‘The world is a large volume’: The Lady’s Magazine and Romantic Print Culture
Jennie Batchelor, Tuesday 1 Dec 2015, CEIR Seminar Series
When I met Jennie Batchelor (University of Kent) in the CEIR office about an hour before she was due to speak, it was with an air of excitement that she, jokingly, asked if the paper could wait: she was having far too much fun in Cardiff’s Special Collections and Archives, examining copies of The Lady’s Magazine. Her research into this publication is part of a two-year Leverhulme-funded project entitled ‘The Lady’s Magazine (1770–1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre’, which aims to provide a bibliographical, statistical and literary–critical analysis of one the first recognisably modern magazines for women. The project aims to produce a host of publications about the contents of and contributors to the magazine, as well as a fully annotated index available online. Thankfully, Batchelor did go ahead with the talk in Cardiff, offering fascinating insights into The Lady’s Magazine and its position in romantic print culture.
The paper began with an assertion of the significance of the publication when considering female communities of readership in the eighteenth century. Launched in 1770, The Lady’s Magazine sold in huge volumes, reaching 10 to 15,000 copies a year; in comparison, the print run for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was 750. By the second decade of the nineteenth century it is likely that these circulation figures dropped. Yet, as the editors of the magazine declared, this was ‘the age of the periodical’, with survival guaranteed only for the fittest. In such a competitive marketplace, The Lady’s Magazine showed admirable stamina, and counted high-profile women such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte among its readers. Thanks to recent scholarship, however, we now know that (despite its title) the magazine was also read and contributed to by men. Indeed, the publication relied heavily on reader contributions, and it is through these ‘amateur’ writers that it maintained its breadth and depth of subject matter and content. Amongst this were many serialised stories, some of which ran for ten years or more, but fiction was not the dominant form. The magazine also published pieces of poetry, history, memoirs, science, travel writing, theatrical reviews, and domestic and foreign news—as Batchelor puts it, ‘a compendium of the polite literature of the age’. Batchelor also argues that this community of reader contributors was key to the publications longevity: The Lady’s Magazine continued to cultivate this community even when doing so put it out of step in the era of paid journalism and the romantic literary magazine.
Indeed, as Batchelor contends, The Lady’s Magazine presented itself as an important alternative to the mainstream periodicals of the era. Through this project, Batchelor wishes to endorse the magazine editor’s claims that the reliance on this community of reader contributors was more a sign of ambition than anything else, moving away from the negative connotations normally associated with the term ‘amateurism’. In the past, The Lady’s Magazine has been neglected by both Romanticists and eighteenth-century scholars alike, but its commitment to publishing amateur writers has the potential to challenge conventional discourse on the professionalisation of authorship in this period. Indeed, Batchelor goes on to ask how you conceptualise authorship when the vast majority of the contributors to a publication are anonymous or use pseudonyms? Historically, The Lady’s Magazine has been notoriously inaccessible, and this may partly explain its neglect. One of the aims of the annotated index is to make the magazine accessible to scholars, as well as challenge conventional accounts of women’s reading from the era. A sustained study into a previously overlooked publication promises great scholarly interest, and Batchelor concluded her paper by asserting that observations from The Lady’s Magazine have the potential to recalibrate ideas conventionally held about the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary marketplace.
As well as providing members of Cardiff University with an excellent paper, it seems Jennie Batchelor’s visit to Wales was mutually beneficial. During the discussion afterwards, the question was raised about how the project would document the incredible illustrations found in many copies of the magazine, which she agreed was an area that needed further consideration. I happened to bump into Jennie again the next day, in the Arts and Social Studies Library at Cardiff University, where she excitedly told me she had uncovered yet more significant material in the volumes in the Special Collections and Archives. The monthly issues of The Lady’s Magazine had advertisements printed on their wrappers, but the majority of copies available today are in the form of bound annual volumes, leading to the loss of a lot of this information. The team working on this project have only one complete issue that is kept in the University of Kent’s Templeman Library. Whilst she was examining the collection at Cardiff, however, Jennie came across a host of copies that have retained many of their adverts, and will undoubtedly require a closer look as this fascinating project continues.