At the tail-end of 1892 Robert Louis Stevenson was working on a novel. The book was going well but one thing was bothering him. Serial publication, he felt, might be difficult to secure, since ‘The Justice Clerk’ – it would eventually be published as Weir of Hermiston – was both ‘queer’ and ‘pretty Scotch’. Still, he reflected, there was one magazine worth trying: ‘It has occurred to me that there is one quarter in which the very Scotchness of the thing would be found a recommendation and where the queerness might possibly be stomached. I mean Blackwood.’ William Blackwood and Sons, publishers of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, had been stomaching queerness and Scotchness – and much else besides – for the best part of a century. In the event, they rejected Stevenson’s book, but his instinct had been sound, and his ‘queer’ tale of the hanging judge would have sat comfortably in a tradition of Scottish eccentricity that includes James Hogg’s The Shepherd’s Calendar, John Galt’s ‘theoretical histories’ and Margaret Oliphant’s tales of terror.
It’s common to think of Blackwood’s as a stolid redoubt of middlebrow English respectability, the kind of torpid organ invoked by Orwell in ‘England Your England’: ‘If you were a patriot you read Blackwood’s Magazine and publicly thanked God that you were “not brainy”.’ Stevenson reminds us that the magazine wasn’t always either safe or respectable: to disturb the peace was its founding brief. It was started in 1817 by William Blackwood, an Edinburgh bookseller and publisher, as a stick to beat his local rival, Archibald Constable. Blackwood’s new monthly aimed to compete with Constable’s journals – the struggling Scots Magazine and, ultimately, the mighty Edinburgh Review – but beyond the business rivalry there was also a political divide. The Blackwood set were Tories in a city run by Whigs. To harry the Whig establishment that held Scottish public life in its somnolent grasp: this was the paper’s political mission. If the northern stronghold of ‘whiggery and infidelity’ was the Edinburgh Review, then Blackwood’s would muster its forces under the ‘twin banners of sound criticism and Tory politics’.
From the outset, Blackwood’s was both partisan and provocative. In its early days, it was conducted amid the spluttered remonstrations of outraged subscribers, deserting contributors and – on one occasion at least – mutinous printers. It published little that wasn’t scandalous, libellous, scabrous and pugnacious. Its opening number in October 1817, following a six-month false start as the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, was punctiliously nasty. It contained an indefensibly harsh review of Biographia Literaria, a sneering profile of the ‘Cockney School of Poetry’ and an actionable satire on the Edinburgh Whigs.
The colour has faded from much of this polemic but what still shines out is the stunning self-possession and cultural arrogance of the Blackwood wits, who took 17 Princes Street for the centre of the literary universe. The review of Biographia Literaria dismissed Coleridge as an ‘obscure name in English literature’ on the grounds that, though he was well known in London literary society, in Scotland ‘few know or care anything about him.’ The satire on the Whigs – a mock-biblical allegory called the ‘Chaldee Manuscript’ – was a farrago of in-jokes and local references, of doubtful significance outside Auld Reekie. ‘It was for Edinburgh they wrote, and of Edinburgh they thought,’ Margaret Oliphant marvelled in the 1890s. ‘No such thing could be done now.’
The tyros behind the ‘Mohock Magazine’ (as it was swiftly dubbed by a London rival) were two Oxford graduates who had returned home to Scotland to practise at the bar. John Gibson Lockhart would, within a few years, return south to edit the Quarterly. But for the magazine’s first twenty-five years, its mainstay was John Wilson. As Christopher North, he wrote mountains of copy. Reviews, feature articles, verses, sentimental tales of peasant life, unsentimental tales of gothic horror: he churned the stuff out in heroic bouts of scribbling that tested his physical strength as much as his powers of invention. Wilson’s detractors – and these have not been wanting, either in his own time or since – might be inclined to argue that his talents were mainly physical. At Oxford he made his name as a boxer. He studied in hectic bursts in the lulls between strenuous debauches (he coined the word ‘hedonist’) and prodigious feats of athleticism. He was forever knocking people down and leaping across rivers. De Quincey, Wilson’s contemporary at Oxford, later wondered how he had managed to pass his college years without being aware of the Scotsman’s existence: ‘Possibly I myself was the one sole gownsman who had not then found my attention fixed by his most heterogeneous reputation.’
