Mapping literary landscapes


Lit Long map page

Today’s post is just a brief one – up to my eyeballs in work-related reading, which no doubt will get distilled into a post or two once I’ve had time to think and digest. Getting my head round all of Edinburgh’s literary history is no small task, but I have a found a wonderful thing to help: Lit Long.

As part of the Palimpsest project, the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen have created a huge literary database of place-name mentions from books set in Edinburgh, visually mapping this onto the city: in their words: ‘you can walk your own path through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.’ Click on the link to have a go – it is fascinating, particularly for those who love Edinburgh and her literature.

I’ve not come across a literature-centred project like this before, only historical ones like Locating London’s Past or decorative ones like Geoff Sawers’ Literary Map of Great Britain (which is beautiful and unowned as yet by me…just sayin’!) and its little sister, Literary London. I find it fascinating to bring together the written word with the phsyical space, making the psychogeography of places visually apparent.

Literary London

Literary London

Does anyone else know of projects elsewhere which directly connected specific locations with their geographic counterparts? I can think of a few more locations ripe for the mapping: Grasmere and the central Lake District (one for you I think, Wordsworth Trust), Paris, Norwich… any other suggestions?

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

Ambrose's Tavern Token

Day Two: problems with sources

Today’s writing has been centred on the first part of chapter one. Yesterday I experimented with picture-painting in the Prologue, trying to recreate the image of the 19th century Ambrose’s tavern in my readers’ minds. Great fun, although largely conjectural!

Ambrose's Tavern Token

Ambrose’s Tavern Token

Today the focus was on developing a pithy and attractive first chapter of the book proper, trying to distil the essence of this incredibly unwieldy and purposefully undefinable publication into a few tantalising paragraphs. Returning to the first (well, second if we’re being pedantic) issue, I realised that I had never read it in its entirety, instead prefer to nibble on individual essays. And so my inexperienced feet found first stumbling block: there seem to be two versions of this first all-important issue!

I had found a scanned online version of Maga on the HathiTrust’s digital library, which seemed at first ideal – except that the text is difficult to search and because it is such a massive file, can be slow to load. I then found a transcript of the original: which seemed to differ in content from the version I was already using! I think I’ve reconciled the differences, but I see how slow and frustrating even these most basic of research tasks can sometimes be. Suffice to say I didn’t manage to read the whole thing, but I have got a much better idea of how Maga’s class-based humour works (and I mean ‘works’ in a purely 19th century literary context). I also revisited this all-too-excellent essay (wish I’d written it) by Andrew McConnell Stott and brought in a bit of Keats, Leigh Hunt and Shelley into the mix.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

I managed to hit the magic ton, and so can retire to a night of slightly more mindless (in)activity. The husband assures me he is rustling up an almond and apricot tart as I type (hopefully it will resemble this one in terms of both taste and beauty) and we having an as-yet unopened box set of Breaking Bad, so I’d say the omens are good!

Words written: 1023

Words left: 2477

Days left til deadline: 25

Blackwoods front page, April 1817

Chapter One, Day One

Chapter One, Day One

I have set myself the task of completing 3,500 words of my opening chapter before 5th September, as that’s the deadline for the 2015 Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards. Today I managed 634 words, which seems like a decent start. At this rate, I need to set aside five or six days for writing between now and the deadline, plus another day for completing the application and a couple of days to send it to someone else for proofreading. So if I need to complete my draft two weeks before what my boss used to call ‘the drop-dead deadline’, I need to have the writing completed by 22 August. A mere 12 days away! I’m away with friends next weekend and working all the weekdays in between, so as long as I can manage to write evenings of Monday 11th, Wednesday 13th, Monday 18th, Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th August I should be on target. Fortunately for this schedule my husband is working away from home for that second week, so at least that is one fewer distraction around the house!

Blackwoods front page, April 1817

Blackwoods front page, April 1817

Today’s work was really mostly research, as I needed to set the scene for the birth of Maga. Edinburgh in 1817 shouldn’t be too hard to conjure up as it’s one of the most documented cities of its age and filled with poets, diarists and scribblers of every hue, but I need to assimilate a sense of place in just one afternoon. Fortunately aforesaid husband was able to lay his hands on some 19th century climate records for Scotland, and a little while later I tracked down a journal kept the obscure Stirling surgeon Dr Thomas Lucas (1756 – 1822), which had been obliging transcribed and made publically available by the brilliant Stirling Council Archive Services.  (Hurrah for libraries, museums and archives; have a look here and here for some other examples of fascinating – though completely unrelated – recent work done in the sector.) Dr Lucas’ son was at university in Edinburgh in 1817 so fortunately he often mentions the city, but he also keeps a weather eye on, well, the weather, the crops, and the impact of both of these on the markets.

Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Sir Walter Scott

Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Sir Walter Scott

I also found (thanks to Mr Google) the transcribed letters of Walter Scott from 1817, which really helped to get a sense of what the literary classes were concerned with in that year. Scott writes from both Edinburgh and his home Abbotsford in Melrose and mentions Maga by name (William Blackwood is also Scott’s publisher). Scott provided me with the epigram for the first chapter of Fame is the Monster: ‘…in youth we seek pleasure and in manhood fame and fortune and distinction’ (Walter Scott, Letter to Joanna Baillie, 12 December 1817) which is ideal in that it is both short – no mean feat for Scott – and pretty much perfect for my purposes. I also had a quick check of facts about William Maginn on the DNB and experimented with fiction as I tried to set the scene in William Ambrose’s North British Hotel, Tavern and Coffee House, which inspired the most famous of Maga’s pieces, the mostly fictitious Noctes Ambrosianae.

Words written: 634

Words left: 2866

Days left til deadline: 26

Cover of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

The Notorious Maga

Hello blogworld – apologies for the rather lengthy absence but today I have some news! Ever since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on life-writing I have wanted to return to the subject to write a book. And finally, after two failed attempts at securing phD funding, I have decided to submit a proposal to some publishers to garner interest in Fame is the Monster: Celebrity and the Notorious Maga (admittedly a working title).

Cover of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

Cover of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

For those of you not familiar with ‘the notorious Maga’, the title refers to the incendiary literary publication more commonly known as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Scandal, hot-headed opinion and unequivocal outrage: Maga was a byword for the type of provocative literary criticism which scandalised and intrigued the public in equal measure. As 2017 marks the bicentenary of the first publication of Maga, 2014 seemed like a good time to submit a proposal, giving me three years to complete the writing and research. Maga was in effect launched twice: once in April of 1817, but following low sales and problems with the editorial staff, the eponymous William Blackwood re-launched the magazine in October of that year. This time it immediately grabbed the public’s attention with its seductive and salacious mix of reportage, reviews and satirical sketches. Maga was clever, but not academic; popular, but not populist. It was mass media before the term was coined, and shaped the way we view literature to this day.

Part of the reason that the second Maga was so much more popular than the first was because Blackwood engaged contributors like John Wilson, whose written style set the tone which came to define the magazine. Blackwood’s also attracted the brilliant minds of John Gibson Lockhart, who became famous as the biographer of his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg (better known at the time as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’), and the Irish eccentric and classicist William Maginn.  The ‘nasty little opium-chewer’, Thomas De Quincey, also wrote for them and writers like Byron, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth felt the lash of Maga’s sharp tongue in its blistering critiques.

John Wilson by Sir John Watson Gordon (NPG, public domain)

John Wilson by Sir John Watson Gordon (NPG, public domain)

Individual biographies have been written of some Maga’s contributors but the true nature of their genius (and notoriety) is the way these writers used their interchangeable identities to laud or lambast writers, critics and themselves. So successful was this dissembling that to this day little is known about the workings of Blackwood’s. My book will drag the magazine kicking and screaming back into the spotlight, revealing the clever intricacies of its satirical skill and the critical inter-dependency of its writers’ identities.  Maga has been described as ‘a collective consciousness, a narcissistic personality pool, a mutual society’; this book is the first non-academic publication to examine Maga as whole, rather than simply the individuals who contributed to it.

My aim to is write a book of between 90,000 and 100,000 words, divided into between 10 and 15 chapters of between 5 and 10,000 words each. The chapters will focus on the major people and events who contributed to the reputation of Blackwood’s, namely:

  1. William Blackwood: who was he? Blackwood’s kept its name for over 150 years, but who was the mysterious and eponymous ‘Blackwood’?
  2. Pseudonyms and pseudoscience: the 19th century use of pseudonyms is key to understanding Blackwood’s, as its contributors almost always assumed one: but why, how, and who was behind them?
  3. John Wilson: the longest-serving contributor to Blackwood’s, Wilson wrote as both Christopher North and Mordecai Mullion
  4. James Hogg: the Ettrick Shepherd was often mocked by the other contributors for his ‘rural’ style of writing in Scots
  5. John Gibson Lockhart: wrote as William Wastle and Timothy Tickler; also biographer of his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott
  6. William Maginn: the ‘classical embalmer’, also known as The Doctor and Sir Morgan Odoherty
  7. ‘Don Juan Unread’: Wordsworth and Blackwood’s
  8. The Chaldee controversy: taking the literary establishment for a ride
  9. Keats, Shelley and Blackwood’s ‘Cockney School’: mocking the younger Romantics
  10. Byron and Blackwood’s: two great satirists go head to head
  11. Tavern Sages: the boozy tales of the Noctes Ambrosianae

So that’s the plan! Let me know what you think and hopefully I’ll be able to post individual chapters (or parts of chapters) as and when I am able to. Now, just to secure that publishing deal…