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  • A Room with a View
  • Laurel Brake (bio)

This paper situates A Magazine of Her Own? (1996) as one of the foundational titles in the development of media history at the turn of the twentieth century, alongside The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (1966–89). I suggest that just as Wellesley in its expanded bibliographical format fuelled an explosion of research in the field on its selection of forty-three journals, so Beetham’s discursive feminist cultural history of the woman’s magazine in its popular, family-oriented, and domestic forms treated a selection of forty-two magazines that prompted an invigorated population of the field in its wake.

From the start, on the cover, Margaret Beetham’s new book alerted would-be readers to its activist stance by invoking and interrogating in its title Virginia Woolf’s historical claim to room for women, not least in the academy and its discourse. Beetham goes on to identify her subject further, and unapologetically, as popular, middlebrow journalism. In another resonant single phrase, this time drawn from vernacular speech, the “woman’s magazine” indicates the practice of accessible writing within. If academic formats such as endnotes and an extensive bibliography accompany her narrative, notes are kept to a minimum and avoid the arcane and, along with numerous illustrations, make this material accessible and potentially attractive to a general readership. The stock woodcut from a nineteenth-century corset ad that dominates the cover signals the link of domesticity and desire with the male gaze of both its day and ours and with gender theory.

In contrast to The Wellesley Index, the final volumes of which had recently appeared, Beetham’s book largely deals with weeklies and the popular press rather than the market niche of Wellesley titles: high-culture, up-market quarterlies and monthlies that were edited, founded, and dominated by men. Beetham’s book was not only about a genre distinguished from the rest of the press by its gender, but it brought gender—and classed gender—into the equation of the nineteenth-century press as a whole, [End Page 601] inviting us to see and analyse gender in the default press, in the (masculinities of) classed newspapers and periodicals that defined the “other,” into which category the woman’s magazine fell. Beetham queers constituents of the binary, destabilising them as fractured, evolving, and always in a state of becoming. Every facet of Beetham’s work was political and constructive critique.

Another distinction of its focus from that of Wellesley’s was its decisive turn from literature or history to journalism, away from the perspective of any single academic discipline to a wider interdisciplinary view. Wellesley derived its initial impetus for attribution from the (overwhelmingly male) “great authors” orientation of history and English, but in the epigraphs of her introduction Beetham immediately signals a dramatic turn away from the individual author/critic and the narrowness of the dominant discourses. Both epigraphs are from Beetham’s and our contemporaries, not critics or contributors familiar to us, but reader-authors of the periodicals Woman and Bella, which are seldom within our professional academic gaze let alone in academic libraries. The epigraphs are signed (by Mrs. A. F. Smith and Tony Docherty), but their names reveal them to be and to represent ordinary readers. The subjects of their letters are dress patterns and recipes, respectively, unexpected topics that help establish an early point that these magazines are miscellanies characterised, like most nineteenth-century titles, by diversity of tone and “constituent parts.”1 Titles are not raided for their literature and deemed literary on that basis or scoured for nuggets of historical veracity.

In this, Beetham’s book is indebted to Wellesley. Wellesley’s revolutionary decision to list the articles within each issue of a periodical, instead of indexing articles annually and alphabetically by subject or title, made the miscellaneous content of issues instantly comprehensible and revealed the changing mixes over time. It also fostered comprehension of the distinctive character of periodical titles at any given date. In our terms, Wellesley encouraged browsing and limited searching to attributed authors, who were indexed in the back of each volume and, finally, in a last volume that aggregated...


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pp. 601-606
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