Monthly Archives: June 2015

Vipers and Treacherous Men: Moral Tales in the Lady’s Magazine

The moral tales in the Lady’s Magazine form a distinct genre that consists of short, often illustrated, didactic stories intended to convey a lesson or moral to the reader. One might imagine that such a genre communicates a consistent or coherent ideology, but the fictional content of the moral tale varies widely in both instructive message and writing style – even in works by the same author.

fatal wreath title and engraving info

LM XXII (March 1781): 117. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission

The prolific correspondent ‘R—.’ contributed moral tales for well over a decade, penning stories such as ‘Surgi, or the Stoic’ (LM IV [April 1773]: 193), ‘The Unexpected Meeting’ (LM IV [May 1773]: 233) – which takes place in Margate –, ‘Alphonso; or the Cruel Husband’ (LM V [April 1774]: 183), ‘Celadon and Florella; or the Perils of a Tete-a-tete’ (LM V [February 1773]: 65), ‘Penelope, or Matrimonial Constancy’ (LM V [September 1774]: 457) and ‘The Unwary Sleeper’ (LM V [May 1774]: 233). All of these tales have accompanying engravings and ‘R—.’ also contributed essays, opinion pieces, and serial fiction.

unwary sleeper page one better

LM V (May 1774): 233. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission

Because I would like to spend further time on this topic in future blog posts, I will only discuss two of the tales here. ‘The Unwary Sleeper’ and ‘The Fatal Wreath’ (LM XII [March 1781]: 117). In ‘The Unwary Sleeper’ the female character, Dulcetta, describes herself thusly: ‘My figure gave pleasure, but the readiness with which I imbibed the instructions of my teachers, recommended me more strongly than my personal accomplishments’ (233). In contrast, her friend Amelia’s : ‘mode of education was different from mine; she could sing, and play well on her guitar and spinet, but could neither stitch a wristband, or read an English author with propriety. An adept at quadrille, but totally ignorant of the first rudiments of religion’ (233), Amelia allows ‘liberties’ from men that shock her friend. After she elopes with Mr. D— it is revealed he is already married with ‘a family of half a score children’ (234).

unwary sleeper engraving

LM V (May 1774): 233. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission

Dulcetta’s religious and moral education has saved her from her friend’s fate, but the tale doesn’t conclude here, as it easily could. Instead, it transports Dulcetta one month forward to her father’s house three miles away. After this apparently insignificant alteration in time and location, Dulcetta feels removed from normality, a distance likewise experienced by the reader due to a shift from the earlier, matter-of-fact narration to a tone similar to a fairytale. The estate, ‘in the midst of a wood, and [. . . ] entirely by itself’ affords her no companion and so she wanders alone, picking wildflowers and reading. Laying down under a large tree, she is ‘immediately transported into the land of dreams. I thought that I was in a solitary place, and that a person was attempting to be rude with me. I shrieked—the shriek waked me—and who should stand before me but the treacherous Mr. D—,’ (234). Dulcetta is saved by one of her father’s servants and the incident causes her to conclude that ‘the fall of the sex is generally owing to their vigilance’s being asleep when it should be awake’ (234).

The pointed observation feels ill-suited to the preceding passage given that the moral female protagonist was sleeping when attacked and only fortuitously saved by an improbably located servant. If even a virtuous and properly educated female risks a ‘fall’ by falling asleep, R—. seems to suggest luck, more than vigilance, is needed to save one’s virtue.

the fatal wreath engraving

LM XXII (March 1781): 117. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission

R—.’s March 1781 tale ‘The Fatal Wreath’ features another slumbering character, but this time the sleeper is the (would-be) seducer of the luckless Almira. Celadon, ‘fond of dissipation’, persuades Almira into frequent meetings in a grove decorated with a statue of Diana, goddess of chastity, where Almira makes ‘concessions [. . .] which she wished that she had not made’ (118). When she finds him asleep in the grove one summer’s evening, she places chaplet of flowers on his head. Suddenly fearing the statue of Diana is animated, ‘that she even pointed her shaft against her’, Almira flees, but ‘a viper bit her heel – she sunk – she died – she might have met with a worse, had Celadon awoke, when she placed the flowery wreath on his temples.—Let the sex beware of innocent advances and liberties; advances and liberties are dangerous’ (118).

