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Women, Class, and the Growth of Magazine Readership in the Provinces, 1746-1780 JAN FERGUS Historians of the eighteenth century have recently begun to direct attention to provincial towns and provincial culture. A work like Pe­ nelope Corfield's The Impact of English Towns, 1700-18001 makes clear that despite the centrality of London in every sense, provincial towns became increasingly important in the economic, social, and cultural life of eighteenth-century England. With over 10 percent of the popu­ lation in 1801, London had been, of course, the center of the book trade, and probably of readership as well, during the previous cen­ tury. Yet the reading habits of the remaining portion of the population during that time can provide more reliable indications of the popu­ larity of fiction or the dissemination of information, as well as changes in taste, than can a study of reading in the metropolis. Fortunately, some business records of the Clay family of booksellers, who operated in four midland market towns, are deposited in the Northampton­ shire Record Office. These records offer an opportunity to investigate the development of the provincial reading public in England during the last half of the eighteenth century. The Clays' main bookshop was located in Daventry between 1742 and 1781. At various times during that period, John Clay and, after him, his son Thomas Clay operated shops in Rugby and Lutterworth. Another son, Samuel Clay, also ran a short-lived bookshop in War41 42 / FERGUS wick, August 1770-July 1772, and took over the Rugby shop after his brother Thomas died in 1781.2 These towns were merely the centers of the Clays' activities, however; sales were made to customers who re­ sided as far as ten or fifteen miles away from the nearest shops. As a result, the Clay customers include subscribers for magazines drawn from a fairly large area in the midlands—an ellipse about forty miles long and as much as thirty miles broad, covering parts of the three counties of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire. The records of the Clay shops are incomplete, particularly for the three decades before 1770 (see table 1 for a list of surviving Daventry day books). During this period, the Warwick shop was not yet in oper­ ation. Because two rival bookshops were already well established when the Warwick shop opened in 1770, the records of this shop can give only an incomplete view of customers' interest in subscribing to magazines: many customers are likely to have subscribed through the other two shops. Accordingly, the Warwick records have been used sparingly in this study.3 By contrast, in Daventry, Rugby, and Lutter­ worth, no rival booksellers seem to have existed between 1746-1780. Unfortunately, for the three decades before 1770, no records at all sur­ vive for Lutterworth, and those for Rugby include only the eighteenmonth period just before 1770. These omissions are less serious for a study of readership of the magazines than they are for a study of any other part of the audience, however, because monthly lists of all maga­ zine subscribers, including those served by the Rugby and Lutter­ worth shops, were kept in the better-preserved Daventry records. As a result, we have at least a glimpse into the growth of magazine read­ ership within this provincial area between the mid-forties and the mid-sixties, along with a rather concentrated view of developments in the seventies, a decade especially important for magazines. As table 1 clearly illustrates, the decades before the seventies saw a large growth in provincial magazine readership, a growth which seems to be traceable in part to the emergence of new magazines dur­ ing this period (see table 2.1). The Critical Review, for example, issued in 1756, shows a pattern of steady growth in readership, followed by retention of those readers. Its history reverses that of most specialized magazines issued during the fifties and sixties (and later as well), which tended to reach their largest audiences among the Clays' cus­ tomers relatively soon after first being issued, and then to decline in circulation, sometimes genteelly over a long period (as does the Gentleman's), sometimes rather precipitously (as in the case...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 41-56
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-20
Open Access
No
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