The Scottish magazine that scandalised society
A magazine founded in Edinburgh 200 years ago which grew to be one of the most influential of the Victorian age is being celebrated at the National Library of Scotland.
One of the strengths of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine was in publishing new fiction. A number of literary classics, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, made their first appearance in print in the magazine.
Competition to appear in Blackwood’s was fierce and other great writers including Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson were among those who had submissions rejected by the magazine.
The Blackwood archive is part of the Library’s collection and highlights from the archive and printed collections will be used to tell the story of the magazine in a special treasures display opening on March 30. It includes a copy of the first ever issue from 200 years ago. The display also features some unusual items such as a 1918 edition which saved the life of a soldier during the First World War by absorbing the impact of a bullet.
The first issue of the magazine appeared on April 1, 1817 and it was designed as a combative Tory counterblast to the existing Whig-supporting Edinburgh Review. Its reception was lukewarm, resulting in the publisher William Blackwood firing its founding editors and starting afresh.
The issue which appeared in October that year was not going to be ignored. Blackwood and his new editors – John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson - decided to stir things up. Controversy was to be courted as a sales tactic.
Notable public figures, among them the magazine’s original editors, were lampooned in one article about the ancient Chaldee manuscript that professed to be the discovery of an ancient biblical text. It was the shape of things to come. Readers were both scandalised and captivated by the satirical attacks on prominent figures and the harsh reviews handed out, particularly to certain members of the London literati.
It resulted in several lawsuits being brought against the magazine. One quarrel in 1821 regarding an attack on the ‘Cockney school’ of poetry ended in a pistol duel being fought in London which resulted in the death of the editor of the London Magazine, John Scott.
Meanwhile, Blackwood’s went from strength to strength, publishing the work of a succession of literary talent including the Ettrick Shepherd James Hogg, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Galt, Margaret Oliphant and a great many others.
Although the magazine continued into the 20th century, its best days were behind it. It lost readers to new journals that made greater use of illustrations and employed fresh attention-grabbing tactics, similar to those that had helped to establish Blackwood’s name. It finally ceased publication in 1980.
“From its humble beginnings in Edinburgh 200 years ago, Blackwood’s has left behind a rich legacy as one of the most original and influential periodicals to have been published in Britain,” said Manuscripts Curator Dr Ralph McLean who has put the display together.
“It may have been built on controversy but it came to provide a platform for some of the finest writing in the English language.”
'Laws were made to be broken': Blackwood's Magazine at 200 runs until July 2 at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.
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Notes to editors
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