Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Readership

A couple of other things I read over the holidays were J. Don Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel’s (eds.) Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society (1994), and Alvar Ellegård’s short essay “The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain” (1957).

Don Vann and VanArsdel have calibrated before, and Victorian Periodicals happens to be the third volume of an annotated bibliography project began in their MLA volume Victorian Periodicals: a Guide to Research in 1978. The contents of this third volume pertains to the professions, the arts, occupation and commerce, popular culture, and worker and student journals. There is a total of 18 essays on different types of periodicals: Law (Richard A Cosgrove), Medicine (M. Jeanne Peterson), Architecture (Ruth Richardson and Robert Thorne), Military (Albert Tucker), and Science (William H. Brock); Music (Leanne Langley), Illustration (Patricia Anderson), Authorship and the Book Trade (Robert A. Colby), and Theatre (Jane W. Stedman); Transport (John E.C. Palmer and Harold W. Paar), Financial and Trade Press (David J. Moss and Chris Hosgood), Advertising (Terrence Nevett), and Agriculture (Bernard A. Cook); Temperance (Olwen C. Niessen), Comic Periodicals (J. Don Vann), and Sport (Tony Mason); and finally Worker’s Journals (Jonathan Rose) and Student Journals (Rosemary T. VanArsdel and John S. North).

As with any collection of essays, this volume suffers from omissions and unevenness. But as a launching point for considering deeper studies into Victorian periodicals, it is most useful. It is a landmark study identifying “the ways that periodicals informed, instructed, and amused virtually all of the people in the many segments of Victorian life.”

The essays demonstrate the “pervasiveness of periodical literature in nineteenth-century British society.” Indeed, according to John S. North, the “circulation of periodicals and newspapers was larger and more influential in the nineteenth century than printed books, and served a more varied constituency in all walks of life.” The ubiquitous nature of Victorian periodical literature serves as a “vast repository of contemporary culture.”

What follows are some of the more interesting essays in this volume. William H. Brock’s “Science,”  observes that “by the 1830s almost all initial scientific communication took place through specialist periodicals rather than books.” According to one nineteenth-century author, “periodical publications are a surer index of the state of progress of the mind, than the works of a higher character.” Nineteenth-century science journals and periodicals can thus provide the “collective view of science” of Victorian society.

Another instructive essay comes from J. Don Vann on “Comic Periodicals.” The Victorian comic periodical typically contained jokes, comic verse, riddles, parodies, caricatures, puns, cartoons, and satire. Some of the earliest were Satirist (1808-14) and Age (1825-43), well-known for their vicious and scurrilous attacks on people, which resulted in frequent lawsuits, but increased circulation and advertising revenues. But of all comic periodicals of the nineteenth century, “more has been written about the history of Punch (1841-1900[1992]) than about all the other Victorian comic periodicals combined.” Its appeal lies in the fact that from the outset it was a magazine designed to do more than amuse its readers; it was designed to “ridicule political parties when they became nothing more than ‘sycophancy of a degraded constituency,’ to ensure that prisons were for correction of offenders rather than places of punishment for those who were simply poor and unlucky, and to attack capital punishment.” In addition to appealing to “all lovers of wit and satire,” Punch “appealed to ‘gentlemen of education’ and thus found a place in the library and drawing room.” Or as another author eloquently put it:

The press is the corrector of abuses; the regressor of grievances; the modern chivalry that defends the poor and helpless and restrains the oppressor’s hand in cases where the law is either too weak or too lax to be operative, or where those who suffer have no means of appealing to the tribunals of their country for protection. It is, to, the scourge of vice; where no law could be effective, where the statue of law does not extend, where the common law fails—the law of the press strikes the offender with a salutary terror, causes him to shrink from the exposure that awaits him, and not infrequently arrests him in the career of oppression or of guilt.

