*Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
British periodical, 1817–1980
The sheer longevity of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine—163 years—makes it noteworthy among 19th-century periodicals. Following its foundation by William Blackwood, successive generations of the publishing family of Blackwood owned and edited Maga, as it was familiarly known to its proprietors, contributors, and readers. Its founders originally saw Blackwood’s as providing a more energetic and powerful Tory opposition to the Whig Edinburgh Review than the Quarterly Review then offered; but its monthly issue and the breadth of its scope made it from the start also a stronger vehicle for creative literature and criticism than the quarterlies.
William Blackwood’s aim to produce a daring, sparkling, and successful magazine was in no way met by the editors of his first venture, the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine. They were replaced after a few months, and the new Blackwood’s, produced by John Gibson Lockhart, John Wilson, and James Hogg was launched with great élan. In Margaret Oliphant’s words, the new number had to be “a sort of fiery meteor to blaze across the Edinburgh sky and call every man’s attention” (Annals vol. 1, 1897). It succeeded. In particular its satiric “Chaldee Manuscript,” lampooning the deposed editors and local notables, took Edinburgh by storm. In another piece Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria was savaged. This combative style marked the early years, notable for the virulence of the attacks on “The Cockney School,” i.e. Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and John Keats.
The personal assaults brought actions for libel and Blackwood more than once had to pay damages. The “unholy zest and aptitude for the fray” (J.H.Lobban, 1897) shared by Lockhart, Wilson, and Hogg tested Blackwood’s powers of control to the full, but the success of the magazine was established.
The popular “Noctes Ambrosianae” series of papers, humorous tavern conversations between a group of friends discussing contemporary events, books, and people, began in 1822. It featured some fictional characters, but mainly real people under sobriquets, including Maga writers themselves, “Christopher North” (Wilson), “The Ettrick Shepherd” (Hogg), “The Opium-Eater” (Thomas De Quincey), and “Ensign O’Doherty” (William Maginn). De Quincey began writing for the magazine in 1820 and continued on a sporadic, somewhat wayward basis for a decade. Maginn had been appointed Irish correspondent a few months earlier. His witty contributions were valued, though Blackwood had to restrain his propensity both to abuse and to puff.
By the mid-1830s Maga had established the respectable character which was to secure its position in Victorian and Edwardian cultural society, a mix of creative literature, reviews, essays, and serious papers on foreign and domestic issues. William Blackwood’s worries about the damage caused by “the coarse and reckless” vein of writing, and his concern that “anything approaching to grossness or profane feeling” would make his magazine “a sealed book to many families” (Oliphant, Annals vol. 1) eventually triumphed over the rash exuberance of the early years. The magazine became much less contentious, though it developed its own personality and continued to attract writers of calibre. Many of its contributors, as Maga was proud to publicize, were loyal and longstanding, and held for it an affection Margaret Oliphant compared to that which a ship held for its crew. Over its long life it attracted to its ranks such writers as Oliphant herself, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad, Andrew Lang, May Sinclair, Alfred Noyes, and John Buchan.
Within the parameters of decorum it set, the Blackwood dynasty was relatively restrained in its editing of such work as it accepted for publication. “One of the secrets of Maga’s success has been the strictly impersonal nature of her editorship,” wrote J.H.Lobban, reviewing Oliphant’s history. On the whole the editors preferred to discuss and persuade rather than ruthlessly hack and rewrite or bowdlerize. F.D.Tredrey (1954) regarded John Blackwood (editor 1845–79) as an editor whose “methods of conveying suggestions and criticism are models in a difficult art.”
From the beginning William Blackwood had encouraged new writers, and his successors continued this policy. Maga maintained the tradition of anonymity long after other periodicals had introduced the signed article. A.Innes Shand (1897) claimed this enabled more “unknowns” to be given an opportunity. It also prevented an established writer from relying solely upon the power of his name, “forcing him to take more care in his work.” Equally important, it gave the periodical as strong an awareness of its own identity as Charles Dickens, a much more intrusive editor than any of the Blackwoods, bestowed on Household Words and All the Year Round. The magisterial “we” commonly employed in reviews and commentaries established Maga’s air of authority.
But already by the end of the 1860s, its lack of illustrations, in contrast to the Cornhill Magazine, made it appear somewhat old-fashioned, and circulation was adversely affected. The loyalty of its diminished band of readers and the commitment of its publishers, however, enabled it to survive until the final decades of this century. The magazine’s early interest in foreign affairs and the ambition of “Christopher North” “that our wit shall be local all over the world” was never quite abandoned. During the two World Wars vivid dispatches from the fronts and topical fiction mingled with lighter reading. More staid, but still entertaining its middle-class readers, Maga traveled in the wake of colonials and expatriate communities, its bound volumes keeping them in touch with home. By the mid-20th century it was becoming something of an anachronism, in Tredrey’s words “one of the very few markets left to writers of craftsmanship and integrity who are unable, or who do not wish, to write for the avant-garde journals or the popular press.”
Maga always had a powerful sense of its own history. To mark its 1000th appearance in 1899 a special double number contained a celebratory revival of “Noctes,” and its centenary issue of 225 pages was similarly nostalgic.
BARBARA MARY ONSLOW
See also Periodical Essay
Oliphant, Margaret, Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons, Their Magazine and Friends, New York: AMS Press, 3 vols., 1974 (original edition, 1897–98)
Lobban, J.H., “Maga and Her Publishers,” Blackwood’s Magazine (1897):860–72
Shand, A.Innes, “Contemporary Literature III: Magazine Writers,” Blackwood’s Magazine (1897):225–47
Tredrey, Frank D., The House of Blackwood 1804–1954: The History of a Publishing Firm, Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1954
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