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Introduction: Strahan’s contribution

The Argosy was set up in 1865 by the publisher Alexander Strahan as a complement to his other literary journal, Good Words, and as a rival to Smith Elder’s Cornhill Magazine. Loaded with treasures like The Argo and venturing in pursuit of more, The Argosy set out to challenge The Cornhill by combining fiction and poetry with high quality illustrations in black and white. Sold monthly firstly for sixpence and later for a shilling, though always printed on relatively poor quality paper, its bourgeois audience was the same or similar to that engaged by Once a Week, Good Words, and other ‘miscellaneous’ literary journals of the period.

The Argosy could never match The Cornhill’s combination of texts by Anthony Trollope and Sir John Everett Millais and George Eliot and Frederick Lord Leighton, but it did have a ‘high-powered’ (Phlegley, p.23) stable of regulars. Under the direction of its first editor, Isa Craig (1831–1903), it acquired some verse of unusual quality, with Christina Rossetti as a contributor. It also included a number of Sensational novels and short stories, notably those by Charles Reade, Margaret Oliphant, Ellen Wood and George Macdonald. The magazine featured several serials, and foremost among these is Reade’s Griffith Gaunt, which appeared in 1866 with bold and energetic designs by William Small.

Two illustrations by William Small of Charles Reade's Griffith Gaunt. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

Reade’s novel was The Argosy’s first great success, and the Sensational Novel became its trade-mark; though set up to challenge the unimpeachable Cornhill, it found its identity in the form of the counter-culture texts of Reade and Wood. This seems to have happened almost incidentally, with no obvious planning from Strahan, who quickly assumed the role of both editor and publisher. The inclusion of Sensational texts increased the magazine’s appeal and sales rose; but the effects of publishing scandalous material were not anticipated by the devout and respectable proprietor.

The moment of parting came when Strahan reflected on the frank treatment of bigamy in Reade’s Griffith Gaunt; reviled in America, where it was published simultaneously with the British edition (Srebrnik, p.90), the novel seemed to its publisher to be more of a liability than a business opportunity. As Patricia Thomas Srebrnik remarks in her outstanding study of Strahan, this was not the sort of text ‘that readers might anticipate from the purveyors of Good Words, the Sunday Magazine and Christian Work Throughout the World’ (p.86).

Mrs. Ellen Wood takes over

Title-page, contents, and advertisments in The Argosy after Mrs. Wood took over the magazine. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Strahan soon realized he had made a serious mistake, and in October 1867 he sold the magazine to Mrs. Wood, dismissing in one move both Reade and the ‘temptation’ – a term he may well have used in his biblical reading of the business world – to publish material of a similar kind. Others could use it for sensational purposes, he seemed to reason, but not under his proprietorship. Wood went on to use it (as M.E. Braddon used Belgravia) as a vehicle for the publication of her own fiction (Phlegley, pp. 23–24), featuring in its pages some of her most characteristic works; Johnny Ludlow(1868) and Roland Yorke (1869) were great hits. Placed within the covers of what appeared to be a conventional literary magazine, she established sensation fiction as a respectable genre that occupied the same space as sentimental poems and anodyne reflections on the meaning of life, a glimmer of scandal among so much of the ordinary as it was read at the middle-class fireside.

Wood continued as editor and proprietor, supplying most of the copy until 1871, when she sold it to Richard Bentley as a going concern. It continued as a publication of declining quality, eventually folding in 1901. For collectors it is now one of the most eagerly sought of mid-Victorian periodicals, especially the early Strahan numbers, which rarely appear in the half-yearly binding and are virtually unknown in their original monthly wrappers (Cooke, p. 33).

Related Material

Works Cited

Argosy, The.London: Strahan, 1865–67.

Cooke, Simon. Illustrated Periodicals of the 1860s. Pinner: PLA; London: The British Library; Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2010.

Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996; rev. ed., Lund Humphries, 2004.

Phelgley, Jennifer Jean. ‘The Argosy’.Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism.Ed. Laura Brake. Gent: Academia Press, 2009.

Srebrnik, Patricia. Alexander Strahan: Victorian Publisher. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986.

4 March 2013