Today’s blog is from Prof. Robert W Jones, who is professor of eighteenth-century studies in the School of English at the University of Leeds. He is also the principal investigator for the Leverhulme-funded project, ‘The Political Work of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’, which will produce a four-volume, Political Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for Oxford University Press. Robert gave the below summarized paper about the reporting of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s speech to the House of Commons in April 1798 at our IHR seminar series, Parliaments, Politics and People…
On the 20 April 1798 Richard Brinsley Sheridan spoke in the House of Commons. He had opposed the war with France since its declaration in 1793 but now, as invasion threatened, he argued that every measure should be taken to resist the French. As he effected his volte face Sheridan abandoned no principles and forsook no friends. Reform and even republicanism were defended. My paper explored Sheridan’s rhetorical inventiveness, his subtle reformulations of policy, and his humorous asides. But it wasn’t the quality of the speech that interested or worried me most. Sheridan’s speech was reported in eight distinguishable versions in the London press, each produced by a journalist working in the Stranger’s Gallery. These journalist-produced versions were adjusted for the press; many were later re-worked for the evening papers, the weeklies, the regional presses, and Irish newspapers. Sheridan’s words spread far and wide. But what had he said?
The different versions indicate the key moments in the speech clearly enough, and there is close agreement about several passages, but there is sufficient disagreement about others to give a different impression of the speech as a whole. The Morning Post has Sheridan sound more tenacious than the London Packet; his conversion to loyalism, as you might expect, is most obvious in the True Briton, while he seems more doubtful in the Oracle. Once we have detected these differences – the inevitable consequences of what I termed ‘the parliamentary condition’ of their production – what do we do with them? How should we understand or compare the distinct versions? More pressingly, how do we establish a text upon which scholars of parliamentary history can rely? Sheridan left no authorised text and few manuscripts to guide us. At the close of my paper I explained how the Sheridan Project underway at Leeds and Aberystwyth is addressing some of these questions. The discussion which followed was attentive, perceptive and generous, and I was pleased to have found an audience already concerned with the issues I wanted to raise, and eager to explore their textual as well as political consequences.
Unfortunately due to the current dispute between Universities UK and the University and College Union, it has become necessary to postpone this evening’s advertised seminar. Dr Matthew Johnson will now deliver his paper on 15 May instead. Please stay tuned on the History of Parliament’s Twitter page for further information in the coming weeks and on the IHR website for next term’s programme.