Text as Object: Periodicals in the Long Nineteenth Century

with Prof. Cathy Waters, Dr. Jennie Batchelor, and Prof. John Drew – Friday 6 March 2015

blogpost by Christine Davies

Repositories of Original Productions of Male and Female Genius

The overlap between textual and material cultures is hardly a new concept. From ages past, when the majority of the population was illiterate, objects have been understood to possess a powerful legibility of their own. And with the simultaneous increase in consumer culture and print dissemination, the written word was often accompanied with a price tag. Words are goods, regardless of their quality. This is pertinently true of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century periodicals, and was at the forefront of this workshop’s material and digital witness.

That periodicals are particularly self-aware of their hybridity – in that their form and content render them text and object both – is highlighted by The Lady’s Magazine’s wordy claim to tangibility: at one time it self-styled itself in an address to the public as a “Repository of original productions of Female Genius”. The moment I read this, I couldn’t help but muse on the irony that my access to this repository was now framed by further repositories: our workshop was hosted by the Templeman Library at UKC, and we were browsing and coursing its online databases with borrowed laptops and passcodes amidst exhibits from its special collections. That is, whilst encountering these object-texts, these repositories of genius, in both online and handheld forms, I was struck by the sense that we approach them now only through the respective repositories of institutional archives and web-based resources.

Not only did our workshop alert us to issues of materiality in encountering the printed word then; equal and important focus was given to print’s remediation in digitisation (and I am grateful to Professor Cathy Waters for her clever nuancing of terms). Throughout the day (which was interactive, instructive, and quite frankly, marvellous fun), it became more and more evident that periodicals are a site in which material and digital methodologies can fruitfully inform each other to better interrogate both our constructions of the past and our current research practice. The session instilled valuable techniques for handling, reading, and interpreting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century periodicals as they survive as hard copies and as digitised versions, prompting us to question the relationship between the two forms, and to bear such questions in mind when mining either resource for personal research. More than this, it stimulated interesting discussion amongst participants that traversed the periodicals themselves to broader historical and theoretical issues relating to authorship, consumption, ownership, originality, reproduction, ephemerality and longevity.

So whilst we started at the very civilised time of 11:00, our day was action-packed to say the least! Warmly welcomed and readily equipped by our workshop leaders (all erudite, enthused and generous), Cathy Waters, Professor in Victorian Literature and Print Culture at Kent, opened the day with an introduction to nineteenth-century periodicals. Emphasising the eminence of periodicals in the literary culture of the period, and their attendant relevance for current scholarship, Cathy related the staggering fact that periodicals formed more than 100-fold the volume and readership of printed books in the nineteenth century. (Does this not challenge our conceptions of the literary canon and the university syllabus?) She then gave a comparative introduction to two key periodicals which formed central case studies for the day as a whole: The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832) and Household Words (1850-1859). Jane Gallagher, Senior Special Collections Assistant, then got us up, prepared and set loose on examples from these and other publications, and pertinently pointed out the revolution in form which marks the life of periodicals – once published as monthlies, they would be collected and rebound according to year – so what we looked at did oddly feel much like books. (I can’t help but imagine stitching together my copies of Selvedge and shelving them away… but no, I’d lose the hip shabby chic look on my coffee table.) It was brilliant to do this work as a group as we could learn from one another, register the different approaches we each employed in our material encounters, and discuss features of form and content common to periodicals. I particularly enjoyed leafing through a paean to Sarah Siddons in one and poring uncomprehendingly over a jumbled sewing pattern in another.

Following this, Katie Edwards, Academic Liaison Librarian, led a session on navigating digital archives, particularly the Eighteenth Century Journals Portal and 19th Century UK Periodicals, and gave advice on how best to refine searches therein. Having a go ourselves, it felt genuinely rewarding to see many of the participants discover information that was relevant for their own research and only to be had from periodicals.

The afternoon was directed by a group of periodical projecteers, who gave us exciting insights into their respective projects and prompted further questions relating to reading and researching the periodicals themselves. Our first focus was The Lady’s Magazine, as connected to the Leverhulme funded Research Project at the University of Kent, managed by Jennie Batchelor, Reader in Eighteenth-Century Studies, and her two Research Associates, Koenraad Claes and Jenny DiPlacidi (see http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/ladys-magazine/). They tasked us with reading the magazine for 15 minutes, and this engendered a fascinating discussion as participants shared both what and how they had read. What motivated us to choose a specific issue, or to select a specific reading format (facsimile, transcript, or pdf for instance)? What additions are made to the periodicals by way of marginalia and what may be absented? What does this tell us about private consumption, and what are the dangers inherent in using digitised resources? To what extent could contents be misprized by schematized approaches using search terms, or browsing contents pages? To what extent is research frustrated by the mass of anonymous author contribution and cross-periodical plagiarism? Such considerations are hardly exhaustive and will continue to inform our individual research practice as doctoral students.

After this, Professor John Drew from The University of Buckingham commanded the rapt attention of the group, as he spoke on Household Words in conjunction with his digitisation project, Dickens Journals Online (seehttp://www.djo.org.uk/index.html), and brought the nineteenth-century city-voice to life with a dramatic rendering of ‘Magazine Day’. He got us thinking about how periodicals were produced and purchased, directing us to look at uncut examples as well as printed weeklies. We then had an opportunity to explore DJO, and for me, this interface proved a wonderful resource – actually, I’d rather read Great Expectations here on screen than from my penguin edition at home!

All in all, then, this was a brilliant day. I came away from this workshop feeling not only invigorated by having thoroughly ‘worked’ the material, but also privileged by having in a sense ‘shopped’ it. These mag rags were once available for tuppence or half a shilling, yet even to contemporary buyers they could have a superlative emotional value and some went to great lengths to preserve them. Today, as Katie Edwards highlighted, university libraries must spend tens of thousands to secure digital access to these periodicals, rendering them practically privatised research resources. Yet it is surely true that as objects of a shared cultural heritage, they hold inestimable value both within and beyond the academia, and that their actual longevity is clear from the divergent ways in which they have, and continue to, come alive – as we have witnessed – in material and digital forms.