Leigh Hunt Online: The Letters – Leigh Hunt as literary figure: a brief history

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Leigh Hunt as literary figure: a brief history

Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), Romantic writer, editor, critic and contemporary of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, may be best remembered for being sentenced to prison for two years on charges of libel against the Prince Regent (1813-1815). He was also one of the most outspoken and effective journalists in the age of the French Revolution, and an innovative poet whose Story of Rimini(1816) is one of the great Romantic narrative poems.

Hunt’s first book of poetry, Juvenilia (1801), put him firmly on the literary scene at 17, and went to four editions in as many years.  Through his lifetime, Hunt published more than 50 volumes of prose, poetry, and drama, as well as a huge number of influential reviews, articles, and miscellaneous essays.  He initiated independent and honest theatrical reviews in The News (1805) and The Statesman (1806), two newspapers published by his brother John Hunt, followed by a widely-read weekly newspaper, The Examiner (1808 onwards), with Leigh serving as the vocal editor clearly expressing his opinion on political subjects.

The Examiner frequently triggered confrontation with government officials, and the brothers were brought to trial several times. Acting in their own defense, they were repeatedly acquitted before libel charges pressed by the Prince Regent earned them each a two-year prison sentence and a heavy fine.  Hunt continued to edit The Examiner from prison, where he was eventually allowed to bring his family to stay with him. He was accommodated in a disused prison infirmary, redecorated and wallpapered in a fanciful manner. Here Hunt entertained some of the most famous literary figures of the time including Lord Byron and Maria Edgeworth.

Hunt’s editorial role in The Examiner involved his significant discoveries of new literary talents.  He influenced and reviewed John Keats and was the first to publish his poetry.    He was an intimate friend of both Percy and Mary Shelley, and staunchly defended the poet’s genius.  Hunt joined the Shelleys and Byron in Italy in July of 1822 to begin a new journal, The Liberal.  However, Shelley’s tragic death a few weeks later cut short that endeavor and only four quarterly issues were published. After three years living in Tuscany, Hunt returned to London, continuing to publish and edit various journals, often indebted to his kind friends to keep his large family afloat. He outlived many of his contemporaries and bridged the gap between the Romantic poets and Victorian authors, and the eras of the French Revolution and nineteenth-century imperial Britain.

Leigh Hunt was at the center of the literary and publishing world during the Romantic and Victorian early 19th century: he was the fundamental piece of the literary network in London.  His extensive correspondence reflects his intimate knowledge of literary, artistic, political and religious spheres in these key periods of British cultural history.   Hunt eagerly penned thousands of letters, many of which survive.  His correspondents include Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, the Carlyles, the Cowden-Clarkes, Charles Lamb, John Keats, Charles Dickens, the Brownings, Alexander Ireland, John Forster, Thackeray, and Wordsworth –  to name but a few.  In letters to his wife and his sister-in-law, Hunt frankly describes his encounters with these prominent figures and provides new and revealing glimpses of their personalities and endeavors.

Given his centrality in the literary movement of the time, new interest and critical scholarship in Hunt is surfacing, with two biographies – Nicholas Roe’s Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt and Anthony Holden’s The Wit in the Dungeon: The Life and Times of Leigh Hunt – published in 2005.  Both books engage with Hunt’s life writings in ways that have not been attempted since Edmund Blunden’s Leigh Hunt: A biography was published in 1930.