THE LADY'S MAGAZINE (1770-1832) AND THE MAKING OF LITERARY HISTORY by Jennie Batchelor, Reviewed by Jock Macleod

By Jennie Batchelor
(Edinburgh, 2022) xi + 304
Reviewed by Jock Macleod on 2023-01-23.

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There is much to like about this study of a largely neglected women's magazine that straddled the turn of the nineteenth century. Ranging from 1770 to 1832, the historical scope of The Lady's Magazine enables Batchelor to do more than simply recuperate its achievements, though that is part of her aim. It also enables her to offer an "intervention" (242) in our understanding of women's writing and literary history more generally at a time of significant transformation. While Romantic authorship privileged exclusivity, professionalism, and masculinity, The Lady's Magazine exemplified a model of authorship that she calls "unRomantic" (126) because it is based on reader-engagement, inclusivity, and amateurism. Batchelor thus foregrounds a kind of authorship largely obscured by mainstream magazines and reviews, though remnants can still be seen in some of the small-circulation radical and avant garde publications of the turn of the twentieth century.

Scrupulously detailed and rich in examples, Batchelor's argument extends over six chapters. After surveying women's magazines before 1770, she considers the establishment of The Lady's Magazine (chapter 2), the diverse reading practices encouraged by the "thematic fluidity" (86) of its multi-model and multi-media contents (chapter 3), and the occasional transformation of its readers into contributors (chapter 4). In effect, chapters 3 and 4 show how the magazine sustained and enlarged an educative and inclusive community of women readers and writers. In chapters 5 and 6, Batchelor maps out some of the key changes in the magazine, especially in its last twenty years, and considers its achievements and legacies for women's writing and literary history.

In reviewing women's magazines of the earlier eighteenth-century such as Eliza Haywood's Female Spectator (1744-46), Frances Brooke's Old Maid (1755-56), and Charlotte Lennox's Lady's Museum (1760-61), Batchelor aims to show how they led the way to The Lady's Magazine. Her finely nuanced analysis of "the pedagogical principle of variety" (35) in these earlier magazines demonstrates how diversity of voice and viewpoint, together with the formal principle of juxtaposing and remediating items, generates content that is open to debate. Since these magazines thus placed "the onus of knowledge mastery onto readers" (35), Batchelor argues, The Lady's Magazine actively took up "the miscellany format's potential to cultivate knowledge through active, discontinuous reading practices" (35).

In making this claim, Batchelor contests studies such as Kathryn Shevelow's Women and Print Culture (1989) and Iona Italia's Rise of Literary Journalism (2005), which contend that The Lady's Magazine abandoned "the educational ambition of earlier periodicals" (7) for the sake of instruction in the domestic arts. But rather than exemplifying a "decline-into-domesticity," the magazine's "emerging conversation about marriage," for example, originates from "the multiple effects of excerpting and miscellaneity," where "the transplantation of extracted and reprinted texts into the dynamic media ecology of the miscellany format ... agitates meanings dormant in the original source" (59). This concept of miscellaneous collaboration informs Batchelor's argument throughout the book.

In pursuit of this argument, Batchelor takes us into the heart of the publishing trade in London's Paternoster Row, where The Lady's Magazine was published for most of its run. It emerged, we learn, from the personal networks, interactions, and conflicts that marked the "collaborations between Row tenants who regularly did business with each other" (44). Given her discussion of theoretical concepts elsewhere in the book, I was surprised that Batchelor did not make more use here of Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, which would have enhanced her account of the personal and institutional dynamics of The Lady's Magazine in its early years.

Those dynamics came to a head when John Wheble, the original publisher of the magazine, sued George Robinson and John Roberts, who had bought it in early 1771 from its founder, John Coote. Coote had established The Lady's Magazine in 1770, when he moved to 16 Paternoster Row. Wheble lived and worked at number 20, and Robinson and Roberts were established at number 25. Working side by side on "the Row," Wheble and Robinson published two competing versions of the magazine for two years, until Wheble ceased publication at the end of 1772. Wheble's version died, Batchelor suggests, largely because "readers were responding enthusiastically to the new content in Robinson's magazine, and several of Wheble's contributors were migrating to it" (78).

