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.
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.
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.