Cyclopaedia of English Literature


The 1843 Cyclopaedia in its first revision, a colossal survey much-loved in 19th century Britain and America.


Robert Chambers, ed., Cyclopaedia of English Literature. A History, Critical and Biographical, of British Authors from the Earliest to the Present Times. In Two Volumes. London & Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers, n.d. (1858).

Vol. 1: Preface, indicating that this edition was printed in 1858 as the first revision (by Robert Carruthers of Inverness) of the first edition of 1843, xx + 812 pages, List of c. 180 b&w illustrations, Contents, Addenda. With Scotch College, Melbourne, label as First Prize in Bible Seventh Class awarded 11 December 1874 to J. Macdonald by Alexander Morrison, A.M., Principal.

Vol. II: xvi + 816 pages, List of c. 180 b&w illustrations, Contents, Addenda, General Index, four scattered ink stains of front marbled edges of pages.

Each volume in full leather with five raised bands on spine and six gilt decorated compartments, red and dark green morocco titling labels, gilt embossed Scotch College emblem at centre of the front cover, gilt ruled boards, all board edges with gilt decorations, all page edges and endpapers marbled.

Condition: Excellent, bindings tight, a little spotting to prelims, pages lightly browned, slight wear to boards.

Robert Chambers (1802-1871), Editor of the greatly admired Cyclopaedia, was a Scottish publisher, author, journal editor, geologist and evolutionary thinker. Robert and his brother William were born with six fingers and six toes on each hand and foot, and though surgery on William was successful, Robert’s operations left him lame. He spent much of his time reading and found in the family’s attic a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he read for many years. While still in his late teens, Robert began writing and editing a magazine with William as printer, followed by literary, historical and biographical books and further journals. The brothers later established the firm of W. & R. Chambers Publishers, becoming highly influential in mid-century scientific and political life in Scotland. The Cyclopaedia of English Literature was one of the most important titles published by Chambers, with ‘admirably selected extracts from the best authors of every period, set in a biographical and critical history of the literature itself’. Chambers undertook extensive research for the entry on Robert Burns, interviewing the poet’s sister, to whom profits were donated.

The Scotch College, Melbourne, prize label in the first volume has unusual resonance. On his appointment in 1857, the College’s Scottish-born Principal, Alexander Morrison (1829-1903), began modernising the curriculum, detaching English from classical studies in 1860, the first time English Literature was studied separately in an Australian school. In 1873 Morrison set up the first science laboratory in an Australian school. A very successful private investor, Morrison paid himself for many of the College’s amenities, new buildings and improvements.