Cover image for The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era By David Finkelstein

The House of Blackwood

Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era

David Finkelstein


$87.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02179-9

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05836-8

208 pages
6" × 9"
9 b&w illustrations

Penn State Series in the History of the Book

The House of Blackwood

Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era

David Finkelstein

The House of Blackwood is one of the best studies of a publishing house to be produced since book history was reinvented a couple of decades ago. Perceptively applying theory to archives, Finkelstein’s study illuminates the publisher’s relations to authors, and much more—it shows how successive generations of Blackwoods responded to familial, economic, trade, workshop, and political pressures, the changing demographics of readers, and the altered conditions of publishing in Edwardian Britain. It is a pleasure to read and a model for future work in the field.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The Scottish publishing firm of William Blackwood & Sons, founded in 1804, was a major force in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literary history, publishing a diverse group of important authors—including George Eliot, John Galt, Thomas de Quincey, Margaret Oliphant, Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad, and John Buchan, among many others—in book form and in its monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. In The House of Blackwood, David Finkelstein exposes for the first time the successes and failures of this onetime publishing powerhouse.

Finkelstein begins with a general history of the Blackwood firm from 1804 to 1920, attending to family dynamics over several generations, to their molding of a particular political and national culture, to the shaping of a Blackwood’s audience, and to the multiple causes for the firm’s decline in the decades before World War I. He then uses six case studies of authors—Conrad, Oliphant, John Hanning Speke, George Tompkyns Chesney, Charles Reade, and E. M. Forster—and their relationships with the publishing house. He mines the voluminous correspondence of the firm with its authors and, eventually, with the authors’ agents. The value of the archive Finkelstein studies is its completeness, the depth of the ledger material (particularly interesting given that the Blackwoods did much of their own printing), and the extraordinary longevity of the firm. A key value of Finkelstein’s account is his attention to the author/publisher/reader circuit that Robert Darnton emphasizes as the central focus of book history.

The House of Blackwood is one of the best studies of a publishing house to be produced since book history was reinvented a couple of decades ago. Perceptively applying theory to archives, Finkelstein’s study illuminates the publisher’s relations to authors, and much more—it shows how successive generations of Blackwoods responded to familial, economic, trade, workshop, and political pressures, the changing demographics of readers, and the altered conditions of publishing in Edwardian Britain. It is a pleasure to read and a model for future work in the field.”
The House of Blackwood offers as much meat for the nineteenth-century historian, the student of business history—even present-day publishing executives!—as it does for the literary critic.”
“[The book’s] examination of balance-sheets, together with the close reading of correspondence and memoirs, makes an engaging as well as important contribution to our knowledge of the Victorian culture of the book.”
“This monograph is a further important addition to [Penn State Press’s] significant series on the history of the book.”
“I should finally mention that this is an exceptionally well documented study.”
The House of Blackwood is an engaging and extremely valuable piece of research that will benefit literary scholars and publishing historians for years to come.”
“Elegantly designed and illustrated, beautifully written, and full of fresh material presented in a lively manner, The House of Blackwood is a notable addition to Victorian publishing history.”

David Finkelstein is Dean of the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee. He is editor of An Index to "Blackwood's Magazine," 1901–1980 (1995) and coeditor of four recent books, including The Book History Reader (2001) and Nineteenth-Century Media and the Construction of Identities (2000). He has spent the last few years investigating the Blackwood papers for the National Library of Scotland, which has enabled him to exploit business documents ignored by or unknown to previous researchers.


List of Illustrations


1. Setting the Scene

2. Finding Success: Blackwood’s, 1860–1879

3. Africa Rewritten: The Case of John Hanning Speke

4. Reade Revised: A Woman Hater and the Women’s Medical Movement

5. Shifting Ground: Blackwood’s, 1880–1912

6. Creating House Identities: Nineteenth-Century Publishing

Memoirs and the Annals of a Publishing House

7. “A Grocer’s Business”: William Blackwood III

and the Literary Agents


Appendices 1-3: Introduction

Appendix 1. Blackwood & Sons Publishing Statistics, 1860–1910

Appendix 2. Blackwood’s Magazine Sales, 1856–1915

Appendix 3. Margaret Oliphant Sales, 1860–1897




1 Setting the Scene

On a warm, sunny day on 8 November 1879, the body of publisher and editor

John Blackwood was interred in Old Calton Hill Cemetery in Edinburgh, overlooking

the city in which he had spent much of his working life. Passing by the

tomb of David Hume on one side, the pallbearers brought the casket to the family

vault, where it was placed next to that of his father, William Blackwood,

founder of the Blackwood publishing firm and the famous monthly Blackwood’s

Magazine. Among those who helped carry the remains to its final resting place

were some of John’s most trusted friends and literary contributors: General

Edward Bruce Hamley; historian John Hill Burton; John Skelton, author and

critic; and Colonel James Grant, African explorer and J. H. Speke’s overshadowed

companion in his famous search for the source of the Nile River.

Weeks later, men with lists swarmed through the firm’s premises on 45

George Street and 32 Thistle Street in Edinburgh. They measured rooms; they

counted shelves; they counted chairs, desks, tables, light fixtures. They counted

stock on the 275 shelves in the front shop, investigated the firm’s ledgers, noted copyright values.

Equipment in the printing office was fingered, valued, and

listed in a twenty-eight-page report; among the notable items in its eighteen

rooms were boxes filled with varying types and fonts, including:1

Wood Type Metal Type Book Type

76 pieces 20-line pica 94 12-line pica Roman 10,395 English

68 pieces 17-line pica 100 8-line pica Clarendon 6,490 pica no. 28

94 pieces 16-line pica 43 7-line pica Grotesque 1,669 pica no. 4

76 pieces 18-line pica 77 4-line pica Roman 5,740 small pica no. 28

Also listed were thirty-eight double crown letter boards, sixty-seven brass galleys,

thirty-six composing sticks for use on Blackwood’s Magazine, and one Double

Deny Albion proof press with inking table and three rollers, along with other

printing presses and heavy machinery. The final estimated value of all this printing

office stock and equipment was £;5,870.