This new content was juxtapositional. Drawing on Christina Lupton's concept of re/mediation and Mark Parker's theory of emergence, Batchelor shows how the magazine made "messages appear in the often unpredictable ways in which themes, arguments, perspectives and meanings emerge, not from individual articles so much as by the intertextual conversation produced by their juxtaposition" (84).

To show how the magazine's coverage "undermines the conventional characterisations of the Lady's Magazine as a training ground in femininity" (86), Batchelor applies this juxtapositional formula to four interrelated topics: news, politics, advice, and education. She carefully considers the magazine's treatment of slavery, whether as a literal fact in the orient or as a metaphor for the suppression of women's rights in the west; of abolition, which it supported; and of national and international conflicts, where "the world it conjures is as fragmented, contingent and unstable as the miscellany form it adopted" (101). The magazine also featured advice columns whose "modes and genres are as diverse as the subjects on which its commentators pronounce" (108) and proved its commitment to women's education by printing "extracts from rival educational theorists and commentators," thus exposing its readers "to a wide range of what we would now recognize as academic disciplines" (116). While Batchelor sometimes seems to credit the magazine's readers with her own kind of active and associative reading, she nevertheless provides strong evidence that something like it was at work, at least among its editors and many of its reader-contributors. Whether most of its readers actually experienced its heteroglossic diversity in this way is, however, a moot point.

Despite the magazine's longevity, Batchelor concedes that identifying the bulk of its readers and what they gained from the magazine is an impossible task: while its "intellectual expectations" gained traction for many, she says, that "does not get us much closer to pinpointing the identities or demographic profiles of subscribers" (125). Given the magazine's commitment to reader-contributors, Batchelor grasps this problem by asking who wrote for it. From multiple sources she can and does infer that its "many dozens of . . . contributors" display "no single typical profile" (126). So rather than simply listing names, Batchelor considers what it meant to be an amateur writer, the question of anonymity and pseudonymity, the function of poetry in the magazine, and the periodical publication of novels. Each kind of writing is illustrated by carefully chosen case studies that ultimately support Batchelor's overall thesis: "unRomantic" conceptions and practices of authorship characterized The Lady's Magazine.

From the early 1800s, however, those conceptions and practices came under increasing pressure. As new rivals emerged, Batchelor explains, a number of changes made by the magazine "distanced" it "from the content, structure and tone that had long secured readers' loyalty" (166). In part, this meant abandoning the compact with reader-contributors to generate its primary content; in part, it included a new commitment to please "the eye of Taste" (171) in the increasingly competitive world of women's magazine consumption. The magazine introduced hand-colored fashion plates, improved design and typeface (though with reduced font size to increase the number of articles printed), and enhanced its illustrations. It also started naming illustrators, especially when they were eminent artists, as well as dressmakers who were fashion authorities. A series of price rises further reflected these 'up-market' features. By means of these changes, Batchelor writes, the editors' "reconsideration and re-weighting of longstanding preoccupations . . ., combined to produce a very different magazine" (193), but she does not say if this "very different magazine" alienated previous readers or attracted new ones.

One of the many strengths of this book is the way Batchelor has moved beyond bound copies of the magazine to original numbers (often located in quite obscure and unexpected places) in order to reproduce illustrations, engravings, and monthly embroidery patterns so often removed either before or after binding. The embroidery patterns, she argues, "assume a high level of 'material literacy' from readers" (182), further complicating "the decline-into-domesticity thesis challenged throughout this book" (181). Yet while still encouraging forms of female agency, the magazine shifted its focus to professional authority. Together with its illustrations, its new fashion pages "signalled a new commitment . . . to professionalisation and to the re-siting of authority with established authorities rather than the personal experience of readers" (192).