fatal wreath viper bite and signature

LM XXII (March 1781): 117. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission

Again, the moral is intriguingly elusive. R—. states that ‘advances and liberties are dangerous’ but it is unclear just how far the liberties between Celadon and Almira have gone. By suggesting that had Celadon awoken Almira would have met with a fate worse than death, R—. implies that she has not already had sexual intercourse with Celadon in spite of allowing some ‘concessions’. The viper bite saves Almira from what might have been, rather than punishing her for what has already occurred. The ‘what might have been’ fate could also have befallen the virtuous Dulcetta in the ‘The Unwary Sleeper’ yet she was saved by luck. Regardless of the potential danger of liberties, advances, and slumber, what R—. depicts as the actual, physical dangers to unwary or unguarded women are vipers and, of course, treacherous men.

Dr Jenny DiPlacidi

University of Kent

Meaning and Magazines

The Ladys Magazine , or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex , for the Year 1780 . Engraved frontispiece by Robert Dighton ( 1752  1814 ) showing a young woman forced to choose between the Temple of Folly and the Temple of Wisdom .

Frontispiece to the bound 1780 Lady’s Magazine.

Who or what makes meaning in magazines? Publishers? Editors? Advertisers (usually, in fact, these were the publishers or editors in the era I spend my working life in)? The authors of individual contributions? Or maybe even readers?

The answer, it seems to me, is never a clear cut one. The inherentally dialogic and dynamic format of the magazine means that it cannot ever be so.

The Lady’s Magazine is no exception. Individual contributors to the magazine often had very strident views on the topics about which they wrote, whether that topic was whether men were women’s intellectual superiors, the need to abolish the slave trade, or the best cure for unwanted female hair growth. But as we have indicated many times on the blog before – usually with a mixture of frustration and admiration – it is hard to identify any coherent editorial line running through the magazine at all. Nothing in the magazine is so consistent as its inconsistency.

It would be easy to offer ready answers to the question of why this is the case. These range from the uncharitable and surely untrue – the magazine was so shambolic that it didn’t know what it was doing – to the downright cynical and misleading – the Lady’s was so keen to secure as sizeable a readership as possible that it tried to be all things to all people. The more accurate answer still lies partly out of reach of my outstretched fingertips and would certainly take more words than I have here to try to work through. But any response to the question surely has to take into account one of the most important generators of meaning in the (indeed, any) magazine: the placement of contributions.

The implications of how articles speak to and against one another were something I spent a lot of time thinking about (again) in a recent talk I gave at the wonderful Disseminating Dress conference I attended at the University of York last month. This three-day conference organised by Serena Dyer (University of Warwick), Jade Halbert (University of Glasgow) and Sophie Littlewood (University of York) brought together academics, curators and practitioners to examine how sartorial ideas and knowledge were transmitted between individuals and communities from the medieval period to the present. I was delighted to be asked to speak about what the Lady’s Magazine had to say about dress and fashion.

Of course, the magazine has rather a lot to say and in lots of different genres, from antiquarian and anthropological accounts, to moral essays and advice columns on dress, to embroidery patterns and fashion plates. But perhaps inevitably, my talk ended up being less about what individual contributions or even distinct sartorial genres disseminated about dress than about how these different contributions and genres buffetted against one another to create meanings that were much more than the sum of the magazine’s individual parts.

