For the following discussion of Blackwood I have drawn chiefly on the works listed in the bibliography below by David Finkelstein, Alan Pratt, Margaret Oliphant, Mary Porter, and F.D. Tredley. — L. Gossman
William Blackwood by Sir William Alan (1782-1850). Courtesy of the National Galleries Scotland. Click on image to enlarge it.
William Blackwood, founder of the firm that bears his name, was born in Edinburgh in 1776. He received a sound education despite his family’s fairly humble circumstances, and at the age of fourteen began a six-year apprenticeship with Bell and Bradfute, the Edinburgh bookseller and publisher. He gained experience in other areas of the book trade, when he was made superintendent of the Glasgow branch of another Edinburgh publisher and then worked with antiquarian booksellers and auctioneers in Edinburgh and London. In 1804 he opened a shop of his own in Edinburgh, specializing in rare and antiquarian books. By 1810 he had begun branching out into publishing with historical and religious works for the Scottish market and books on travel and exploration. In 1810 he also became the Edinburgh agent for London-based John Murray and in 1813 established a connection with the Ballantynes, Sir Water Scott’s printers. These connections paved the way for Blackwood to figure as co-publisher with Murray of Cantos I and II of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, Scott’s Tales of My Landlord (Old Mortality and The Black Dwarf) in 1816, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in 1820, and Hazlitt’s Table-Talk in 1821.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
In 1817, William Blackwood launched a journal, which he intended in part as a Tory-inclined rival to Archibald Constable’s Whig-inclined Edinburgh Review and as competition to the ailing (but in fact, to a modern reader, remarkably wide-ranging) Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany (as of August 1817, The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany), which was also put out by Constable. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Monthly Magazine did not do well at first, with sales of only twenty-five hundred copies per issue, but re-launched six months later under new editorship and with a slightly altered title, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine – commonly referred to simply as Blackwood’s – quickly became the flagship publication of the Blackwood firm. As early as 1827, sales had climbed to sixty-three hundred copies and the magazine was soon attracting many major writers, whose works the firm subsequently put out in separate volumes.
Blackwood's remained consistently conservative politically. The July issue of 1850, for example, printed a fierce attack – reminiscent of the uproar provoked by the so-called “Jew Bill” (the Jewish Naturalisation Bill) of 1753 — on a bill passed by the Commons in 1848 (but rejected by the Lords) that would have admitted Jews as Members of Parliament, while in the September issue of the same year a resolute stand was taken, in an obituary of Sir Robert Peel, against Free Trade. Ten years later, in January 1860, an essay entitled “Rambles at Random in the Southern States” was distinctly pro-Southern and aimed to contradict the general opinion that “misery is the rule and happiness the exception with the negro in the Southern States of America” (p.106). Nevertheless, articles ranged widely. In the very first issue (April 1817), for instance, there were essays on “Banks for Saving,” “The Sculpture of the Greeks,” “Greek Tragedy,” “The Present State of the City of Venice,” “The Culture of the Sugar Cane in the United States,” and “Scottish Gypsies.” In its newer incarnation as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, with Scott’s son-in-law Lockhart as editor, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, were reviewed or discussed frequently, the last-named in particular being the object of severe criticisms, to which the poet responded. At one point the viciousness of Lockhart’s and the Irishman William Maginn’s many attacks on what they called the “Cockney School of Poetry” -- i.e. a group of liberal writers, mostly from London, that included Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and “the less important members,” namely “the Shelleys, the Keatses” – threatened to end in a lawsuit while a particularly scathing and disrespectful attack by Maginn on Keats’s Endymion was blamed by Shelley for hastening the poet’s death in 1821. Thereafter the tone was moderated and by 1832 Coleridge could write Blackwell that “Blackwood’s Magazine [ . . . ] is an unprecedented Phenomenon in the world of letters and forms the golden – alas! the only – remaining link between the Periodical Press and the enduring literature of Great Britain” (Pratt, 18-19).
Under the more benign editorship of Alexander and then John Blackwood, the founder’s sons, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the poets whose work now appeared in Blackwood’s, most notably The Cry of the Children in the August 1843 issue (vol. 54). Thomas De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts appeared in the magazine in 1827 with follow-ups in 1839 and 1854; his The English Mail-Coach in October and December, 1849. But it was on John Blackwood’s becoming director of the firm a few years after the death, in 1834, of his father that Blackwood really took off as a publisher of fine literature. John Blackwood, known from boyhood as “the little Editor” (Tredley, p. 90), emerges from the study of the firm’s history by his longtime assistant, the prolific novelist Margaret Oliphant, and his daughter Mary Porter, and, above all, from the correspondence reproduced in their volumes, as a man deeply and knowledgeably engaged with the literature of his time, a good friend of many writers, including some, like W. M. Thackeray, who did not publish with him -- the great novelist was the guest of the Blackwoods at their Edinburgh home on Randolph Crescent in 1857 when he came north to give his talks on “the Georges” to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution -- and a thoughtful supporter and, at times, constructive critic of those who did.