The numbers men counted, they added, and then they summarized, in the

end producing a financial report that detailed to the last brass molding and brass

farthing the total worth of the Blackwood publishing firm. The resulting remarkable

document is one of the most complete commercial and financial statements

one is likely to encounter of any British publishing firm operating in the nineteenth

century. It was used to settle family interests and establish John’s nephew,

William Blackwood III, as the new head of the firm. Its value, however, extends

beyond that of the personal, allowing us a snapshot view of the Blackwood firm

at the peak of its success.

When Alexander Blackwood (head of the firm following his father William

Blackwood’s death in 1834) died in March 1845, a similar accounting exercise

placed the firm’s value at £;41,633. Of this sum Alexander’s share as a company

director came to £;12,004, which, combined with income withdrawn by both his

brothers, Robert and John Blackwood (both also partners in the firm), accounted

for almost half the total value of the family business. The final sum also included

£;14,814 in copyright values (that is, the value of the firm’s intellectual property

rights in its publications) and £;7,361 in capital free for further investment.2 The

spread of income looked like this:

£; s d

Mr. A. Blackwood’s share 12,004 3 7

Cash withdrawn by J. & R. Blackwood 7,453 17 6

Estimated value of copyright 14,814 0 0

Capital at 21 March 1845 7,361 13 9

Total balance at 21st March 1845 £;41,633.14.10

Thirty four years later the value of the firm had almost doubled to £;80,509, and

the balance sheet now read more complicatedly like this:

Assets £; s d Liabilities £; s d


Edinburgh &

London 502 8 0

Bills receivable 2197 10 1 Bills payable 1,768 2 6

Amounts due to Amounts due by

W. B. & Sons 16,760 11 3 W. B. & Sons 12,225 0 2

Amounts due to Amounts due by

W. B. & Sons W. B. & Sons

per cash 3,160 9 5 per cash 23,334 11 3

Ledger Ledger

Stock 15,938 8 6 Maga contributors 431 18 0

Furniture 357 8 8

Printing office 8,495 14 1 Printing office 2,578 0 10

Property 18,900 Salaries, misc. accrued 691 18 1

Copyright 14,197 Capital 39,479 19 2

Total £;80,509.10.0 £;80,509.10.0

What is significant about this welter of statistics is that while copyright valuation

had not increased greatly since Alexander Blackwood’s death, stock, printing

office assets, and general property since accumulated now accounted for more than

half the firm’s value. More important, the capital available to the firm—the clear

profit—had increased more than fivefold in thirty-four years, from £;7,361 to

£;39,479. Even allowing for inflationary factors, the result is a clear statement of

the role John Blackwood played in energizing and expanding the firm’s lists and

profitability during his tenure as director, validated in the manner in which this

capital sum was subsequently divided between the two main partners of the firm:

John Blackwood’s estate received four-fifths (£;34,043), while William Blackwood

III held on to the remaining 20 percent stake (£;5,436).

William Blackwood III had much to live up to when he dutifully took over

management of the firm in 1879, and his path was not made smoother over the

next three years by the retirement of key personnel and the death of various

family members who might have contributed to its development. His solution

to this loss of support, a solution that has remained hidden until now, is revealed

in documents from 1913, when, following his demise, the counting men were

once more dispatched to assess the value of the firm. This time, however, there

was a hidden agenda to satisfy. In this case, sums were calculated and worth

assigned in order to establish how much to pay off the silent member of a

secret partnership that had run the firm between 1903 and 1910. Cataloged in

the legal document subsequently produced is a detailed breakdown of the firm’s

assets and liabilities, with columns of profit and loss neatly recorded and balanced

in order to arrive at the amount necessary to remove David Storrar Meldrum

from the firm’s directorship (Meldrum was the first non–Blackwood family

member ever to be allowed such a role) and to return full control of the firm

to family hands, in this case William’s nephews George William and James

Hugh Blackwood.3 How Meldrum became such a privileged insider is a story

that will be detailed later in this book. Why he was accorded privileges denied

to earlier and equally valuable Blackwood employees, such as Joseph M. Langford

(London office manager from 1845 to 1882) and George Simpson (Edinburgh

office manager from 1842 to 1878), will also be discussed more fully in

later chapters.

The 1913 legal document charting the end of this relationship reveals a

story about the firm that is different from the story in the 1879 documents.

Reading through the balance sheets, one sees distinct signs of financial slowdown

and decline, evinced by the final evaluation of the firm’s worth, which

now stood at £;67,783. As the balance sheet below shows, the firm’s fortunes

had peaked and, while not down to the provincial levels of publishing solvency

seen in its accounts in 1845, the firm was decidedly in a spiral of decline that

would be temporarily halted only through the intervention of the First World


Assets £; s d Liabilities £; s d

Cash 132 0 11.25

Bills receivable Bills payable

Amounts due 10,235 19 6 Amounts due 9,081 4 6.5

Amounts due per Amounts due per

cash ledger 617 0 8 cash ledger 41,664 13 3

Stocks 13,206 8 0 Accrued interest 316 7 11

Interest on Printing office 471 11 0

partners a/c 376 6 2

Property 24,285 Reserve a/c 1909 3,000

Undivided profit

1909 160 6 2

Copyright 11,374 9 7 Capital 10,000

Profit 1909–10 4,088 19 1/4

Total £;67,783.1.10 3/4 £;67,783.1.10 3/4

Copyright values had remained static over the period of William Blackwood

III’s direction, and a substantial proportion of the excess capital/profit recorded

in 1913 came from reserves built up from past years. The capital and profits sum

divided among the firm’s beneficiaries (who now totaled four) was £;17,249, half

the equivalent sum dispensed in 1879. Once again, the division of the spoils

reflected the shifting balance of power within the firm: William Blackwood’s

estate was accorded 40 percent of the capital (£;6,899), while David Storrar Meldrum,

George William, and James Hugh Blackwood each received 20 percent

of the total (£;3,449). Once the debt to Meldrum had been discharged, partnership

in the firm was devolved equally upon James Hugh and George William,

an arrangement that continued until the 1940s.

