Online Edition: Spring 2003

The House of Blackwood by David Finkelstein

The House of Blackwood:

Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era

David Finkelstein

Pennsylvania State University Press ($55)

by John Toren

During its heyday in the nineteenth century, William Blackwood & Sons was a major publisher of eminent British novelists and explorers. George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Anthony Trollope were included in its lists. In The House of Blackwood, David Finkelstein escorts us beyond Blackwood's role in the literary life of the age, however, to examine its fluctuating fortunes in detail, in the hope that this will tell us something of significance about the interplay of culture, taste, the author/publisher relationship, printing technology, and sheer economics during the era when bourgeois sensibilities gained the ascendancy once and for all in Great Britain. One of the main themes of the books, Finkelstein notes, is "to place the firm, its books, and its authors within appropriate social and cultural contexts." What he fails to establish is what makes William Blackwood & Sons, in particular, a compelling or even a representative subject for such a study. As a result we get the sense that a small amount of distinctive data--the Blackwood correspondence and financial records--is being called upon to tell a story that lies largely beyond its field of reference. Though written with a certain flair, it reads like a "trade" history, which the owners of the Blackwood firm, their descendents, and perhaps their employees might enjoy, while leaving the rest of us to wonder what the fuss is all about.

All the same, the book does have its moments. An entire chapter is devoted to the problems brought about by the fact that, after having offered the Nile explorer John Hanning Speke an unprecedented sum to publish an account of his great discovery, Blackwood finds that the man is barely literate. The firm is forced to hire a ghost-writer, and as a result the book takes on a shape and tone in keeping with the Imperialist pretensions of the class who is likely to buy it, while losing much of the color and naivety of the man whose experiences it purports to describe. And yet, although the details of the process of preparing Speke's manuscript for publication are interesting, the underlying point is hardly revolutionary: publishers want their books to be lively and coherent, because otherwise they won't sell. When Finkelstein suggests that the Blackwood firm "manipulated both text and author to serve ideological purposes," he pushes the point too far. Speke himself had no qualms about the rewrite, and Finkelstein provides no documentary evidence that the firm had any ideological purpose in mind except to produce a marketable book.

In the end The House of Blackwood leaves us with an impression other than what its author intended. We see the Blackwood firm as unexceptional, often complacent, and almost invariably less interesting than either the authors it published or the agents who represented them. It remained afloat largely on the strength of George Eliot reprints and military instruction manuals, and drifted toward oblivion after allowing writers like George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James to slip through its grasp.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents