The Royal Society of Literature was founded not by a writer but by a bishop, Thomas Burgess, who managed, in 1820, to acquire the patronage of George IV for a society designed to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’. The first of our royal patrons took some interest in the arts; he also founded the National Gallery, and read Jane Austen and Byron.
The first meetings took place in a back room of Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly. The Royal Charter was granted in 1825, and in 1830 the Society moved into a fine house designed by Decimus Burton, alongside Trafalgar Square, where it remained for twenty five years, until the building was demolished to make way for the National Portrait Gallery. Since then the Society has not owned premises of its own.
Although S.T. Coleridge was an early associate, the Society was run by churchmen and academics for almost a hundred years, and its interests were antiquarian rather than literary. Literature, in the sense of good writing for the general reader, was not regarded as a worthy subject for discussion during most of the 19th Century; instead, members wrote and discussed papers on such topics as ‘Aspects of Zeus and Apollo Worship’ and ‘Place Names in the Crimea’. It was not until 1895 that a classical scholar, Dr Samuel Phene, boldly suggested that the RSL might improve its standing and its finances, both at a low ebb, by turning some attention to newly published works of general literary interest. From this point on, as Isabel Quigly points out in her account of the RSL, published in 2000, almost every paper given was about literature, and distinguished writers became Fellows. Women were admitted at around the same time. By 1907, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Edmund Gosse and Henry James had been elected; over the next two decades Conrad and Yeats, Galsworthy and Shaw, Buchan, Maugham, Kipling and T.S Eliot became Fellows.
Under the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who became the RSL’s President after the First World War, an Entente Committee was set up to foster international connections; but during the 1930’s literary life was overshadowed by world events, and it was not until after the Second World War was over that the RSL revived, with new Fellows including Winston Churchill and E.M. Forster.
From 1950 to 2000 the RSL was based in a fine large house in Bayswater overlooking Hyde Park, where gradually, under the leadership of John Mortimer, Roy Jenkins and Michael Holroyd, and especially after the arrival of Maggie Fergusson as Secretary (now Literary Director) in 1989, membership began to grow, meetings were better attended and new initiatives in campaigns and education began. Since we moved to Somerset House in 2000 this progress has continued. We now hold some twenty public events a year, run masterclasses, award prizes and send writers into schools. New Fellows still sign the original register containing George IV’s coat of arms and signature; they can choose to do so with either a pen given to Lord Byron by one of his mistresses or T.S. Eliot’s fountain pen (Charles Dickens’s quill having been retired in early 2013). It is good, as we look ahead to the next stage of the RSL’s existence, to have such unique and tangible reminders of the past.