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The Critical Review and the Case of Edward Vyse

   The Friends and Correspondents of the CRITICAL REVIEW are respectfully informed, that this Journal has passed into the hands of new Proprietors; who, in maturing an extensive and liberal Plan for its future management, have confided its interests, without restriction, to an Editor peculiarly qualified by experience, ability, and integrity, to extend its critical and literary reputation; and, through whom, the assistance of other gentlemen, of various and distinguished talent, has been secured.
   The NEW EDITOR hopes for Confidence and Indulgence, until the proposed Plan can be fully developed.

This announcement, from the January issue of the Critical Review, [1] marks the beginning of a turn in Hone's professional fortunes. The early months of 1814, as has been shown, were taken up largely with work on the asylum project, but Hone was also during these months settling in to a new position as editor and reviewer. The Critical Review, one of the heavier of the London monthlies, had already had a long a varied career. Begun in 1756 with Tobias Smollett as its first editor, it gained a reputation as a witty and polemical organ, a staunch defender of what its Tory editorial policy deemed to be "correctness" of taste and morality. During the 1790s, the journal did an ideological about-face, becoming a mouthpiece of Foxite liberal opinion and publishing the work of such contributors as Coleridge and (then-radical) Robert Southey. The Critical fell on hard times in the early 1800s, however, as its generalist approach and wavering editorial policy could not sustain a viable readership in the face of competition from such popular and partisan new periodicals as the Quarterly and the Edinburgh Review.

Hone, it seems, was brought in because it was felt that his well-known wit, his ability with the pen, and his wide acquaintance in the book trade might help to revitalize the Critical and thus stem the decline in the journal's circulation. Indeed, the contract signed by Hone and the "proprietor" Thomas Bluck on 31 January 1814 contained an incentive clause focusing specifically on the task of expanding the readership: Hone would become a full partner with one-twelfth share in the journal's copyrights if and when the circulation should reach 1,000.[2] And from the start, Hone was to have complete autonomy over literary matters in the Critical—he would choose the books for review, solicit qualified reviewers, edit the whole work, and manage all financial concerns relative to the reviewers. For his efforts, Hone was to receive an annual salary of £75/12s.—that is, six guineas payable on the first of each month. This was not a great deal of money, but at least it came in steadily and it helped to stabilize Hone's erratic financial fortunes during a difficult post-bankruptcy period. A mark of this stability is that on 13 December, 1814, Hone was able to take occupancy of a tiny shop at 55 Fleet Street and a small house around the corner at 1 Lombard Court. At £65 per year, the properties cost Hone nearly his whole salary, but at least he was finally able to open another publishing and bookselling enterprise and move his family out of Mrs. Johnson's house and into cramped but cheerful quarters in the City. [3] The salary from the Critical would pay his lodging costs, and whatever he could earn by writing, publishing, and bookselling would, he hoped, be sufficient to supply the needs of his numerous dependents.

Hone approached his new professional situation with admirable energy; in fact, it was hardly an exagerration when he claimed in 1817 that scarcely a week had gone by in the previous two years when he had not prepared something for the press. [4] Most of these works are brief ephemera—opportunistic, hastily put together, quasi-journalistic efforts designed to catch the fleeting waves of public interest and thus net a few shillings for the publisher and bookseller. The subject matter for such works tended to be satirical political commentary, descriptions of scandalous behavior, accounts of "remarkable occurrences" and "strange apparitions" of various kinds, prints of or stories about such always-intriguing public figures as Napoleon and Byron, and, of course, stories of trials, murders, and the last words of convicts as they stepped toward the gallows. [5] These were the precursors to the lurid news-sheets of Victorian England (as well as to the tabloid journalism of the twentieth century), and Hone, operating out of his Fleet Street shop, became one of the many voices in the discursive clamour that made up the ephemeral press. Hone's particular contribution to the Grub Street genres is nonetheless distinctive. Unlike the more conventional catchpenny publishers of the day, Hone seemed always to be motivated by a will to expose and attack what he perceived as the manifold cruelties and injustices of the social and political world around him.

The publications Hone produced about the death of Edward Vyse are a case in point. In early March of 1815, the House of Commons was debating the Corn Bill—that is, a rather short-sighted government attempt to prohibit the importation of cheap grain and thus to support at a relatively high level the prices domestic producers could earn for their crops. Because it effectively raised the price of bread, the Corn Bill was extemely unpopular with the urban lower and middle classes, and many took to the streets to express their disgust with what they saw as a government maneuver to shore up the sagging fortunes of the land-owning classes by raising the basic living costs of their already impoverished countrymen. One such demonstration—complete with rock-throwing and window-smashing—took place in front of the Old Burlington Street house of Frederick Robinson, an MP (and later Chancellor of the Exchequer) who spoke on behalf of the Corn Bill. On the evening of 7 March, Hone and two companions happened to be walking down Old Burlington Street just at the time when the commotion was at its height and a few shots were fired from Robinson's windows. Moments later, one of the protesters, 19-year-old Edward Vyse, lay dead in the street. The body was carried to a nearby surgeon's office, and shortly thereafter the Coroner convened an inquest to try to discover just what had happened. Less than two weeks later, Hone published the proceedings of the inquest.

