- "Write a little bit every day":L.T. Meade, Self-Representation, and the Professional Woman Writer
In the autumn of 1898, the readers of the Girl's Realm (1898-1915), a new middle-class girls' magazine, were given an opportunity to win a "£20 Lady's 'Swift' Bicycle" by submitting a list of "the six most popular living writers of stories for girls, given in the order of their popularity" ("Grand Prizes," Girl's Realm 1: 89). As Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig observe, "The bicycle was a happy choice for this prize, suggesting modernity and liberating athleticism to girls on the threshold of the new century" (55). L.T. Meade, the competition's favourite, was herself a happy choice for similar reasons. Arguably, no writer of her day made a greater contribution to the development of girls' culture and the idea of the "New Girl" than Meade, the author of close to three hundred books and countless short stories and essays, and editor (1887-93) of the highly regarded middle-class girls' literary magazine Atalanta. In the same year as this contest, Meade was ranked by the Strand Magazine as a literary "celebrity" along with H.G. Wells; she was described as one of the magazine's most popular contributors and "one of the most industrious modern writers of fiction" ("Portraits" 674). Eight years later, Meade was still ranked among the top five authors in a survey of girls aged fifteen to eighteen (Low 278-87). By 1929, however, Meade's name appeared on the "not to be circulated" lists of public libraries, and her books, once given as school prizes in Britain and North America, were removed from the shelves because they were believed to lack literary value (Mitchell 14).
Despite Meade's considerable literary presence in her own time, the subsequent devaluation of her work has contributed to a lack of interest in her life and career. Although Sally Mitchell's New Girl has done much to rehabilitate Meade's reputation, critics have, with a few exceptions,1 disparaged Meade's work, citing her "feminist shortcomings" (including her tendency to give more attention in her school stories to cocoa parties and dormitory furnishings than to academic studies), and even her commercialism (she produced as many as eleven books a year) as her offences.2 Nor have critics explored the other genres that Meade exploited so successfully.3 Despite her remarkable versatility as a writer and editor, Meade is now primarily remembered for her girls' fiction. To date, there is no full-length biography, no published collection [End Page 132] of letters, no documented collection of papers, and no comprehensive bibliography of her work.
Significantly, almost everything known about Meade is derived from her writings and from information she provided about herself to numerous interviewers. I argue in this essay that Meade, as one of the nineteenth century's most popular authors, carefully constructed and controlled her public image as a professional woman writer. By focusing on the ways in which Meade represented herself in the literary marketplace, I argue that Meade was a savvy professional who legitimized her claim to professional authority by drawing on earlier models of Victorian authorship like those of Harriet Martineau and Anthony Trollope. She also took advantage of sensational incidents and current debates in the periodical press—such as baby farming and infanticide—to frame her work for a popular audience.4 Meade also exploited popular genres, from the New Journalism to science fiction and detective fiction. Indeed, my analysis of Meade's career not only reveals her professionalism and canny market sense but also suggests how fin-de-siècle women writers exploited current debates and popular literary genres to build professional careers.
Presenting the Literary Woman
Although Meade left no memoirs, she offered autobiographical "tit-bits" in her interviews and writing. Notably, much of the information she provided centred on her methods of work and her views on writing, editing, and professionalism; what information she revealed was shaped to enhance her public persona. In this respect, Meade's carefully constructed autobiographical revelations reflect the professionalization of women's writing in the nineteenth century. As the expansion of...