- Conflicted Life: William Jerdan, 1782–1869: London Editor, Author and Critic by Susan Matoff
In the seventh year of Victoria’s reign, Christmas was celebrated in style by some literary notables, and, as Jane Welsh Carlyle recorded, dancing broke out: “the gigantic Thackeray &c &c all capering like Mænades!!” (n. pag.). Dickens and Maclise and Forster joined in—and “old Jerdan of the Literary Gazette, (escaped out of the Rules of the Queen’s Bench for the great occasion!)” (n. pag.). Two decades later, Thackeray was dead and Dickens a short-timer, but William Jerdan was still there, as he had been on board the Abergavenny just [End Page 154] before John Wordsworth set sail on his fatal voyage in 1805, on the floor of Parliament as a reporter next to Prime Minister Perceval when he was assassinated in 1812, in Downing Street with George Canning the day he became prime minister in 1827, and at the dinner at the Prince of Wales Hotel to celebrate the completion of The Pickwick Papers in 1837. By the 1860s, he was in his anecdotage, the author of a four-volume autobiography (1852–53) and the tuft-hunting Men I Have Known (1866). Something Zelig-like about Jerdan has thus preserved his name. Now Susan Matoff’s full biography gives us a chance to learn more about his significance as critic and editor of the London Literary Gazette, as godfather to clubs and organizations, and as biological father to one in-wedlock and two out-of-wedlock families.
Jerdan’s life has not been treated at length since his own autobiography in the 1850s. Conflicted Life acknowledges its debts, however, to two biographical dissertations, Robert Duncan’s “William Jerdan and the Literary Gazette” (1955) and Cynthia Lawford’s “The Early Life and London Worlds of Letitia Landon” (2001). It was Lawford who first published proof of Jerdan and Landon’s secret affair and details of their offspring, and the further evidence presented in Conflicted Life (including family photographs) is welcome. While other sexual scandals about Jerdan had been hinted at (by Nathaniel Hawthorne among others), Matoff documents Jerdan’s later cohabitation with a much younger woman, Mary Maxwell, and an appendix gives a table of all his children (7 + 3 + 13!) and some of their descendants. The book draws extensively on archival sources from California to London and from letters to bank ledgers. It also explores Jerdan-related rarities of print such as C.M. Westmacott’s Cockney Critics and the anonymous The Poetical March of Humbug! (1832), from which a hitherto unknown engraving is reproduced. Despite much digging, Matoff is unable to fully illuminate Jerdan’s juicy private life. His wife, Frances, is notably absent from Autobiography, and astonishingly little remains to tell us of her joys or (we suspect) sorrows. Landon’s life was an exercise in concealment, and of Mary Maxwell, who was probably uneducated, very little trace remains outside census and birth records.
Matoff notes that Jerdan “sat in the centre of a web of authors, printers, publishers, booksellers, engravers and artists, as well as scientists of all kinds” (406). Conflicted Life is inevitably a sort of compendium of facts about the late Romantic and early Victorian print world; in this it reminds one of Michael Sadleir’s entertaining Bulwer: A Panorama (1931), though not written with Sadleir’s speculative panache. The narrative has the leisure to detour into the life of Lady Blessington, to paraphrase many of Jerdan’s stories from the gift books and Bentley’s Miscellany, to discuss Landon’s marriage to George Maclean and her tragic demise, and to provide a reception history for Autobiography, as well as sometimes too much else. Jerdan’s circle extended from George Canning to Fox Talbot to Hans Christian Anderson, and generous quotations from correspondence form the backbone of the book. In an era of university-press books corseted into two hundred pages, one is reluctant to carp about a book being too long, [End Page 155] but...