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  • 2006 VanArsdel Prize Essay “Cheap, Healthful Literature”:The Strand Magazine, Fictions of Crime, and Purified Reading Communities
  • Christopher Pittard (bio)

At the turn of the twentieth century, Arthur Conan Doyle took a trip to the Continent. He later wrote of his journey in a letter to the literary editor of The Strand Magazine, remarking that "Foreigners used to recognise the English by their check suits. I think they will soon learn to do it by their Strand Magazines. Everybody on the Channel boat, except the man at the wheel, was clutching one."2 Publishing historians have usually taken Doyle's anecdote to reveal the extent to which George Newnes's periodical the Strand had established a firm reading community, and expanded that community to include a sense of nationhood.3 Such a concept of the reading community has become crucial to recent developments in the study of Victorian periodicals and serial fiction.4 The idea is a development of the work of Stanley Fish on "interpretive communities," being a set of readers who bring certain "interpretive strategies" to bear on a text, and in terms of periodical history the idea is seen as a more useful critical tool than the more general conception of the "reading public."5 Kate Jackson, for instance, argues that the creation of reading communities, defined as "categories of readers linked together by a common experience or expectation of reading, and by common social, political, ideological or cultural objectives or bonds rather than by physical proximity," was at the heart of Newnes's publishing enterprise. The continued success of magazines like the miscellany Tit-Bits (1881) was, according to Jackson, due to Newnes's creation of a relationship between himself as paternal editor and the readership of the magazine.6 In this article, I consider how the format of the Strand itself "purified" experience, particularly in the supposedly threatening realm of crime narratives.

The first number of the Strand Magazine was launched by George Newnes for Christmas 1890 (the first volume being dated 1891), after [End Page 1] he had perceived a gap in the market for a monthly which would reflect the interests of an aspirational middle class through a wide range of fiction, interviews, articles, and illustrations, sold mostly at railway station stands to catch a market of city commuters. Yet Newnes was also aware of the potential for his publications to improve his readers' cultural health, arguing that "An enormous class of superficial readers, who crave for light reading, would read the so-called sporting papers if there was no Tit-Bits to entertain them. At least its contents are wholesome and many of those readers may be led to take an interest in higher forms of literature."7 Tit-Bits was wholesome because of what it was not; The Strand, by contrast, would be a positive effort to offer healthy reading. Of Tit-Bits, Newnes said that in an 1893 interview that "it is a great source of satisfaction to me that I should have inaugurated a popular paper which should be taken largely by the masses, and which is absolutely pure."8 Newnes might well have been talking of one of the proprietary medicines frequently advertised in the pages of illustrated newspapers such as the Illustrated London News, and the same concerns were voiced in the first number of the Strand, with Newnes offering "cheap, healthful literature."9 Not high art, but hygienic for its reader-consumers. Newnes continually described his publications in the context of the health of his readers; the term he used most frequently to describe his periodicals was "wholesome," and its various synonyms.10

The emphasis on community in Newnes's publications (and critical discussion of them) suggests another form of purification. For the sociologist Richard Sennett, the creation of community implies a certain purifying instinct, and to develop this he analyses a social formation he terms "purified community." This structure arises out of an individual's adolescent identity crisis, which is resolved by the adoption of a purifying drive which gives precedence to the ordered over the disordered and painful:

[E]xperience over the course of time is subjected to a purification process, so that the...


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