Research: Jennifer Phegley

I recently finished Jennifer Phegley’s Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation (2004). Phegley’s book is important to the research for my book on anaesthesia because I, too, will be looking at the Victorian periodical press.

Anxieties about Women

Phegley argues some publications sought to ease male anxieties about women readers. For example, in chapter 2, ‘The Education and Professionalization of the Woman Reader’, she claims that through its ‘illustrations of women readers’, the Cornhill Magazine eased men’s anxieties about intellectual women by cautiously subordinating women’s reading activities to their domestic duties, making the former valuable only insofar as it benefited the latter’ (93). In other words, their illustrations made clear that it was okay for women to read so long as it didn’t interfere with their usual roles as mother and wife. The image below is one of the illustrations Phegley discusses in this chapter (Cornhill Magazine 6.31 (July 1862); this image is of Romola, the eponymous heroine of a novel by George Eliot, reading to her blind father. In this case, reading is not threatening because she is doing it for her father, not for herself.

Romola final

Phegley’s third and fourth chapters show that Victorians were even more anxious about women writers. Chapter three focuses on Belgravia, a magazine conducted by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Braddon’s penchant for writing sensation novels and her irregular relationship with John Maxwell caused concern for many Victorians. They didn’t like the class transgressions of the sensation novel; W. F. Rae famously wrote of Braddon’s novels: ‘She may boast without fear of contradiction, of having temporarily succeeded in making the literature of the Kitchen the favourite reading of the Drawing-room’ (204). Nor did critics appreciate the tendency of sensation novels to depict immoral and criminal behaviour amongst the upper classes.

Chapter four addresses concerns about women as publishers, critics, and agitators for equal rights. In many ways, I’m glad Bessie Rayner Parkes and the other women associated with the Langham Place Circle are not here, in 2017, to see the state of women’s rights—I fear they’d be disappointed—but this isn’t the time or place for my personal politics. However, the women’s movement and the publications associated with Langham Place and the Victoria Press are key to understanding the Victorian periodical press. In these publications, women were responding to national publications as literary critics. This cannot be underestimated, nor can the importance of seeing women readers as critical readers. So much of the rhetoric about health and reading centres on how profligate reading endangers women physically, mentally, and morally. When women read critically, they show that they are not passive creatures being acted upon by the text, but rather thinking human beings engaging with the text.

What has all of this to do with my book on anaesthesia? In that book, I am looking at how representations of anaesthesia in the press influenced public responses to anaesthesia. For example, even though ether was safer than chloroform, chloroform was more popular—it was also more favourably represented in the press. Thus, I need to understand the contemporary reputations and readerships of various Victorian publications in order to make sense of the extent to which readers might trust a periodical’s representation of medical discoveries. Phegley’s book offers interesting insights to some of these issues. For further information about my current research, see my post on L. T. Meade and patient consent.

Until next time, take care.


Works Cited:

Phegley, Jennifer. Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2004.

Rae, W.F. ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’. North British Review 43 (Sept. 1865): 180-204.

Be Kind to Your Future Self: Develop a Writing Practice

My title raises two questions: what is a writing practice? and, how will having one benefit you in the future?

Writing, like every other skill or craft, requires regular practice.

If you play the piano, you don’t expect to sit down at the keyboard once every few weeks and be able to make beautiful music. Wind instruments can be even fussier—at least with a piano, the instrument provides the tone quality. When I was an active flutist (if my former teachers are reading this, I will start practicing again, eventually), regular practice was a must. As the old saying goes: miss one day of practice and you’ll know, two days and your teacher will know, three days and the whole world will know.

Hopefully we can all agree on the importance of practice for musicians, but for writers? No, you’re not going to be less able to write or type if you don’t practice, but you will find it harder to put your ideas into words.

Why you need a writing practice

When you’re in the habit of writing it becomes a way of thinking on paper (or screen). For writers who hope to produce publishable work, this is helpful because you’ll have a lot of material to comb through in search of the good bits that you can turn into a finished piece.

