The Lady’s Magazine Project: New Year Round-up

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LM XXVII (Supp, 1796). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / British Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Happy new year from Jenny, Koenraad and me! I’m finding it hard to believe that it’s 2016 already and even harder to believe that the Lady’s Magazine Project is just 9 months from completion. The compilation and publication of our fully-annotated index to all of the text-based content of the first 48 years of the Lady’s Magazine‘s run is very much on track, thank goodness. But the fact that the end of September 2016 makes an appearance in the calendar I have just stuck on the wall by my desk at home has nonetheless prompted some audible drawing in of breath.

Therefore, and in the spirit of the season, we thought that our first post of the year should be a round-up of some of the highlights of the past 15 months, if only to remind us how far we have come.

Getting our ducks (aka Excel columns) in a row:

In many ways, the least exciting but also most contentious and important part of our work since the project began has been finalising the format and parameters of our index, which we will be making available for public use in September 2016. Establishing clear, consistent and a user-friendly layout and language to catalogue every one of the more than fourteen thousand text-publications in the magazine’s first print run – including data on their authors (names, ages, locations and sex where known), sources (for non-original items) and metadata for each article (keywords, modes and genres) – is absolutely vital if the index is to be the comprehensive search tool we want it to be. Arriving at these decisions is also much easier said than done, however.

Working with the magazine’s own eccentric (she says politely) indexing practices and having very incomplete data about some articles are only the smallest of these challenges and actually the easiest to overcome. Finding a vocabulary that is meaningful to us now, but sensitive to the time of the magazine’s publication, has been a much more perplexing conundrum. We have spent weeks discussing the merits and demerits of particular terms: What do you call an author who doesn’t claim to write a piece they send in to a magazine but might have written nonetheless? Is plagiarism a useful term to describe non-original items published without acknowledgement as being such in the magazine? What is the difference between a romance and a moral tale?

While these conundrums still produce some head-scratching and lively conversation over coffee and sometimes chocolates, we now have a stable set of terms and the layout of the Excel spreadsheet the data is in is fixed. Whether we publish it in that format or in something else is not 100 per cent certain after some potentially exciting developments in recent weeks. But that’s all up in the air for the moment. We’ll keep you posted, I promise.

Discoveries: or, how we lost years of lives on Ancestry:

When we haven’t been attempting to reconstruct an eighteenth-century coffee house in my office, we have been immersed in various archives and various online databases working on our respective strands of the project. I, for one, will freely admit to getting lost down several long, dark rabbit holes in the past year and a bit (and several years before the project even began) trying to identify authors of unsigned or pseudonymous contributors, or establish the network around the magazine’s publishers, the Robinsons. And then we entered the fascinating, labyrinthine world of genealogy websites and their uncanny ability to make 3 hours slip away in what feels like 8 minutes.

We have always been absolutely honest about the fact that our project is not the key to all of the magazine’s mythologies. We will provide as much information as we can on everything in the magazine from 1770 to 1818, but there will be sources that are taken from elsewhere we might not dissever the origins of, hidden relationships between readers, writers and publishers, and many, many authors’ identities will not be able to uncover.

But we have had many small victories, too – many of which we have already shared on the blog – and every one of them has been sweet. We’ve been delighted to construct biographies for some contributors, like the prolific and talented Elizabeth Yeames (sister of fellow contributor Catharine) and for whom I now have a file containing her baptismal record, her marriage certificate, her heartbreaking will and even a picture of her gravestone. We have been fascinated by courtships carried out in the magazine’s pages and the discovery of a manuscript autobiography of John Webb of Haverhill, whose work was a mainstay of the publication for many years. There is still more to tall you about and much more to discover over the next few months and every bit of information gleaned makes those lost hours absolutely worth it.

Talks and archives:

We have been surprised and thrilled that the project has generated so much public and academic interest since it began and even more surprised and thrilled to get so many opportunities to speak about it as individuals or as a team at Chawton House Library, in LA and Toronto and the Universities of Cardiff, Glasgow, Ghent, Kent, York and Trondheim. At every talk we learn something new and every time we have spoken about the project we have found out more about what people want and need it to be. Next stop for the project is the BSECS conference at Oxford later this week, where Jennie is talking about pseudonymity in the  magazine, with Jenny and Koenraad heading to Dundee later in the year and all three of us to the University of East Anglia in May.

Making our own community:

As we’ve said on the blog before, one of the hallmarks of the magazine’s success was its creation of a community of reader-contributors who felt deeply invested in its contents. The biggest pleasure of this project has been the formation of a new community of people interested in the periodical’s history and the future research it might generate. This blog has a modest but loyal (thank you!) following and our followers on Twitter are incredibly generous in sharing their enthusiasm for and knowledge about the magazine and its diverse contents. The social media arm of the project has been its biggest revelation to me, opening up a conversation I used to just have in my own head about the magazine to the insights and vast knowledge bases of social and dress historians, novelists, genealogists, archivists, historical re-enacters and textile enthusiasts and needleworkers. The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off – already underway, although there is still time to join in – is just one of many dimensions to the project I did not have the foresight to imagine when I first conceived of the project. I’m sure it’s just one of many surprises to come in the following months.

So, thanks again for all your support for us over the past year and I hope you stick with us for the next 9 months!

Dr Jennie Batchelor

School of English

University of Kent

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