The information to be gleaned from such legal documents forms a small part

of the new material uncovered for this work. This book is concerned with the

firm’s history before, during, and after the snapshot moments represented by the

1879 and 1913 inventories. More specifically, it focuses on the activities of the

firm and its directors between 1860 and 1910, using unpublished archival material

as well as information gained from a variety of published sources. It charts

the firm’s history from a point of preeminence in mid-nineteenth-century British

publishing and cultural history through to a marginalized position as publisher

of popular works for colonial and special service interests audiences at the start

of the twentieth century.

Reasons for focusing on this period have as much to do with what past studies

have included as with what they have left out. Work on Blackwood’s has

invariably focused either on its early history or on specific authors whose lives

intersected with the Edinburgh firm. The literary history of the firm, and more

particularly the careers of William Blackwood I, John Blackwood, and William

Blackwood III, have provided background information for exploring the lives of

such illustrious literary figures as John Wilson, Thomas DeQuincey, John Galt,

George Eliot, Margaret Oliphant, and Joseph Conrad. Of less interest has been

an analysis of the firm, its staff, and their publishing careers in unliterary contexts:

of viewing them less as “handmaidens to literature” (a position adopted even in

the firm’s “house” histories) and more as individuals working within volatile and

competitive business arenas, whose energies were directed as much at publishing

financially remunerative prose and nonfiction texts—biographies, memoirs,

catechisms, atlases, school primers, dictionaries, and so on—as it was in fostering

the careers of literary geniuses. Similarly, scholarly interest in the firm’s operations

dissipates once it moves into the twilight years of the nineteenth century and away

from the dominant literary culture of the period. Its retreat into niche marketing

of popular novelists and a diet of colonialist-centered publications, and its complacency

and seeming failure to adjust to changing tastes and markets, leaves little for

those accustomed to the excitement of its earlier days. I hope to suggest otherwise

in the chapters that follow.

The foundations of the firm were laid down by William Blackwood I at the

turn of the nineteenth century, during a period of great change and development

in the Scottish publishing and book trade. Blackwood and his contemporaries

benefited from Edinburgh’s long-standing reputation and tradition as a center

for publishing and printing. Such eighteenth-century pioneeers as Allan Ramsay

(initiator of the circulating library concept), Gavin Hamilton, William Creech

(publisher of Robert Burns, Henry Mackenzie, Adam Ferguson, and the philosopher

Dugald Stewart), and William Smellie (creator and publisher of the Encyclopedia

Britannica), had in their time established Edinburgh as a potential rival

to London as a source of important, well-printed books. The general diffusion

of ideas in the late eighteenth century during what has been characterized as the

Scottish Enlightenment, was in great part due to the access Scottish authors had

to this efficient and localized print network that could generate and disseminate

their texts on a wide scale.

The landmark decision in the English courts in 1774 of the trial of Donaldson

v. Becket, which “established the statutory basis of copyright,” as one study

notes, and broke the stranglehold of London publishers on copyright and reprint

privileges in Britain, led to a surge in Scottish publishing activity that built upon

the successes of such Scots pioneers.4 During the first quarter of the nineteenth

century, new figures emerged whose publishing innovations transformed Edinburgh

into the second literary city in Britain, a role diminished only by the fallout

and subsequent reorganization and consolidation that followed the English

stock market crash of 1826. Firms were founded in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London,

and Cambridge by Scots whose lists were to dominate the nineteenth-century

literary marketplace. Such figures as Archibald Constable (publisher of Walter

Scott), Daniel Macmillan, Robert and William Chambers, and Thomas Nelson

followed similar career paths and were motivated by similar desires (if one is to

believe later house histories) rising from modest circumstances to become major

players in British publishing.

William Blackwood I was no exception. The founder of the firm and its monthly

Blackwood’s Magazine was born in Edinburgh in 1776, the son of a silk merchant.

At the age of fourteen he took his first steps into the book trade, beginning a sixyear

apprenticeship with the Edinburgh booksellers Bell & Bradfute, located on

Parliament Square in the heart of the city. Such a start was standard practice for

those with an interest in selling and publishing books for a living. Blackwood’s near

contemporary Archibald Constable, for example, began his career in 1788 apprenticed

for six years to Edinburgh bookseller Peter Hill, former associate of William

Creech and “highly respected,” as Constable recalled, “as possessing gentlemanly

manners beyond most others of the trade.”5 Likewise, those who followed afterward

did not neglect such early training: William Chambers endured five years

as an Edinburgh bookseller’s apprentice before opening his own office near his

brother Robert on Leith Walk in 1819, while the Arran-born Daniel Macmillan

spent seven years apprenticed to an Irvine bookseller and bookbinder before moving

on in 1831 to establish himself across the border in London and finally in


After completing his apprenticeship in 1796, William subsequently worked

his way through other areas of the book trade, superintending the Glasgow

branch of the Edinburgh publishers Mundell & Company for a year, serving as

a partner with the antiquarian bookseller and auctioneer Robert Ross for another

year, and completing his years of training in London in the antiquarian department

of the booksellers Cuthill. In 1804William returned to Edinburgh, opening a shop

at 64 South Bridge, in front of the Old College quarters of the University of

Edinburgh, where he specialized in selling and trading rare and antiquarian

books. Its success allowed him the financial security to marry Janet Steuart in 1805,

and they were to have nine children, including seven boys, of whom four were

to play important roles in the future of the Blackwood firm.

