Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 103-104
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The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era. By David Finkelstein. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2003. viii, 199 pp. $55.00. ISBN 0-271-02179-9.
Readers of David Finkelstein's study of the prominent nineteenth-century British publishing house Blackwood may find the book's subtitle slightly misleading. Although several chapters do in fact focus on Blackwood's relations with specific authors, several other chapters recount the changing commercial circumstances and shifting fortunes that began enveloping the house toward the end of the century. This divided focus is necessary, however, for Finkelstein views publisher-author relations from the publisher's perspective, and the Blackwood firm, as he perceptively represents it, was a particularly sophisticated enterprise where the practical concerns of financing, printing, and mar-keting books were complexly entwined with the firm's conservative social vision and cultural preoccupations. Accordingly, Finkelstein provides a penetrating history of the Blackwood house from approximately 1860 to the outbreak of the First World War, but he also provides a history of editorial intrusions whereby authors were strongly persuaded, if not compelled, to alter or shape their texts to articulate the Blackwood firm's ideological sensibilities.
Viewed solely as a work of publishing history, Finkelstein's book is especially valuable in its detailed examination of a familiar yet largely unstudied and underappreciated aspect of the nineteenth-century British publishing industry. Blackwood was a "dynastic" operation. Its commercial undertakings were managed and its public reputation was cultivated by a succession of family members who served as company directors: William Blackwood I (d. 1834), his sons [End Page 103] Alexander (d. 1845) and John (d. 1879), and his grandson William III (d. 1912). Dynastic control of publishing firms was hardly unusual in the period, and other leading firms of the day—one immediately thinks of the houses of Murray and Longman—functioned in a more or less similar fashion and for a cluster of similar reasons. Such control effectively concentrated property and wealth in family hands, provided extensive training in business practices from one generation to the next, and promoted consistency in commercial procedures and standards in the quality of publications. Yet dynastic control, as Finkelstein suggests, had numerous disadvantages. At Blackwood, family leadership tended to preclude commercial innovation and ossify business approaches, and it encouraged a complacent resistance to emerging tastes and trends in literature. As Finkelstein points out, accordingly, across the late 1800s and early 1900s the firm either refused or failed to publish works by George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, on the eve of the Great War, Finkelstein observes, Blackwood was no longer a leading house but a "niche publisher" that issued, among other unremarkable books, popular works of interest to colonial administrators and military personnel.
At the heart of Finkelstein's book are three chapters that focus on Blackwood's publishing relations with John Hanning Speke, Charles Reade, and Margaret Oliphant. These trace the editorial impact of the senior family leadership on texts. Thus Finkelstein reveals how, after negotiating publishing rights with Speke for the Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (published in 1863), John Blackwood discovered that the African explorer commanded execrable writing skills and so called in a ghostwriter, who shifted the emphasis from geographic exploration to a heroic narrative in which Speke, portrayed as an exemplar of British imperial values, is pitted against and triumphs over the adverse landscape and natives of Africa. Similarly, Finkelstein discusses how in writing A Woman Hater (published serially in Blackwood's Magazine in 1876 and 1877 and then as a three-volume book in 1877), a novel reflecting contemporary controversies over the professionalization of women physicians, Reade was more or less forced to tone down diction and narrative elements by (again) John Blackwood, who was decidedly uncomfortable with the novel's assault on the predominantly male medical establishment. And Finkelstein explores how William Blackwood III, after commissioning Oliphant to write an official history...