Five Questions: Jennie Batchelor on the Lady’s Magazine

      Comments Off on Five Questions: Jennie Batchelor on the Lady’s Magazine

Jennie Batchelor is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Kent. Her research interests include women’s writing; authorship and anonymity; periodicals and women’s magazines; representations of gender; the politics and practices of work; sexuality and the body; book history; material culture studies; and the eighteenth-century charity movement. Her books include Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1690s-1820s (co-edited with Manushag N. Powell; Edinburgh University Press, 2018), Women’s Work: Labour, Gender and Authorship (Manchester University Press, 2010) and Jane Austen Embroidery: Authentic Embroidery Projects for Modern Stitchers (Pavillion, 2020). She recently gave the Marilyn Butler Memorial Lecture at BARS/NASSR 2022; her excellent talk drew on the research that fed into her newest monograph, The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832) and the Making of Literary History (Edinburgh University Press, 2022 – freely available via open access), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the Lady’s Magazine?

My fascination with the Lady’s Magazine began in 1998 when I was in the early stages of my PhD dissertation on dress and the female body in eighteenth-century literature and culture. One of the chapters was about the periodical press, and I knew that the Lady’s Magazine included fashion reports and plates and carried essays on dress, too. So, I went to the British Library to consult the copies that had survived the aerial bombing that destroyed much of the collection in the 1940s and naively thought I would spend a couple of weeks consulting everything the magazine printed on the subject in those volumes. Three months later, I came up for air. I became completely immersed in the magazine in all its unapologetic miscellaneity. And while I tried to be disciplined and stick only to articles and images that specifically addressed matters of dress and appearance (and there are more than enough of those), I could not help but be drawn in by the advice columns, recipes, trial reports, travel writing, biographies and essays on science, geography, history and philosophy it contained. In short, I was hooked.

2) What were the major challenges you faced in getting to grips with a run of issues covering over fifty years and containing millions of words?

I am so glad you inserted the word ‘major’ into this question to prevent me from having to recount all of them. Suffice it to say, there were a lot. The first was access. No copyright library has a full run of the periodical, a fact that is surely in part to blame for the scholarly neglect of the publication. That challenge was resolved when I approached Adam Matthew Digital to enquire if they would be interested in digitising the periodical and, to my eternal gratitude, they said yes. The result was published as Eighteenth-Century Journals V in 2013. But other challenges remained. The magazine is a glorious miscellany, with articles in every genre you can imagine and covering almost every topic you can conceive. Some of the articles (particularly those on science) lay far beyond my expertise. My GSCE French and A-Level German were also not up to the challenge of the periodical’s multilingual content.  

As your question implies, though, the biggest problem was the size of the run. I wanted to read it all and I wanted to read it chronologically. (When I say ‘read it all’ I have to admit that I skim read lots of articles in the interests of time.) Reading consecutive issues chronologically was the only way that made sense to me to read the magazine, but at the same time I realised this was actually a completely nonsensical approach. We know from recent work by the likes of Eve Tavor Bannet, Christina Lupton and Abigail Williams that readers in this period often read discontinuously, and magazines, of course, are not and never have been designed to be read from cover to cover. I like to think that putting the book together and organising material in it around the issues that structure each chapter allowed me to read it discontinuously after the fact. 

3) How does the Lady’s Magazine serve to challenge default assumptions about Romantic-period authorship and literary history?

When I first read the magazine in the 1990s, I simply couldn’t fathom why it was all but invisible in literary historical scholarship. While this oversight could be explained by some of the challenges I have mentioned above, when I delved into the matter further, I was confronted by a range of prejudices against the magazine, its contributors and readers that simply did not align with my experience of reading it. The Lady’s Magazine, I learned, was ephemeral, trivial and fashion obsessed. It amounted to little more than a training guide in the arts of womanhood. It envisaged readers as consumers rather than readers. Worst of all, given that most of its original copy was provided gratis for the much of the magazine’s history by volunteer reader-contributors, its encouraged literary amateurism. As a cultural document, the magazine might be interesting, but as ‘Literature’, I was assured, it was lacking. Only a very partial account of the magazine, I concluded, can prop up such arguments.