By 1810 William had begun branching out into publishing, producing historical

and religious works for Scottish markets. Movement beyond the regional

became possible in 1811, when he was appointed the Edinburgh agent for the

publisher John Murray, becoming an important link in the distribution of the latest

works from London. The connection also allowed Blackwood a foothold in

the London market, and he was to build on this in subsequent years. A further

link was made in 1813, when William became the agent for James and John Bal-

lantyne, printers of Walter Scott’s novels. This arrangement paved the way in

1816 for Blackwood and John Murray to co-publish Walter Scott’s Tales of My

Landlord, comprising the novels Old Mortality and Black Dwarf. Blackwood’s

attempts to suggest improvements to Scott were not met with approval: “Tell

him and his coadjutor,” Scott is reported to have written to the printer James Ballantyne,

“that I belong to the Black Hussars of Literature, who neither give nor

receive criticism.”6 Scott’s connection with the House of Blackwood was terminated

soon afterward.

William decided to shift his business locations in 1816, taking the plunge into

the New Town, a recent expansion by the city planners based on an architectural

model and style designed by Robert Adams. Such a move, while it drew Blackwood

away from the historical center of Edinburgh publishing around the High

Street, allowed him more space for development. He established himself at 17

Princes Street and began concentrating his business on publishing. In April

1817 Blackwood started what was to become the flagship publication of his firm,

having been approached earlier by James Cleghorn and Thomas Pringle to edit

and produce a monthly journal under the title the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine.

While general consensus has it that Blackwood envisaged creating a Tory alternative

to his rival Archibald Constable’s Whig orientated quarterly, the Edinburgh

Review, recent scholarship suggests that in fact the magazine was originally directed

to challenge the monthly Scots Magazine, also published by Constable. As

Maurice Milne notes, the rival to the Edinburgh Review at the time was more

clearly John Murray’s Tory Quarterly Review, published in London. Murray’s Scottish

counterpart Blackwood saw his opportunity to attack Constable’s dominant

position in the periodical market from another angle, in this case moving in on

the tottering Scots Magazine, whose sales and literary reputation were weak.7 He

contracted Pringle and Cleghorn to become editors of the new journal, paying

them £;50 a month and agreeing to divide with them any profits accruing from


The first few issues, however, were anything but exciting. Terminating Pringle

and Cleghorn’s contracts after six months, Blackwood relaunched the journal in

October 1817 as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, with editorial input and contributions

from members of his literary coterie, including John Gibson Lockhart,

John Wilson (“Christopher North”), and James Hogg. The first few issues, with

their attacks on local and national literary figures, their brand of personalized

satire, and their blend of anonymously authored literature, politics, fiction, and

poetry, established the reputation of the Blackwood firm. Lawsuits brought against

the firm by those attacked added welcome publicity, but it also frightened off some

of Blackwood’s trade connections: both Baldwin, Cradock & Company (Blackwood’s

London agents) and Oliver & Boyd (Blackwood’s printers) severed their

connections with the firm based upon the furor caused by the new journal.

Bringing home the first number of his relaunched journal, William is said to

have presented it to his wife with the words “There’s ma Maga-zine.” In affectionate

parody, the journal became known to future generations of contributors

and readers as “Maga.” Maga’s rising reputation and sales swiftly eclipsed the

Scots Magazine while at the same time attracting competition from London. The

London Magazine, for example, was begun in 1820 specifically in response to the

journal. Blackwood, however, consolidated his initial success by using the journal

to attract a core of well-placed writers to the firm. These included the Irishmen

William Maginn and Samuel Ferguson, and the Scots John Galt, Douglas M.

Moir (“Delta”), and Thomas DeQuincey. The magazine also featured occasional

reviews by Walter Scott, fiction by Samuel Warren and Susan Ferrier, and work

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Blackwood also began attracting commissions to

publish other journals, such as the Edinburgh Christian Monitor, begun in 1818,

and various legal, medical, and theological texts.

Maga was used both as a showcase for new talent and as a method of attracting

potential contributors to the firm’s book lists. A technique pioneered by Blackwood

was the publication in book form of works first serialized in the magazine, predating

Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley’s use of such marketing strategies by

several years. Works featured in this way included Susan Ferrier’s Marriage (1818)

and Inheritance (1824), John Galt’s Ayrshire Legatees (1820–21), and Douglas M.

Moir’s Autobiography of Mansie Wauch (1824–28). At other times Maga was used

to drum up interest in texts not yet realized, as in the sly case of John Gibson

Lockhart’s Peter’s Letters to His Kinfolk (1819). In February 1819 there appeared

in Maga a positive notice of this book, a collection of letters supposedly written

by a Welsh doctor and published in Aberystwyth. The following month a Maga

review heaped further praise upon it, going on to attack booksellers who had not

yet stocked up on this virtuoso text. Needless to say, the work did not exist—not,

that is, until it was brought out shortly afterward by Blackwood as a “second” (that

is, first) edition due to “popular demand.” Such a jeu d’esprit, while coming close

to barefaced self-promotion, was an aspect of early experimentation in marketing

by the firm that was refined in future years by other Blackwood directors.

Throughout the 1820s and early 1830s, Blackwood turned his small firm into

a thriving concern, becoming one of the leading Scottish publishers of the

period. His success allowed him to expand and move premises to 45 George Street

in 1830. But his was still a firm yet to make the transition from regional dominance

to national preeminence. On his death in 1834, his sons Alexander and Robert

Blackwood took control of the business, with the aim of developing the national

reach and reputation of their book lists and publications. Alexander concerned

himself with the magazine and publishing and editorial matters. Throughout his

short tenure, however, he was dogged with ill health, suffering from bouts of

asthma and tuberculosis, complications from the latter of which were to kill him

in March 1845. Robert concentrated on the firm’s financial arrangements. One of

Robert’s legacies was the establishment of a London office in 17 Pall Mall in 1840,

which he coordinated and then set the young John Blackwood to managing.

