Liam McIlvanney

  • The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era by David Finkelstein
    Pennsylvania State, 199 pp, £44.95, April 2002, ISBN 0 271 02179 9

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.’

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