- Notes of a Novice
As I reached for my copy of A Magazine of Her Own? to write this piece, out fell the wad of paper jammed into the front cover. I have a habit of filing reviews as well as my own notes in books to make them easy to find. They become part of the history of that book for me. What was unusual this time was how extensive my notes were (two sets, the later ones more formally structured, totalling eight single-spaced pages). This was clearly a book I intended to come back to again and again. When I made my first forays into periodicals in the late 1990s, Margaret Beetham’s book was the most important critical study of women’s magazines I could turn to. As someone retooling my skills from contemporary political theatre history to early twentieth-century feminist print media, I learned from Beetham not only how to think about the complexity of gender politics in the period but also how to understand and work with periodicals as a genre, for she interrogates the concepts of “femininity” and the “text” at the same time. The book’s very breadth and richness continue to make it a major point of reference in the field for both the novice and the established scholar.
Given the wide range of full-length studies of women’s print media across periods, genres, and national contexts available to us now, it is easy to forget how few and far between the scholarly sources were when A Magazine of Her Own? was published in 1996. The process of recovering titles was under way in the form of large-scale indexing initiatives (as Laurel Brake notes about the Wellesley Index in her essay) and in more specialized forms, such as David Doughan and Denise Sanchez’s still indispensable annotated bibliography Feminist Periodicals 1855–1984 (1987). Victorian Periodicals Review was instrumental in publishing articles about women’s journals, but the full-length critical studies were either so wide-ranging as to offer little more than outlines of major periods or too specific to their contexts to offer models of analysis for earlier or later periods.1
Beetham’s approach was ambitious and ground-breaking in terms of covering the whole nineteenth century, taking popular genres seriously, and even more importantly, rethinking the prevailing assumptions about women’s magazines as only and necessarily implicated in a repressive domestic [End Page 607] ideology. While not making any unrealistic claims about empowerment, she nevertheless treats the woman’s magazine as a “feminised” space, “one in which it is possible to challenge oppressive and repressive models of the feminine.”2 This could only be done through the kind of close reading that reveals the discursive tensions that characterize such texts, but close reading as one tool in a larger interdisciplinary framework that situates these periodicals in their socio-political, economic, and cultural contexts. In the book, she describes her approach as working at the intersection of cultural studies and feminist studies in order to locate women’s magazines in different economies and discourses. Her recent account of trying to do the original research for her doctoral project in the 1970s and the resistance she encountered at the time is a reminder to us all, but especially to younger generations of scholars, of the obstacles involved in pushing the disciplinary boundaries at the time, both ideologically and practically (Beetham was doing this work on Victorian periodicals in the age of microfilm and crumbling bound volumes).3
A Magazine of Her Own? was part of an expanding field, building on but also anticipating what would become key areas of periodical scholarship. The interest in process—in print as dynamic, not static—provides a way to capture what she refers to as the “continuities and discontinuities in the magazine’s development” over the course of the century.4 Embedded here are all the genres and features that Beetham and Kay Boardman would later isolate and foreground in Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology (2001). Side by side, these books help to disentangle and offer ways of thinking about the implications of gender through the relationship...