Must they twinkle?

John Sutherland

  • British Literary Magazines. Vol. III: The Victorian and Edwardian Age 1837-1913 edited by Alvin Sullivan
    Greenwood, 560 pp, £88.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 313 24335 2
  • The Book Book by Anthony Blond
    Cape, 226 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 224 02074 9

The volumes of the British Literary Magazines series (three out of four of which have now been published) are primarily works of ready reference. Alphabetically arranged within historical period, entries supply brief profiles of around four hundred ‘representative’ journals, together with some bare-bones factual data. The coverage is wider (but less full) than the 48 titles covered by the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals; less wide (but fuller) than the Waterloo Directory of Victorian Periodicals which heroically aims (one day) to bring all the age’s thirty thousand journals under bibliographic control. Although its range extends from Augustan to Modern, the BLM project shares with these other catalogues a central interest in the 19th century, and marks another forward leap in charting what Michael Wolff twenty years ago called the ‘golden stream’ of Victorian periodical writing.

More than most directories, the BLM series can be read as literary history. Each volume shows lines of development, innovation, experiment and decay. It was (probably for the surviving remnant still is) an article of Leavisite faith that the health of a culture is gauged by its literary magazines. They reflect the extent and quality of civilised discourse, and by providing a site for ‘creative quarrelling’ indicate the active engagement of reading publics. This recognition of the centrality of the literary journal usually accompanies a nostalgic sense of its historical decline; Romantic coherence gradually disintegrates in the mid-19th century under the impact of new technology and mass literacy, to be followed by 20th-century cultural deluge and minoritisation.

At first sight, this third BLM volume records no clear-cut disaster for the literary magazine over the period 1837-1913. But it does witness to a pervasive shift from gravity to frivolity. The two great quarterly reviews are succeeded as leaders of opinion by the lighter monthlies with their insidiously readable ‘miscellany’ formula (light verse, amusing essay, fiction, illustration). This line, which begins in the Tory high spirits of Blackwood’s, finishes in the family readership trivia of Newnes’s Strand Magazine. In their turn, the monthly miscellanies are overtaken by pictorial weeklies of the Tit-Bits kind, and sink out of the view of even BLM’s surveyors.

A work like Punch (here defined as a ‘literary magazine’) recapitulates the process within its own evolution. Begun in 1841, the magazine proceeds for a few years as a puritanically radical journal, under the influence of the ‘savage little Robespierre’, Douglas Jerrold. In 1846, Punch changes direction, and dedicates itself to apolitical fun. Dickens, among others, objected to the ensuing ‘eternal guffaw’ with its narcotic implication that nothing under the sun is serious or urgent. But Dickens’s own weekly, All the Year Round, suffers a similar decay. Begun in 1859, with a high quality of fiction and investigative reportage, by the 1870s (in the hands of Charles Jr), the paper is a vehicle for hack serials and featherweight journalism for the tyrannous family reader.

As will be evident, BLM’s definition of what constitutes a literary magazine is broad, verging on indiscriminate. Woman’s World and Vanity Fair gain entry, as does Rhythm (although the editors have generally steered prudently clear of little magazines). Journals like the Contemporary Review which snootily considered themselves above noticing fiction and overtly political weeklies like the Saturday Review are included. The TLS is excluded because – as far as I can understand the reason – it is too comprehensively literary to be contained in a brief entry. It’s an unfortunate omission. In the fourth volume, 1914-84 (whose future contents are listed), one sees that the Review gets in, but the New Review does not. Essays in Criticism, PN Review, the Observer Magazine Section, Books and Bookmen and the London Review of Books are not, apparently, British literary magazines: Poor Old Tired Horse, Time and Tide, the Listener and Lilliput are.

I’ll return to the question of BLM’s adequacy as a reference work. For the moment, I want to consider its historical evidence against a provocative assertion by A.N. Wilson, quoted in Anthony Blond’s Book Book. According to Wilson (don, novelist, Sunday Telegraph reviewer, Young Fogey and former literary editor of the Spectator), there is now no literary reviewing worth the name in Britain:

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[*] The Athenaeum’s entry, like that of other journals thriving in the Victorian period but originating earlier, appears in the second BLM volume, The Romantic Age, 1789-1836, edited by Alvin Sullivan (1983).