This is the blog for our major new research project on The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1818), run out of the University of Kent. The research is funded by a two-year Leverhulme Research Project grant and will result in a host of publications about the contents of and contributors to this early, long-running and groundbreaking women’s magazine, as well as a fully annotated index available online. You can read more about the project, its researchers (Dr Jennie Batchelor, Dr Jenny DiPlacidi and Dr Koenraad Claes), its objectives and its rationale here.
Over the next two years we will be using the blog to document some of our discoveries and the many challenges involved in working on so vast and miscellaneous an archive. But for our first post, we wanted to provide some essential background on a magazine that Charlotte Bronte, writing to Hartley Coleridge on 10 December 1840, declared ‘with all her heart’ she wished she had ‘been born in time to contribute to’.
From its inauspicious first appearance in August 1770 to the beginning of its new series in 1818, the magazine presented its readers with a uniquely panoramic view on to the world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life, literature and the arts and sciences. For a modest price (just sixpence for the first few decades of the magazine’s history) readers were provided with a monthly feast of short stories and serialised fiction, poetry, essays on history, science, politics and travel, advice for wives and mothers, fashion reports, recipes, medicinal ‘receipts’ offering cures for maladies from cramp to ‘hectic fevers’, accounts of trials and biographies of famous historical and contemporary figures, enigmas, rebuses and domestic and foreign news reports, as well as elegant engravings, fashion plates, embroidery patterns and song sheets.
The concept of a periodical aimed primarily at a female readership was by no means new when the first issue appeared in 1770. John Dunton’s The Ladies’ Mercury was first published in February 1693 and in the following decades many more periodicals took up where Dunton left off, including Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator (1744-46) and Charlotte Lennox’s Lady’s Museum (1760-61). In fact, George Robinson’s Lady’s Magazine was only the third periodical to bear the name in the eighteenth century. Jasper Goodwill’s publication of the same name had run from 1749 to 1753, while Goldsmith’s better known Lady’s enjoyed a four-year run from 1759 to 1763. Like all of these earlier works, Robinson’s Lady’s Magazine was built upon the dual premise of edification and amusement. But its generic scope and, crucially, its construction of a community of mixed-sex but largely female reader-contributors upon whom the magazine appeared to be largely dependent for the bulk of its content guaranteed its unusual success and longevity.Literary careers were launched in the pages of the Lady’s Magazine. Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village first appeared in serial form in the magazine in the 1820s as did the novels of other, more obscure, authors such as George Moore, author of Grasville Abbey (serialised in the magazine in 1793 and later published in 1796 in volume form). Most major and many minor published figures in the period had extracts from their work published in the magazine. What made the magazine so very popular in its own time and so fascinating today, however, is the quite literal positioning of these works next to the amateur contributions of legions of anonymous or pseudonymous contributors. Extracts from the works of Wollstonecraft and Rousseau can be found next to those of a W., an Oxoniensis, a ‘Friend to the Fair Sex’ or an Eleonora keen to participate in current debates on the rights of man or female education. Predictably, the magazine’s dependence upon this unpaid, amateur labour force often led it into difficulty. The ‘To our Correspondents’ pages, in which a succession of largely unknown editors addressed readers, give some sense of the scale of contributions received and their range in quality. Many contributions were rejected on the grounds that they were poorly written or in poor taste while even accomplished serials could be a source of complaint when contributors failed to conclude them. But for all its pitfalls, the magazine’s reliance upon the goodwill of reader-contributors also created a powerful form of what we would now think of as brand loyalty and a clear sense of collective (if also sometimes highly competitive) endeavour.
In the coming weeks and months some of the fruits of our own collective (and not in the least competitive) endeavour will be posted on this blog. Please do send us any comments or questions you have about the magazine or the project.