As is often the case with figures of the eighteenth-century book trade, the life of Ralph Griffiths is, to a large degree, the life of his literary enterprises. Most of what is known about the journal editor and bookseller comes from his and others' correspondence over professional matters and relationships within the business. As such, the depictions of Griffiths are various, some authored by admiring and respectful colleagues, others penned by contentious employees and rivals. There are, however, some aspects of his character upon which most scholars agree, namely his integrity and impartiality as an editor and his steadfast dedication to his primary publication, the Monthly Review. Beyond this, the evidence seems to suggest that he was at least as scrupulous and gracious a man as any in his position.
If Griffiths's involvement with the Dictionary of Love (1753) itself was cursory, he had a well-established relationship with its author/translator, John Cleland. Prior to the DOL's appearance, Griffiths and Cleland faced scandal as well as formal charges of obscenity for the publication of the latter's notorious novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749). Neither man was seriously penalized, however, and Cleland became a regular contributor to the Griffith's Monthly Review, launched that same year.
Most sources, including The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, state that Griffiths was born in Shropshire in 1720. His earliest known occupation was as a watchmaker in Staffordshire, but he moved to London in the early 1740s and began his literary career working with bookseller Jacob Robinson. He worked as a general bookseller from the mid 1740s until 1762, when he retired from that business to focus solely on his responsibilities as editor of the Monthly Review.
However determined the authorities were to stamp out such offensive material, their actions against Memoirs seem to effect a scuffle of words and principals more than an organized and effective prosecution. Indeed, some of the offenders' responses were comical: one particularly colorful story cites that as Griffiths was "about to be arrested he moved copies [of Memoirs] out of the back door as the officer came in through the front" (Maxted 96). Aside from their each having to pay a £100 recognizance, it is not clear that the men suffered any official punishment or censure for their actions. In any case, they were not deterred from publishing a slightly bowdlerized, yet still bawdy, version of the novel entitled Memoirs of Fanny Hill in 1749/50 (Epstein 78).
Established in 1749, "the Monthly [Review] committed itself to a policy 'whose sole object should be to give a compendious account of those productions of the press, as they come out, that are worth notice'" (Albrecht 231). It was the first British periodical to review literature in all forms and on all subjects, rather than focusing on specific disciplines or addressing only certain groups of readers. The reviews themselves, however, were still largely "summary and quotation" (Albrecht 231).
For the most part, Griffiths seems to have been well-respected and even well-liked by his employees and his colleagues. Benjamin Nangle writes that "Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, who shared none of Griffith's views on controversial matters, gave it as his considered judgment that the Monthly was conducted without partiality" (v). In 1756, the Critical Review was launched as a Tory competitor to the Whig Monthly. Griffiths and Tobias Smollett, a major contributor to the Critical, frequently disparaged each other's publication.
According to Lewis Knapp, Smollett remarked that "'[The Critical Review] will not be patched up by obscure Hackney writers, accidentally enlisted in the service of an undistinguishing bookseller...'" (171). This jab at Griffiths as "undistinguishing" is often considered the result of his being involved with the publication of the Cleland's lewd novel, Fanny Hill.
Despite the growing number of rivals, the Monthly continued to be one of Britain's most influential periodicals until Griffiths's death in 1803. Although his son, George Edward, took over the business, he "lacked the editorial imagination and managerial ability of his father," and the Monthly soon began to "decline in popularity and prestige" (Albrecht 232). In 1825, G. E. Griffiths sold his rights to the Monthly Review, thus ending the periodical's impressive 76-year run.
The Dictionary of Love. In which is contained, The Explanation of most of the Terms used in that Language was published anonymously in 1753 by R. Griffiths, at the Dunciad in St. Paul's Church-Yard. It was not until 1979 that Roger Lonsdale identified the author of the work: Lonsdale notes that "[Griffiths] himself reviewed the book in the Monthly in December 1753 ... and annotated his reference in his opening sentence to the 'ingenious author' as 'Mr. Cleland'" (285).
Although several more editions of the dictionary appeared throughout the second half of the eighteenth-century, Griffiths is not listed as the publisher and Cleland's involvement or lack of thereof is not known.
Griffiths married twice, and there is no evidence to suggest that he was not a good husband. His first wife, Isabella, died in 1764 at the age of 52; they had no children. In 1767, Griffiths married Elizabeth Clark and the two had three children: George Edward (b. 1771/2), Ann (b. 1773) and another daughter who apparently died in infancy (Antonia Foster, in ODNB).
In 1790, the University of Pennsylvania awarded Griffiths an honorary LL.D. Derek Roper, writes that "during the American [Revolution] he had supported the colonists, not only by his editorial policy, but by providing a 'post office' for their intelligence agents," and states that the degree was awarded "partly in recognition of these services" (174).
Although Griffiths eventually went blind, he remained in charge of the Monthly Review until his death at Turnham Green in 1803. He was buried in St Nicholas's Church, Chiswick (Foster, ODNB).