his biography is a chronological reconstruction of William Jerdan’s life, tracing his early battles to avoid the study of law through his rise in journalism which eventually led to editorship of the Literary Gazette, the first British weekly review of literature and the arts. His position as Editor gave him extraordinary access to those in power in Britain, during the post-Napoleonic and early Victorian times, which Jerdan called “a stirring and wonderful period”. He was a friend, acquaintance or associate of almost every person of note during this era and he owned a grand mansion where he lavishly entertained a social circle including Prime Minister George Canning. Sadly however, from 1850 until his death in 1869, William Jerdan struggled to keep afloat financially, writing fiction, polemical articles and verse. He also wrote a long series of articles for the Leisure Hour magazine, based upon the vast amount of knowledge he had amassed about important and well-known men. The income was still scarcely enough to provide for his large family, and his life ended in poverty.
William Jerdan by Daniel Maclise. Published 1839. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery London. NPG NPG 3028. Click on image to enlarge it.
Jerdan was a man whose livelihood lay in writing, from his early journalism to his late caustic observations on contemporary society. In between he wrote probably scores of critical reviews for his Literary Gazette, few of which can be definitely attributed to him, as no records or office books appear to have survived. Jerdan was personally responsible for over seventeen hundred issues of the Literary Gazette and although this period undoubtedly represented his most important and influential time, it was nevertheless only a part of the whole picture of Jerdan’s life. Over three hundred letters from him have been found in various archives, of which a mere handful make any reference to his private life, complicated domestic arrangements or innermost thoughts. However, some of these matters have been deduced through other documentation, mainly statutory records.
William Jerdan is an enigma - a writer who left few written clues as to his personal life – no diaries or journals, and almost no private letters. He did, however, leave an autobiography. He was a secretive man who concealed much of his personal and professional life from those nearest to him. Today he has become a somewhat forgotten figure, featuring only peripherally in the recorded lives of others. In his day however, he was a vital facilitator and promoter of aspirants to literature and many other cultural endeavours.
Jerdan’s conflicted character produced a far more complex man than his “riches to rags” story might suggest. His exceptional social skills and affability led inexorably to an excessive appetite for women, drink and “tuft-hunting”. In parallel with his professional vicissitudes this biography examines what is known of his three families which numbered about twenty-three children (three with his young protégée, the famous poet Letitia Landon, better known as L.E.L.). Jerdan’s generosity, kindness and charitable activities were legendary, but his trusting nature led to foolhardy and disastrous financial decisions.
His Autobiography in four volumes was written in 1852-53 when he was seventy years of age, but he still had another seventeen years of an emotional tumultuous life ahead. This present narrative has drawn largely on the Autobiography especially for his early years. However, as he was averse to recording dates, either in his memoir or in many of his letters, there were difficulties in reconstructing some aspects of his life.
In his Autobiography Jerdan claimed to have tried to be truthful, but “was not artist enough to paint a complete picture.” In his view, “the great end of biography is to convey a complete and accurate idea of the individual who forms its subject in its inner, and in his external life; especially as that it is shaped and coloured by the society and circumstances in which he is placed.” This book, expands on Jerdan’s own memoir, filling in some considerable gaps of events that he either forgot or chose not to mention. It paints a more “complete picture” of a complex and one-time highly influential figure in English periodical literature and journalism of the late Georgian and early Victorian eras.
Last modified 16 June 2020