Conference Report: Reading Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, Manchester Metropolitan University

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Today on the BARS Blog is a report from  ‘Reading Nineteenth-Century Periodicals’, a special event in Manchester earlier this year. This event was part-sponsored by BARS. The report is by Dr Emma Liggins, Senior Lecturer in English Literature. You can follow English at Manchester Met on Twitter here

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Reading Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar, 17 July 2019

The celebratory event ‘Reading Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, with thanks to Margaret Beetham’, was held at Manchester Metropolitan University in July 2019, as the summer event of the North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar. It was co-organised by Emma Liggins (Manchester Metropolitan University), Annemarie McAllister (University of Central Lancashire) and Andrew Hobbs (University of Central Lancashire) to mark Margaret’s 80thbirthday. We celebrated Margaret’s outstanding contribution to feminist and periodical research and her ongoing influence on our ways of reading and working with periodicals, cookbooks and women’s writing in the long nineteenth century. Her pioneering book A Magazine of her Own: Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (1996), and her work on servants’ reading, cookbooks and class, have been hugely influential in the field. The event brought together independent researchers, students, and scholars at different stages of their careers. Many members of the audience knew Margaret’s work well and had worked with her in the past, but it was also an opportunity to bring her work to the attention of a new generation of researchers. In a tribute to Isabella Beeton, the famous cookbook author and editor of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine brought to light in Margaret’s research, we enjoyed home-made cakes in the coffee and lunch-breaks –the Bakewell tart was a triumph!

The first session focussed on late nineteenth and early twentieth-century periodicals and their readers. Solveig Robinson opened the day with an examination of the mediation of notions of motherhood and domestic management in the scientific mother’s magazine Baby. Gemma Outen responded to Margaret’s claim that there was a ‘dearth of specific information’ about readers to think about the imagined readership of the temperance journal Wings, drawing on census returns to plot the characteristics of the ‘average reader’. Margaret’s own paper ‘Situated Knowledges’: or the Back Door’ drew on Donna Harraway’s work to offer a history of developments in cultural theory she had witnessed in her sixty-year career and the ‘back-door knowledge’ scholars need to draw on in order to ‘open some windows in the house of Victorian studies’. She also reflected on coming through the ‘back door’ to literary studies where she would question the canonical texts being taught and draw on her involvement with the Women’s Movement in her teaching and research. This led to an ongoing discussion throughout the day about the implications of the ‘demise’ of Women’s Studies, the changing face of feminist scholarship and reinventing the curriculum.

Tributes by a range of scholars who had worked with, and/or been taught by, Margaret, emphasised her generosity with early career researchers and research students, her encouragement of collaboration and the ways in which conversations always lead to a greater understanding of the complexities of texts. Brian Maidment spoke about the importance of her early work on class and (as co-conspirator) her challenging of the establishment. Kay Boardman highlighted the excitement of collaborating with Margaret on the Victorian women’s magazines anthology, remembering the assemblage of a new taxonomy from the piles of paper and magazines on an office floor in the days before digitization. Angelica Michelis celebrated Margaret’s support for her female colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University and her important contribution to food studies, particularly the complexities of cook-books and consumption. Finally, Ginette Carpenter spoke of the way in which Margaret had given her the confidence as a research student to develop her own independent thinking and to grapple with the complexities of reading and the woman reader.

The final postgraduate panel on ‘The Challenges of Archival Research’, which was funded by BARS, was also a chance to think about new directions in periodical studies.  Transnational and transatlantic exchanges, as well as the need for more work on readers of colour, were mentioned several times. Margaret’s most recent work on missionary journals in the twentieth century, set alongside exciting recent work by Caroline Bressey and Deborah Logan, is indicative of the need to keep thinking about the legacies of empire and globalisation. Victoria Clarke (University of Leeds) talked about the readership community of the Chartist newspaper, The Northern Star and the challenges of using corpus linguistics methods to analyse the uses of the words ‘manly’ and ‘womanly’ in its articles. Her approach demonstrated the uses of digitisation to advance ways of thinking about Chartism, gender and protest. The different uses of the language of interrogation in the proceedings presented in the Old Bailey online and press coverage of events from the 1760s were the subject of a fascinating presentation by Tamara Kaminsky (University of Exeter). Finally, Catherine Elkin (Manchester Metropolitan University) gave an entertaining account of her unsuccessful search for advertisements for baby-farmers in the late-nineteenth-century Manchester press. This was revealing of the difficulties of finding the right search terms; adverts about nurses rather than coded adverts for baby-farmers seemed to be more plentiful. Paying attention to the ways in which contentious constructions of motherhood are mediated in periodical culture linked back to Solveig Robinson’s discussion of baby science.

In the Q and A participants talked about European and American readers of British periodicals, the regional appeal of branch reports organised by location in newspapers of political organisations, the placing of journalism about Northern cities and choices about case studies in the attempt to avoid the limitations of being ‘London-centric’.  Issues of locality and regionality were also identified as an ongoing concern. This final discussion showed how a new generation of scholars were making effective use of data from digital archives to develop knowledge of readerships, periodical communities and linguistic variation in newspapers. It also foregrounded both the frustrations and the possibilities of trying to predict results and coming up with either something vastly different or nothing at all. This acknowledgement of the complexities of periodical research and the diversity and heterogeneity of nineteenth-century periodicals is a crucial aspect of Margaret Beetham’s legacy.

A selection of the papers given at the seminar, as well as a roundtable on Margaret’s work, will appear in a future edition of Victorian Periodicals Review, edited by Andrew Hobbs and Gemma Outen.

– Emma Liggins (Manchester Metropolitan University), August 2019