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LM XXIV (May 1783): 267. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Take, for instance, this juxtaposition in the May 1783 issue. A month before, the magazine’s agony aunt, the Matron, had received a letter from a correspondent who went by the initials W. G., and who had complained bitterly about the unbecomingly masculine appearance of women who sported riding habits. The animosity behind W. G.’s attack is quickly diffused by the eminently sensible Matron who urges that ‘single ladies, if they find the riding habit more compact and convenient’ should be allowed to wear it ‘uncensured and unmolested’ even if she ultimately had to concede that married women, ‘if they are truly wise’, will ‘wear only those dresses which are most becoming in the eyes of their husbands’ (267). After a brief diversion on the ridiculous revival of the fashion for feathered garments, the Matron signs off by noting that ‘Moderation […] in dress as well as in diversions, is not only most convenient, it is also most becoming.’ With this, the Matron steers her usual, pragmatic course: misogyny is checked while propriety is observed.


LM XXIV (May 1783): 268. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

LM XXIV (May 1783): 268. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

But just when the magazine’s sartorial conservatism seems at its most surefooted, it is immediately undermined by the fashion report that follows it. Authored by an anonymous ‘Lady of Fashion’, one of a succession of early fashion journalists who graced the magazine’s pages, the report describes the latest fashions as popularized by the poet, actress (later novelist) and renowned celebrity Mary (Perdita) Robinson. The moderation called for by the Matron is flagrantly thrown off in the report in favour of sumptuous descriptions of the Rutland gown with its petticoats ‘tied back at the sides in the form of a Sultana’s robe’, the ’ made of silver or gold muslin and lined with coloured Persian’, as well as the ‘, trimmed with a wreath of white roses, and a panache of [the] white feathers’ the Matron despised, before closing with a reference to ‘Riding habits’, which are ‘much worn in the morning; the most fashionable are the Perdita’s pearl colour’ (268).


Whether the juxtaposition of the Matron’s column and the fashion report was a coincidence or manufactured is a puzzle that I suspect we will never solve. In a sense, though, it matters little. For this is no isolated incident and what is important about it is the range of effects the placement of such material had on readers’ experience of navigating the magazine’s content. And what is true for fashion is also true for the magazine’s conversations about marriage, class, domestic and global politics, the literary marketplace or any of the myriad subjects to which it returns. Few of these debates are ever definitively won or done with.

It would, I think, be all too easy to read these tensions as symptomatic of the mixed messages and impossibly contradictory feminine ideal that we have come to associate with the modern women’s magazine. But such views do not do justice to the complexity of the Lady’s. More to the point, they fail to acknowledge the form of the publication itself and the kinds of active reading practices it encouraged and which our blog and project as a whole seek to illuminate.

Readers of the Lady’s Magazine were far from passive. So many of the magazine’s most conservative pronouncements were actively challenged by editorial placement against articles or artifacts presenting contradictory points of view or by reader responses published in subsequent issues. The very form of the magazine – one in which every reader was a potential contributor and no one, not even respected authorities such as the Matron, could be guaranteed the final word on any subject – meant that every pronouncement it made in its pages was provisional and open to challenge.

The Lady’s Magazine’s driving principle, as we have alluded to before, was ‘conversation’, that ‘sieve that strains our thoughts of all their dross,’ as it put it in its March 1773 issue, ‘and like fire to gold, […] purifies the grosser and more unpolished ideas of our minds; it burnishes our mental magazine, and makes it fit for use’ (127). This is not to say that the magazine was entirely democratic or that some voices weren’t louder than others, but within the magazine’s community, dissent was encouraged and debate flourished.

Whether editorial placement was dictated by design or simply a happy accident matters little. Except to say, that the space that such placements opened up for readers to navigate the magazine’s content, to reflect on its import, to craft their own response, and perhaps to choose to share that response within the magazine’s pages, was surely one of the magazine’s greatest achievements and sources of its success.


