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Is judgement finally nigh for the doctor? Until now nobody has written a complete biography of Doctor William Maginn (1794 -1842), but he has at last met his match in the VCU’s Professor David Latané. We can look to Latané’s new study William Maginn and the British Press for the most authoritative account to date of the doctor’s life and writing.

Maginn is a subject for only the most tenacious of scholars and he is in some respects biography-proof. He wrote prodigiously for countless newspapers and periodicals, whilst hobnobbing with such lions as Lockhart, Crofton Croker, Carlyle and Thackeray. Yet he was so fluent at pastiche that it is impossible to identify all of his published writing, and behind his conviviality was a secretive figure who valued anonymous political influence over literary fame. Latané concedes that although Maginn editorialised on innumerable topics, “few documents tell us directly what he was feeling.” His writing lapsed into obscurity after his death and perhaps never has such a brilliant and influential man of letters been so mangled by posterity.

Latané warns that “almost every prior account” of Maginn “contains multiple errors, and little can be accepted at face value.” This state of affairs is predominantly the achievement of the Victorian journalist Robert Shelton MacKenzie, whose multivolume edition of Maginn’s Miscellaneous Writings (1855-7) is still, for unsuspecting English literature students, something of a trap. MacKenzie’s “Memoir” of the doctor remains a valuable source, but his anthology excludes as many notable stories by Maginn as it includes those of other writers. MacKenzie was either very stupid or very clever. However bitterly modern students may curse his sloppiness, his attributions would not be challenged until the twentieth century. Moreover, his “Odoherty Papers” do have a certain aesthetic roundedness to them which a compendium of Maginn’s actual writings might lack.

MacKenzie’s efforts were at least friendly, whereas the melodramatic moralising about the doctor within Margaret Oliphant’s William Blackwood and his Sons (1897) reads a little like a memoir of Bertie Wooster which has been authored by Aunt Agatha (his “every promise ended in the mean and squalid misery of a nature fallen, fallen, fallen from its high estate… It is almost immoral to be sorry for him.”) The two foremost twentieth century accounts of Maginn can be found in Miriam Thrall’s Rebellious Fraser’s (1934) and Terry Eagleton’s essay “Cork and the Carnivalesque” (1998), but these concern themselves only with specific episodes within Maginn’s career. Latané is determined to cover everything.

And there is an awesome amount of material to cover. Latané demonstrates that wherever there were points of innovation and controversy in early nineteenth-century literature, Maginn was usually to be found at or around their centres. He contributed to debates over the value of professional authorship and literary celebrity; the representation of Irishmen in English literature; the existential composition of the post-1829 Tory Party; and the place of scholarship within modern culture. He had a hand in shaping the development of the short story. He collaborated with Lockhart on the first of the Noctes Ambrosianae and Crofton Croker on his Fairy Legends, and he would exert various degrees of influence over Disraeli, Landon, and Thackeray.

You may think it mildly wondrous that we have waited until 2013 for a biography of this figure, but students and scholars of any of the above topics would not necessarily profit from focusing on Maginn in particular. Despite the phenomenal literary powers at his disposal, Maginn’s writing was almost always part of a milieu. Latané traces Maginn’s puckish erudition back to his native Cork: a city which the nobility had largely abandoned to a lively and aspirant professional class. The pun is irresistible and Latané finally capitulates with the line that, “By the fall of 1823, Maginn was preparing to become uncorked.” Quite uncharacteristically, this joke appears never to have occurred to Maginn himself.

At Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Maginn would both raise and be obscured beneath the Ensign Odoherty’s “standard” (to use his favoured metaphor), and write the sort of tales and verses which Odoherty, or rather all of Blackwood’s manly Tories, generally wrote. When Maginn fell in with Crofton Croker, he naturally wrote fairy legends. He was one of several Tory radicals who were knocking about at Fraser’s Magazine – neither a leader nor a follower, but a standard-bearer.

At first it may be hard to gauge what exactly this standard-bearer stood for. Although Latané refers to Maginn’s “increasing alcoholism,” he begins to cast doubt even on the customary portrayal of Maginn as a dipsomaniac. The doctor’s boozing was the stuff of legend, but it seemed to exert a bizarrely negligible effect over his literary productivity (although his family and finances may well have suffered). One may almost suspect that Maginn had assumed a hard-drinking character and reputation along with the Odoherty guise, and that he merely carried it on professionally, an alcoholic in pastiche.

Latané successfully refutes the implication that Maginn was a “literary Swiss,” and so what was underpinning the doctor’s miscellaneous adventures? Mostly, as with Ford Maddox Ford’s own saintly Tory, Teitjens of Groby, a principled dedication to the eighteenth century – the only century “that never went mad.” Maginn remained nostalgic for the drunkenness of the Enlightenment; he lingered in a world in which classically educated professionals toasted each other with rum-punch and toyed with verses. His writing retained a macho immunity to Victorian snobbery and sentiment.

Maginn made the eighteenth century his home whilst occasionally venting an impatience for the twentieth. The welfare state was a glint in his eye; he looked forward to a world in which the poor were safeguarded from the carelessness of industrialisation. Latané proposes that Maginn went “far beyond Tory paternalism to envision a different political and economic model” (he ducks the question of Fraser’s’ defence of West Indian slave-owners, stating that, “This issue remains to be studied.”) Maginn’s Toryism may have been rooted in Protestant Cork, where the new money tended to be Catholic, but he was “surprisingly allergic to the claims of aristocracy per se.” There was some purely ideological mettle to Maginn’s Toryism which cannot be attributed to class partiality or consciousness.