In the hands of a journalist with Hone's radical leanings, the case revealed a good deal about the callous abuses of power by civil and military authorities. It seems that, though Robinson and his family were not at home during the incident, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, had sent troops to defend the house against an anticipated uprising of street violence. The soldiers were initially armed only with blank ammunition, but when that proved ineffective as a deterrent to the crowd, one of Robinson's footmen gave a soldier a handful of real bullets. The soldier fired on the crowd, killing Vyse. After the inquest jury had heard all the depositions, including one from Hone himself, and had examined such evidence as was assembled for them, they returned a verdict of "Wilful Murder," and to the verdict they added a statement expressing their belief that the firing had been both unjustified and "unconstitutional." The Coroner, however, declared the jury's statement irrelevant to the case and did not include it in his official report. In Hone's view, the Coroner's behavior in the case was utterly contemptible. Not only did he suppress the statement about an "unconstitutional" firing, but he also tried to convince the jury that they should reconsider their verdict of "Wilful Murder." It was only with considerable reluctance, Hone found out later, that the Coroner could be persuaded to accept the jury's verdict at all. [6]

Hone was disgusted with what he saw as an abuse of power blatant even to the point of trying to manipulate a jury's findings and thereby conceal governmental complicity in murder. Indeed, the Vyse case became something of a turning point in Hone's thinking about the relations between the government and "John Bull," the ordinary Englishman. The intensity of Hone's newly fired indignation is quite evident in the commentary on the Corn Laws and the in brief notice of his book on Vyse as published in the March 1815 number of the Critical. The unnamed editor—clearly Hone himself—first offers a disinterested summary of the two opposing opinions that dominated public debate over the Corn Laws; he thinks the "correct" solution lies somewhere between these extremes. This rational, diplomatic discussion leads then to a sudden editorial outburst: "But why should we think, when MILLIONS think in vain?" The real problem, the editor considers, is that the government is willing to use military power to circumvent rational argument and force its views on an unwilling (though innocent and peaceful) populace: "Heaven protect us from an ambushed military as we peacably traverse the streets, and shield us from the fate of that lamented youth, Mr Vyse!" [7] Not surprisingly, the Critical agrees with the jury's assessment of the Vyse shooting: it was not only unjustifiable on the grounds of self-defence, it was also "unconstitutional"—the sign of a government shattering its ancient pact with the English people.

Clearly Hone was once again finding his ideological voice, and he was beginning to see how the press could publicize and thereby help to redress the wrongs of the government. But, whatever Hone managed to accomplish in the pages of his own Fleet Street publications, the new publishers of the Critical Review (G. and S. Robinson had succeeded Souter in late 1814) were not pleased with the tone taken in the pages of the monthly. The June 1815 number thus contains this notice, which must have been a peculiar one for Hone to write:

The Editor has the honour to announce his retirement with the close of the present number, on account of the POLITICAL CHARACTER lately assumed by this Review. He will be succeeded by superior talent. [8]

It is not likely that the brief commentary on the Vyse affair led single-handedly to Hone's sacking. During his tenure as editor, a number of articles appeared that were highly critical of the government and thus offensive to a large segment of the readership. In December 1814, for instance, the Critical published a long open letter from the radical Lord Cochrane to Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough; the editor celebrates the letter as evidence of Cochrane's "gallant merit." This is followed in January 1815 by an article highly critical of the monarchy and another in April that upholds the reform-minded MP Sir Samuel Romilly as an ideal politician while attacking vigorously both the politics and the person of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. Probably it was the combined effect of such anti-government articles that induced the Robinsons to get rid of Hone, but the shifting editorial policies may have hastened the Critical's demise as well, for it ceased to publish altogether in 1817.


Critical Review, 4th. ser., January 1814, p. 108. [return]

"Agreement between William Hone and Thomas Bluck," Add. MS 40120, ff. 32-33. Bluck, incidentally, was a printer by profession, operating out of a shop at 2 Paternoster Row; the publisher of the Critical Review in 1814 was J. Souter of 1 Paternoster Row. [return]

"Memorandum of Agreement" between Henry Hutchings, 448 Strand, Baker, and William Hone, 13 December, 1814. PRO TS 11/44, book 164, ff. 110b-111a. Over the next two years, Hone's shop would be twice broken into and robbed, thus complicating his bid for financial independence. [return]

Reformists' Register, 25 Oct. 1817, cols. 429-30. See also Ann Bowden, William Hone's Political Journalism, 1815-1821, Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1975. Pt. 1, pp. 9-14. [return]

By far the most thorough, reliable account of Hone's publishing during this period is Bowden's second chapter, "Hone's Political Awakenings: 1815-1816," in William Hone's Political Journalism, 1815-1821, Part I, pp. 18-100. [return]

Letter from Vyse juror to William Hone, 13 September 1815, Add. MS 40120, f. 38. [return]

Critical Review, 5th Ser., March 1815, p. 310. Incidentally, the appearance in this number of the notice of Hone's book on the Vyse inquest is strong evidence of Hone's editorship. The book was not published until after the middle of the month, well past the cut-off date for including new publications. [return]

Critical Review, 5th Ser., June 1815, p. 640. [return]