Yet there is something prophetic in De Quincey’s ignorance. For all his noisy self-promotion, Wilson’s reputation dwindled after his death. He’s now remembered, if at all, in the footnotes of articles on De Quincey, Hogg and Galt. This is a shame, for Wilson is a fascinating figure. As a critic, he could be brutal, but there remains something almost admirable in his effrontery. In the autumn of 1825 he had newly returned from a trip to the Lake District, where he had enjoyed Wordsworth’s hospitality and attended a gala dinner for Scott. Each of these men was Wilson’s friend and mentor. When he took up his pen as Christopher North, however, it was to suggest that The Excursion was ‘the worst poem of any character in the English language’ and that Scott was ‘a tame and feeble writer’. Unluckily, in the same article, an Irish MP – Richard Martin – was twitted as a ‘jackass’: he wrote instantly to William Blackwood, threatening legal action and demanding that the article’s author be unmasked. A distraught Wilson took to his bed and snivelled to Blackwood: ‘To own that article is for a thousand reasons impossible . . . I would rather die this evening.’ As ever, Blackwood shielded his contributor and Wilson lived to flyte another day.
‘In what is he not great?’ William Maginn asked in a posthumous profile of Wilson. Well, prose fiction for one thing. As a writer of fiction, Wilson is dire. He suspected this himself, seeking to persuade one of his friends not that his fiction was any good, but merely that it had been ‘better written than not written’. Yet even this seems questionable. His Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life (1822), a collection of maudlin tales first published in Blackwood’s, is a baleful marker on the road to the kailyard. Its cast is drawn from what Wilson calls the ‘blameless poor’: ringleted shepherdesses, diligent lads o’ pairts, hardy farmers bearing up manfully under the ordinances of Providence. Their ethos is embodied in the figure of Abraham Blane, the happy cotter who subsists uncomplainingly on oatmeal and water and is ‘so fond of work that he seemed to love the summer chiefly for the length of its labouring days’. This was too much, even for Wilson’s friends among the Edinburgh literati. Henry Mackenzie, who, as author of The Man of Feeling (1771), knew a thing or two about lachrymose tat, dismissed Wilson’s book as a ‘syrupy dish for young sentimentalists’. Wilson had the review suppressed and a puff inserted in its place.
What is most remarkable about Wilson’s literary output is that he produced his vast and varied body of work while holding down the most prestigious humanities appointment in Scotland: the chair in moral philosophy at Edinburgh. It has to be said, however, that Professor Wilson was an even more fictitious character than Christopher North. His appointment was a political one, and Wilson remained indebted, throughout his academic career, to the silent assistance of Alexander Blair, an old college friend. Blair, an Englishman who had studied with Wilson at Glasgow, must have dreaded the arrival of every post, so assiduously did his former classmate badger him for advice. ‘Could you send me a good letter-full on the effect of passion on association?’ ‘Don’t forget to send me in a parcel your papers on Imagination.’ Stoically, Blair responded to each of Wilson’s imploring letters, and his steady, unacknowledged industry forms a hidden parallel to Wilson’s punitive journalistic labours. In any case, Blair’s epistles saved the reputation of his friend: Blair came up with the lectures; Wilson provided the theatre. A flamboyant speaker, he stood at the lectern in his tattered gown, his long yellow hair falling to his shoulders, and worked himself up to tearful perorations while his clutch of Scotch terriers slumbered at his feet. The students loved him.
Modern critics – especially Scottish ones – have been less impressed. For David Daiches, Wilson is an ‘absolute impostor’ and a ‘windbag’; Andrew Noble tags him ‘the clay-footed prophet of the British-Scots middle-class’. In some respects, Wilson deserves all he gets. As an academic he was a charlatan; as a critic a coward and a bully. He was a forgettable poet and a bad novelist. On the other hand, he wrote the neglected masterpiece of Scottish Romanticism.
