- Introduction to the Special Issue in Honour of Margaret Beetham
In 2019, Margaret Beetham marked her eightieth year with a celebra-tory research seminar at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Reading Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, with thanks to Margaret Beetham” paid tribute to Margaret’s outstanding contribution to feminist and periodical research and her continuing influence on our ways of reading. Papers by Solveig Robinson and Gemma Outen paid homage to Margaret’s work by developing her ideas, whilst a postgraduate panel made up of Vic Clarke, Tamara Kaminsky, and Catherine Elkin demonstrated her ongoing influence on younger scholars and the longevity of her work. Tributes were also paid by a range of scholars who had worked with and/or been taught by Margaret, and these emphasised her generosity with early-career researchers and students alike, her encouragement of collaboration, and the ways in which conversations with her always lead to a greater understanding of the complexities of texts. The depth and range of praise honours Margaret’s scholarship but also her collaborative, encouraging, and above all, kind nature.
Perhaps the highlight of the day, though, was a paper given by Margaret herself. This reflective piece, entitled “‘Situated Knowledges’: or the Back Door,” thought about her career but also her own home, using the motif of the back door as a literal and metaphorical tool. She considered that she herself had entered through the back door of literary studies, questioning canonical texts and drawing on her own interests in the women’s movement. In a call to arms, she said that she also hoped that women and other scholars entering via the back door would pull up a chair, get down a book, read, and as a result, also disrupt ideas of knowledge and notions of scholarship. These ideas are indicative of Margaret’s history. She entered academia working in a male-dominated polytechnic focused on science and technology, where humanities was fighting for space. She [End Page 471] became part of a movement challenging the ideology of English literature as it was taught in universities at the time, introducing texts outside the traditional canon, cross-disciplinary modes of analysis, the use of literary theory to deconstruct traditional assumptions, and the validation of students’ life experiences. This movement became widespread enough to earn the distinctive soubriquet “Polytechnic English.”
Brian Maidment, her colleague at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University), writes, “It is tempting to heroicise ‘Polytechnic English’ as a major strand in the development of British academic life in the 1980s—anti-authoritarian, progressive, theoretically self-aware and democratising in its reach. But even ignoring this over-simple generalisation, it is important to acknowledge that it produced ground-breaking scholarly work that re-assessed sources that had previously been undervalued or ignored. It also produced individuals who had the scholarly depth, probity, generosity and persistence to become a role model for a new generation, and Margaret Beetham is one of them.”1
Margaret, like Brian, found a home in RSVP (which is why the society’s journal is the natural place to publish this tribute). Early members of the society, such as Sally Mitchell, Rosemary VanArsdel, Martha Vicinus, and Eugenia Palmegiano, were already challenging the focus on male authors and high-status literary periodicals, providing a supportive intellectual community where Margaret’s work on popular women’s magazines was recognised and valued. Broader ideas of author and text, influenced by structuralism, legitimised research by Margaret and others on journalists and periodical journalism.
What was particularly new in her approach was her use of theory. Her article “Open and Closed: Periodicals as a Publishing Genre” appeared in the first theory issue of VPR (22.3 ) and continues to be cited today. These very productive ideas of open and closed forms are developed in three essays here. Vic Clarke combines open/closed with some of Margaret’s other preoccupations—time, space, and gender—in a meditation on the experience of using digitised periodicals to research the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star. James Mussell uses the part-work Enquire Within to consider how serials regulate their openness with the promise of closure to come, and Julie Codell’s...