- Mediated Histories:How Did Victorian Periodicals Parse the Past?
Victorian periodicals put historical knowledge at the centre of readers' experience along with the news of the day and the fictions of the moment. Printed and reprinted, revised and reiterated, a body of more-or-less familiar narratives of the past appeared in the same range of generic and material formats as did news, fiction, essays, and poetry. Journalists, editors, and other contributors recast well-known events afresh for an eager readership. The same stories, from Alfred and the cakes to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, were told over and over again in daily newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines, and quarterly and annual reviews. This ubiquity has been largely overlooked, however, by scholars of nineteenth-century British historiography and is just beginning to be investigated by those who study the Victorian periodical press.1
This article has two purposes. First, I posit that historical writing was published in two basic forms, two journalistic genres, in the Victorian periodical press. One was the account of an event or a moment in time. Long accounts were aimed at various target audiences—from adolescents who liked a hero's story to adult readers who knew there was an anniversary to celebrate. Shorter accounts, seemingly pointless little paragraphs, may have served primarily to fill space on a page being put together in a hurry or to celebrate a local event. The other genre, the book review, was a complex combination of evaluation and reiteration (often through excerpting), which offered an opportunity to comment on the relevance of the past to current events. I argue that the proliferation of both accounts of the past and reviews of historical books in the Victorian periodical press reinforced the contemporary sense that history should be accessible to anyone, in [End Page 802] different flavours and increasing levels of complexity. Articles reinforced national pride, denominational identity, imperial ambition, or xenophobia. Historical content might reinforce concepts of national greatness, selfless heroism, or individual agency in a format that was accessible to readers. It had to be, because accounts and reviews of history were commissioned and paid for by editors and were written by the journalist-authors for whom they constituted the bread and butter of a literary life.
My second purpose in this essay is to frame this preliminary study and its limited conclusions within the context of changing methodologies for the study of historical print. My research on history and the periodical press began in 2005 when I gave the Michael Wolff lecture at the RSVP conference in Washington, DC, and my engagement with the topic intensified in 2007 when I received a research grant to investigate proprietary online databases (which at that stage offered untested new resources for scholars in periodical studies). The project stalled after 2009 when administrative responsibilities intervened. This retrospective essay, then, is a reflection on how the field has transformed over these years and serves as an apologia for a research methodology that no longer passes muster as up-to-date scholarship. I am aware that my sample is flawed and my figures are of little value. Short of redoing everything from scratch, my objective is to frame my report in the context of how the methodology of researching history and the periodical press has changed, in the hope that other scholars will take the subject further.
Where Is the History in Book History and Periodical Studies?
Whenever I comment on disciplinary boundaries in the history of the book, my interdisciplinarity has a territorial edge to it. I try to ensure that history (as an academic discipline) is given due respect, and I'm aware that, despite the term "book history," the field is overpopulated by literature scholars and librarians, with historians in the minority. We are a distinguished minority, including three former presidents of the American Historical Association who are book historians (Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Darnton, and Anthony Grafton). But the disciplinary priorities of historians sometimes get swamped by an interdisciplinary agenda. The same goes for book history's close cousin, the study of the Victorian periodical press. Although I have discussed this situation in print, I've also...