The shift towards professionalization was also manifested in the magazine's commissioning of original book reviews after 1810 (as distinct from printing excerpts from other periodicals). These formed a new section, "Books Recently Published," launched in 1814, followed by "a dedicated and beautifully illustrated section" (196) entitled "Reviews of New Publications" in 1817. In thus featuring book reviews, The Lady's Magazine took its place within the orbit of post-Napoleonic periodicals, where literary reviewing expanded exponentially. Though recent scholarship has extensively probed the cultural politics of these reviews and the vitriolic exchanges they provoked, Batchelor does not try to locate The Lady's Magazine within this fray. Except for briefly noting that it lambasted other periodicals for "their criticisms of women writers and popular genres" (197), she highlights instead its general criticism of the state of current reviewing, which (as a move typical of most periodicals at this time) tells us little about its political stance. Since Batchelor claims that the new reviewing practices "inaugurated one of the most important changes in the magazine's history" (195), I would like to have seen more analysis of the politics of reviewing -- as well as of its gendered politics.

Nevertheless, the main point here is less about changes in specific content and more about changes in the relation between an "authorised" content and its readers. According to Batchelor, these changes effectively "close[d] down the conversation" (205) that had so long distinguished the intellectual assumptions and aspirations of the magazine. By showcasing in its final two decades a "newly constrained model of womanhood" (206), the magazine diminished its earlier vision of mental cultivation.

Surprisingly, Batchelor does not set this point against her broader claim that The Lady's Magazine disproves the "decline-into-domesticity" thesis advanced by other scholars. Since the decline of the magazine itself comes late in its history, one can only assume that she finds her own thesis undisturbed by its eventual domestication. For four decades, she insists, the magazine maintained something of its original aspirations, and only in its final years was it "forced to break from so many of the conventions it had established" (208). But in light of the "decline-into-domesticity" thesis, what forced this break? Though Batchelor mentions "the emergence of its many rivals and the changing tastes of its readership" (208), she doesn't tackle this question with anything like the detail she brings to her analysis of the magazine's earlier years. I suspect this is not so much because she found insufficient material as because she found the magazine becoming less ideologically and formally congenial to her own interests.

Batchelor's assessment of the magazine's achievements and legacies is clearly based on this bifurcation between its early and late years. As she puts it, its "self-appointed role as a promoter of women's writing talent and of women's reading pleasures" and its contribution to literary history are "not defined by the last fifteen troubled years of its more than six-decade run" (211). What does define it, she argues, is its creation of "a unique set of conditions for writers and readers that do not always map easily onto conventional literary-historical models" (211).

In her final chapter, Batchelor returns to the multiple ways in which The Lady's Magazine achieved its success through commemorations, biographies, obituaries, essays, and excerpts and evaluations of women's publications. Based on this cogent evidence, she concludes that the cumulative effect was to "create a repository or canon of women writers" (220). The conclusion is justified not only by the quantity of evidence produced throughout the whole book, but also by a nicely argued section on the magazine's role in creating a "scribal community" (227) that was so beneficial to women writers in the eighteenth century. How that scribal community might be compared to the networks of men (primarily) and women that spawned nineteenth-century periodical culture would be a valuable addition to our knowledge of the larger shifts in the history of periodicals over the two hundred years from 1700 to 1900.

One of the many virtues of Batchelor's book is that it raises these larger questions through the history of a single periodical. Although its sequence of chapters is roughly chronological, it does not simply track a series of moments in that history. Rather, by grappling with the material facts on which periodical studies and periodical history rest, its individual chapters address broader theoretical problems. In summary, this is an exemplary work of scholarship which certainly enriches our understanding of women's writing and literary history.

Jock Macleod is Associate Professor of Literary Studies, Griffith University, Australia.

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