Digging up the kirkyard: death, readership and nation in the writings of the Blackwood’s group 1817-1839
Sharp, Sarah Elizabeth
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This dissertation examines the use of images of graveyards and death in the writings of the ‘Blackwood’s group’, a coterie of authors and poets who published their writing either within the influential Tory periodical Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine or with the publisher William Blackwood and Sons in the early decades of the nineteenth century. I argue that Blackwoodian texts like Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life (1822) by John Wilson imagined the rural Scottish graveyard as a repository for the traditional values and social structures which appeared to be under threat in the rapidly modernising British nation. In these texts the kirkyard functions as a key symbolic space, creating an imagined national ‘home’ for British readers in the idealised Scottish village graveyard. This nostalgic pastoral image of the eternal kirkyard is however in opposition to Blackwood’s Magazine’s reputation for violent, urbane wit and sensational gothic stories. The Noctes Ambrosianae and Tales of Terror articulate a modern, masculine and elite image of the magazine which seem at odds with the domestic, pastoral Scottishness offered in the ‘Scotch novels’ and regional tales. William Blackwood’s publishing house and magazine are at once synonymous with two apparently opposing world views and target readerships, and this tension is most strongly articulated in the tidy Scots graves and unburied corpses of the magazine’s fiction. I examine works published by John Wilson, J.G. Lockhart, James Hogg, D.M. Moir, Henry Thomson, Robert McNish, John Galt, Samuel Warren, James Montgomery and Thomas de Quincey, between the magazine’s foundation in 1817 and the increasing defection of these original Blackwoodians to other periodicals and the retirement of the Noctes Ambrosianae series in the late 1830s. I identify a series of conventions associated with an idealised Blackwoodian rural death before examining the ways in which tales where the conventions of this 'good death' and burial are disrupted by crime, bodysnatching, epidemic disease and suicide challenge or reinforce the world view the rural texts articulated. Chapter one focuses on eighteenth-century ideas about death and sociability. Looking at a group of texts which span from Robert Blair’s The Grave (1746) to Edmund Burke’s revolutionary period writings of the 1790s, it traces what Ester Schor has termed a ‘transition from the “natural” sympathies of the Enlightenment to the “political” sympathies of a revolutionary age’ (75). I argue that in particular Edmund Burke’s creation of a conservative image of nation based on tradition and ancestry acted as a foundation for the type of politicised engagement with the dead which characterised the work of the Blackwood’s group. Chapter two builds upon recent identifications of a Blackwoodian regional tale tradition by highlighting the crucial role of death and the kirkyard in this provincial fiction. Placing John Wilson’s highly popular story series Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life in relation to contemporary debates about Evangelical religion, readership and nation, reveals a series of ideas and conventions which can be identified in other rural writing by John Galt, J.G. Lockhart and James Hogg. Having established an image of what a ‘good death’ might look like and stand for within the Blackwoodian imagination, I turn my attention to deaths which do not follow these conventions. Chapter three explores Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s well-documented fascination with spectacular violence in three of the magazine’s signature Tales of Terror and Thomas De Quincey’s ‘On Murder’ essays (1827, 1839). Chapter four looks at three stories from the magazine which feature bodysnatching, focusing on the role which doctors and provincial communities play within these texts. Chapter five compares responses to the 1832 cholera epidemic by James Montgomery and James Hogg. Finally, Chapter six argues for a reading of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) which foregrounds the role of the suicide’s body within the narrative based on the representations of suicide in contemporary discussion and in Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821).