- George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Personal Style of a Public Writer by Peter Blake
In the opening pages of this enjoyable book, Peter Blake asks: “Who, then, was the ‘real’ Sala? Was he an innovator, a purveyor of the new form of personal writing, some kind of genius able to write on anything and everything at the drop of a hat, or was he simply a bibulous old hack, an imitator and a fraud?” (5). Blake sets out to answer this question, pointing out that Sala, for all his prominence in the nineteenth-century world of letters, has been relatively understudied. Despite a rising interest in Sala’s work – driven in part by increased attention to Victorian periodicals and the sketch form – Sala is still “someone whom we are more likely to stumble across when looking for something else” (10). Over seven chapters, Blake reassesses Sala’s work and the influences and theories behind it, giving full prominence to his efforts as an engraver and to the ways in which Sala influenced the New Journalism of the 1880s and 1890s. Blake shows that Sala engaged with key developments in visual and print culture across the majority of the nineteenth-century.
Blake’s study is almost a literary biography, as it traces Sala’s development as a writer and artist from his childhood to his posthumous impact. Chapter one begins in the 1830s with Sala’s childhood blindness (caused by a reaction to the measles virus). It emphasizes the importance of reading and drawing for the young Sala during and after this illness, and explores George Cruikshank and Pierce Egan as key early influences on Sala’s ongoing fascination with both illustration and metropolitan description (as well as with Hogarth and Frith). The chapter places Sala’s artistic as well as his literary interests within the context of “the ideological struggle between pen and pencil” over the course of the nineteenth century – Gerard Curtis’s work is a framing influence here – and argues that Sala’s career mirrored this battle: as illustration became subordinate to text, Sala turned his back on artistic work for the rising medium of journalism. I would have been interested in more exploration of the reasons for this cultural shift, but Blake is right to re-emphasize the visual in Sala’s work and how “Sala’s battle between pen and pencil [… allowed] him to blur the distinctions between the visual and the verbal” (62).
Blake turns next to Sala’s literary “apprenticeship” on Household Words. Chapters two and three discuss Sala’s writings on London and Paris. Blake outlines neatly how Sala developed his role as urban spectator, arguing that Sala saw London as a problem to be solved, a meeting-point between history and modern life, while Paris was an intellectual and physical diversion but also an important site for engaging with commodity culture, capitalism [End Page 255] and “the uncertainty of modern life” (14). Blake draws a useful distinction between the way Sala approaches the streets of these two cities: for Blake, “Sala manages to engage in the life of the streets in a more participatory way in London than in Paris, where he is more inclined to stand apart from the crowd”(83). Blake also traces Sala’s growing self-identification (to Dickens’s annoyance and alarm) as a “Bohemian” (131); he reveals the cross-fertilization as well as the tension between Sala the appreciated literary genius and “rumours […] that there was something not quite right about Sala, that he could never be a true gentleman” (1). For Blake, the Bohemian side of Sala is crucial to his lively and socially-conscious “personal” style. Blake then turns to consider Sala’s trip to Russia for Household Words. Blake calls chapter four an “interlude,” but in fact the chapter develops key strands of Blake’s argument that Sala’s journalistic power comes from his ability to blend fact with fiction. It draws upon Catherine Waters’s...