Among works of fiction that were first published in installments in Blackwood’s, after John took over as editor, the novels of George Eliot, whom John Blackwood admired greatly and with whom he developed a relation of close friendship, figure prominently (Oliphant III, 37-57, 65, 78-80, 384-399). Scenes of Clerical Life appeared in 1857-58, Adam Bede in 1859. The following year, Eliot, who by now had achieved considerable popular success, refused to allow The Mill on the Floss (title suggested by Blackwood) to be serialized in the magazine since its publication there, she said, “would sweep away perhaps 20,000 – nay, 40,000 --readers who would otherwise demand copies of the complete work.” That, together with Eliot’s switch to Smith, Elder & Co. for Romola led to a brief cooling off of the author-publisher relation. Nevertheless, touched by the courteous and understanding letter to her in which John Blackwood expressed his disappointment over Romola, Eliot returned to Blackwood with Silas Marner (1861), Felix Holt the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871-72), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Of Daniel Deronda Blackwood wrote Eliot in May 1875 that “re-reading many parts of the first volume . . . has more than confirmed the admiration and delight with which I wrote and spoke to you after my first happy sitting over your MS. That first night I really felt like a glutton, dallying over his feast, and not reading at all with my usual rapid stride.” (p. 391) In March 1876 he wrote G.H. Lewes (to whom Eliot referred as her “husband”): “I read Book VI last night, and have unbounded congratulations to send to Mrs. Lewes. She is a magician. It is a poem, a drama, and a grand novel” (p. 393).
All these works by Eliot first appeared in installments in the magazine and then, many times over the years, in different book formats ranging from inexpensive to de luxe, as well as in the multiple editions of Eliot’s complete Works that were put out by Blackwood. The individual volumes of Eliot’s novels and the multi-volume editions of her Works, though printed in large numbers, sold very well, delivering handsome profits to the firm (Finkelstein, pp. 159-64). Even the long, 300-page narrative poem to which she gave the title The Spanish Gypsy and which Blackwood put out in 1868, having “shown great delight” when she first read him part of it over dinner in June 1867, went through three printings before the year was out. On learning, in late October 1879, that John Blackwood was “dangerously ill” and “there is little hope of recovery” (he died the following day), Eliot wrote to Charles Lewes, the son of her life’s partner, George Henry Lewes, that “he will be a heavy loss to me” as “he has been bound up with what I most cared for in my life for more than twenty years and his good qualities have made many things easy for me that without him would often have been difficult.” 
Blackwood also entertained excellent relations with Anthony Trollope, who, along with his wife, was the Blackwoods’ guest at their summer home near St. Andrews in 1868 and subsequently went on a trip with them to the Isle of Skye (Oliphant, III, 197-98). Trollope’s Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel were serialized in the magazine in 1867 and 1868, and, also in 1868, Blackwood persuaded the novelist to abridge Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War (De Bello Gallico) for his new series of inexpensive “Ancient Classics for English Readers.” Of this project, Trollope wrote Blackwood that “it was a tough bit of work but I have enjoyed it amazingly” (Oliphant, p. 363). In a charming letter, dated May 7, 1868, he made a present of the copyright to his publisher and friend on the occasion of Blackwood’s upcoming June 1 birthday. Trollope’s dystopian The Fixed Period appeared in the pages of the magazine somewhat later (1881-82), shortly after John Blackwood’s death.
Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton
With Bulwer Lytton John Blackwood enjoyed no less friendly relations and, while most of the statesman-writer’s popular publications were already behind him, Blackwood published one of his last works, the mystical science fiction fantasy entitled The Coming Race, despite his misgivings about Lytton’s insistence that it appear anonymously. The earliest version was indeed published anonymously in May, 1871 and turned out to be quite a success. “Blackwood tells me that the opinions he hears privately are very enthusiastic,” Lytton wrote, “chiefly from professors and scholars, and the papers usually most hostile to me are wonderfully civil to it, Spectator, Examiner, Athenaeum, Scotsman all my wonted foes.” On January 30, 1872, he informed his son that “The Coming Race has had a great sale five editions, 1871, and is now going into a cheaper one” (The Life, II, 467-68). Later editions put out in 1872 and 1873, did carry the name of the author, who died in 1873. The Parisians, a political satire, was serialised in the magazine between October 1872 and January 1874, and published in a separate edition in four volumes in 1873. Finally, Kenelm Chillingly, His Adventures and Opinions, Lytton’s last novel, was published posthumously by Blackwood in 1873.
