage to him; indeed the adoption of Whig politics was at this time almost a complete obstacle to legal success. His failure to obtam sufficient profes-sional employment led him to the conception of a variety of schemes of " literary eminence," none of which were put into execution; and more than one attempt to obtain an office which would secure him the advantage of a small but fixed salary likewise proved abortive. To the proposal made by Sydney Smith in Jeffrey's house to a company of young men, none of whom had yet achieved fame or occupied any professional position of importance, that they should start a review, Jeffrey was accordingly pre-pared to give a favourable reception; and, the scheme being received with acclamation, the result was the appearance on the 10th October 1802 of the first number of the Edinburgh Review. At the outset the Review was not under the charge of any special editor. The first three numbers were, however, practically edited by Sydney Smith, and on his leaving for England the work devolved chiefly on Jeffrey, who, after an arrangement with Constable the publisher, was appointed editor at a fixed salary. Most of those associated in the undertaking were Whigs in their political convictions; but, although the general bias of the Review was towards social and political reforms, it was so little of a party organ that for a time it numbered Sir Walter Scott among its contributors ; and no distinct emphasis was given to its political leanings until the publication in 1808 of an article on the work of Don Pedro Cevallos on the French Usurpation of Spain,which led shortly afterwards to the appearance of the rival Quarterly. According to Lord Cockburn the effect of the first number of the Edinburgh Review was " electrical," and it is not diffi-cult to understand why it should have been so, for, if its learn-ing was far from being so omniscient as was then imagined, and if much of its speculation was superficial and rambling, and its literary criticisms greatly deficient in true subtilty and discernment, it certainly did not err on the side either of modesty or of dulness. Indeed, not only were its opinions generally expressed in telling and forcible language, but the clever vivacity and wit as well as the external glitter and brilliancy of many of the articles, and their easy and jaunty air, were fitted to produce an imposing impression of latent resources of many-sided talent and comprehensive erudition. The novelty, moreover, of such a voluminous and elaborate periodical, the anonymousness of its contributions, and the fact that it devoted its pages chiefly to extended criticisms— often by no means flattering or complimentary—of living authors, were all elements in its success. Of course, on the other hand, allowance must be made for its early deliciencies, not only on account of the literary inexperience of the writers, but from the fact that it was itself practically a hitherto untried experiment in literature. Its improve-ment as regards substantiality of matter and genuineness and depth of learning was very marked as soon as its success permitted Jeffrey to enlist in its service a staff of writers who had generally made a special study of the particular subjects on which they wrote, and who, instead of contenting themselves with a summary and an interspersed criticism of the works they reviewed, made them the occasion of an independent and original contribution, often having only a very remote connexion with the works which suggested it. Whatever deductions also it may be necessary to make in distinguishing between the merits of the Review and its reputation, its influence both as a literary and as a political organ has much exceeded that of any other English periodical, and its relation to the social, political, and literary history of England during the first half"of the present century has been of no small importance. The period of Jeffrey's editorship extended to about twenty-six years, having ceased with the ninety-eighth number, pub-lished in June 1829. The Macvey Napier Correspondence gives some indication of what must have been the delicacy and difficulty of his task, and enables us to appreciate morte intelligently the panegyric of his biographer in regard to the literary skill and practical discernment which gathered together such a brilliant galaxy of talent, the suave firmness and wise prudence which controlled and utilized to such advantage their several idiosyncracies, and the tact and cleverness which arranged and adjusted their varied lights with such correct appreciation of harmonious unity.

Jeffrey's own contributions, according to a' list which has the sanction of his authority, numbered two hundred, all except six being written before his resignation of the editorship, and two immediately subsequent to this. A selection from these contributions was published in 1843 in four volumes. The composition of eight Review articles in a year is not an excessive literary task, but the subjects on which Jeffrey elected to give his opinion were very multi-farious, and he wrote with great rapidity, at odd moments of leisure, and with little special preparation. AlthongLi also he possessed a considerable accumulation of accurate information on a great variety of subjects, and had dis-ciplined his taste by a wide and catholic acquaintance with English literature, he had given no thorough and systematic, attention to any particular branch of study. Great fluency and ease of diction, considerable command of illustration, a certain superficial warmth of imagination and moral sentiment, a natural tendency towards mockery and ridicule, and a sharp eye to discover any oddity or peculiarity of style or violation of the accepted canons of good taste, were what lent to his criticisms the kind of pungency and effectiveness they possessed. It must, moreover, be added that, if he failed egregiously in the appreciation of the highest kinds of excellence both in style and in thought, the blemishes and defects which occupied so much of his attention, and which he magnified and distorted, had generally a real existence. Notwithstanding, however, his keen practical judgment and his liberal tendencies, both his political and his literary prognostications were generally falsified by the result. He never showed any proper com-prehension of principles, or power of detecting and estimat-ing latent forces either in politics or in matters strictly intellectual and moral; and certain of the higher spheres of reflexion and imagination, as for example, that of the "Lake Poets," his unhappy mistakes in regard to whom have earned for him such unenviable fame, were utterly remote from his understanding and sympathy. Had an adequate share of his attention been concentrated on some special branch of literature, had his fluency been held in check by a more thorough acquaintance with the subjects which engaged his interest, his regard for immediate impressive-ness not been exaggerated by the influence of his profes-sional duties, his artistic sense, which was keen and true so far as it went, not been mutilated and deteriorated by untoward circumstances, he would undoubtedly have earned for himself a high place among the writers of his epoch. As it is, his reputation is now unsubstantial and shadowy, and he is remembered chiefly from his accidental and not always gratifying and desirable relation to others who have gained an independent fame.

Notwithstanding the increasing success of the Review, Jeffrey always continued to look to the bar as the chief field of his ambition, and indeed he soon experienced that his literary reputation was a help and not an obstruction to professional advancement. Probably one reason of this was that his literary talents were supplemented by a personal character of the highest integrity and honour, and by fine social gifts rooted in true geniality and kindness, and adorned with an agreeable pleasantry and wit never tainted with the venom of bitterness. As an advocate his sharpness and rapidity of insight gave him a formidable advantage in the detection of the weaknesses of a witness and the vulnerable points of his opponent's case, while he grouped his own arguments with an admirable eye to effect, especially excelling in eloquent closing appeals to a jury, more particularly when an opportunity presented itself for the introduction of the pathetic element. Probably but for his rapid utterance and affected accent, his weak physique, and his too copious command of language, he might have attained to the highest rank as an orator. Jeffrey was twice, in 1820 and 1822, elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow. In 1829 he was chosen dean of the faculty of advocates. On the Whigs obtaining office in 1831, he became lord advocate, and entered parliament as member for the Perth burghs. After the passing of the Reform Act, in the framing of which measure he had the principal charge so far as it related to Scot-land, he was returned for Edinburgh; but his parliamen-tary career, which, though not so brilliantly succsssful as some expected, had won him high general esteem, was terminated by his elevation to the judicial bench as Lord Jeffrey in May 1834. He died" at Edinburgh 26th January 1850.

The Life of Lord Jeffrey, with a Selection from his Correspondence, by Lord Gockburn, appeared in 1852 in two volumes. See also the Selected Correspondence of Macvey Napier, 1877, and the sketch of Jeffrey in Carlyle's Reminiscences, vol. ii., 1881. (T. F. H.)

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