Indeed, he makes an odd class warrior: a bourgeois professional who wanted a more modest historical role for the bourgeoisie. The Fraser’s writers may seem to be offering an undercooked Marxism, with their paternalistic concern for the poor signifying the pinkness in the middle. If Karl Marx had come to London two decades earlier and fallen in with this boozy bunch, would the history of the twentieth-century have been significantly different? Lenin may have been a jolly, rosy-cheeked fellow, who saluted the revolution with gin twist.

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It is time to declare an interest. Several years ago I wrote a research dissertation on William Maginn, which began with the hypothesis that I would find all sorts of interesting correspondences between his short stories and those of Edgar Allan Poe. This enterprise might have fared better had I not randomly appropriated Maginn as a representative of the Blackwood’s mode of fiction (Poe himself only ever referred to Maginn as “of Blackwood”). My own beef with Maginn nonetheless concerns the short story and his role in its development. In his 1979 study British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, Wendell V Harris described Maginn with great justice as “perhaps the first nineteenth-century English writer who had a marked facility for the short narrative as a form with unique virtues of its own.” So what has Latané unearthed on this front?

He has not discovered anything radically new – no long lost short stories languishing in the archives – but his biography still provides the most definitive guide to what Maginn actually wrote. Latané also furnishes excellent commentaries on some of Maginn’s obscurer pieces, which demonstrate their literary and autobiographical significance. Where he is confounded, it only attests to the breadth of Maginn’s writing.

Within Latané’s analysis, the “hallmarks” of Maginn’s prose seem to be thematic rather than stylistic. I should confess that I cannot pick out Maginn’s hand from those of his contemporaries. As a student I had been adamant that the superb “A Traveller’s Week” was by Maginn. Not so: according to the scholar Alan Lang Strout, this was penned by Maginn’s countryman George Croly. Although I can now perceive its un-Maginnish qualities, as a student I was dumbfounded to learn that the atmospheric and massively influential “The Night Walker” was likewise written by a completely different writer, the Londoner Henry Thomson.

Latané finds the 1827 novel Whitehall to be Maginn’s (I had assumed Lockhart) and he rather comically suggests that the 1822 song “There was a lady lived at Leith” (potentially the best thing to be written by either Maginn or Lockhart) was penned by Lockhart, albeit whilst quoting Maginn from memory. It is indicative of Maginn’s talents that had he not acknowledged the 1832 tale “The First Foot” as his own work, it would have been attributed to a Scottish contributor to Fraser’s such as Hogg or Galt. Maginn’s prose is so inscrutable that Latané cannot even entirely rule out his authorship of the 1828 “true crime” horror The Red Barn (a book generally believed to be written by Robert Huish).

Inevitably for a biographer, Latané focuses on stories which lend themselves to an autobiographical interpretation. Referring to “the extremity of psychological desperation” in “The Man in the Bell,” he proposes that “Maginn may have felt at this time a much milder version in his own situation, which is expressed in response to Blackwood’s offer to sponsor a move to Edinburgh.” It could, of course, be just a story about a man who is trapped in a bell. The drawback to this autobiographical approach is that some of Maginn’s best and wholly comic tales, such as “Bob Burke’s Duel with Ensign Brady” and “A Vision of Purgatory” do not get a look in.

As a student I had been charmed by MacKenzie and Thrall’s portrayals of Maginn as a rollicking Irishman, and it had escaped me that there is far less humour in Maginn’s short stories than even in those of Poe. His first two tales “The Man in the Bell” and “Pococurante” are in fact appreciably gloomy. Where there is humour in his stories, it is often sly and (in Latané’s words) meta-textual. The sheer autobiography of “Pococurante” appears to rip through all of Maginn’s cobweb personas and pseudonyms. Perhaps it is in this respect an obscure rueful joke. Latané even considers the possibility that Maginn’s essay about Falstaff represents a sort of displaced autobiography.

Although it is seldom included within surveys of Maginn’s fiction, “My Wedding Night,” a take-off of a “missing” chapter from Byron’s memoirs, is in effect a highly innovative short story. Latané remains solemn about the piece, warning that “Maginn was lying to his friends” and quoting Lockhart’s dismay, but even today it is absolutely hilarious:

It was one of her bridemaids. Yet such is the case. I was actually dozing. Matrimony begins very soon to operate narcotically—had it been a mistress—had it been an assignation with any animal, covered with a petticoat—any thing but a wife—why, perhaps, the case would have been different.”

The scandal still sizzles on the page. Yet “My Wedding Night” equally illustrates why we are unlikely to ever see a modern edition of William Maginn’s collected or selected short stories. The footnotes needed to provide the necessary context for a modern reader would be twice as long as many of the original narratives. If you wish to enjoy the short stories of Maginn and his contemporaries, it is probably best to hunt them in the field rather than to admire them in an anthological menagerie. They should be discovered and treasured one at a time.

I do not know whether Maginn was an indifferent novelist or indifferent to novels, but Latané is right to lament “the loss of more stories rather than books.” However brilliantly Latané has illuminated Maginn, the melancholy shadow which hangs over the doctor’s career will never be completely dispelled.

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