Dr Jennie Batchelor

School of English

University of Kent

Constructing authorial identities: A Suffolk Weaver Poet in the Lady’s Magazine

When Byron’s first publications did not meet with the favourable reception which they undoubtedly deserved, the young poet wrote one of his most scathing works of satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). In this infamously delightful poem, he not only lampoons the critics who had slighted him, but he also attacks various literary fashions prevalent in what we now know as the Romantic era. Among these is a vogue for “self-taught” poets:

Let Poesy go forth, pervade the whole, / Alike the rustic, and mechanic soul!  / Ye tuneful cobblers! still your notes prolong, / Compose at once a slipper and a song; / So shall the fair your handywork peruse, / Your sonnets sure shall please—perhaps your shoes. / May Moorland weavers boast Pindaric skill, / And tailors’ lays be longer than their bill! (ll. 789-798)

This ironic passage contains direct references to poets who were well-known at the time; foremost the tailor’s son and shoemaker Robert Bloomfield, and the “Moorland weaver” Thomas Bakewell from Staffordshire. The Lady’s Magazine, which features representative examples of all literary phenomena of its time, reflects this fad as well, and the former poet is regularly republished (a euphemism for “pirated”) there. The reasons for their success are too complex to go into in this blog post, but such rurally situated poets without an advanced formal education tended to be popular for two main reasons: (1) their very rusticity, as at this stage of the Industrial Revolution many self-taught poets were indeed still based in the increasingly idealized countryside, far away from the supposedly stifling influence of cities, and (2) they would not be tempted to use the stock phrases, stylistic mannerisms, and intertextual clichés from Classical literature typically acquired through an Augustan education. According to the proto-Romantic myth, which certainly predates the Lyrical Ballads (1798), uneducated equals unspoiled, and these poets would be inspired directly by nature. Much of this is of course problematic as the most successful self-taught poets were arguably more learned than many university graduates today, but one can see why people found the idea attractive.

     The assumptions on which it rests suited periodicals like the Lady’s Magazine, which relied for most of its content on myriads of amateur reader-contributors, whose confidence would naturally have been boosted by the example of “rustic and mechanic souls” turned poet. Despite the superficially democratic new taste, getting published was not easy for poets lacking connections in the literary trade, and the platform offered by the magazine was for many a welcome opportunity. The readership of the magazine was found across the United Kingdom and notably in every English county, and this means that it could be of special use to those authors who next to no connections also had a disadvantageous geographical situation. Perhaps many had hopes for more than occasional publication in a women’s monthly, but as the magazine was such a commercial success, you could achieve some form of celebrity even if you never got published elsewhere.

Hogarth weavers

Hogarth – Industry & Idleness (1747) – I. The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms

     One reader-contributor who achieved moderate success within the magazine was the Suffolk-based “weaver poet” John Webb (1768-1840). Thanks to a few preserved personal documents we know more about him than about most other authors. Webb was an exceptionally productive contributor, publishing dozens of poems and causeries for the magazine from 1800 to 1818. These poems are mostly derivative lyrics that evoke bestselling poets of the period, and the causeries are moral reflections, often occasioned by walks around (the almost proverbial) country churchyards. Webb tells us in the handwritten memoirs that he left us, which were never published, that he was a pious man, likely a Presbyterian, belonging to the Nonconformist community of the town of Haverhill where he would be buried at the Independent Church.

     The aforementioned autobiographical document, though somewhat self-aggrandizing, is a great source on the motivations of reader-contributors like Webb to write for the magazine. Webb tells us that he was born into a family long-established in the fustian trade, who appear to have been respected artisans. The region had a tradition of textile manufacturing, and from the difference between his status in his early youth and the relative prosperity that he implies for himself near the end of his life, it would appear that the family had profited by the momentous transition from handloom to powerloom weaving, which occurred throughout Webb’s professional life. At any rate, the man who says that he wrote most of his early poetry under the tutelage of a former “journeyman weaver” who taught him his letters and not much more at the parish school, soon was making frequent business trips to London, where all of his children would come to live. It is fascinating that he continues to present himself nevertheless as a “weaver poet” throughout that time, despite the fact that he would have progressed in financial status and social habitus, in his later work for instance referring to opera singer Angelica Catalani, whom he is unlikely to have heard at a humble church social back home in Haverhill. That he continues to exploit this image repeatedly by referring to it in his poetry, is likely due to more than class loyalty, but also to a desire to participate in the literary fashions of the day, and maybe to take advantage of this good opportunity to market his own work.

