Tuesday, October 15, 2019

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At the Heart of It: A glance back at early journalism in Victorian England


 

The content of early magazines was like a mouth-watering dessert at the end of a fine meal in a fine home. Anthony Trollope’s novel, Framely Parsonage, published in serial form like episodes for a TV show, ran in the first edition of the flashy Cornhill Magazine from 1860 to 1862.

The novel ran three chapters at a time and in that first editing (and subsequent editions) was followed by “China and the Outer Barbarians,” the magazine’s editor William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Lovel the Widower, and George Henry Lewes’s biology work Studies in Animal Life.

The first edition also includes an article that paints a not-so-friendly picture of the French, several poems, one by Thomas Hood and one by R. Monckton Milnes, an obituary of journalist or man of letters, Leigh Hunt, and the adventurous tale of “The Search for Sir John Franklin” whose disappearance abroad captured the public’s fancy.

Most of these works do not name the authors. Not even the novels’ authors are named, or have “signatures.” The Cornhill practiced a policy of publishing works anonymously, and despite its cutting edge beginning, on this point, the Cornhill held fast through the belief that anonymous publications afforded the writer more freedom to be honest without fear of influence from fame or backlash from people with power and opposing views.

Cornhill retained the policy of anonymity from its inception, and even when Leslie Stephen took over editing it in the 1870s. Stephen said, “critics who are known, whether by publicity or signature, are more ‘slashing’ than their anonymous counterparts.”

Only poems with signatures, and often only the poet’s last name was provided on published works. In the January and February 1860 editions, Hood, Milnes and Alfred Lord Tennyson are identified poets, but none of the other novels or articles have signatures, even though the editor assures the readers that the authors are experts in their fields:

Our CORNHILL MAGAZINE owners strive to provide thee with facts as well as fiction; and though it does not become them to brag of their Ordinary, at least they invite thee to a table where thou shalt sit in good company. That story of the Fox was written by one of the gallant seamen who sought for poor Franklin under the awful Arctic Night: the account of China is told by the man of all the empire most likely to know of what he speaks. . . . (Thackeray, “Roundabout Papers No. 1 — On a Lazy Idle Boy” 126, 1860)

The anonymous author, whom we now know is Thackeray, whose style and flourish for the theatrical — reminding the readers of what they just read and  promising them the writers were not only able to wow them, but were trustworthy too — seems to shape the voice and character of the magazine in its early years.

A later article called in the Cornhill, “Under Chloroform,” presents the medical procedure of amputation. It’s author, Sir Henry Thompson, said that Thackeray “wrapped it up in something sweet for the British public to take” when he revised it for publication according to Anne Thorne, who wrote  “Theater, Journalism, and Thackeray’s ‘Man of the World Magazine’” in the Victorian’s Periodical Review.

Horne argues that Thackeray’s editing style made the informative works entertaining. There are several instances when the authors seem to turn to the readers with an aside, as if they are viewing the events of the article or story alongside the narrator. “We are fellow travelers and make acquaintance as the voyage proceeds” wrote Thackeray to his readers.

This mixture of intimacy, fact, and excitement in the writing could be the way the Cornhill was able to pull in readers of all backgrounds and ages so long as they had a shilling to pay for the magazine in that month.

Who would not enjoy a voyage across the world for a shilling a week? Who does not want to be in on the secret of things? Who, really, wants to skip dessert when dinner at the table is done?

The Cornhill Magazine was a product of its time. From its cover to its content, it served a keen purpose — to invite readers from all walks of the land to dine with the publisher, editor, writers and illustrators on reality and savor fiction — after, of course, they spent a shilling for the entertaining and intellectual meal.

Under the tutelage of Thackeray and its publisher, George Smith, the magazine effectively fused modern technology with tradition, and although it never reached the fervor of attention it did in the 1860s, it continued as a publication until 1975.

In our own modern publications, we are a far cry from the Cornhill. Our West River Eagle does not publish novels, rarely publishes poems. But we do publish stories that reflect our world, and we try to edit our stories so that they are fair and balanced.

We no longer hide behind anonymity, and we stand by our successes and mistakes, regardless of praise or criticism from the reading public, who consists of all of those people willing to pay a $1.00 (plus tax) for the weekly edition.