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  • "Will You Give Me Your Opinion?":Mundane Beauty in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, 1860–75
  • Jessica P. Clark (bio)

In February 1868 the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine printed a letter enquiring about experiences with hair treatments. Correspondent C. M. R. requested advice from readers of the "Englishwoman's Conversazione" on a widely available commercial hair restorer. On news that Mrs. Allen's Dressing caused itchy red scalps in two acquaintances, "I bethought," she wrote, "of your invaluable Conversazione, which so often helps us out of difficulties"; she felt "most thankful if any of your subscribers who may have used this preparation will kindly inform me whether the result was similar in their case."1 C. M. R.'s letter set off a chain of responses over the coming months, including a warning from respondent Constance that Mrs. Allen's Dressing contained hazardous amounts of mercury. Constance's disclosure in turn prompted a defensive response from the distributor, who asserted the "natural" makeup of his company's product and impugned Constance's motives.2 Other responses followed both refuting and supporting Constance's charge, accompanied by correspondents' own tried-and-true personal recipes for hair restorers.

Exchanges like that of C. M. R. and her contemporaries illuminate the role of the correspondence column as a textual community of participants, as defined by Margaret Beetham and Lynn Warren. The conversazione functioned as a textual forum where female interlocutors engaged in the production of personal and collective meanings. According to Beetham and Warren, columns could operate as relatively independent entities despite editorial attempts to manage their content, forging a sense of belonging to a discursive milieu populated by textual identities.3 As part of this exchange, participants in the "Englishwoman's Conversazione" periodically debated daily practices of bodily management despite popular opprobrium of female beautification through the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, in addition [End Page 540] to questions about fashion and needlework, the column encouraged a widening circle of consumer knowledge encompassing a commercially conscious public sphere of citizens who debated the efficacy and, more importantly, the safety of widely available beauty products. Although C. M. R. reportedly discussed hair treatments with two friends, she relied on the larger community of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine's correspondents to substantiate their negative claims. She placed her trust in a textual community of women facilitated by the popular press in an effort to buttress traditional forms of advice shared among female intimates. Her effort bore fruit; it elicited Constance's response that exposed the dangerous chemical makeup of the hair product, a factor unbeknownst to C. M. R.'s unfortunate acquaintances.

C. M. R.'s letter, with its focus on health and beauty, appeared at a moment when the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine was embroiled in a contentious and highly documented debate over corset training, first ignited in March 1867. In that same year, another sensational correspondence emerged. This time the topic of corporal punishment eclipsed the tight-lacing debate in terms of length and public censure, adding further infamy to the conversazione.4 Historians of Victorian sexuality have fixed on these two correspondences as instances of what Mary Poovey terms "boundary work," a moment of ideological disjuncture that reveals conflicting expectations of female sexuality and desire.5 For some, like David Kunzle, the letters represent subcultural expressions of desire circulating in Victorian society. He argues that women adopted tight-lacing in its erotic context as a fetishized practice and not, as some earlier scholars attest, a symbol of subordination.6 For others, like Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron, the correspondence about tight-lacing emerged in part because of editorial strategies that presented multiple, contradictory forms of femininity, situating female readers as domestic managers but also desirable women. Samuel Beeton, publisher of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, bolstered readers' sense of desirability through his masculine "semi-flirtatious tone" when replying to readers' queries on love and romance.7 More recently, Margaret Beetham and Sharon Marcus shifted the discussion to consider the whipping and corset debates as complex expressions of female hetero- and homoerotic desire made widely available to women readers.8

With its suggestive glimpses into gendered and sexual...