If you don’t write regularly it becomes a daunting task, and you’re more likely to fall into bad habits like perfect drafting. If you need to refresh your memory, I discuss the dangers of perfect drafting in Coping with Writer’s Block.

Finding time for your practice

You may be thinking, it’s all well and good to make the case that writing is easier for those who write every day, but I don’t have time. In an ideal world, you would be able to set aside time each day to focus only on your writing. Some days, that will work. Others it won’t—this world we live in is far from ideal.

Most days (unless you’re dealing with a crisis of some sort), you do have time. You may not have the luxury of spending hours every day lounging in a café with your notebook, but you do have time. Nowhere is it written that writing must be done in long blocks of time. You can think about what you’re working on while brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking to the shops, and so on. When you finish what you’re doing, you can take a minute to jot down some notes in a notebook, or the notebook app on your phone, to be developed later when you have more time (by which 10 to 20 minutes—not a full day devoted to writing; waiting for that to happen is like telling yourself you’ll write next time you see a unicorn in your back garden). The thinking you did and the notes you jotted down—that’s writing; it’s not publishable writing, but it’s writing.

If you do have the luxury of time, don’t try to write for hours on end—no one can really do that. You’ll be more productive if you write for 20-30 minutes, take a five-minute break, and repeat; after four such cycles, take a longer break.

Keeping records of your practice

To increase the chance that you’ll develop and maintain your writing practice, keep records. The people who developed all those fitness trackers that are now available know what they’re doing. People like data about themselves and they like seeing personal progress.

To begin with, set yourself an easily achievable goal, like 100 words a day / 700 words a week. While I can’t offer you a wearable writing tracker, you can use this Writing Record to chart your progress (feel free to delete the sample entries and alter it in any way that makes you happy), or develop your own record-keeping system. Keeping track lets you see progress. When you notice that you’re regularly writing more than 100 words a day, set a slightly more challenging goal.

Take a minute to look at the sample data I put in my record sheet—you can produce more than 4000 words between the 28th of August and the 30th of September this year without ever writing more than 150 words a day. Still think you don’t have time?

Finally, keep in mind that writing is faster at certain stages of a given project than others. When you’re writing your first draft you should be writing quickly; when you’re polishing a drafted piece, you won’t be writing so many new words each day. Accept that there will be ups and downs in your record—your goal is not to become a machine that can churn out a certain number of words each day, but to increase your productivity in the long term.

Until next time, take care.
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Writer’s Block

While researching writer’s block I came across an interesting article from the 14 June 2004 issue of The New Yorker called ‘Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?’. The article suggests writer’s block is a peculiarly American condition and quotes one British writer who claims not to suffer from it. I’m happy for him, but I’ve known far too many British writers (students, academics, poets, novelists …) who do suffer from it to believe this is true of all British writers.

What is more convincing is the article’s claim that we have the Romantics to thank for writer’s block. This argument makes sense because before the Romantics, writers tended to think of writing as an occupation. Meanwhile, the Romantics thought writing should be inspired. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth argues ‘that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ (see paragraph 26 of this online text). This is where we get the idea that one has to be ‘in the mood’ to write.

Writers who cling to such notions tend to make themselves miserable. If you read further in ‘Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?’, you’ll find that many famous writers have suffered from substance abuse problems and mental illnesses. These writers believed their problems were caused by writer’s block.

Writers do not have to be miserable. They do not have to make themselves ill.

When you start a new writing project, just get words on a page. They don’t have to be good words. But they do need to be recorded somewhere so you can improve them later. Good writing rarely, if ever, springs fully formed from the writer’s mind as Athena is said to have sprung from Zeus’s forehead. The next time you get discouraged at not producing beautiful writing on the first try, remind yourself you are not a Greek god—you might feel better.

In Coping with Writers Block, I outline several practical steps you can take to deal with any resistance you have to putting pen to paper. I hope you find them helpful.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, please follow my blog so you will be the first to know when I post a new one. If you have any specific writing topics you’d like me to address here, let me know. Until next time, take care.
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