Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, Robert (1800-1867)
BELL, ROBERT (1800–1867), journalist and miscellaneous writer, was the son of an Irish magistrate, and born at Cork on 16 Jan. 1800. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he originated the Dublin Historical Society to supply the place of the old Historical Society which had been suppressed. He is said to have obtained early in life a government appointment in Dublin, and to have edited for a time the 'Patriot,' a government organ. He is also described as one of the founders of and contributors to the 'Dublin Inquisitor,' and as the author of two dramatic pieces, 'Double Disguises' and 'Comic Lectures.' In 1828 he settled in London either before or after publishing a pamphlet on catholic emancipation. About this time he was appointed editor of the 'Atlas,' then one of the largest of London weekly journals, and he conducted it creditably and successfully for many years. In 1829, at a time when press prosecutions were rife, he was indicted for a libel on Lord Lyndhurst, a paragraph in the 'Atlas' having stated that either he or his wife had trafficked in the ecclesiastical patronage vested in the lord chancellor. The indictment would have been withdrawn if Bell had consented to give up the name of his authority, but he refused. He defended himself in a manly and ingenious speech, and was complimented both by the judge, Lord Tenterden, and by the attorney-general, on the tact and talent displayed in it. The verdict of the jury found him guilty of publishing a libel, but virtually acquitted him of any malicious intention, and recommended him to the merciful consideration of the court. The attorney-general expressed great satisfaction with the verdict, and Bell seems to have escaped punishment (Greville Memoirs (1875), i. 258).
To Lardner's 'Cabinet Cyclopædia,' the publication of which began in 1830, Bell contributed the 'History of Russia' (3 vols.), the 'Lives of the English Poets' (2 vols.), and the concluding volumes both of Southey's 'Lives of the British Admirals' and of the continuation, in which he had been preceded by Wallace, of Sir James Mackintosh's 'History of England.' Meanwhile he assisted Bulwer, afterwards the first Lord Lytton, and Dr. Lardner in establishing the 'Monthly Chronicle' (1838-41) and ultimately became its editor. He also edited 'The Story-teller', 1843, and in 1849 the concluding volumes of the 'Correspondence of the Fairfax Family.' In 1846 had appeared his popularly written 'Life of Canning;' in 1849 he published an agreeable record of one of his holiday tours on the continent, 'Wayside Pictures through France, Belgium, and Holland' (second edition, with the addition of a 'Trip up the Rhine,' 1858). Of his three five-act comedies, 'Marriage' was published in 1842, 'Mothers and Daughters' in 1843 (second edition, with explanatory preface giving an account of its abrupt withdrawal from the stage, 1845), and 'Temper,' 1847. Bell also wrote two three-volume novels, 'Hearts and Altars,' 1852, and the 'Ladder of Gold,' 1856. But the literary enterprise, left unfortunately uncompleted, by which Bell will be chiefly remembered, is his annotated edition of the English poets, 24 vols. 1854-7. The originality of the work lay in its numerous and useful annotations, but the texts contained in it were the result of sedulous revision, and a careful memoir was prefixed to the works of each poet. The earliest poet in the series was Chaucer, and the latest Cowper, but, apart from Bell's announced intention to make it only a selection, there are great gaps in it. Noticeable among the 'occasional' volumes is the unique selection of 'Songs from the Dramatists,' beginning with Udall and ending with Sheridan.
During his later years Bell edited with assiduity the 'Home News,' a monthly journal circulating among English residents in India and the East. His last productions were selections from the poets, to accompany pictorial illustrations, 'Golden Leaves from the Works of the Poets and Painters,' 1863, and 'Art and Song,' 1867, the year of his death. He also wrote 'Outlines of China,' and contributed to the 'New Spirit of the Age,' edited by R. H. Horne. Latterly he became interested in spiritualism, and among his contributions to periodicals was a paper on table-rapping in the 'Cornhill Magazine.' A very prominent and active member of the committee of the Literary Fund, Bell was personally most helpful to struggling and unsuccessful men or letters, and his death on 12 April 1867 was much and widely regretted. In accordance with his request he was buried near the grave of his friend, W. M. Thackeray, in Kensal Green Cemetery.
[Notices in Home News for May 1867, in Encyclopædia Britannica, ninth edition, and in Chambers's Cyclopædia; Atlas for 27 Dec. 1829; Catalogue of the British Museum Library.]