The Noctes Ambrosianae, a series of fictitious symposia set in a real Edinburgh tavern (Ambrose’s of Picardy Place), ran in the magazine between 1822 and 1835. Initially a collaborative venture – Lockhart, Wilson and William Maginn all pitched in to write the early dialogues – it soon became the sole preserve of Wilson. The Noctes are the table-talk of the Blackwood wits – North himself, James Hogg the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, Timothy Tickler and others – as they discuss the latest books and reviews and whatever else takes their notion. The articles are not uniformly good. They are sometimes dull and often too long. But when they succeed – and they often do – they succeed superbly. There is an ease and affability – and at the same time a sapience and bite – very rare in Wilson’s writing. Here, for once, Wilson’s criticism does not claim to be oracular. The provisional, occasional status of criticism is implicit in the dialogue form. Judgments are delivered ex taverna, thrown out by disputatious bibbers in the process of argument. The critical discourse is integrated into the quotidian life of the city, and liable to be interrupted by anecdotes of dogfights and skating contests or impromptu encomiums on pheasant soup or the Rhenish. The Noctes stand as the great literary testament to the convivial intellectual culture of the Scottish capital, with its levees and lounging bookshops, its debating clubs and drinking dens, its protracted boozy sederunts.
Wilson’s dialogues are also – and this is their other great virtue – an astonishing repository of literary Scots, particularly in the speeches of the Shepherd, those unpredictable and extravagant vernacular riffs. Since the 17th century, Scots has been (in David Craig’s useful phrase) a ‘reductive idiom’, a way of undercutting Latinate English, and we get a lot of this in the Noctes (‘Where learned you the natatory art, my dear Shepherd?’ ‘Do you mean soomin’?’). But we also get lengthy, vertiginously inventive passages in which the Scots tongue is put through its paces in a manner almost without parallel in 19th-century writing. The Scots of the Noctes is a language not merely of pawky humour and vituperation, but of philosophical speculation, impressionistic description, political oratory, sentimental rhapsody, critical pronouncement, religious devotion. In short, it is a language fit for all purposes, and if he did nothing else in his long and varied career, Wilson composed, as Cockburn noted, ‘the best Scotch that has been written in modern times’.
In one of the early Noctes, Mr Blackwood laments the scarcity of ‘sound, sensible, statistical articles, full of useful information. We have wit, fun, fancy, feeling, and all that sort of thing in abundance, but we want facts.’ No one will complain that David Finkelstein wants facts. His new study of Blackwood’s – the first since F.D. Tredrey’s ‘official’ history of 1954 – is sluggish with data. It incorporates entire balance-sheets and has three appendices in which jostling columns of figures provide the stats – the print runs and profit margins, the sales figures and advertising outlays – of Blackwood’s bestsellers. At times this furor statisticus gets out of hand. It is with a throb of misgiving that we encounter, on the book’s second page, a table detailing the 12 varieties of typeface employed in the Blackwood’s printing office in 1879.
You get the feeling that, if he knew a little less about his subject, David Finkelstein might have written a better book. After ten years sifting the Blackwood’s archive his knowledge is more conspicuous than his readiness to discriminate. It’s all in here: the chief proofreader’s salary increase of 1863; the advertising budget for Where Angels Fear to Tread; The Perpetual Curate’s subscription list as of December 1864. The book is full of sentences like this: ‘Kingslake’s third and fourth volumes, published in July 1868, racked up sales of almost 6000 copies (5879) and profits of £4107 within six years of publication, becoming the fourth most profitable work of the decade, behind Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (£4442), the eight-volume collection Ancient Classics for English Readers (£5242), and Kingslake’s first two volumes.’ It’s bracing to read a work in which the bracketed figures after a book’s title refer not to the date of publication but to profits generated.
