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

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…