Sep 21 2017 12:00pm

The Quiet Revolution: Victorian Women & the Periodical Press

Yuletide Truce by Sandra Schwab

Today we're thrilled to welcome Sandra Schwab (Yuletide Truce) has done a lot of research for her Victorian romances. While in historical periods it's often assumed that women were oppressed, there was a quiet revolution going on behind closed doors—and amidst the pages of periodicals. Sandra is here today to talk about Victorian women and the plans they put into action for equality. Thanks, Sandra!

I fell in love with Victorian periodicals back in 2010, when I was invited to give a paper at the annual conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals. The conference was held at Yale, which was nerve-racking enough, but what really blew my mind was the camaraderie among the scholars in this field—and the sheer breadth of the field itself. That conference was a revelation, and I was hooked.

Upon my return home, I immediately started to forage around the online catalogues of antique bookshops, and a few weeks later, several huge packages containing all volumes of the satirical magazine Punch from 1841-1891 arrived on my doorstep. (I think the nice UPS man was a bit taken aback that I nearly burst into tears when I opened the door and saw him.) The 154 pounds of Mr. Punch moved into my sitting room, and for the next five years, my academic research focused on this particular magazine — and soon influenced my fiction as well.

But what makes Victorian periodicals so special?

First of all, there are the newspapers and magazines themselves. In first half of the 19th century, the market for printed matter exploded. This was in part due to the rise of the middle classes and increased literacy, but also due to innovations in printing that made the process quicker and cheaper. There were magazines for each taste and interest, for example:

  • general magazines that covered various different topics ranging from literature to politics, and often included extras such as sheet music;
  • literary magazines that ran reviews (and yes, there were also snarky reviews: in 1817 the first issues of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine included sharp attacks on national literary figures such as Byron, and the ensuing scandal established the reputation of the magazine);
  • sports magazines which, apart from sporting news, also contained family trees and illustrations of race horses with names like Highland Fling or Whalebone;
  • women’s magazines with fashion plates and relationship advice (“Would it be very improper for me to send a few forget-me-not flowers to a young gentleman with who I have lately become acquainted?”);
  • horticultural magazines with their beautiful illustrations of long-forgotten varieties of fruit and vegetables;
  • the satirical magazines with their wealth of political and social caricatures;
  • and last, but not least, sensational papers like The Illustrated Police News with richly illustrated articles about ghastly crimes, the weirder the better (“Horrible Experience of a Burglar. He is attacked by an ourang-outang and driven mad”). (There are also several articles about people eaten by cats or bitten by skeletons.) (Yep. Skeletons.)

[picture: Collage Illustrated London News]

The expansion of the periodical press, especially in the 1820s and 30s, resulted in the rise of the professional writer. And because articles were typically published anonymously or pseudonymously, this new market also offered new chances and possibilities for women writers.

Victorian gender ideology dictated that women belonged to the domestic sphere. A woman writing for the public and — gasp! — earning money violated this gender ideology, and women developed different strategies to work around this fact. In the early decades of the 19th century many women writers focused on fields that were deemed suitable for women (e.g., poetry, stories set in the domestic sphere) and remained silent about their earnings, thus escaping public censure. But there were also others like Harriet Martineau, who strode boldly forward and wrote about whatever she liked, even — the horror! the horror! — politics. Martineau further scandalized her (male) contemporaries by publicly claiming a professional persona for herself.

In her article “Female Industry” in the April 1859 issue of the Edinburgh Review, Martineau boldly states, “Our countrywomen have the free command of the press; and they use it abundantly.” But in this article, she also makes clear that women’s work for the periodical press wasn’t just limited to writing: “The delightful Jane Taylor of Ongar and her sisters paid their share of the family expenses by engraving. Steel engravings were not then in a very great demand; yet those young women were incessantly at work […]. For a quarter of a century past, many hundreds of young women, we are assured, have supported themselves by wood engraving, for which there is now a demand which no jealousy in the stronger sex can intercept. The effort to exclude women was made, in this and other branches of art; but the interests of publishers and the public were more than a match for it.” (Tee-hee!)

[Picture: “A Wonderful Cure,” social cut by Georgina Bowen from Punch]

As Martineau suggests, women contributors to the periodical press often faced a backlash from men, or their contributions were downplayed. This is the case for Georgina Bowen’s illustrations for Punch. In his seminal History of Punch (1895), M.H. Spielmann calls her “[b]y far the most important lady artist who ever worked for Punch […].” But, he claims, being a woman, she had to be shown the proper way of doing things: “It was John Leech [Punch’s chief artist], who set her on the track; Mark Lemon [Punch’s editor], to whom she took her drawings, and with help from Mr. Swain [the engraver] she progressed.” (Oh, Mr. Spielmann… *rolling my eyes here*)

Women also worked as proofreaders and compositors, they provided fancywork designs, and some even became editors: in the 1830s Christian Isobel Johnstone became the editor of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine; upon her marriage to Samuel Beeton in 1856, Isabella Beeton started to edit and contribute to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine; and Eliza Warren Francis edited the Ladies’ Treasury for more than three decades.

[Picture: “Neck-tie scarf in imitation of Indian embroidery” from the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine ~1860]

And yet, as varied as the work of women for the periodical press was, much of it has been lost to obscurity, and it’s only in recent decades that more and more scholars have focused their efforts on women’s contributions to the Victorian periodical press and reclaiming their names from anonymity.


Learn more about or pre-order a copy of Yuletide Truce by Sandra Schwab, available September 22, 2017:

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Award-winning author Sandra Schwab started writing her first novel when she was seven years old. Twenty-odd years later, telling stories is still her greatest passion, even though by now she has exchanged her pink fountain pen for a black computer keyboard. Since the release of her debut novel in 2005, she has enchanted readers worldwide with her unusual historical romances.

She holds a PhD in English literature and lives in Frankfurt am Main / Germany with a sketchbook, a sewing machine, and an ever-expanding library. Her new series about the fictional magazine Allan’s Miscellany combines her academic research on Victorian periodicals with her love for story-telling.

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1. brontëgirl
Very interesting post!
These periodicals were very valuable--as was interlibrary loan!--to me when I was writing my dissertation on Charlotte Brontë's novels.
2. Sandra_Schwab
Thank you, @brontëgirl! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Digitization has made using 19th-century periodicals for research so much easier. Of course, reading the scanned version is never quite the same as holding an actual copy in your hands and leafing through it (and perhaps even finding bits of paper sticking to the pages).
4. brontëgirl
You're welcome! I've still got photocopies of articles tucked away :).
The most fun was visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum the week before my diss defense.
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