“A Constellation of Scottish Genius”: Networks of Exchange in Late 18th- and early 19th-Century Edinburgh[Record]

  • Pam Perkins

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  • Pam Perkins
    University of Manitoba

In 1810, the critic Francis Jeffrey published a major Edinburgh Review article on the lives and literary work of Madame du Deffand and Julie de Lespinasse in which, while offering a thoughtful and sympathetic reading of salon culture, he nonetheless made clear that he saw such modes of literary sociability as being completely at odds with British cultural practices. According to him, the reason that Frenchwomen’s drawing rooms had been and remained “better filled than ours, […] and their conversation […] more sprightly, and their society more animated” is that Frenchmen have “no other outlet for [their] talent and ingenuity […] but society and conversation.” As he goes on to explain, the most able men in Britain, in marked contrast to their French counterparts, are preoccupied with their professional lives, leaving sociable gatherings to the idle and the foolish. Jeffrey’s rather glib national stereotypes might not sit well with twentieth- and twenty-first century criticism, but a number of recent critics have echoed the other part of his argument, suggesting that late eighteenth-century Britain in general, and Edinburgh in particular, saw a shift away from an older practice of feminised literary sociability and towards an idea of literary pursuits as part of a masculine, professional world. In particular, as Clifford Siskin argued in the late 1990s, The Edinburgh Review itself, with its vigorous discussion of the arts and sciences, offered a print, professionalised version of what David Hume had called the “conversable world” of the salons—and in doing so, as Siskin suggests, diminished the importance of the social networks that had allowed at least some women to exert significant literary influence. Yet much of the contemporary commentary on early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, by both residents and visitors, suggests that far from being superseded by new modes of literary production, sociable exchange remained a key aspect of the city’s literary culture. These many accounts of the continuing impact of Edinburgh’s literary networks quickly erode any clear, clean division between the masculine, the professional, and the literary worlds on the one hand and the feminine, the domestic, and the sociable on the other and, in the process, disrupt any supposedly smooth trajectory from salon to magazine, from conversation to print, and from feminine to masculine literary work. Even as Jeffrey and the other writers for the Edinburgh periodicals and popular press helped to establish a new model of professional authorship, they in fact remained steeped in the practices of literary sociability and coterie authorship. Of course, informal manuscript exchange among friends or within loose coteries is very different from the sort of formal salon culture that Jeffrey was writing about. That said, the salon and the coterie can be at least tenuously linked as elements within a concept of intellectual work that embraces the privacy and ephemerality of scribal or even oral circulation. As critics have begun paying more attention to the various ways that eighteenth-century writers shared or disseminated their work, the version of literary history that sees the era as marking a relatively smooth progression towards a print-based, professional model of authorship, and away from more sociable modes of literary production, has been subject to an increasing number of challenges. In particular, critics of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature have been documenting the survival and transformation of types of literary production that are more generally associated with earlier periods. Betty Schellenberg, for example, traces the continuing impact of coterie authorship—a practice more usually associated with the seventeenth century—into the last decades of the eighteenth. Schellenberg’s helpful working definition of the coterie makes clear the flexibility that it continued to offer writers who, for …