Recovering the Victorian Periodical

By Heller, Lee E. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview
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Recovering the Victorian Periodical


Heller, Lee E., Nineteenth-Century Prose


Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture 1790-1860 (Oxford UP--Clarendon Press, 1991), 211 pp., $59.00 cloth.

Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, The Victorian Serial (UP of Virginia, 1991), 448 pp., $42.50 cloth.

As Joanne Shattock and Michael Wolff have noted, "[T]he press, in all its manifestations, became during the Victorian period the context within which people lived and worked and thought, and from which they derived their (in most cases quite new) sense of the outside world" (xiv-xv). As literary study in the last decade has increasingly shifted away from ahistorical analyses of "great books" and towards the recovery of the larger literary atmosphere in which authors write and audiences read, scholars of Victorian literature must take into account the workings of this burgeoning press and the versions it offered--old and new--of the world in which it found its meanings. Two new scholarly works--Patricia Anderson's The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture 1790-1860, and Linda K. Hughes's and Michael Lund's The Victorian Serial--attempt to recover some of these materials and their significance for Victorian literary culture.

The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture takes as its thesis that the rapid growth of the publishing industry in mid-nineteenth century England "played a fundamental part in the first phase of a broad transformation: The unprecedented expansion of the cultural experience of working people" (1). This "expanded popular culture," the author argues, was increasingly pictorial; through its printed imagery we can observe the growth of its audience and its transformation into an incipient mass culture.

Anderson structures her study by offering a chronology of the proliferation of visual culture, which she divides into a transitional period (1790-1832) in which images were scarce for those in the working class; a period of emerging variety and plenitude (1832-1845); and a period of rapid growth and diversity (1845-1860). Her first chapter offers a survey of types of images available to working class viewers in the period before 1832, and concludes with a discussion of the divide between popular culture images and the high art of the wealthy--a divide that, Anderson asserts, was only temporarily breached before art retreated from the realm of popular culture.

Since printed imagery was most pervasive in cheap printed-word texts, and in particular in the growing number of periodicals, Anderson argues for an expanded popular culture by focusing on four popular illustrated weeklies: The Penny Magazine (1832-1845), the London Journal (18451906), Reynold's Miscellany (1846-1869), and Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1932). Anderson begins with a content analysis of the Penny Magazine, in which editor Charles Knight's strategy was to popularize high culture in order to educate, and thereby civilize, his readers--thus his editorial emphasis on reproductions of high art. The Penny Magazine was quickly followed, as subsequent chapters show, by a number of periodicals that challenged, and ultimately replaced, Knight's weekly. This "second generation" of weeklies, Anderson argues, mostly offered images that were appealing and would help to sell the magazines.

Having described the contents--written and visual--of her three weeklies, Anderson attempts to demonstrate the composition of the periodical audience. As she rightly notes, it is extremely difficult to identify audiences for popular culture texts; Anderson relies throughout most of her book on the few available worker autobiographies (in particular John Burnett's collection, Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s). In this chapter she relies primarily on the signatures on letters from readers, to which the weeklies replied in their correspondence columns; although the letters themselves were not printed, their signatures--occasionally specifying class, gender, or occupation--might indicate the class status of the reading audience.

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