In the book, I track the process by which the periodical was systematically written out of literary history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. I argue also that that it is precisely the magazine’s failure (and sometimes its active refusal) to conform to what would become normative categories of literary analysis that makes it so important. There are so many narratives we have told ourselves about Romantic literary history that simply don’t hold up after reading this incredibly popular magazine. Narratives about the rise and fall of particular genres like the sonnet, oriental tale or epistolary novel, to take just a few examples, come under strain. So too does our sense of who was being read at specific moments in time. The Lady’s Magazine, I contend, understood itself as an agent in literary history and the writers and figures (women and men) they acknowledged, published, reprinted or commemorated present a very different canon to any taught in classrooms today.

Uncovering the identities and reconstructing career biographies for the periodical’s contributors also offers a very different sense of what it means to be an author in this period. In the book, I reconstruct career biographies for several of the magazine’s most interesting and important contributors. None are amateurs in the pejorative sense of the term, even if some or all of their work for the magazine was unpaid. (Unpaid does not equal amateur.) Writers like the prolific translator, poet and essayist Radagunda Roberts, Mary Pilkington, George Crabbe, Thomas Chatterton and Catherine Day Haynes (later Golland) – all of whom published in the magazine and elsewhere – were determinedly professional writers, albeit ones whose lives as authors were characterised by precarity. At the same time, it is worth noting also that these writers achieved audiences that many of the more famous writers of the day could have only dreamed of achieving through volume publication alone. With an estimated monthly circulation of around 15,000 copies a month at its height, more people would likely have been reading and talking about the wonderful fiction of Elizabeth Yeames of Norwich in 1811 than an anonymous novel called Sense and Sensibility printed in a standard run of 750 copies. I could go on, but it is all in the book. I might just add that Jane Austen read the Lady’s Magazine, too.

4) How much did the Lady’s Magazine change over the course of its run, and what were the most important turning points?

The magazine changed quite a lot over time, but the majority of these changes happened in the second half of its 62-year run. In its first two years – during which time there were two versions of the magazine – a lot of thought was given to working out the right formula for the magazine’s audience. Once settled, that formula stayed relatively steady until 1800, when the magazine introduced its first price hike from 6d to 1s, to accommodate regular hand-coloured fashion plates to allow it to compete with rival, The Lady’s Monthly Museum (1798–1828). A second set of changes followed in the run up to the launch of the magazine’s new series in 1820, when it was under the editorship of its long-time printer, Samuel Hamilton. Lengthy, illustrated reviews were introduced for the first time, and reader-authored content was marginalised. Those authors who did write for the magazine (like Mary Russell Mitford, Barbara Hofland and Thomas Noon Talfourd) were now paid. The illustrations and production values improved under the subsequent editorship of Charles Heath and the magazine started forming alliances with other periodical forms, such as the fashion journal and the newly devised annuals. By the end of its run, the magazine was a very different proposition again. It was less miscellaneous and more conservative. Nevertheless, it was an important bridge to the women’s magazines that followed, many of whose editors harked back to Lady’s Magazine’s earlier issues (to its popular serial fictions, advice columns, reader dialogue and needlework patterns) when fashioning their own titles.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a few projects. I have a longstanding interest in women’s labour and its devaluation. One of the ways that this interest connects with my work on the Lady’s Magazine is via the needlework patterns for ornamenting clothes and household objects that it issued monthly from 1770 to the end of 1819. For many years, I have been building up a collection of these patterns (most of which were disbound from monthly issues of the magazine and have been scattered to the winds) and, in addition to making these available to the public via a searchable website, I am writing a journal article on the patterns, women’s needlework and the circulation of craft knowledge. This, in turn, relates to a longer project I am currently working on about the craft of writing, which looks at eighteenth-century women writers who were also makers and the intersections between writing and other forms of creative making practice. I have some tentative ideas about further work on Romantic periodicals and magazines that I would dearly like to do some day, but having spent so much of the last decade immersed in those millions of words in the Lady’s Magazine, I may leave that for a little while.