Though he rarely lifts his eyes from the bottom line and proceeds with the circumstantial exactitude of a notary, Finkelstein somehow produces a strong, largely readable narrative. Partly this is because his timeframe imposes a neat symmetry on his material. The book deals with the half-century between 1860 and 1910 and with the consecutive reigns of two managing directors: John Blackwood, who guided the firm to burgeoning profits and market pre-eminence until his death in 1879; and William Blackwood III, who watched it all fall apart as family squabbles and staff defections saw the firm lose ground to more focused competitors. Both commercially and ideologically, the firm was looking cumbersome and wheezy by the end of the 19th century. The violent Toryism that had once seemed outrageous and even dissident now sounded hectoring and reactionary. The firm had lost its edge – a serendipitous typo at this point gives the family name as ‘Backwood’ – and retrenched into niche-marketing for its core military and colonial audience. The story of its rise and fall is handled adroitly in the two long narrative chapters that form the bulk of Finkelstein’s book. We get the figures, of course, but we also get a good deal of insight into the ‘personalities’ (a key Blackwood’s word) and a sure-footed account of the contemporary publishing context.
The two narrative chapters are interspersed with what Finkelstein calls ‘micro-chapters’ offering case studies of the firm’s relations with a number of comparatively obscure Victorian authors – John Hanning Speke, Charles Reade and Margaret Oliphant – as well as some reflections on the rise of literary agents. There is a good deal of entertainment in these case studies, most consistently in the chapter on Speke, the Nile explorer. Having staked £2000 to win the bidding war for Speke’s African memoirs, John Blackwood discovered that the author could barely write. Indeed, nothing in his lurid and sensationalist account of tribal customs was as barbaric as Speke’s own prose style, and the firm had to shell out even more cash on hiring a ghost-writer to knock the narrative into shape.
Since he is concerned with the text ‘not as an aesthetic product, but as a commercial proposition’, Finkelstein provides a tellingly fresh profile of the Blackwood’s list, one which downplays the firm’s literary ‘stars’ (Conrad, Buchan, Forster and so on), to emphasise instead a range of forgotten but lucrative works of non-fiction – the military histories, textbooks such as Edward B. Hamley’s Operations of War (1866), a training manual for British Army officers, and religious publications (the firm sold more than 700,000 Scottish hymnals in the 1870s alone). All this provides a corrective to some of the earlier studies of Blackwood’s, but it remains disappointing that Finkelstein has so little to say about its ‘major’ authors and that his decade in the archives has thrown up no new facts about the firm’s dealings with, for instance, Stephen Crane or Hugh MacDiarmid.
The House of Blackwood was not just a business concern but a major cultural presence, an ‘institution’, and it is here that Finkelstein’s rather contracted vision lets him down. The dust jacket promises insights into the firm’s ‘moulding of a particular political and national culture’, but nothing of the sort emerges. The roots of Blackwood’s militant Toryism remain unexplored. Nor is there much discussion of the firm’s role in the articulation of post-Union Scottish identity. That unionist nationalism which historians have identified as the dominant ideology of 19th-century Scotland found potent voice in Blackwood’s. In the Noctes for September 1822, written in the wake of George IV’s visit to Scotland, North has a long speech extolling the monarch as the defender of Scotland’s free institutions and the true heir to Wallace and Bruce. In the same article, a bluff Lowland farmer praises the magazine for ‘supporting the kintra, and the King and the kirk’. Finkelstein has little to say about Blackwood’s politics, and in this respect, his book compares poorly with an earlier history of the firm, Margaret Oliphant’s lively and pungent Annals of a Publishing House (1897).
If the Blackwood’s critics relished the freedom of anonymity, Finkelstein’s prose is anonymous in a less happy sense. Its baseline is a pallid marketese (‘resulting financial gains’, ‘period of unprecedented growth’), relieved by the odd pompous sonority (‘planes of textual production’ when he really means ‘genres’). As a result, the work is dogged by the irony that a book about Blackwood’s should itself be so innocent of the qualities – ‘wit, fun, fancy, feeling, and all that sort of thing’ – which most distinguished the Blackwood style. When, in that early Noctes, Mr Blackwood made his facetious appeal for boring articles, it was on the grounds that these would ‘promote the sale with dull people’. It would be unfair to suggest that only dull people will enjoy David Finkelstein’s book, which is intelligent, well organised and ‘full of useful information’. All the same, one shudders to think what the Mohocks would have made of it.