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Peter Blake, George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press. The Personal Style of a Public Writer

Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015, 288 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-1607-0
Laurel Brake
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Peter Blake, George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press. The Personal Style of a Public Writer, Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015, 288 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-1607-0

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1Previous scholarly work on Sala has been sporadic and sparse: a full biography by Ralph Straus in 1942, P. D. Edwards’s treatment (1997) of the careers of Sala and Edmund Yates as ‘Dickens’s young men’, and Cathy Waters’s examination of his writing as part of a larger study of Household Words in 2008. So it is good to have Peter Blake’s new book on G. A. Sala (1828-95), a prodigal journalist, a pioneer of ‘new journalism’ and a renowned ‘special correspondent’ as we know, but also a robust Bohemian, an artist/illustrator, a novelist, and a writer of pornography. These are each addressed by Blake in separate chapters, united by themes—of style and Sala’s trademark personal voice.

2The first six chapters are roughly chronological—from Sala’s early career as an artist, working variously as a scene painter, book and periodical illustrator, wood engraver, and designer and executor of panoramas, to writing for Household Words, and to subsequent employment on the Daily Telegraph, where he wrote leaders, columns and foreign correspondence for 20 years; and on the illustrated London News which published his ‘Echoes of the Week’ for a similar span. He was an inveterate traveller over three decades, in Russia, Italy, the States, Algeria and Australia among other destinations, on all of which he reported in the press. Despairing of journalism for a wild moment, he thought about living as a writer of fiction, and between 1856 and 1864 he published five serialised novels, which likewise drew on his journalism, travels and travel writing. His pornographic play and novella (1879 and 1882 respectively), treated in chapter 7, reflected his personal taste for flagellation and bondage. Always impecunious if a high-earner, Sala regularly and quickly scooped up his press work, digesting it into a succession of popular and well-paying volumes. Moreover, it is clear from the number and diversity of other serials to which he contributed, that he was a jobbing journalist, turning his hand to what was on offer, to support a rollicking lifestyle, which on one occasion resulted in imprisonment for debt.

3The volume is well and attractively structured, in chapters on successive topics—visual work, followed by his modes of writing London, Paris, Russia, Novels, Special Correspondence, and pornography. Each is a focused essay on critical problems the topics raise, primarily geared to Sala’s styles and voice. At his best Blake develops interesting issues, drawing widely and knowledgeably on clusters of scholarship that illuminate the context of 21st-century intellectual debate around his selected topics and aspects of Sala’s positions. So, it is a good read. As is often the case in thematic works, there is an element of ‘smash and grab’, whereby individual articles by Sala or even quotations are isolated and deployed to make points, with hardly any grounding in their sources, in this case the periodical press flagged up in Blake’s title.

4It is not as though the press—periodical and newspaper—were not visible in Blake’s narrative. The press is evident in frequent iteration and citation of titles of journals; there is also some general information about individual titles—for example, reference to their editor, who becomes or is already a friend of Sala’s, or to the politics—pro Confederate—of a title—the Telegraph—for which Sala is writing. And journalism is there in quotations from the text of articles. However, we seldom know the date of an issue or where within it an individual article appears, or the original form or title of an article; nor do we see what else the Telegraph is printing, on the (unknown) day that Sala’s report or ‘letter’ appears. Moreover, in-text references for quotations that appear in brackets are page numbers from volumes in which articles have been collected. So, the thematic points on which Blake’s argument is built have invisible links to the press, obscured origins and dates. It transpires that almost none of the quotations of Sala’s articles are from their serial iterations.

5This presents two problems for your reviewer. One is the missing material context of Sala’s work as journalism—in the journals in which it appeared, and with respect to other contemporary journals with which it is in dialogue. The other is the critical assumption that texts in collected volumes are the same as those in individual issues. Problems attaching to re-mediation have been well known to critics and media historians for some time—the conflations, re-ordering, and selection and deselection that collected volumes of work entail, and of course the distinctive characteristics of volumes on the one hand and journals on the other.

6In chapter 6 for example, Blake’s contextualisation of Sala’s reports as a Special Correspondent is with other ‘travel writing’ or travelogues, a reflection of the status of Sala’s news letters in volume form, deracinated from their news report format in the press. P. D. Edwards for example in his 1997 book on Sala and Yates is carefully alert to these issues: ‘This chapter [of Sala’s book My Diary] consolidated seven letters published in the Telegraph between 15 March and 22 April 1864… Four letters were left out of the book’ (P. D. Edwards, Dickens’s ‘Young Men’, note 25, p. 133). Neither are we able to glean much sense of what Sala’s daily life as a working journalist was like, or across his career. So, Blake dismisses a decade of Sala’s work (1869–78) in a sentence because, in the Special Correspondent chapter (184) Sala allegedly does not travel in this period. BUT, he does, as Straus and Sidney Lee’s DNB entry on Sala reveals. The detail of how Sala manages as a journalist competing demands on his time—different assignments from different editors for diverse periodicals, along with his book compilations, his novels, his pornographic writing—has to be painfully computed by Blake’s readers.