John Blackwood’s entrance into the family business heralded a major shift in

the fortunes of the firm. John Blackwood, the sixth son of William, was born on

7 December 1818 in Edinburgh. Educated in Edinburgh, on graduation from

the University of Edinburgh in 1835, he undertook a three-year tour of continental

Europe, spending much time in France and Germany. On his return in 1838, he

followed family tradition by beginning an apprenticeship in the trade, in this case

spending two years with the London publishers George Whitaker & Company.

On the opening of the Blackwood office in London in December 1840, John was

made a partner of the firm and London office manager. Over the next five years

he established the firm’s presence in the capital, making close personal connections

with prominent authors (William Thackeray, Laurence Lockhart, Edward

Bulwer-Lytton), politicians (Lord John Manners, Lord John Russell), and editors

(John Delane, editor of the Times). Delane, with whom John shared lodgings for

several years, was to prove an important contact. Through him Blackwood

recruited a core group of contributors to Maga and the firm’s lists, including Generals

Edward Bruce and William Hamley, Frederick Hardman (French correspondent

for The Times), George Finlay (Greek correspondent for The Times), and

Laurence Oliphant, explorer and writer. These contacts in turn led to other

sources, forming a vital cultural and information network for the firm.

In October 1845, seven months after Alexander Blackwood’s death, when it

was clear that Robert could no longer both edit the magazine and run the Edinburgh

office all at once, John Blackwood returned to Edinburgh to take over as

editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, leaving Joseph Munt Langford to become London

office manager. It was a defining moment for the young Blackwood that October

when his older brother Robert, as John was to recall years later, “with a kindness

and confidence which often fills me with wonder and always with gratitude,

handed over the chief conduct of The Magazine to me.”8 He set about discharging

his responsibilities with enthusiasm and vigor.

The firm moved in 1850 to larger London offices in Paternoster Row, the burgeoning

center of publishing activity in the city. In 1852, on the death of Robert

Blackwood, John assumed full control of the firm, working in partnership with his

brother Major William Blackwood II, who had returned from India in 1848 to help

manage financial matters. Following William Blackwood II’s death from pneumonia

in 1861, the firm was reorganized, and William’s son William Blackwood

III, who had entered the family business in 1857, was elevated to co-partner. John

also established a four-strong managerial team, with the participation of William,

London Office Manager Joseph Munt Langford, and the Edinburgh Office Manager

George Simpson. Between them, they strengthened the firm’s lists, scouted

for new publishing opportunities, and established Maga at the forefront of mid-

Victorian literary production.

Under John Blackwood’s energetic guidance, the firm experienced unprecedented

growth and success. On the literary side, publishing successes included

works by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Charles Lever, Charles Reade, Richard D.

Blackmore, Margaret Oliphant, George Henry Lewes, and all but one of George

Eliot’s novels. Anthony Trollope, seeking a place for experimental work, anonymously

serialized Nina Balatka (1867) and Linda Tressel (1868) in Blackwood’s

Magazine, then authorized their reprints. Blackwood paid £;450 for the copyright

of each but failed to realize profit from either. It did not prevent Trollope’s family

from returning to Blackwood’s in 1882 to publish Trollope’s autobiography.

John Blackwood also strengthened the firm’s identification with accounts of

travel and exploration. James Augustus Grant’s and John Hanning Speke’s narratives

of searching for the Nile river source in Africa, for example (the latter of

which will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter), were best-sellers for the

firm in 1864 and 1865. Between 1852 and 1879 the firm published both in Blackwood’s

Magazine and as separate publications work by Frederick Hardman on

Africa, Richard Burton on India and East Africa, Sir Henry Brackenbury on the

Ashanti Wars in South Africa, Sir Garnet Wolseley on expeditions in Canada and

Egypt, and Laurence Oliphant on Japan and the Crimea.

On John Blackwood’s death in 1879, the task of running the firm devolved to

William Blackwood III. Over the next two decades the firm drifted, maintaining

a holding pattern of print production that kept itself focused on areas of known

profitability. Colonial memoirs, biographies, popular fiction, and endless reprints

of George Eliot works in proven formats proved unchallenging in nature but

profitable in execution. The entrance of David Storrar Meldrum as literary advisor

in 1894, however, while not necessarily increasing the firm’s profit margins,

did go some way toward reviving the firm’s literary lists. His literary judgment

influenced William’s decision to publish Stephen Crane, Henry Lawson, Miles

Franklin, John Buchan, and Jack London. More significant, it was Meldrum who

led Blackwood to encourage and publish Joseph Conrad. Blackwood’s Magazine was

to feature some of Conrad’s best-known works, including Lord Jim and Heart of


In 1903 Meldrum, as noted earlier, was made a partner of the firm, sharing

responsibilities with William’s nephews James Hugh and George Blackwood. By

1910William had handed over much of the daily management to his nephews,

due to ill health. Internal politics caused Meldrum to leave to become editor of

The Morning Post. William died in 1912, leaving a diminished firm in his wake.

Ironically, it would take a world war to raise the firm’s fortunes once more to levels

commensurate with those enjoyed under John Blackwood.

