Jennie Batchelor, et al. - The Lady’s Magazine: Understanding the Emergence of a Genre. Reviewed by Laila Ferreira
University of British Columbia
“Should work really be such fun?” asks Jennie Batchelor, lead researcher of The Lady’s Magazine: Understanding the Emergence of a Genre project (“The Monster”). In posing this question, Batchelor points to the myth of the isolated struggle and subsequent seriousness of literary work in opposition to the communal pleasures and subsequent frivolity of magazines and periodicals. Through their two-year, Leverhulme Trust-funded project out of the University of Kent, Batchelor and postdoctoral researchers Jenny DiPlacidi and Koenraad Claes debunk this myth and approach late eighteenth-century magazines and periodicals as publications that have much to contribute to critical understandings of Romantic-era literary history. The “guilty pleasures” of The Lady’s Magazine project include interacting with periodical scholars in “real time” as they grapple with multi-source methods of archival research and make meaning of their findings. The project’s blog posts, Twitter feed, and impressive workshop and presentation schedule are a model of collaborative scholarship that brings together the potential of the digital humanities with the hands-on study of material and print culture. Blog readers are also offered opportunities to contribute to the project, such as through “The Great Stitch Off”—an ongoing series that began with the discovery of rare, original Lady’s Magazine inserts of embroidery patterns (Batchelor, “Stitch Off FAQs”).* Central to the project’s scholarly contributions is a painstakingly developed annotated index (released in September 2016) that identifies reader-contributors and categorizes and attributes content for a publication that offers little in the way of established records (Claes). The index on its own has the potential for an extensive visualizing and mapping of the magazine across the socio-political and economic landscape of the Romantic period (DePlacidi). As a whole, The Lady’s Magazine project is one of the only sustained studies of late eighteenth-century magazine and periodical culture and the first of any length to conclude that these publications are more complex and influential than criticism of the era has allowed.
The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880) itself is a publication phenomenon, not least for a successful sixty-two year (thirteen issues per annum) run and reliance on often anonymous, “mixed-sex but mainly female reader-contributors” (ladies-magazine). According to the project blog,
For a modest price (just sixpence for the first few decades of the magazine’s history) readers were provided with a monthly feast of short stories and serialised fiction, poetry, essays on history, science, politics and travel, advice for wives and mothers, fashion reports, recipes, medicinal “receipts” offering cures for maladies from cramp to “hectic fevers,” accounts of trials and biographies of famous historical and contemporary figures, enigmas, rebuses and domestic and foreign news reports, as well as elegant engravings, fashion plates, embroidery patterns, and song sheets. (ladies-magazine)
Part of the magazine’s success, the project argues, can be attributed to the eclectic content and the positioning of non-paid, “amateur” contributors adjacent to more established or “professional” writers. The project findings indicate that instead of disseminating a single, conventional world-view, The Lady’s Magazine was a forum in which many different positions from a range of voices were brought into conversation. These included debates between anonymous reader-contributors about the role of women in society, alongside previously published works by Mary Wollstonecraft and William Fordyce. “This is not to say,” writes Batchelor, “that the magazine was entirely democratic or that some voices weren’t louder than others, but within the magazine’s community, dissent was encouraged and debate flourished” (“Meaning and Magazines”). By tracing the sources of the magazine’s content and fleshing out the lives of the magazine’s reader-contributors, The Lady’s Magazine project makes a strong claim for early Romantic-era authorship as intertextual and appropriative rather than individual and original.
In this way, The Lady’s Magazine project enacts the function of The Lady’s Magazine itself: a social space in which a wide network of reader-contributors share and respond (both physically and textually) to a diversity of topics and in a variety of genres. Building on feminist revisions of women’s writing, The Lady’s Magazine project puts into question established, gendered understandings of literary history and authorship of the late eighteenth century. The project team provides extensive evidence that publications such as The Lady’s Magazine contained both early models and alternative possibilities for later nineteenth-century developments in literary genre as well as gender norms, social conventions, and standards of aesthetic valuation. The project’s index promises many future avenues of scholarly inquiry on the role of magazines and periodicals (and other such publications) in Romantic-era literary history. As Batchelor points out, the guilty pleasures of the Lady’s Magazine project are integral to the historical and literary significance of The Lady’s Magazine as well as the work (the pleasures and struggles) of literary criticism itself.
* “The Great Stitch Off” invites readers to experiment with stitching the found embroidery patterns and exploring “the challenges and pleasures of ‘work,’ as it would have been known at the time, that would have occupied many of the magazine’s readers” (Batchelor, “Stitch Off FAQs”). Readers of this review can refer to the blog for information on how to participate as well as to read contributor perspectives on the Stitch Off’s scholarly potential.
Batchelor, Jennie. “The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off FAQs.” The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 4 Feb. 2016, blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/2016/02/04the-great-ladys-magazine-stitch-off-faqs/. Accessed 7 July 2016.
---. “Meaning and Magazines.” The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 16 June 2016, blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/2015/06/16/meaning-and-magazines/. Accessed 7 July 2016.
---.“The Monster and Other Not So Guilty Pleasures.” The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 18 May 2015, blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/2015/05/18/the-monster-and-other-not-so-guilty-pleasures/. Accessed 7 July 2016.
Claes, Koenraad. “An Open-Access Research Index for the Lady’s Magazine.” The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 8 Nov. 2014, blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/2014/11/08/an-open-access-research-index-for-the-ladys-magazine/. Accessed 8 July 2016.
DiPlacidi, Jenny. “The Mighty Pie Chart and Generic Evolutions.” The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 27 Apr. 2016, blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/2016/04/27/the-mighty-pie-chart-and-generic-evolutions/. Accessed 7 July 2016.
ladies-magazine (Jennie Batchelor). “Welcome to the Lady’s Magazine: Understanding the Emergence of a Genre.” The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1880): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 29 Oct. 2014, blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/2014/10/29/welcome-to-the-ladys-magazine-understanding-the-emergence-of-a-genre/. Accessed 7 July 2016.
“The Lady’s Magazine: Understanding the Emergence of a Genre.” Lady’s Magazine, English Department, U of Kent / The Leverhulme Trust, 10 Oct. 2014, www.kent.ac.uk/english/ladys-magazine/. Accessed 7 July 2016.