William Henry Leeds and Early British Responses to Russian Literature
'The common dance of the Russian peasant' (plate in 'The character of the Russians' by Robert Lyall, published 1823; classmarks Kk.2.33 and Harley-Mason.b.69)
When John Bowring published the first part of his Russian Anthology in 1821 it was greeted with numerous reviews that stressed its novelty and the opening of a window on the previously unsuspected poetic literature of barbaric Russia. Many decades were to pass before Russian literature was regarded with any degree of respect and understanding, although this is not to say that in the years up to the Crimean War (which undoubtedly quickened interest in all things Russian) there were not attempts through what can be only described as a curious selection of translated texts and a number of articles in the periodic press to keep Russian literature before the eyes of the British public.
William Henry Leeds (1786-1866) is not an unknown figure in British letters but his reputation is primarily that of an architectural historian and critic. His contribution to British awareness of Russian literature has indeed been recognized by a very small number of literary historians and critics (pre-eminently, if ironically, the Americans Dorothy Brewster and Eileen Curran, if fifty years or more ago) and he has generally been left to slumber in the anonymity that was the lot of literary reviewers in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. For more a decade, however, 1831-1842, Leeds contributed to a number of leading English journals, primarily and perhaps expectedly for the influential Foreign Quarterly Review, a string of lengthy articles and reviews of contemporary Russian literature. In the limited time available, the attempt will be made to sketch the biography and prodigious activity of this enigmatic and elusive pioneer.
Paper given at the Fifth Fitzwilliam Colloquium in Russian Studies "British Perception and Reception of Russian Culture, 18th-20th Centuries", Cambridge, 2012. Full text published in A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture, ed. By Anthony Cross. Open Book Publisher, 2012.