Joseph Conrad was another Blackwood author, though not a notably faithful one. Following two early novels (Almeyer’s Folly, published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1895, and An Outcast of the Islands, put out by the same publisher in 1896), and a few short stories -- "The Idiots" in Arthur Symons' Savoy (October, 1896), "The Lagoon" in The Cornhill (January, 1897), "A Victim of Progress,” later retitled "An Outpost of Progress," in Cosmopolis (June-July, 1897), and a serialized version of The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', which had been rejected by Unwin, in Heinemann's New Review (August through December, 1897) -- he succeeded in getting the short tale Karain: A Memory accepted for publication in Blackwood’s in 1897. It had not been easy. William Blackwood III, who succeeded his uncle John as editor of the journal, could be “extremely dilatory in answering or in coming to a decision about a manuscript,” as George Bernard Shaw was to discover somewhat later (Tredley, p. 153), and had kept Conrad on the hook for at least two months, before following the strong recommendation of a trusted adviser, David Storrar Meldrum, and accepting Conrad’s manuscript (see Blackwood-Meldrum Letters, p. 3). Besides, Blackwood offered considerably less in payment than Conrad had asked (£16 instead of £40). Still, as Conrad was hard up for money and still had to struggle at this point in his career to get his work into print, he was thrilled to be featured in a prestigious and widely read magazine and elated by Blackwood’s request that he be given “the first refusal of any short story I may write.” "This, coming from Modern Athens [i.e. Edinburgh], was so flattering that for a whole day I walked about with my nose in the air”, he wrote his friend, E.L. Sanderson, on July 19, 1897 (quoted in Jean-Aubry, I, 206). As he had already committed The Nigger of the Narcissus to Heinemann's New Review and had also promised The Rescue, the novel he was working on, to Heinemann (in fact he had a hard time with this work and finished it only toward the end of his life, in 1920), he expressed regret in a letter to Blackwood that "it will not be my good fortune to appear serially in the pages of Maga" (the popular nickname for Blackwood’s Magazine). At the same time he was careful to keep the door open for other future submissions: "Till you expressly decline, I consider myself authorized to send you any short story or sketch I may write” (Collected Letters, I, 367 and 409; Conrad-Garnett Letters, p. 99). The short story Youth followed in the September 1898 issue of Blackwood’s, while the first installment of the novel The Heart of Darkness was given the honor of appearing in the double, one thousandth anniversary number of the magazine issued in February 1899, with subsequent installments continuing through the April issue. Lord Jim was published serially between October 1899 and November 1900, followed by The End of the Tether in the issues from July to December 1902. All Conrad’s works were also published by Blackwood as separate volumes soon after their appearance in the magazine. On the whole, Conrad was pleased. On December 30, 1900 he sent William Blackwood his
best wishes for the New Year and for the New Century. You have made the last year of the Old Century very memorable for me by your kindness. I am alluding to the production of ‘Lord Jim.’ [. . .] I can’t think of that work without thinking of you. As it went on, I appreciated more and more your helpful words, your helpful silences and your helpful acts; and this feeling shall never grow old, or cold, or faint. [Blackwood-Meldrum Letters, p. 123]
By 1902-1903, however, Conrad was in a sea of troubles. He was ill, his wife was also ill and he had to tend to her; he needed Blackwood to advance him money or act as security for loans to enable him to struggle along; and he continued to write for other publications, which made him late with copy promised for “Maga.” At that point the relationship with Blackwood began to deteriorate. In December 1902, Conrad reassured Blackwood that he would soon “have something to knock at Maga’s door with.” But perhaps by then “you won’t have me?” he added, following up that reflection with a gentle warning, veiled in irony: “But let me tell you that I am no longer obscure. A publication called the ‘Smart Set’ – heavens! What a name – has asked me, this very day, for a short story of 3-4 thousand words” (Blackwood-Meldrum Letters, pp. 173-74). Around 1902 Conrad began entrusting negotiations with various publishers, including Blackwood naturally, to the literary agent James B. Pinker and this drove a new wedge into the hitherto personal Blackwood-Conrad connection. By 1905 the fairly close and personal relationship and the correspondence with William Blackwood had essentially come to an end, with Pinker having taken Conrad’s place in corresponding with Blackwood (Blackwood-Meldrum Letters, pp. 196-97). As the author of a history of the publishing house of Blackwood put it,
William had exercised much patience with Conrad, taking infinite pains to nurse him along, lending him money against stories not yet written, and experiencing trouble with the make-up of “Maga” when promised stories did not arrive. Conrad agreed to repay a loan by writing three stories, but only two that satisfied William were supplied. By 1903 Conrad’s letters had become very brief; and then they ceased. [Tredley, p.192, and Blackwood-Meldrum Letters, pp. xxvii-xxxi.]