Given the richness of company documents contained within the archives of

the National Library of Scotland, it is surprising how few attempts have been

made to discuss the firm’s general history beyond the 1880s, to view its role in

early twentieth-century literature and business markets, and to establish its place

in Victorian and Edwardian British cultural history. Only two works in the past

century have been published regarding the firm’s general publishing endeavours,

Margaret Oliphant and Mary Porter’s three-volume study in 1897–98, and Frank

Tredrey’s house history in 1954. Both suffer from the problems inherent in commissioned

works: as hagiographical commemorations of the firm’s activities,

controversial incidents are glossed over, blame is shifted, and, in some cases, business

matters and letter contents are censored and suppressed. Ultimately, both fail

to present a balanced account of the sometimes rocky relationship between the

firm, its published authors, and the publishing industry at large. And while both

studies benefited from access to confidential papers and correspondence, they

have since been superseded by the amount of information and records on the firm,

unknown or lost at the time, that have accumulated and been made available as

the Blackwood Papers at the National Library of Scotland.

Working through these papers makes one aware of the vast array of material

that has remained overlooked or untouched regarding the firm’s role in late Victorian

and Edwardian publishing, political, and cultural history. This is perhaps a

natural by-product of the manner in which the archives have been used; much of

the work done on the Blackwood firm has centered on investigating individual

relationships with authors, either as part of larger life studies or in connection

with particular literary circles. Such author-centered focus is inevitable, given the

sheer amount of primary material available on the firm. Seldom discussed is the

manner in which such relations fit in with the firm’s general underlying aesthetic

and economic considerations of the literary marketplace. Likewise, little attention

is paid to the history of the firm after its links with Joseph Conrad at the turn

of the twentieth century, in part because of the universal understanding that by

then the firm had begun its long slide into cultural obscurity.

The decay in the firm’s fortunes after the successful directorship of John Blackwood

can be partly ascribed to the firm’s strengthened identification from 1880

onward with entrenched conservative viewpoints on literature, society, the military,

and the British Empire. Viewed in such a context, the firm’s rejection of

unorthodox, “liberal” authors, such as George Bernard Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson,

H. G. Wells, and Thomas Hardy, can be seen as a rejection of writers who

did not fit in with the firm’s prevailing ideological and literary stance, a stance

that was increasingly at odds with concurrent shifts and changes in British politics

and literary and aesthetic concerns.

Yet these decisions that inform editorial and business policy at 45 George

Street in Edinburgh and 37 Paternoster Row in London between 1860 and 1910

make little sense unless read within the context of the tumultuous and radical

changes simultaneously occurring in the British literary marketplace. As Simon

Eliot points out in his survey of trends in British publishing from 1800 to 1919,

major technological advances occurred in the 1880s and 1890s with an expansion

in paper production and the development of higher printing capacity utilizing

large, web-fed rotaries and newly developed hot-metal typesetting machines.9

Other changes included the rapid development of a wide variety of cheap publishing

formats and reprints following the decline and collapse of the three-decker

novel in 1894; the rapid growth of public libraries; the development of the new journalism

and the mass circulation daily papers of the 1890s; the expansion of overseas

syndication markets in the Empire, North America, and Europe, particularly after

the passing of international copyright agreements (the Berne Convention of 1887)

and less-comprehensive agreements in the United States (the Chace Act of 1891);

the creation of controlled and stable book pricing through the Net Book Agreement

in 1899; and the rise of new publishing firms, such as Methuen and Chatto & Windus,

labeled by N. N. Feltes as “entrepreneurial” publishers, utilizing publishing

practices to challenge and compete against older, more traditional “list” publishers,

such as Blackwood’s, Bentley, Smith & Elder, and John Murray.10

The establishment of associations to represent the professional interests of various

sectors of the trade, such as the Society of Authors in 1884, the Booksellers

Association in 1895, and the Publishers Association in 1896, also illustrated how

far the business of bookselling, publishing, and literary authorship had come since

the eighteenth century, when a bookseller, acting also a publisher, could “buy most

Books for a Bottle and a fowl.”11 Literary production was no longer, if ever it had

been, the mythologized, casual, aesthetically informed pursuit of dedicated “gentlemen”

and “gentlewomen,” but had become part of a highly organized and commercial


Thus, at the turn of the century, literary publishing was in flux, caught in the

contradiction and conflict between, on the one hand, a perceived reliance on publishing

“flair,” aesthetic judgment (“good” literature that would nevertheless sell

well), and predictable publishing patterns, prices, and book formats (exemplified

by the serialized novel in literary magazines then being issued as a standard threevolume

first edition followed by a cheaper 1 volume reprint), and, on the other

hand, new market forces, rewarding entrepreneurial skills and emphasizing economic

competitiveness, with an accompanying cross-merchandising of literary

works in a variety of cheaper book formats and publication outlets (serialization

in literary magazines and the popular press, syndication in colonial and overseas

markets, sales to newly developing film and radio industries). The bewildering

range of new outlets for marketing literary property was often beyond the average

capacity of publishers used to negotiating on relatively uncomplicated publishing


Whereas in the 1860s most deals negotiated by John Blackwood were fairly

uncomplicated, involving first edition, reprint, and possibly serialized periodical

rights, by the turn of the century matters were becoming more complicated for

his successor William Blackwood III. The insertion of the literary agent as negotiator

of literary property became an added factor within the publishing arena,

as did the emergence of foreign markets and foreign rights as major sources of

income. Such issues play their part in the evolving story of the Blackwood firm

during the fifty years chronicled in this study.

Lest this book seem to be solely about facts and figures, dry-as-dust statistics,

and rigid economic notations, it is important to note that one of the main themes

of this survey is to place the firm, its books, and its authors within appropriate

social and cultural contexts. This is not a work concerned solely with the processes

of publishing and print production, but rather an attempt to follow through on

the implications of studying book history in the wake of recent, dynamic methods

of theoretical analysis. Robert Darnton’s overworked “communication circuit,”

first mooted in 1984 and since modified by others, brought into Anglo-American

book history circles a theoretical stance borrowed from social science models,

and is one example of informed and alternative ways of discussing textual production

that reach beyond mere bibliographical categorizations and statistical enumeration.

