- “Charting the Golden Stream”:Recent Work on Victorian Periodicals
As the Victorians themselves were acutely aware, the periodical press was a key component of the Victorian mass media: as a public forum, discursive agent, and mediator of a hybrid and ephemeral nature. Periodicals were commodities situated in and responsive to a shifting market in a number of complex ways. As a result, the periodical was an eminently active medium, dynamic both then and now. Such dynamism makes the scholarly study of periodicals challenging but also hugely rewarding.
The study of Victorian periodicals as a subgenre of Victorian studies is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past few years scholars from several disciplines have produced fascinating work on the interdisciplinary [End Page 505] nature of the periodical itself. Such work belongs to a tradition of periodical scholarship that emerged in the 1950s. Studies by Richard Altick, Louis James, and Margaret Dalziel were pioneering in the area of mass culture in general and the periodical in particular. Although these studies do not engage exclusively with periodicals, they began to uncover this vibrant and complex field and raise key questions about market, address, and readership. Michael Wolff's contributions in the 1960s also cannot be underestimated: the launch of a research society (Research Society for Victorian Periodicals) and a journal (Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, now Victorian Periodicals Review) were significant for the field, and his essay "Charting the Golden Stream" (1967) provided a useful methodological model.
This scholarship alerted readers to the obstacles in accessing the vast array of material. Titles numbered in the tens of thousands, and attempts by Victorian publishers to market and remarket specific titles can complicate the tracking of less commercially viable texts. Fortunately, following the work of these early scholars, resources such as The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (1966–89), The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals (1997), Poole's Index to Periodical Literature, 1802–1906 (1963), and the listing of newspaper and periodicals in the third volume of The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (1969) have simplified the scholar's task of locating and classifying nineteenth-century periodical material. Likewise, overviews of the development of the press such as Alvin Sullivan's British Literary Magazines (1983–86) and J. Don Vann and Rosemary Van Arsdel's Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society (1978–89) have further helped to map out this broad and diverse area. These resources, together with the growth of interdisciplinary publication venues, have all brought the study of the periodical from the margins to a much more central position in Victorian studies.
To be sure, scholarly approaches to the periodical have changed over these past few decades, often in tune with other disciplinary changes and especially in relation to the theory wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. At the moment, empirical studies that focus on aspects of material culture—such as histories of specific titles, statistics on circulation and cost, and detailed information on editors and contributors—live comfortably alongside more theoretically inclined works that focus on the text as a signifying practice contributing to charged power relations. A survey of the field as it stands now suggests [End Page 506] that the advent of theory has moved the debate toward something more complex and diverse, very much like the periodical itself. Anthologies that suggest both ways of representing and reading periodicals (Beetham and Boardman) have...