Later work of Conrad’s appeared in The Pall Mall Magazine, The English Review, The London Review, The Fortnightly Magazine and many other publications in Britain, the U.S., and other countries. The old connection with “Maga” was not renewed. Conrad himself noted that “Blackwood’s, since the old man [i.e. William Blackwood] retired, do not much care for my work” (quoted in Jean-Aubry, II, 65). At one point he observed appreciatively in a letter to J.S. Meldrum, who had been his strong supporter at Blackwood’s, that, though “to appear in P.[all] M. [all] M[agazine] and the Ill. Lond. News” – successes he attributed to the interventions of his agent Pinker -- “is advantageous [. . .] I only care for Maga, my first and only Love!” (Blackwood-Meldrum Letters, p. 138). In fact, however, none of the many novels and stories Conrad was to continue producing after The End of the Tether was published by Blackwood.
As a Scottish publisher, the Blackwoods inevitably did their part in putting out works by Scots writers. They published Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) and The Royal Jubilee (1827) and the following works by Galt: The Earthquake (1820), Annals of the Parish (1822), The Provost (1822), Sir Andrew Wylie, of that Ilk (1822), The Steamboat (1822), The Entail (1823), The Gathering of the West (1823), The Omen (1825), The Last of the Lairds (1826).
In a tradition well established among Scottish publishers, John Blackwood also published foreign works in translation, such as Friedrich Schlegel’s Lectures on the History of Literature (1818, 1841), Goethe’s Poems and Ballads (1859) and Faust (1866), and Heine’s Poems and Ballads (1878).
In general, however, Blackwood seems not to have played the significant role in nurturing the literature of the twentieth century that it had played in nurturing that of the nineteenth, when the company’s policy does indeed appear to have been one of “fostering literary genius,” in the words of the author of a recent company history (Finkelstein, p. 119. On the declining role and influence of Blackwood’s, pp. 152-53). William Blackwood’s successor, George Blackwood, it has been said, had neither the keen literary interests of his predecessor nor the latter’s desire to establish and maintain personal relations with his authors. While the firm successfully recruited a John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915), it missed out on George Bernard Shaw, whose first submission, Immaturity, was turned down. Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H.G. Wells also failed to place their work with the firm. Blackwood did publish E. M Forster‘s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread in August 1905. Its modest sales, however, led to a royalties offer for Forster’s next book, The Longest Journey (1907), that left the novelist feeling shortchanged. “Am quarrelling with Blackwood,” he wrote, “and I think I shall have to go elsewhere.” Though the disagreement was patched over, sales of The Longest Journey were not encouraging either and were not advanced by a low-key promotional campaign. Viewing Forster as one of their less successful popular novelists, the firm spent very little on advertising and promoting his work (Finkelstein, pp. 94, 104-05). For his next novel, A Room with a View, Forster therefore turned to another publisher, Edward Arnold, with whom Howard’s End and A Passage to India then also appeared.
Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900
- Scotland and the Modern World: Literacy and Libraries
- Scottish Publishers, London Booksellers, and Copyright Law
- Andrew Millar (London) 1728
- William Strahan (London) 1738
- Robert and Andrew Foulis, The Foulis Press (Glasgow) 1741
- John Murray (London) 1768
- Bell & Bradfute (Edinburgh) 1778
- Archibald Constable (Edinburgh) 1798
- Thomas Nelson and Sons (Edinburgh) 1798
- John Ballantyne (Edinburgh) 1808
- William Blackwood (Edinburgh) 1810
- Smith, Elder & Co. (London) 1816
- William Collins (Glasgow) 1819
- Blackie and Son (Glasgow) 1831
- W.& R. Chambers (Edinburgh) 1832
- Macmillan (Cambridge and London) 1843
- Lesser Publishers
- Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century British Copyright Law: A Bibliography
Jean-Aubry, G. Joseph Conrad. Life and Letters. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Page, 1927.
Conrad, Joseph. Letters to William Blackwood and David S. Meldrum. Ed. William Blackburn. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1958.
Conrad, Joseph. Collected Letters, Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Letters from Joseph Conrad 1895-1924. Ed. Edward Garnett. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.
Finkelstein, David. The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002.
The Life of Edward Buller, first Lord Lytton, by his grandson. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1913.
Oliphant, Margaret, and Mary Porter, Annals of a Publishing House. William Blackwood and his Sons, their Magazine and Friends. 3 vols. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1897-1898.
Pratt, Alan. “William Blackwood and Sons, Ltd.” in The British Literary Book Trade 1700-1820. Ed. James K. Bracken and Joel Silver. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995 (A Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 154)
Romanticism and Blackwood’s Magazine. Ed. Robert Morrison and Daniel F. Roberts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2013.
Tredley, F.D. The House of Blackwood 1804-1954. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1954.
Last modified 9 October 2018