     Not only did many readers consider the self-taught poets “[r/R]omantic”, a more or less self-conscious presentation of oneself as “self-taught” would also function as a strategy for poets without a public school and university education to position themselves in the literary market, where any sign of deficient breeding was still habitually and ruthlessly picked on; Byron’s snide remarks still being a mild example. Webb wrote two long narrative poems about his hometown that did not appear in the Lady’s Magazine but as privately printed books, entitled Haverhill (1810) and The Market Town (1821), which take their cue from the thematically similar work of George Crabbe (The Village and The Borough). Both touch upon his personal educational history. He cites his sources meticulously, and mentions that after his indifferent schooling with the incompetent schoolmaster, he educated himself further by reading poets such as Milton, Goldsmith, William Whitehead, and Cowper. The preface to Haverhill apologizes ambiguously for any possible faults in the title poem and the shorter pieces appended, stating that most of them “were written while the author moved in the humble sphere of a Journeyman Weaver”.[1] This was commonly understood as meaning that the poet himself had been a journeyman, but this appears never to have been the case: rather, his schoolmaster had been. Although this may seem a detail, it does nuance the class-based profile that Webb constructs for himself. Tellingly, the autobiography is very scanty with details on Webb’s day job, maybe not to burst the bubble, and it is not unimportant that the poet who wrote in The Market Town that his home was “[a]far from London’s proud imperial towers”[2] was to spend so much of his time in the capital. The anonymous critic for the Monthly Review, discussing Haverhill, appears suspicious, and states that “to speak the plain truth, Mr. Webb appears to have been singularly favoured [by the Muses] for a man in his situation in life”.[3] It is indeed probable that he was less rustic than he himself claimed.

     Webb says that that after having started his allegedly autodidactic studies of other poets, he soon tried his own hand at poetry, and wanting a forum for his effusions, he naturally turned to the magazines. In 1785, he took advantage of a competition in the Wit’s Magazine (1794-1795), “the conductor of which [Thomas Holcroft – KC] gave four silver medals monthly, to such correspondents as produced the best original essay, tale, etc., or who wrote the best answers to their Prize Enigma”. Webb did not win, but was not deterred by this, and in 1792 went on to publish “many humble attempts at Poetry in the New Lady Magazine [sic], but having entered the nuptial scene […], I hung my harp on the willows, and attended to more important matters”.[4] The periodical that he mentions here is actually the New Lady’s Magazine, a rival publication to the Lady’s Magazine that was published by Alexander Hogg, former associate of Lady’s Magazine publisher Robinson and Co. It followed an editorial policy very similar to that to the Lady’s Magazine, and pirated so much of its content that Hogg was eventually taken to court.

LM XXXIV (Nov 1804). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

     As he now dedicated himself solely to his family for a few years, we have to wait until the Lady’s Magazine publications for Webb to resurface again, but luckily here his work found a permanent home. The often enthusiastic reader-contributor community appears to have embraced him wholeheartedly, and he even received fan mail. In November 1804 his poem “The Old Bachelor’s Petition” appeared, where he assumes the persona of a “lass-lorn” older man who laments not having gotten married in his youth, which was such a hit that had he wanted to and not already had a wife, our weaver could have wed a spinster. Two sent lengthy replies in verse to Webb, probably by way of the magazine’s publishers, in which they offered him marriage. Mercifully, these amorous epistles were never published in the magazine.

     All of this attention must have been flattering, but it is a far cry from establishing a reputation as a poet. At one time, Webb appears to have almost made it, when he published by subscription his first long poem, Haverhill, and by his own admittance was left with a cool £100 after all expenses were paid. Again according to himself, he was visited soon after its publication by Sir George Beaumont, one of the subscribers and the doyen of English art patrons. Beaumont claimed to have shown it to Wordsworth, who in turn would also have thought it a decent poem, and (amusingly) admired the fact that Webb had made so much money out of it. However, nothing much happens after this, presumably because Webb’s first priorities always were his family and business. The Lady’s Magazine may not have secured him a place in the canon, but it must have helped him to attract the support of his generous subscribers.

