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Nicholas Mason

Romantic Periodicals in the Twenty-First Century: Eleven Case Studies from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine


Romantic Periodicals in the Twenty-First Century: Eleven Case Studies from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

Edinburgh University Press Books, 2020

This book pioneers a subfield of Romantic periodical studies, distinct from its neighbours in adjacent historical periods. Eleven chapters by leading scholars in the field model the range of methodological, conceptual and literary-historical insights to be drawn from careful engagements with one of the age’s landmark literary periodicals, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Engaging with the research potential unlocked by new digital resources for studying Romantic periodicals, they argue that the wide-ranging commentary, reviews and original fiction and verse published in Blackwood’s during its first two decades (1817–37) should inform many of the most vibrant contemporary discussions surrounding British Romanticism.

Review by Leslee Thorne-Murphy at Faculty Book Lunch

It’s a pleasure to introduce you to Nick’s newest publication, a collection of essays titled Romantic Periodicals in the Twenty-First Century: Eleven Case Studies from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Nick was the perfect person to co-edit this volume since several years ago he served as general editor of a six volume edition of Blackwood’s, published by Pickering and Chatto. His co-editor for the present volume, Tom Mole, was one of the volume editors for the earlier collection. This volume, then, is the product of expertise and professional relationships that they both have accumulated over many years.

Blackwood’s is one of those journals that merits sustained attention. Its longevity alone is impressive. It was first published in 1817 and ran clear through to 1980. Its early years, though, are arguably the most notable, and the most notorious. As the book’s introduction explains, the magazine was established by the publisher William Blackwood as a decidedly conservative competitor to “the politically progressive Edinburgh Review” (8). It made a name for itself by satirizing its political rivals in the most irreverent and amusing manner; and, even more importantly for our interests, by unabashedly castigating Romantic authors whose politics and poetry did not meet their approval. In Nick’s words, they “decimated” Coleridge’s work, and they coined the derogatory term the “Cockney School of Poetry,” a “school” which included the young John Keats (8). Nick and Tom characterize these literary “reviews” as print “muggings” (8). And certainly they were. The periodical made a name for itself as unapologetically brash, wickedly irreverent, and undeniably hilarious.

To mark the 200th anniversary of its founding, back in 2017, Nick and Tom organized “a Blackwood’s bicentenary event” held at the University of Edinburgh. Though they chose not to put together a conference proceedings volume, they were encouraged by many of the participants to use the event as an impetus to compile a collection. They took this to heart, and the present volume is the result. A portion of the essays are thoroughly revised and expanded versions of presentations made at the bicentenary. Others were written specifically for this collection. Nick and Tom used the opportunity not only to solicit excellent essays on Blackwood’s, but also to make an intervention in the larger field of periodical studies. They argue, quite rightly, that the bulk of the work in the field has focused on Victorian and 18th century periodicals, often leaving the Romantic period as a time to be half-heartedly accounted for by scholars of the adjacent time periods.

Nick and Tom offer their essay collection as an initial corrective, showcasing Blackwood’s as a case study of what Romantic-era periodicals can offer the larger field of periodical studies. In their own words:

Aiming to emphasise the distinctiveness of Romantic serials as a whole while nevertheless maintaining a shared focus, we tasked eleven established scholars of early nineteenth-century periodicals […] to provide case studies of how a single literary monthly […] supplies a trove of informed, engaging and sometimes jaw-droppingly-rendered perspectives on diverse topics currently at the forefront of studies of the Romantic period. With Blackwood’s as our common object of study, contributors were encouraged to emphasize features of the magazine that speak to broader patterns in the era’s periodicals.

The essays as a whole certainly do this. The collection is bookended by scholars who have made foundational contributions to the field, namely Jon Klancher and Joanne Shattock. The volume addresses such issues as the potential as well as the drawbacks of our current access to immense databases of periodicals; suggests methodologies for making use of these sources; draws implications for understanding medicine, law, politics, and literature through the medium of serial publication; explores fascinating aspects of gender and race as depicted within the organ’s conservative politics; and explores the changing roles of the periodical as it moved farther through the nineteenth century.

Nick’s own essay in the volume, titled “Crashing the Blackwood’s Boys’ Club: Caroline Bowles and Women’s Place in Romantic-era Periodicals,” problematizes the reputation Blackwood’s has earned as a kind of frat party in print. Nick traces the contributions of Caroline Bowles, a poetess who, it turns out, was a regular contributor to a periodical noted for its roundly masculine discourse. Drawing from unpublished correspondence and piecing together the whole body of contributions made by Bowles, Nick demonstrates that William Blackwood welcomed her work. In a letter to Bowles, he wrote, “The Magazine would be greatly enriched from a Lady’s pen on life, manners, literature or in short any subject. [Ladies] view many things so differently from Gentlemen that it would be quite a new feature in Maga” (170). (Maga was the common nickname for Blackwood’s.) Through admirably conscientious research, Nick shows us that Bowles not only contributed her poems of sensibility to the magazine on a very regular basis, but also contributed a gothic tale, a plentiful number of nonfiction essays, and even delightfully Juvenalian satire. It turns out the boy’s club encouraged and provided an outlet for a remarkably adaptable and creative woman.

Nick and Tom published this volume through Edinburgh University Press, an ideal choice given the location of the bicentennial event, as well as the decidedly Scots (and Edinburgh) perspective of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. This was also an ideal choice because EUP is currently printing some of the best work on periodical studies, including a number of monographs as well as a multi-volume series titled The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, and another multi-volume series titled Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain. Nick and Tom’s collection of essays makes a substantial contribution to the scholarly work in this field.

And so, a hearty congratulations to our colleague and friend. Kudos to you, Nick.