It is an often unobserved point that this recent move toward more

complex analyses of the modes of production, dissemination, and reception of texts

is not confined to book history alone. Cultural materialism, the study of social

transactions represented in the complex and interweaving connections between

producers and consumers of commodities in an industrialized society, is now a

common theme explored by critics in cultural studies, media studies, history, literary

studies, and the social sciences, among others. It can be found in sociology

in Pierre Bourdieu’s articulation of literary “fields” as common social, intellectual,

and ideological arenas linking producers (publishers, editors, and authors)

to products (books, periodical publications, literary works), or in the anthropologist

Benedict Anderson’s important articulation of print as an important form

through which “imagined communities” construct common national identities.

Turn to literary studies and we find an allied articulation by Stanley Fish of the

readers of these products, “interpretive communities” joined through common

understanding and interpretations of texts, while media studies has leaned heavily

on variations of Jürgen Habermas’s articulation of the “public sphere” as the

major arena for the construction of public opinion. The consensus is quite clear:

the process of producing print for public consumption, whether books or journal,

newspaper or periodical publications, can no longer be viewed simply as a linear

path from producer (author) to disseminator (editor, publisher, printer, bookseller)

to consumer (reader). Rather, as Stuart Hall notes in a now classic study of

the popular press, such textual productions are “products of a social transaction

between producers and readers,” whereby “successful communication in this field

depends to some degree on a process of mutual confirmation between those who

produce and those who consume.”12

The implications of such a statement for print-culture analysis has been followed

through by such critics as Richard Ohmann and Matthew Schneirov, who

have examined the communities of authors, editors, and readers of specific

nineteenth-century U.S. journals, with the aim of illustrating how such cultural

commodities can be read as “a product of human action or agency within certain

structural contexts and as a cultural form or ‘object.’”13

It is all part of a healthy interdisciplinarity

that seeks a closer understanding of the role of culture and society

in the shaping of print. As one media studies critic suggests, urging his colleagues

to pay closer attention to the intersections between cultural materialism, literary

theory, and media culture, “One should not, however, stop at the borders of

intertextuality, but should move from the text to its context, to the culture and

society that constitutes the text and in which it should be read and interpreted.”14

Such is the theme of several “micro-chapters” in this study, relating the manner

in which social and cultural factors feed into the process of production, dissemination,

and reception of individual works. In the case of Charles Reade and

his novel A Woman Hater, for example, contemporary battles over the issue of

women’s rights to medical education are reflected in similar editorial battles over

the novel’s contents. Likewise, John Hill Burton’s crucial role as unacknowledged

ghostwriter of the travel diaries of the African explorer John Hanning Speke illustrates

the manner in which editorial decisions and cultural assumptions and

judgments inserted during the production process can substantially alter textual

meanings and textual production. More important, it illustrates how a literarily

inarticulate traveler, through the services of an unacknowledged “ghostwriter,” was

“reinvented” as an articulate, saleable commodity, with the purpose not only of

safeguarding a commercial investment but also of promulgating certain views

and conceptions about the role of the European explorer in the African landscape.

Both these chapters illustrate the interplay of economic, social, and ideological

forces in the production of texts, the process of cultural colonization and

the dissemination of its conclusions in Victorian society, and the general and

intentional exclusion of women from the power structures involved in these

processes and productions.

At the same time, though, I offer a macroscopic view, illustrating how these

individual efforts fit within larger cultural and “house” contexts, considering how

the firm set about creating a distinctive identity for itself within national and

international boundaries, and noting how authors and readers were subsequently

invited into this invisible Blackwoodian “community” or “ecumene.” To return

to Stuart Hall’s statement on texts as products of a social transaction between producers

and readers, one sees this reflected in the firm’s determination to foster

unique “communities” of readers and authors at various stages in its history.

The House of Blackwood, the title of the 1954 official history of the firm, illustrates

several unspoken assumptions about this issue of how the firm saw itself

as a creator of unique intellectual, social, and work communities and spaces. The

House functioned as a tightly run, male-dominated space, yet also suggested itself

to prospective authors, both male and female, as an open, welcoming, and inclusive club of sorts.

It was run on paternalistic lines, with clearly defined roles,

structures of command, and subdivisions of tasks and space one might consider

typical of any proper nineteenth-century bourgeois household. For example,

something not often noted is how the firm’s headquarters in Edinburgh was

divided spatially in a manner that reflected hierarchies of value. Following the

move in 1830 to premises on 45 George Street, the firm relocated its printing

works to a large building on Thistle Street immediately behind its George Street

premise. A small lane separated these two sections of the firm, and edited works

for printing would be walked across this divide to the printing office, to be

wheeled back in barrows as finished products for display and sale in the firm’s

imposing shop front framing the George Street entrance.

The firm’s official house histories contain clear expressions of value and worth

regarding these spaces: between areas of production and dissemination; between

the loud, crowded, and busy spaces where print was cast, sheets printed, and folios

bound, and the quiet, bay-windowed room where the finished products were displayed

and sold. Although the printing office is not often glimpsed in these formulaic

pronouncements of publishing reminiscence, it served as an important if

unacknowledged arena where print was treated not as an individualized, aesthetic

product but as part of a mechanized production process where individual texts

were just one of many print runs to be completed within a workday. It is a decidedly

unaesthetic aspect of publishing and literary production that runs against the

grain of many declarations of the aesthetic nature and purpose of print production

that are so evident in memoirs of former practitioners in the field, and most

particularly in the Blackwood house histories.

