Elizabeth Kraft

Flogging Phelim: Christian Isobel Johnstone, the Perils of Injustice and the Promise of Reform

Fiat Justitia’: This was the motto of Tait’s Literary Magazine, announced on the title page of its first issue in 1832. The full, familiar saying is ‘Fiat Justitia ruat caelum’: Let Justice be done, though the heavens may fall.[i] In shorthand, as it were, the journal proclaimed its commitment to justice, whatever the cost — a powerful ideal in any circumstance, but particularly so during and following the raucous debates surrounding the passage of the Great Reform Bill.  Tait’s Literary Magazine was the enterprise of William Tait, but, importantly, in June 1834, the journal combined with another Edinburgh periodical, Johnstone’s Magazine, ‘a cheap monthly aimed at artisan-class readers’, published by John and Christian Isobel Johnstone.[ii]  By virtue of this merger, John Johnstone took on a good share of responsibility for the business end of things at Tait’s and his wife, Christian, became primary editor and frequent author.[iii]  From 1834 to1846, Christian Isobel Johnstone was the voice and vision of Tait’s, the insurer of the journal’s pursuit of justice.[iv]  In the first issue under her editorship, she included ‘A Chapter on Flogging’ by ‘An Old Officer’, an interesting echo of a gesture she had made in the first issue of another journalistic enterprise, The Schoolmaster, which was intended for distribution to ‘all liberal and intelligent Englishmen and Irishmen’ (as well as Scottish readers). There, on August 4, 1832, she reprinted from her 1815 novel Clan-Albin an episode centered on flogging. The excerpt, entitled in The Schoolmaster ‘The Flogged Soldier’, is centered on Irish soldier Phelim Bourke and combines parts of chapters 27 and 44 of Clan-Albin. In both the novel and the periodical, the point of the anecdote is to emphasize the physical and psychological effects of severe corporal punishment. Johnstone’s clear concern with flogging is rooted in her commitment to reform and fueled by ideals emerging from the American and the French Revolutions. In this essay, I will concentrate primarily on the topic as it is treated in Clan-Albin. In the end, I will reflect on the significance of the reprise of Phelim’s story in The Schoolmaster and of the old officer’s story in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine as they contribute to the intense national focus on justice and reform in the 1830s.

Elizabeth Kraft, University of Georgia

[i] The phrase was common in classical times and is attributed to no one source. Its most famous use was by Lord Mansfield who uttered it in reversing the outlaw status of radical thinker and writer John Wilkes in 1768.

[ii] Alexis Easley, ‘Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in the 1830s: Dialogues on Gender, Class, and Reform’, Victorian Periodicals Review 38 (2005), pp. 263-79 (p. 263).

[iii] On the distribution of editorial responsibility at The Schoolmaster and at Tait’s, see Pam Perkins, ‘“Scarcely Known to Fame”: The Literary Identities of Christian Isobel Johnstone’, chapter 3 of her Women Writers and the Edinburgh Enlightenment, vol. 15 of Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature (Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2010), pp. 206-280 (pp. 251-56).

[iv] See Perkins, pp. 251-2 and Easley pp. 263-4, for the argument that, despite the proprietorship of William Tait, Johnstone’s was the presiding sensibility for the years of her editorship.