RESEARCHING THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY PERIODICAL PRESS: CASE STUDIES by Alexis Easley, Andrew King and John Morton, Reviewed by Clare A. Simmons

By Alexis Easley, Andrew King and John Morton
(Routledge, 2018) xii + 220 pp.
Reviewed by Clare A. Simmons on 2018-01-11.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

It is hardly a stretch to call the development of nineteenth-century English-language periodicals the first information age. Through a series of detailed case studies, this collection helps us to see the links between that age and our own.

Until recently, scholars who wished to study the range of nineteenth-century periodical publications found resources limited. In the early 1900s, major periodicals frequently produced their own indexes, but in most cases an index volume would cover only a decade or so, and its contents seem to have been left to the whims of its compiler. In 1853 William Frederick Poole took a step forward. Having already experimented with producing an index to the periodicals in the Yale library, where he worked in the 1840s, he published An Index to Periodical Literature, a cumulative index to some seventy publications, mainly American and British. For a century, updated and expanded versions of Poole's project remained the major subject index to nineteenth-century periodicals.

In the 1960s, an editorial team led by Walter H. Houghton commenced the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, which usefully supplied the names of many previously unidentified contributors and which also listed the articles in individual issues. It was not, however, a true subject index. Neither Poole's Index nor the Wellesley Index claimed to be comprehensive in representing the range of nineteenth-century periodicals. Chiefly indexing literary periodicals, they excluded newspapers and just partially covered publications meant for women, children, and special-interest groups (such as trade unions, clubs, and others). And though John North's Waterloo Directory started to appear in the 1970s, followed by a guide to nineteenth-century English newspapers in the 1990s, the volumes were too expensive for many library collections.

Another problem facing the researcher was getting access to the periodicals themselves. Like present-day readers, nineteenth-century readers treated journals, magazines, and newspapers as ephemeral reading matter, and doubtless the vast majority of such publications were recycled, burned, or simply consigned to the city dust-heaps. Many libraries hold runs of specific journals, but the collections tend to be haphazard and non-circulating (understandably since many of them were printed on cheap paper and are deteriorating). The researcher's best hope, therefore, was to pick up subject-hints from Poole, collect more bibliographic information from Wellesley, find an archive willing to make the volumes available, and sharpen plenty of pencils for note-taking. In very recent years, with the arrival of numerous digitized and searchable sources, much has changed, but as the contributions to this volume demonstrate, the changes are perhaps not so great as may at first appear.

Designed as a companion to The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century Periodicals and Newspapers (2016) and edited by the same three scholars, this book provides case-studies employing a range of research goals and strategies. The contributors write in the first person about their research experiences, which is somewhat ironic since writers for many of the periodical works under discussion commonly spoke as a collective. On the whole, this first-person narrative approach is helpful. But sometimes some contributors fail to say how well their research paid off, and the reader is left asking for discoveries and conclusions.

John Morton's opening essay on "researching a single journalist" illuminates a number of points. First, it shows how little we know about the journalistic career of his test subject, Alfred Austin, and the publication that printed much of his work. Though most Victorianists probably know that Austin succeeded Tennyson as Poet Laureate, Morton notes that his journalism has been up to now little studied, and that scholars have slighted even the conservative-leaning National Review when it was the main outlet for his essays. By covering the range of Austin's writings, Morton places them within a broader context.

At the same time, Morton's story of how he tracked them down shows that even in a digital age, he had trouble getting hold of them. Though the Wellesley Index lists the essays Austin wrote for The National Review and Temple Bar, Morton realized that it lists neither his poetry nor his anonymous contributions to the Standard (pp. 15-16). Moreover, although these journals have been digitized, his home institution did not subscribe to the database, so that the apparently straightforward task of reading through Austin's writings as a whole proved more difficult than it had initially appeared. Nevertheless, this essay tells us more about the range of Austin's journalistic interests than was previously known, and provides a clear method for retrieving the periodical writings of a single author.

The essays that follow raise and pursue a variety of questions about research on periodicals. How, for instance, does one track a theme or word through various periodicals? Beth Gaskell explains how she mapped "military" references in a variety of periodical forms, and Gregory Tate mines Punch for Victorian attitudes toward scientific jargon. Yet while both of these essays are clear on method, they furnish few examples of what the researchers discovered. Others show just how much there is still to discover about the production, circulation, and readership of periodicals. Joanne Shattock provides a fascinating example of periodical networks by examining the literary and commercial connections of William and Mary Howitt, whose careers in writing and editing spanned sixty years. Examining the problem of how to categorize writing, Fionnuala Dillane asks whether "genre" is as useful as "purpose" and "target audience." George Eliot's approach to editing, she concludes, showed her awareness of both. And in discussing the use of genealogy databases (which are, as she notes, more commonly used by those outside the academy), Marianne Van Remoortel usefully shows how painstaking research might help to identify many of the little-known or unknown participants in journal production and distribution.

This book is somewhat less extensive than its title promises. Despite its titular reference to the nineteenth century, its contributors largely ignore the influential reviews of the Romantic era in favor of Victorian writings. Within that category, however, several essays reveal the diversity of periodical writing that the old indexes tend to obscure. Beth Rodgers explains what two girls' magazines made of George Eliot; by scrutinizing the National Co-operative Archive at Manchester, Margaret Beetham shows what working women read; Catherine Waters uses commentary on the Atlantic cable as a test case for transatlantic connections; and Chandrika Kaul's essay on empire and periodicals shows how British writers represented India-- not just in the national press but in a variety of publications produced outside Britain. Also, most contributors carefully indicate the cost of newspapers and journals as well as the target audience of each. The tone is refreshingly investigative and non-judgmental.

The contributors' accounts of their researches, though, often reveal that digital archives will only take the scholar so far. Many of the investigations described in this collection confirm Joanne Shattock's comment on the task of researching periodical networks: it can be "a protracted and at times exasperating process," she writes, "relying on instinct and intuition as well as empirical evidence" (71).

Regarding the latter, Alexis Easley's essay illustrates why digital materials cannot entirely substitute for original documents. To examine the mutually beneficial relationship between the British poet Eliza Cook and Charlotte Cushman, an American actor, she started with available microfilm and digital copies of magazines, newspapers, and other printed material, but ultimately turned to manuscripts in the Charlotte Cushman Papers at the Library of Congress.

Further evidence of the need for direct access to original materials can be found in Gerry Beegan's essay on photomechanical reproduction in The Sketch, an illustrated weekly journal of high society and the aristocracy that was launched in 1893. Beegan points out that before he began his research for The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London (Palgrave, 2008), scholars had largely ignored the development of photograph-based periodical illustration. In his essay for this volume, which succinctly explains the half-tone process, Beegan demonstrates how photomechanical reproduction was used not just for photographs but also for line drawings such as Phil May's charming but astute observations on city life and social class:

Phil May, "At Homes."--I. Music: "I fear no foe." (1894)

Like Easley, Beegan shows why--for practical reasons-- digital archives of nineteenth-century periodicals cannot completely replace the material objects themselves. Yet in spite of that limitation, any scholar working on the history of the periodical or on other artifacts of nineteenth-century material culture will probably find this book worthwhile at least for browsing. Read collectively, the essays show just how far nineteenth-century periodical research has come since the first volumes of the Wellesley Index. They also point to what remains for other scholars to unearth.

Clare A. Simmons is Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Ohio State University.

Leave a comment on Clare A. Simmons's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed