Victorian Women Writers and the Periodical Press: The Case of Harriet Martineau

By Easley, Alexis | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Victorian Women Writers and the Periodical Press: The Case of Harriet Martineau


Easley, Alexis, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The convention of anonymity associated with most Victorian periodicals enabled Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) to resist socially constructed stereotypes of the "female author." When writing for the periodicals, Martineau molded her narrative voice to suit her rhetorical purpose, assuming a male or female persona according to her subject matter, readers, and editorial guidelines. The indeterminacy of Martineau's narrative voice enabled her to resist and reconstruct social stereotypes, expanding the number of possible literary media, topics, and narrative voices open to women writers. Through the multiplicity of her authorial identity--at once masculine and feminine, journalistic and literary, public and private--Martineau provided an important model for later Victorian women writers.

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The contributions of Victorian women writers to periodical journalism have received relatively little critical attention. (1) Yet most major women writers of the Victorian period began their careers as contributors to the periodical press, and many published in the reviews throughout their lives. Due to the convention of anonymity associated with most Victorian periodicals, journalism was a relatively accessible medium of discourse for women. (2) In addition to publishing their fiction and poetry in major periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine, they also published political essays, travelogues and book reviews. Masked behind the universalized editorial "we," women writers were able to express themselves publicly on the pressing social and political issues of their day--without risking fame, which for a Victorian woman always translated into something more like infamy.

Though the periodical press provided women writers with the opportunity to write on issues outside the female sphere, it did not allow them to escape gender definitions entirely. Even though the narrative voices encoded in most Victorian periodicals were anonymous, they were not correspondingly genderless. The assumption of male narration and male readership was almost universal in the most prestigious Victorian periodicals. Thus, women journalists often wrote in "drag," referring to themselves and their readers using masculine gender markers. By alternating between their anonymous--often "masculine"--voices in the periodical press, and their socially constructed "feminine" voices as authors of signed books, women writers expanded the range of possible audiences and subject matter for their work.

The purpose of this essay is to investigate how one woman writer--Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)--was able to pursue a successful career as both the author of signed books and the writer of anonymous periodical essays. This analysis will demonstrate how Martineau was able to negotiate the hazards and pleasures of literary fame, alternately revealing and concealing her gendered identity as a means of gaining cultural power. Further, it will demonstrate how Martineau was able to resist and reconstruct cultural stereotypes of the "female author" by expanding the number of possible literary mediums, topics, and narrative voices open to women writers. Through the multiplicity of her own narrative voice--at once masculine and feminine, journalistic and literary, public and private--Martineau provided an important model for later women writers such as George Eliot and Margaret Oliphant.

In 1821, Harriet Martineau began her career in journalism by publishing her first anonymous essay in the Monthly Repository, a small-circulation periodical associated with the Unitarian church. Intent on establishing herself as a writer, she submitted an essay in the form of a letter to the editor entitled, "Female Writers of Practical Divinity," signed only with the letter "V." To her surprise, the essay appeared in the next issue of the journal. It is easy to sense her delight in her description of the moment when she revealed her literary identity to her brother.

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