Dr. Koenraad Claes

School of English, University of Kent


[1] Webb, John. Haverhill, a descriptive Poem, and other Poems. London: privately printed, 1810. n. p.

[2] Webb, John. Poems. London: privately printed, 1859. p. 66

[3] Unsigned. “Haverhill, a descriptive Poem, and other Poems “. Monthly Review Vol. LXII, Nr. 8 (August 1810), pp. 343-344

[4] Webb, John. Autobiography. Manuscript.

The Lady’s Magazine Team Goes to Chawton

One of the many interesting and pleasurable aspects of working on the Lady’s Magazine project is having the opportunity to present our work to the public, which we were able to do at Chawton House Library in Hampshire.

chawton house

Image © Chawton House Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Image © Chawton House Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Chawton is an estate that was inherited by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, after being adopted by the heirless Knight family and taking their surname. The estate is now open to visitors who can learn about the Austen family and the history of women’s writing in Britain. It is also home to a unique visiting fellows program that I had the privilege of participating in during the summer of 2012. The program allows scholars from around the world to use the library’s impressive collection of women’s writings that range from unpublished manuscripts to popular fiction, rare books, periodicals and first editions, among others. In addition, the library hosts a variety of events including evening talks that draw in a diverse audience and the Lady’s Magazine team was very excited to be asked by Dr Gillian Dow, Chawton’s director of research, to present our ongoing research at one of these talks last week.

Chawton talk team

Dr Jennie Batchelor, Dr Jenny DiPlacidi, Dr Koenraad Claes at Chawton House Library with the library’s 1811 edition of the Lady’s Magazine. Image © Chawton House Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Koenraad Chawton

Dr Koenraad Claes at Chawton House Library, Hampshire

Our talk was in three parts, opening with Dr Jennie Batchelor providing the historical context of eighteenth-century periodicals and the Lady’s Magazine, describing its unique features and diverse content. Dr Batchelor explored the lasting influence of the magazine as a medium in which women writers were encouraged to publish, citing the letters of Charlotte Bronte who ‘wished with all her heart’ she ‘had been born in time to contribute to’ the magazine and outlining the changes in print culture and periodicals throughout the long eighteenth century. Dr Koenraad Claes discussed his role on the project, which is to explore the anonymous and pseudonymous contributors to the magazine. Explaining the many difficulties involved in tracking down the thousands of signatures over the years, Dr. Claes provided examples of research techniques and successes in linking the elusive initials to individuals. My part of the talk discussed my role in reading the wide range of items in the magazine and assigning genres to the content in order to examine shifts and consistencies in the magazine’s composition over time.

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LM XXXI (April 1800). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

I also discussed the probability that Jane Austen was familiar with the Lady’s Magazine and its fiction; although it is impossible to say definitively that Austen read the Lady’s Magazine and its tales and stories, it is more likely than not. As Edward Copeland points out, the immense popularity of the magazine meant that ‘everybody’ read the periodical. Making a case for Austen’s familiarity with the magazine, Copeland notes connections between her life and some of the items within the periodical, the most notorious of which being the April 1800 trial report of Austen’s aunt, Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, who was accused of stealing lace from a shop in Bath.[1] Even if Austen never read the Lady’s Magazine, we know that she read the local newspaper, the Hampshire Chronicle, which frequently reprinted fiction from the Lady’s Magazine within it.

After our talk we answered questions from a lovely audience who were interested in many different aspects of the magazine, including details of its physical size, its readership, the process of printing the many engravings as well as publication costs and profits. It was a wonderful experience and we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Chawton House Library talking about our work on the magazine.

Dr Jenny DiPlacidi

University of Kent


[1] Edward Copeland, Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 119-21.