- The Woman Reader and What She Wanted
Many periodical researchers will have a well-thumbed copy of A Magazine of Her Own? on their bookshelf, particularly if they work on women’s magazines and/or the nineteenth century. Although its preface declares that, despite its range, it is “by no means the whole history of the magazine for women,” what it did offer was a challenge to the ways in which the magazine had been positioned within women’s history.1 The questions raised by the book about readerships, women’s regulation of the home, training for domestic roles, the ways in which adverts addressed women, household management, or the magazine’s status as commodity have been shown to generate and stimulate new fields of enquiry across periodical studies and media studies since its publication. Research into the expansion of women’s print media in the long nineteenth century, a time when the Victorian woman’s claims to a magazine of her own would increasingly come to fruition, has been shaped by these questions.
The originality of A Magazine of Her Own? certainly has many strands, but I want to highlight two here: its interrogation of readership and its focus on advertising. Whilst travelling by train to Ghent in 2015 to attend the RSVP conference on “Life and Death in the Nineteenth-Century Press,” a group of us nearly missed our stop because we had engaged Margaret in a conversation about whether it was ever correct to speak of readerships in the plural (she said it was, and we did manage to get off in time). Her fascination with issues of readership, not only with the ambiguous woman reader but also with lower-class readers or the ideological positioning of the woman at home, was clearly evident in this publication, which linked the reading of nineteenth-century periodicals to desire, consumption, the creation of the house beautiful, the emerging New Woman, and commodity culture. Advancing feminist work on readership by Judith Fetterley, Kate Flint, and others, the introduction shows how readers can both resist and negotiate their positions, how “the magazine as a form empowers its readers in specific ways which encourage the possibility of diverse readings.”2 [End Page 611] The potential subversiveness of the periodical text can be linked to its “radical heterogeneity,” its empowering diversity.3 The focus on interviews with women writers and activists, advice columns, and readers’ letters helped to invigorate debates about the woman reader, women’s uses of magazines for political purposes, and the complex identity of the female editor, all strands which have been taken up in the endeavours of the next generation of researchers. Paying attention to the consumption of the magazine and women readers’ participation in the genre through letters and competitions has become essential to the ways in which we approach periodicals.
The critical interrogation of advertising, particularly the fashion plates and the corset controversy signalled in the iconic Queen advert from the book’s cover, also show A Magazine of Her Own? to be ahead of its time. Sometimes dismissed as ephemeral or peripheral to the main text, advertisements for a whole range of products from cocoa to corsets are now recognised as important signifiers of the periodical brand and house style. “These papers live mainly by their advertisements,” Evelyn March-Phillips noted in an article on “Women’s Newspapers” in 1894, and this apt epi-graph to the chapter “Advancing into Commodity Culture” heralded an important framework for the women’s press.4 Over the last twenty years the visuality of the magazine, what Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor have memorably called “the lure of illustration,” has taken centre stage, and most approaches to the periodical now take account of its verbal/visual dynamics, “all possible juxtapositions of text and image.”5 Adverts were always part of this allure and were inextricable from the magazine’s status as commodity. The redefinition of readers as consumers, argued Beetham, was inseparable from the growth of advertising in the era of the New Journalism. Situating the development of the New Journalism and the New Femininity in the history of the development of advertising, this argument advanced the...