Finally, in an essay on “Student Journals” by Rosemary T. VanArsdel and John S. North, we see how the university “provided an ideal atmosphere during the nineteenth century to encourage student journalism.” A community of many constituencies, university journals offered material from faculty, administrators, chancellors and boards of trustees, and students with their societies and organizations. From satire, parody, essays, and lampoons, to expository prose in editorial or news stories, descriptive prose in features, or literary expression in verse, drama, or narrative prose, student magazines and university journals provide an excellent source of educated Victorian high society. VanArsdel and North include selections (1824-1900) from England’s Cambridge University, Durham University, London University, University of Manchester, and Oxford University; from Ireland’s University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin, and University College, Dublin; from Scotland’s Aberdeen University, University of Edinburgh, Glasgow University, and St Andrews; and from Wales’ University College of Wales.

Alvar Ellegård’s astonishing Darwin and the General Reader (1958, 1990), which investigated  over one hundred newspapers and periodicals to extract how contemporaries received Darwin’s theory, is well-known among historians of science. But prior to that 1958 publication, Ellegård published “The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain” (1957), a paper estimating “the size and various other characteristics of the publics of the Mid-Victorian periodicals.” According to Ellegård, the press is where the age portrays itself. In the 1860s, for example, because the “pace of life was quickening,” the public “demanded more frequent and more easily digestible information about happenings in the world of letters and ideas.” Thus in the mid-Victorian period there was an explosion of weekly, monthly and quarterly periodicals. In his Directory, Ellegård includes the “more important periodicals that were in some degree organs of opinion,” giving a “fairly reliable picture of the sort of periodicals that were most important in expressing, and most influential in forming, public opinion on the wider questions of the day.”

This Directory is helpfully divided into five main groups: newspapers, weekly reviews, fortnightly and quarterly reviews, monthly magazines, and weekly journals and magazines. Listed with each periodical are dates of establishment, price and estimated circulation, and brief descriptions and likely readership. There follows a treasure trove of primary source information. In newspapers proper, Ellegård lists the Daily News, Daily Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, Morning Advertiser, Morning Post, Standard, Star, and Times; evening newspapers included are Echo, Globe, and Pall Mall Gazette; weekly newspapers included are John Bull, Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, News of the World, Observer, Reynold’s Weekly Newspaper, Saint James’ Chronicle, Sunday Times, Weekly Dispatch, and Weekly Times; specifically religious newspapers included are British Standard, Methodist Recorder, Record, Watchman, and Universe.

The next group includes weekly reviews. Here we find the literary reviews of Athenaeum, British Medical Journal, Critic, Economist, Examiner, Lancet, Leader, Literary Gazette, London Review, Nature, Parthenon, Press, Public Opinion, Reader, Saturday Review, and Spectator. Religious weekly reviews included are Church Review, English Churchman, English Independent, Freeman, Guardian, Inquirer, Nonconformist, Patriot, Tablet, and Weekly Review.

Fortnightly and quarterly reviews included are Academy, Contemporary Review, Edinburgh Review, Fortnightly Review, North British Review, Quarterly Review, and Westminster Review. Some of the better known scientific reviews included are Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Geological Magazine, Intellectual Observer, Natural History Review, Popular Science Review, Quarterly Journal of Science, Recreative Science, Student, and Zoologist. On the religious front Ellegård includes British and Foreign Evangelical Review, British Quarterly Review, Christian Observer, Christian Remembrancer, Dublin Review, Ecclesiastic, Eclectic Review, Friend, Friends’ Quarterly, Home and Foreign Review, Journal of Sacred Literature, Literary Churchman, London Quarterly Review, Month, National Review, Rambler, and Theological Review.

Monthly magazines included are Argosy, Belgravia, Bentley’s Miscellany, Blackwood’s Magazine, Broadway, Cassell’s Magazine, Cornhill, Dublin University Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, Gentleman’s Magazine, London Society, Macmillan’s Magazine, New Monthly Magazine, St James’ Magazine, St Paul’s Magazine, Temple Bar, Tinsley’s Magazine, and Victoria Magazine.

Weekly journals and magazines sold in weekly parts included are All the Year Around, Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, Chamber’s Journal, Family Herald, Fun, Good Words, Illustrated London News, Leisure Hour, London Journal, London Reader, Once a Week, Punch, Tomahawk, and Vanity Fair.

Like J. Don Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel’s Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society Alvar Ellegård’s short essay “The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain” provides little commentary on nineteenth-century periodicals itself. Rather, their strength lies in their ability to act as reference points, leading the reader to pursue further research from one of the many primary sources listed in these two helpful books.

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