The role of the Editor in Victorian Periodicals

Continuing my series of articles drawing on the research of Catherine Delafield: Serialization and the Novel in Mid-Victorian Magazines, I am going to look at the role of the editor in such publications.

Undoubtedly the most famous editor of the period was Charles Dickens, first with Household Words and then with its replacement, following Dickens falling out with his publishers Bradbury and Evans, All The Year Round. In these magazines, Dickens was very much a hands on editor (as noted in last week’s post following the fortuitous discovery of his own annotated copy of the bound volumes of All The Year Round. So much so that some works written by other authors have been wrongly attributed to Dickens, so heavily had he re-written parts.

Indeed, Dickens so closely identified himself with the periodicals that he took his junior partner Wills to task for failing to uphold the standards he should have while Dickens was absent citing the possible damage that might be done to his reputation, since it was Dickens’ name which appeared on every page – the actual contributors being anonymous. Thus these magazines bore Dickens’ stamp throughout.

Other magazines also sought consistency but the role of the editor was somewhat more subtle. Cornhill magazine was published by the established house of Smith Elder. It employed William Thackeray as editor thereby gaining a similarly prominent author at its helm.  However, Smith Elder recognised that while Thackeray’s literary input would be important as editor, he lacked the entrepreneurship of Dickens and so Smith himself took on that aspect of the marketing. Thus Thackeray’s “Roundabout Papers” which topped and tailed the Cornhill magazine editions, although following Dickens’ practice of mentioning upcoming content that would interest readers, were more by way of gentle invitations to read future editions rather than Dickens’ harder sell approach.

Indeed, Cornhill magazine was more clearly a collaborative team effort with Thackeray happy for Trollope to play the role of “raconteur en chef” as he described it. Trollope clearly recognised this role and, calling the role of novelists as akin to that of pastry chefs (as distinct from cobblers as he later did in his Autobiography), commented that “the public love the tarts (fortunately for us) and we must bake and sell them”. A clear part of the publisher Smith’s role in this collaboration was the selling and Thackeray was quick to spring to Smith’s defence when he was subject to a personal attack in the rival Saturday Review. In fact, when Thackeray resigned after barely two years as editor, Smith himself took on the behind the scenes editorship role for the next decade relying on the collaborative nature of the contributing team to maintain the content.

A similar approach worked for Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper and its successor Cassell’s Magazine. The latter arose out of the ahses of the former following the bankruptcy of Cassell himself. He continued to serve as editor but in the capacity of employee of the publishers who had bought him out rather than as publisher in his own right. Following his death, Cassell’s Magazine retained the use of his image and employed a series of editors in his place whose names were never featured. Thus the magazine enjoyed continuity of his services from beyond the grave.

Thus the editor of the magazines fulfilled a unifying role, whether it was on his own behalf or that of sponsoring publishers. His was the vision by which the providers of the content would steer their course. In the case of Dickens, or Macleod with his pious sermonising in Good Words, the voice of the editor was pre-eminent, in the Cornhill, it would be more accurately described as a first amongst equals.

Catherine Delafield’s Serialization and the Novel in Mid-Victorian Magazines is available online at Ashate Publishing:


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