Espinasse came from a Gascon French background. He was born in Edinburgh, and studied at Edinburgh University. As a young man, he was warned against life as a man of letters by Francis Jeffrey and William Wordsworth.
Espinasse went to London in 1843, to work for the British Museum as an assistant; but he left his post after a clash with Anthony Panizzi. He became close to the Carlyles, and Thomas Carlyle supported his career, which took him to Manchester and back to Edinburgh. He published on 20 October 1847 in the Manchester Examiner an article on Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was starting out on a British lecture tour, in terms which set a pattern for later coverage. When the Lancashire Public School Association was set up in 1848, he became its Secretary, assisted by Edwin Waugh. In 1849 he was promoting the memory of Joseph Arkwright in a lecture at the Manchester Mechanics' Institute.
A prolific freelance writer, Espinasse became a major contributor to The Critic in the early 1850s, introduced by William Maccall. Under the pseudonym Herodotus Smith he gave an insider's view of the literary world (other pseudonyms—he used at least three—were Lucian Paul and Frank Grave). He edited the Edinburgh Evening Courant from 1864 to 1867, taking over when James Hannay moved to London, and being replaced by the new owner, Charles Wescomb, by James Scot Henderson.
The long-lived Espinasse was in the end thought of as "the Nestor of Victorian journalism". He was remembered as a biographer of French philosophers, and substantial contributor to the Dictionary of National Biography (he is one of those credited with its conception). He became a Poor Brother of the London Charterhouse, supplying a pension.
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- "The Athenaeum". Internet Archive. 1912. p. 17. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
- Asa Briggs (2008). A History of Longmans and Their Books, 1724-1990: Longevity in Publishing. British Library. p. 244 note 52. ISBN 978-0-7123-4873-7.
- Townsend Scudder III, Emerson's British Lecture Tour, 1847-1848, Part I: The Preparations for the Tour, and the Nature of Emerson's Audiences, American Literature Vol. 7, No. 1 (Mar., 1935), pp. 15–36 at p. 19. Published by: Duke University Press. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2920329
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- Laurel Brake; Marysa Demoor (2009). Dictionary of Nineteenth-century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. Academia Press. p. 97. ISBN 978-90-382-1340-8.
- Asa Briggs (2008). A History of Longmans and Their Books, 1724-1990: Longevity in Publishing. British Library. p. 243. ISBN 978-0-7123-4873-7.
- Frederick Wilse Bateson (1940). The Cambridge bibliography of English literature. 2. 1660 - 1800. CUP Archive. p. 807. GGKEY:SQT257C7TNL.
- Escott, Thomas Hay Sweet (1911). "Masters of English journalism: a study of personal forces". Internet Archive. London: T. F. Unwin. p. 286. Retrieved 22 May 2015.
- Julian Moore and Christopher Whittick, Depictions of Georgina: Aspects of social identity in two portraits by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The British Art Journal Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2005), pp. 3–20, at p. 10. Published by: The British Art Journal. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41615319
- Asa Briggs (2008). A History of Longmans and Their Books, 1724-1990: Longevity in Publishing. British Library. p. 244 note 54. ISBN 978-0-7123-4873-7.
- Nigel Cross (9 June 1988). The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street. CUP Archive. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-521-35721-0.
- Francis Espinasse (1866). Life and Times of François-Marie Arouet, calling himself Voltaire.
- Frederick Wilse Bateson (1940). The Cambridge bibliography of English literature. 2. 1660 - 1800. CUP Archive. pp. 784–. GGKEY:SQT257C7TNL.
- Chris Nottingham (1999). The Pursuit of Serenity: Havelock Ellis and the New Politics. Amsterdam University Press. p. 26 note. ISBN 978-90-5356-386-1.