But if the printing office was viewed as the equivalent of the “tradesman” or

back entrance of a venerable publishing house, a needed if less-respectable part

of the business, the editorial office was decidedly more esteemed: the glamorous

front parlor. Indeed, at times it is the House itself. Admittedly, it was not common

for firms to have both the printing and the publishing arms of the business

within easy walking distance of each other; in fact, firms often had to subcontract

the dirty business of actual print production to other specialist printing firms.

Blackwood’s, however, contained within its House all the necessary elements of

a solid book-trading firm, including printing works, editorial offices, and sales

outlets (that is, shopfronts in which to display and offer the latest wares).

Nevertheless, the editorial side of the firm was very much at the forefront of

the House of Blackwood self-image. It represented a specific social space as well,

an invisible arena that accommodated shifting bands of contributors and authors

who were encouraged to meet and mingle, imbibe a common “culture,” and

share common, unspoken assumptions about their identities within this large, allembracing

Blackwoodian ecumene. And, as one finds when working through the

Blackwood archives, the most fascinating details of this ecumene at work are often

discovered only when one shifts focus away from the micro-details of letters

between the Blackwoods and an individual author toward the range of and ranges

across archival material to see how other “Blackwoodian” contributors were drawn

into debating about, commenting on, and in many cases (as, for example, in the

recasting of John Hanning Speke’s work) actively shaping texts emerging under

the firm’s imprint, either as book publications or as part of the firm’s monthly journal,

Blackwood’s Magazine.

How, then, does one reconcile the opposition between the assumed hierarchies

of value with respect to the function and activities of a firm, and the realities

encountered when analyzing the work space and patterns of such places? A

particularly intriguing answer may be found by taking up points developed in

Janice Radway’s analysis of the workings of the U.S. Book-of-the-Month Club

from the 1920s onward. Noting how the firm created a unique identity and role

for itself as a mediator, arbiter, and filter of literary production by creating an

internal panel of “expert” judges to read texts for subsequent recommendation

and sale to club members, she makes a telling point about their evaluative methods:

“The key moves in the evaluative practices of the Book-of-the-Month-Club

judges,” Radway notes, “was not judgment at all, but rather the activity of categorization,

that of sorting onto different planes.”15 Viewing the world of print in

this way, not as an organic, uniform, hierarchically organized space but as “a

series of discontinuous, discrete, noncongruent worlds,” or planes, Radway continues,

establishes a link between producer (author) and consumer (reader)

whereby the disseminator, in this case the U.S.-originated Book-of-the-Month

Club, with its built-in filters of judges categorizing titles rather than providing

aesthetic judgments of books, becomes less an arbiter of worth and more a literary

manager of textual production.16 And in many cases, different arenas or

planes of textual production, whether it be how-to manuals, atlases, science textbooks,

biographies, or novels, quite openly operate on differing planes of meaning,

meeting the needs of different audiences with discrete and technically distinct

codes, structures, and formats. The Book-of-the-Month Club, begun as a

purely commercial proposition, established an overarching identity for itself as

a nonjudgmental yet trusted provider of quality texts in a variety of subject areas,

operating simultaneously on different textual planes and in various arenas.

This principle has potential for a review of the manner in which publishing

houses in general, and the House of Blackwood in particular, can be seen to operate.

On the one hand, one sees in perusing the entirety of the firm’s lists—the manuals

of zoology as well as the consciously literary novels—that contained within

such publication lists are separate layers, levels, and planes of textual production

and operations. Rules for engaging with such texts change and shift with each sector

under consideration. Yet the fact that most analysis of publishing production

has focused on the literary and aesthetic planes of textual production has resulted

in obscuring the manner in which such levels coexist simultaneously with less-recognized

or less-valued printed material. Thus the print works, ironically, can be seen

as democratized spaces where such planes become indistinguishable, coexisting in

an unhierarchized fashion.

Similarly, as they are being produced in unhierarchized yet united fashion in

the print room (using the same machinery operated by the same groupings of individuals),

the products of these differing planes are subsequently categorized (fiction,

biography, nonfiction, reference) and then sold and marketed under a unified

“house” imprint that attempts to impose an overarching identity on products

emanating from this source. Publishers act as filters and managers of literary production

in a complex network of activity between production, dissemination, and

consumption. Criteria used and judgments made by them shift according to areas

evaluated, but what is clear when one views a publishing firm like Blackwood’s

holistically is that the goals remain the same: to maintain a continual flow of products

that on the average are commercially viable and financially successful.

One might argue that this concept of the plane could just as well mean that

there would be different genres, markets, and marketing strategies for selling

books. But I suggest that it extends further back, beyond target audiences and

recipients of textual production, to encompass the producers and disseminators

of such works, for each plane within a publishing house might have its own distinct

identity and core personnel whose value is conceived in different form from

other planes of operation. Thus assessments and evaluations of reference works

and their authors’ abilities might revolve around questions of authority and

expertise (Is the author sufficiently knowledgeable to discuss the topic? Is the work

authoritative in coverage?), whereas evaluations in the plane of literary fiction

might revolve around questions of aesthetics and taste (Is the work “literary

enough”? Does this author conform to perceived standards of “taste”?). Contained

within this scenario is the editorial prerogative to mold potential material

into a form that suits the codes and structures expected in these planes.

It is in these points of tension and contact that we can see most clearly the formation

of a “house identity” and establish the manner in which such an identity is

imposed upon texts in different arenas. Likewise, as the chapters on Reade, Speke,

and Oliphant show, such moments of production have much to say about the intersection

of aesthetic values and commercial interests, about the battles between

authorial intention and editorial intervention. Some of the questions that are dealt

with in subsequent chapters have come from looking at the troubled productions

of these and other works, questions such as: What is an ideal “Blackwoodian” text

within differing genres and planes? How does the firm set about ensuring complicity

and acceptance of such standards? And do these individual and differing

planes ultimately combine to create a unique and identifiable “house” identity?

The following chapters suggest some answers to these questions.

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