Introduction: Literature and the Press: 1800 / 1900

Authors: Josephine McDonagh , Anna Vaninskaya

  • Introduction: Literature and the Press: 1800 / 1900


    Introduction: Literature and the Press: 1800 / 1900

    Authors: ,


An introduction to the third issue of 19.

How to Cite:

McDonagh, J. & Vaninskaya, A., (2006) “Introduction: Literature and the Press: 1800 / 1900”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 3. doi:

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Published on
01 Oct 2006
Peer Reviewed

Periodicals had a crucial role in defining literary culture, disseminating ideas and information, and providing a dynamic context for lively debate across the long nineteenth century. But the periodical press was also a source of anxiety: it was perceived as a symptom of the expanding and newly democratising world of print, and was thought to have a distracting, or – worse - corrupting influence on the reading public. The satirist James Gillray, in the cartoon discussed by Luisa Calè in the lead article of this issue, presents a compelling image of the dangers of the press in his ‘cornucopia of ignorance': an expanding pile of magazines, the detritus of new-fangled and radical ideas littering the ground beneath a crowd of very unruly readers.

The status of periodicals in literary history has been equally uncertain: they have been studied as authoritative sources of particular literary works, often attributed primacy as the place of first publication, or as the medium of dissemination of scientific and political ideas; but they are also treated as secondary and ephemeral productions that precede and defer to more substantial forms of publication, primarily the book. Attending to the culture of periodicals opens up a whole new set of questions that unsettle some of the most important terms in literary and cultural study – questions to do with the nature of authorship, the integrity of the text as a work of art, the relationship between works of literature and other forms of writing, and between word and image. The polyphonous, or dialogic form of the periodical challenges the authority that tends to be bestowed on individual authors, suggests complex and collaborative modes of production and consumption, and useful ways of analyzing writing in its varied historical contexts.

The essays in this issue had their first airing at a symposium held in Oxford in the summer of 2005, in which we set out to open up some of the questions that periodicals pose across the long nineteenth century. The topic is a huge one, so in order to provide some focus we decided to concentrate attention at either end of the period. The idea was not to trace lines of development or identify points of rupture in an ongoing tradition, but rather to examine two discrete moments in their own terms, and see what areas of comparison and contrast emerged. In this issue, Luisa Calè and Felicity James look at Unitarian periodicals at the end of the eighteenth century – among the most important and influential titles of the time. Calè analyses what she calls ‘periodical personae', the theatrical and self-conscious performance of different identities in the context of the press, which as she says, ‘questions the universal abstract subjectivity' required in a Habermasian public sphere. James also considers the complex and conflicted nature of the trans-authorial periodical voice in the Monthly Magazine, and demonstrates the degree to which the periodical, even in its most literary aspects, presents a forum for contestation and dispute, appropriating and putting pressure on Unitarian ideals of sociability. Reading poetry in its periodical contexts, James argues, exposes the ways in which even the Romantic poetic voice is constituted responsively in the context of literary and political argument – less a singular voice, than part of an intense and sometimes overheated conversation.

Essays by Anne Humpherys, Matthew Beaumont, and Carol Peaker reveal the particularities of the press in the later period: the readership is wider and more socially diverse, but the topics and, consequently, the audiences are more specialized and segmented. From magazines published by Russian émigrés, to feminist organs aimed at lower middle class women, and reviews dedicated to the ‘sexual problem', the studies here demonstrate the wide range of fin de siècle periodical activity. But certain continuities with the magazines of a hundred years earlier will be readily observable. The theatrical and performative aspects of authorship are still very much a feature of the magazine – taken to an extreme, as Humpherys writes, in the persons of George Aston Singer and Roland de Villiers, two pseudonyms of a German émigré and petty criminal named Ferdinand Springmuhl, who edited the University Magazine and Free Review in the 1890s. Each of the magazines also continues to address an ‘imagined community', or ‘virtual community,' of readers, just as those of the earlier period had done. In the case of Shafts, Matthew Beaumont observes, the network of readers that constitutes the community is intriguingly underpinned by the magazine's interest in telepathic communication, and the contagion of germs – as though the metaphors of the corruption spread by print culture that were evoked by Gillray in the 1790s were now realized in embodied form. But there are other signs that the nature of address and the formation of readerships is changing in this period. In the case of the Russian émigré press, for instance, as discussed by Carol Peaker, the periodical aims to represent a particular community to a more general public, explicitly taking up and adapting the ambassadorial function that is latent in the other more or less propagandistic publications considered in these essays. Peaker analyses the different strategies of political self-presentation, and by highlighting the editors' use of literary fiction as the most effective means of manipulating the reader, she touches on the issue at the very heart of the relations between literature and the press.