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Victorian Periodicals Review 38.1 (2005) 61-82
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Among the Unknown Public:
Household Words, All the Year Round and the Mass-Market Weekly Periodical in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
2004 Van Arsdel Prize Essay
On 21 August 1858, an article entitled 'The Unknown Public' appeared on the front page of Charles Dickens's journal Household Words. Although the reader of this largely anonymous publication might not have been aware of the fact, the author of the piece was the young aspiring novelist Wilkie Collins, then one of Dickens's closest personal and professional associates. Collins adopts a clearly rhetorical stance, claiming to be amazed at his discovery of a lower-class, fiction-consuming reading public:
... an Unknown Public; a public to be counted by millions; the mysterious, the unfathomable, the universal public of the penny-novel Journals.
While Collins initially appears to be writing from a privileged position of smug superiority, as staff writer on a successful, respectable journal conducted by one of the most celebrated literary men of the day, there is an inherent ambivalence in his article. This ambivalence in turn comments on the nature of Household Words itself, and calls into question the stable, superior identity Collins is so eager to construct for the journal. Rather than engaging in an anthropological enquiry into the nature of the reading public, the author is in fact employed in simultaneously addressing and creating a middle-class audience for the journal. Margaret Beetham has written that 'a periodical is not a window on to the past or even a mirror of it. Each article, each periodical number, was and is part of a complex process in which writers, editors, publishers and readers engaged in trying to understand themselves and their society' (20). Her argument is entirely apposite: a struggle for self-definition and for meaning was an inherent [End Page 61] part of the writing, editing, design and marketing of every journal. It affected elements of the publication as seemingly unrelated as format, printing, illustration and advertising. Collins's article is a part of this complex process of negotiation and identification: his characterisation of the Unknown Public has highly significant implications for an understanding of the identity and nature of Household Words as a whole.1
It is worth paying close attention to Collins's article in order to analyse the peculiarities of Household Words's circumstances of publication, and by extension the specific identity encoded in the pages of Household Words. Initially, he appears to delineate the Unknown Public as ignorant, naïve and little more than a source of satire. He devotes an entire page to a rehearsal of extracts from 'answers to correspondents' sections of these penny papers, focussing on the trivial, the prosaic and the uninformed:
Two readers respectively unawares, until the editor has enlightened them, that the author of Robinson Crusoe was Daniel Defoe, and the author of the Irish Melodies Thomas Moore. Another reader, a trifle denser, who requires to be told that the histories of Greece and Rome are ancient histories, and the histories of France and England modern histories ... A reader who wants to know the right hour of the day at which to visit a newly-married couple. A reader who wants to know a receipt for liquid blacking ... Two lady readers who require lovers, and wish the editor to provide them. Two timid girls, who are respectively afraid of a French invasion and dragon-flies.
Subsequently, the correspondents degenerate further into mere types or humours: they are characterised as 'a natty reader', 'a virtuous reader' and so on, with the tale of adjectives becoming ever more absurd and laughable. 'Readers' are variously 'guilty (female)', 'pale-faced', 'undecided', 'bashful', 'speculative', 'scorbutic', 'pimply' and 'jilted'. Editorial advice is represented as being of the most inane kind: Collins compiles a list of 'ten editorial statements ... pronounced at the express request of correspondents', which begins with the advice that 'all months are lucky to marry in, when your union...