A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman's Magazine, 1800-1914

By Margaret Beetham | Go to book overview

1

INTRODUCTION

In the 1930s I sent for a dress pattern, costing 4/11 [25p]. I made it up and wore it during my honey moon. In 1943, I sent for a cut-out pink satin nightdress-very glamorous. I wore this after the birth of my second daughter. The cost then was 10/- [50p]. Now when I've read your magazine I pass it to my daughter-in-law, who gives it to her mother and aunt. Quite good value, wouldn't you say?

(Mrs A.F. Smith, Kent, letter to Woman 13 Feb. 1988, 7)

Last week I invited my girl friend to my house for a romantic dinner at which I intended to ask her hand in marriage. I had planned the meal weeks previously but, alas, I forgot one of the major ingredients. Frantically I turned to a copy of Bella that my girl friend had left behind. I came across a recipe for sweet-and-sour bacon chops for which I had all the ingredients. The meal was tremendous and my girl friend was impressed. She also agreed to my proposal. I can't thank you enough.

(Tony Docherty, letter to Bella, 10 Feb. 1990)

Throughout its history, the woman's magazine has defined its readers 'as women'. It has taken their gender as axiomatic. Yet that femininity is always represented in the magazines as fractured, not least because it is simultaneously assumed as given and as still to be achieved. Becoming the woman you are is a difficult project for which the magazine has characteristically provided recipes, patterns, narratives and models of the self. Mrs Smith of Kent explained that it was precisely this for which she had valued it over many years. Woman had provided patterns for her to follow as she negotiated the complexities of an identity which encompassed sexual woman, frugal housekeeper and mother. The glamorous nightdress she bought through the magazine enabled her to become a desirable woman without abandoning her role as good housekeeper. For the magazine has historically offered not only to pattern the reader's gendered identity but to address her desire.

This femininity has been addressed in and through a form which is itself fractured and heterogeneous. The magazine has developed in the two centuries of its history as a miscellany, that is a form marked by variety of tone and constituent parts. The relationship between the two elements in the term 'woman's magazine' has been and is dynamic. The magazine evolved as it did because from its inception it was a genre which addressed 'the feminine', but 'femininity' has also been

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