- Gender, Society, and Print Culture in Late-Stuart England: The Cultural World of the Athenian Mercury
Helen Berry entices readers with a book about the "first agony column in history," a provocative genre associated with "prurience and perhaps secret self-identification" (xi). She provides the first in-depth analysis of John Dunton's Athenian Mercury (1691-97), the original question-and-answer publication of the [End Page 93] early modern world. Anonymous advice columns such as "Dear Abby," in which people reveal their intimate problems through public media, remain popular in contemporary society.
The Athenian Mercury exemplifies the coffeehouse periodical, a popular genre of print culture emerging during the seventeenth century. Berry examines over nine hundred question-and-answer pairs from both men and women among the middling sorts in early modern England (244). She focuses on how gender issues relating to the body, courtship, and sex influenced print culture and includes illustrations of the frontispiece, title page, and select folios of Dunton's periodical. Her study should appeal to historians as well as scholars in women's and gender studies, literature, and publishing history.
Berry shows that from its inception mass media was an effective tool for reinforcing conservative gender norms that complied with strict religious morals and upheld a patriarchal society. She offers sundry examples of readers' questions about sexuality and reproduction, such as the effect of too much food and alcohol on sexual performance (132), how children are imprinted with the mark of foods the mother craved during pregnancy (137), or why a man experienced physical pains equal to that of his pregnant wife (139). In response to a query about the existence of a "change of sexes," Dunton refers to the case of a fifteen-year-old girl who by leaping over a ditch while chasing hogs caused male genitalia to "descend" (134). Berry relates the emergence of such questions regarding hermaphroditism and the distinctions between sex and gender in the seventeenth century to the work of twentieth-century scholars Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Although Berry identifies traces of modern gender theory in the Athenian Mercury, overall the periodical promoted "normative Christian values" and subscribed to the Reformation of Manners campaign in late Stuart England (193).
Yet Berry argues that the Athenian Mercury departed from "didactic Protestant literature and the tradition of Puritan conduct writers" and "de-stabiliz[ed] cultural norms through the casuistical descriptions of deviant personal and sexual behavior" (122). The Athenian Mercury also challenged the patriarchy by including women and raising serious questions about their subordinate position in society, particularly in regard to education and employment. Dunton recognized the sexual double standard and offered women of a middle and lower social status in early modern England the opportunity to publicly voice their opinions.
As a pioneer in the coffeehouse periodical genre, Dunton provided a venue through which gender issues could be reevaluated and explored in an open discussion. He created a new type of critical discourse through the agony column by setting up a dialogue between himself and other authors who responded to questions and the readers who anonymously submitted them as well as amongst the readers themselves (123). The periodical exposed male and female readers' anxieties to one another, revealing that while women were concerned with their parents' wishes in the process of matchmaking, men were more worried about their social status and financial resources (163). Such examples indicate that the politics of gender was an area of general interest and concern among men and women in England at that time.
Berry's book succeeds both as a didactic research tool for scholars as well as a compelling historical study for general readers. Her thorough, nuanced analysis of the nexus of print culture and gender relations in late Stuart England highlights the need for and enduring interest in gender studies across the centuries.