Wendell V. Harris's British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century pays tribute to the influence that Blackwood's exerted not only upon the form of the short story (which could be as brief as 2,500 or as long as 25,000 words, but in the magazine tended to average 11,000 words — a story brief enough, in other words, to be read in a single sitting), but also indeed upon the burgeoning demand for works in this new genre:

Blackwood's Magazine . . . provided the century's first steady and respectable market for short fiction. From its first issue, which included a tale by James Hogg, short fiction appeared regularly, the editors happily maintaining a preference for the tale which could be published entirely in a single issue. However, even in Blackwood's fiction was at first offered in a modest, somewhat disguised form. In the first volume, under the editorship of James Cleghorn and Thomas Pringle, fiction duly beginning "Mr. Editor" appeared in the section devoted to "Original Communications." Such sections made up large portions of the respectable older monthlies such as the Gentleman's Magazine, and it was not unknown for fiction to enter their pages through that back door. Though Blackwood's was not long in throwing off the older format, it was not for some time easy to distinguish an essay from a tale until one was well into it. In fact, more than one nonfiction piece was reprinted in the Tales from Blackwood collections. The tradition of introducing a story by an account of how the narrator came to observe or hear of the events he describes was long popular among the relation between the characters which suggest the reasons why their destinies are interwoven, and which determine the limits of their mutual influence on each other's career." ["A Novel or Two," National Review, October 1855, cited in Stang, Theory of the Novel in England, p. 126] [Harris 22]

When the magazine began publication, the new genre was by no means established, so that the character sketch, the travel incident, the narrative essay, and the oral tale transcribed were all equally recognised as "short stories," as is evidenced by the diverse works in Pierce Egan's Life in London. The Scottish magazine's predilection for stories of certain types both shaped the public's perception of Blackwood's, but also in turn help to perpetuate the types of tales it favoured. "From the beginning their only affectation was that they were not so much works of the imagination as sober accounts of actual if unusual happenings" (Harris, 28). Thus, thanks in part to the Blackwood's Tale, by the time that Charles Dickens inaugurated his weekly journal Household Words in 1851, what constituted short fiction was much clearer — and the popular demand for the short story had grown immensely, in part thanks to the continuing popularity of the Blackwood's "Tale." The public's taste for such fare is evidenced by the firm's reprinting in volume form

three series of selections as Tales from Blackwood. Twelve volumes appeared between 1858 and 1861, the New Series of twelve volumes between 1878 and 1880, and the Third Series of six volumes in 1889-90. The form and content of these tales, which vary little enough from 1817 to the end of the century, provided a constant model of what respectable short fiction was expected to be.

The majority of Blackwood's tales falls readily into one of three types: the humorous story, the legend, and the narrative of curious events occurring in foreign (frequently colonial) lands. The first volume of the first series of Tales from Blackwood provides examples of all three: William Aytoun's "How We Got Up the Glenmutchkin Railway and How We Got Out of It" burlesques the railway mania of the 1840s; John Harrison's "Vanderdecken's Message Home" (built on the story of the Flying Dutchman), Edward B. Hamley's "Legend of Gibraltar," and John Hardman's "Colonna the Painter" (subtitled "A Tale of Italy and the Arts" and set in the sixteenth century) are all attempts in the realm of legend. William Mudford's "Iron Shroud," a description of the operation of a diabolically planned dungeon, dispenses with so many of the legendary trappings that, though set in the Middle Ages, it falls between the second and third classifications. John Howison's "Floating Beacon" is a typical tale of improbable adventure. Two of the six stories in the volume were originally published in 1821, and one each in 1829, 1830, 1845, and 1851, but its general character would have been very much the same if the stories had all been taken from any one of those years. The tales which stand out as superior in the total thirty volumes are distributed fairly evenly chronologically, and there is little alteration in quality or methods through the century.

To reduce all the tales which appeared in Blackwood's between 1817 and the end of the century to three classes is of course to oversimplify, but not as drastically as it may at first seem. There were some "oriental" tales, but most were intended to be humorous (an interesting exception is "The Natolian Story-Teller" by George Croly [1832], which follows the Rasselas tradition). There were supernatural tales, but few attempted to make the reader's flesh creep; generally the mysterious events are presented as quaintly interesting rather than as provoking horror, and at times as humorous. [Harris, 29-30]

Edgar Allen Poe may have derided the exaggeration and sensationalism of the "Blackwood's Tale," but he recognized clearly the current trends in mass-market fiction. As an artist he could satirize the public taste while as a professional writer he pandered to it. These contrary impulses lie behind Poe's satirical narrative essay "How to Write a Blackwood Article," which appeared in the Baltimore American Museum in 1838 . In this grotesquely hyperbolictale, an aspiring writer of horror fiction approaches "Mr. Blackwood" for advice. The publisher recommends that the writer, Psyche Zenobia, undergo some horrific experience herself, then communicate the terrible sensations she has undergone through detailed description in her story. Accordingly, she undergoes decapitation by means of the minute hand of a large clock on a church in Edinburgh, and details every gruesome sensation, accompanied by appropriate Latin and Greek quotations of precisely the type employed by Blackwood's writers. Although Poe's tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the satirical piece reveals his understanding of prtecisely the kind of fiction the magazine-reading public was eager to purchase. Poe himself followed the formula he articulated in a vast number of horror stories that he churned out for The Southern Literary Messenger. To the editor of that journal in 1835, in defence of his unpleasant mutilation tale "Berenice," Poe had advocated the magazine's exploiting the public's taste for the bizarre:

The most celebrated and sought-after articles, he claimed, citing William Maginn's Blackwood's tale, 'The Man in the Bell' [November 1821], and other recent successes, were those that displayed'the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. [cited in Morrison and Baldick, xiii]

By mid-century, Blackwood's was still one of Great Britain's most influential and significant magazines: "In 1860 Disraeli assured John Blackwood that he read the political article regularly" (Cox 187-188). Under successive editors Robert and Alexander Blackwood it "came to depend more and more on miscellaneous essays, short stories, and serial fiction" (Cox 188), but as an influential organ of literary criticism it had declined markedly by the end of the nineteenth century. Even by Conrad's time, the magazine was still noted as one of the principal disseminators of tales of horror ("The Blackwood's Tale of Terror"), and thus had exerted a considerable influence on such Gothic short-story writers as Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe,the latter of whom went so far as satirizing the conventions of this popular form in "Loss of Breath: A Tale a la Blackwood" and "How to Write a Blackwood Article," collected in Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). Deborah A. Thomas has noted that in particular in his study of madness "The Black Veil" (Sketches by Boz, 8 February 1836) young Charles Dickens was much influenced by a Blackwood's continuing feature story, Samuel Warren's Passages from the Diary of A Late Physician, which the author published anonymously (like so many selections in the initial decade of the magazine) in instalments as discrete short stories such as "A Man About Town" (December 1830) and "The Spectre-Smitten" (February 1831), between 1830 and 1837, the narrator being a Physician bent upon disclosing his patients' more sensational maladies. Such premature burial tales as Daniel Keyte Sandford's "A Night in the Catacombs" (October 1818) and John Galt's "The Buried Alive" (published anonymously in the October 1821 number) undoubtedly influenced several Poe stories treating of the same grisly subject in a chilling first-person perspective. One could logically regard Mudford's "The Iron Shroud" (August 1830) as the inspiration for Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), although the American writer heightens the effects of horror and temporary madness by adjusting the point of view (changing it from third to first person to facilitate the reader's identification with the prisoner), and by recontextualising the story to the fall of the Inquisition in early nineteenth-century Spain from Mudford's vaguer chronological setting, mediaeval Sicily, which seems to play no part in the story.

A classic example of a Blackwood's psychological horror story is Daniel Keyte Sandford's "A Night in the Catacombs" (October 1818), which utilizes a continental setting and an exotic (albeit gruesome) locale, and evokes terror through the first-person narrator's creating the sensation of claustrophobia. To render the first-person point of view more plausible and more confessional, the story takes an epistolary form and thereby gains in immediacey and psychological insights, even though the action occurs some dozen years earlier. The "Blackwood's Tale" gradually branched out to include mystery and suspense, jingoistic stories of patriotic valour in foreign locales, tales of buried treasure, medical tales, great escape tales, and (in the twentieth century) flying tales. In "The Lost Secret of the Cocos Group," by J. Jebb (January 1873), a tale involving the fruitless quest for buried treasure, one has all the ingredients of the well-made short story: a strong narrative persona; vigorous, idiosyncratic, and sometimes humorous narration; suspenseful action; an atmosphere charged with danger and mystery; and economically but effectively realised geographical settings. Other popular writers of short fiction who published in the magazine include Wilfred Pollock, A. Shand, Andrew Lang, H. De R. Walters, Bennett Copplestone, L. A. Bethell, P. S. Nazaroff, P. H. Fawcett, Kerr Fraser-Tytler, Alan Stewart, and Lawrence C. Green. One could not classify some of these "tales" as short stories, however; such historical sketches as "The Nevada Silver Boom" (April 1899) and "The Mystery of the Tobermory Galleon Revealed" (March 1912) are narrative essays, markedly "non-fiction" and historically fact-based explorations.

References

Cox, R. G. "The Reviews and the Magazines." The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. 6. From Dickens to Hardy. Ed. Boris Ford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958, rpt. 1983.

Harris, Wendell V. British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide. Detroit: Wayne State U. P., 1979.

Harvey, Paul, ed. "Blackwood's Magazine." Oxford Companion to English Literature. Fourth Edition. Oxford and New York: Clarendon and Oxford U. P., 1983.

Hidden Treasure Tales from 'Blackwood'. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1969.

Matheson, Ann. "Scottish Periodicals." Victorian Periodicals: A Guide to Research. Ed. J. Don Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel. New York: MLA, 1989. Vol. 2.

Morrison, Robert, and Chris Baldick, eds. Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine. Oxford World's Classics. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.

Small, Helen, ed. "A Note on the Text." The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob by George Eliot. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1999.

Sutherland, John. The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford U. P., 1989.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.


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Last modified 19 June 2013.