7This work, with its topical organisation, is determined not to be a biography, and Sala’s dates or even years of birth and death are not supplied; they have to be surmised from ‘In 1834 at the age of six’ (17) and ‘the last five years of his life from 1890 to 1895’ (256). The scholarly apparatus is similarly unhelpful. The bibliography of Sala’s works is scrappy and meagre, and the tiny proportion of his articles listed is lamentable. Even the list of his books does not include titles mentioned or dwelt on in the narrative. The failure to attempt a serious bibliography of Sala’s periodical work that publication of this book affords is particularly regrettable, as there is no other fulsome bibliography of Sala’s remarkable output in the press. Nor does the Index reflect the nuances of Blake’s narrative, but surprisingly its list of Sala’s work is fuller than the Bibliography, and does acknowledge The Mysteries of Verbena House. However, the main entry for ‘Sala’ is printed as ‘Saki’, which is indicative of the poor proofreading throughout, with ‘Wiener’ and ‘Weiner’ glaringly appearing within an inch of each other (259).

8The parsimony of reference style also makes this volume vexing to read. Many quotations are followed only by a page number, with no indication of what text it might refer to. This is ‘covered’ by the author/publisher stating for three sources that ‘All subsequent references in parenthesis’. But how are readers to know which title, of three, each quotation is from? More than once I searched the text and Bibliography, trying to figure out in which volume of Sala’s on the US a quotation was from, and what its date might be. In common parlance, this book is not user-friendly.

9It also would have benefited from a good copy editor. For example, Blake ponders repetitively (207-8) about the dearth of objection by Telegraph readers to Sala’s racist construction of American blacks, even though on p. 205 Blake states that the paper had ‘given its full support to the Confederacy and had become one of the most pro-Southern of British newspapers’. No reader, let alone the author, should have been surprised on p. 207 that Telegraph readers remained silent. However, I was intrigued to read that a Methodist journal allegedly approved of Sala’s book. I checked the Rev. William Arthur’s 25 page review of Sala’s My Diary in the London Quarterly Review, and found that Blake’s reading was forced and disingenuous. Although Blake quotes the sentences accurately, they are unique in Arthur’s long article that is deeply disapproving of Sala’s book. Blake is resting his claim on sentences located after the reviewer specifically turns away from the ‘politics and warfare’ in Sala’s book to consider ‘the literary characteristics’ of Sala’s work more generally (161). Blake obfuscates the irony of the praise he quotes by excluding Arthur’s observation that immediately follows it: ‘It is quite astonishing to observe how much Mr Sala can make out of a trifle… Indeed, it is for trifles that his genius is best fitted’ (163). Arthur’s review is not positive about Sala’s book or politics at all. In this thoughtful piece, Arthur even takes the trouble to expose the dishonest representation of the steady progress of the North in the day to day reporting of the Civil War in the Telegraph. Blake might have heeded one of Arthur’s more moderate condemnations of Sala’s political opinions, and represented the spirit of this review in his book appropriately: ‘Mr Sala …will hereafter regret that the tone of his volume on this subject is beneath the dignity of letters, and behind what even the South partially recognises as ‘the spirit of the age’. (155). Arthur is not amused.

10Blake’s book is an interesting panorama of diverse aspects of Sala’s chocker-block career as a graphic artist, and writer of popular journalism and books, of notable diversity. Blake’s perspective is literary, and the book’s implicit argument presents Sala’s writing as ‘literary journalism’ in popular culture, rather than as journalism in media history, despite Sala’s own fascination with journalism, and lifelong celebration of it throughout his writing. Sala’s career as a journalist in the latter half of the century might be seen in the tradition of his predecessor William Maginn (1794–1842), a similarly carousing, multi-talented, fluent, Bohemian journalist who always wrote for the Tory press, unlike Sala who began as a liberal and reformist (cf. Household Words) and gravitated to the Telegraph, imperialism, and libertine pornography, while nevertheless wowing the punters.

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Laurel Brake, « Peter Blake, George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press. The Personal Style of a Public Writer », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Laurel Brake

Birkbeck, University of London

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