Victorian Magazines

For many, perhaps most, Victorian readers, fiction was packaged within the pages of a magazine or newspaper rather than between the covers of a book. During the 1830s and 1850s the reduction and eventual abolition of the notorious stamp duty and taxes on advertising and, in 1861, on paper, together with publishers’ perception of an expanding market, encouraged the proliferation of magazines. Although the monthly and weekly magazines are more frequently associated with serialized long fiction— and it is arguable that the heyday of the short story belongs to the end of the century—in fact periodicals encouraged the production of short fiction throughout the Victorian age and helped the development and popularity of subgenres such as ghost stories, sensation fiction, and detective fiction.

In the early decades (the mid-1820s to mid-1850s) the illustrated annuals, designed for the Christmas and gift market, played a part in popularizing short fiction, since by their nature they were unsuitable for serialized novels. Mary Russel Mitford, whose series of tales “Our Village” had transformed the fortunes of the Lady’s Magazine in the early 1820s, was a notable contributor, as was Mary Shelley, who provided many short stories for such publications as the Keepsake. Editors sought celebrity contributors, and among writers of short fiction for Heath’s Book of Beauty during the Countess of Blessington’s editorship were Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton and the Earl of Beaconsfield (former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli). Later, the special Christmas numbers of magazines like Charles Dickens’s Household Words, which had accelerated the demise of the expensive annuals, exploited the attraction of the short story for holiday reading. Meanwhile such lively monthlies as Bentley’s Miscellany and Fraser’s Magazine were also publishing fiction. Oliver Twist appeared in Bentley’s; Fraser’s carried some of William Makepeace Thackeray’s early work. Ellen Wood was certainly not alone in launching her career as a novelist through magazine fiction when, during the 1850s, she supplied, for modest remuneration, some 150 short stories to Harrison Ainsworth, then the editor of Bentley’s and the proprietor of the New Monthly Magazine.

Dickens’s Household Words (1850–59) a cheap (twopenny) and innovative weekly magazine, was aimed at a much broader audience than the purchasers of monthlies. Its professed ambition was to usurp the penny dreadfuls while bringing to its readers a deeper knowledge of their own society and the wider world, but always in a highly imaginative and entertaining way. Dickens’s strong editorial control over both it and All The Year Round, which he launched in 1859 following his split from Bradbury and Evans, imparted a distinct personality to both magazines. All The Year Round is distinguished by its commitment to serialized fiction, but Household Words also made a major contribution to the publication of contemporary fiction. WILKIE COLLINS collaborated with Dickens on stories and wrote original fiction for All the Year Round, whose staff he joined in 1865. Eliza Lynn Linton was a regular writer of short stories. Percy Fitzgerald, introduced to Dickens by John Forster, became a prolific contributor to both magazines over a period of 20 years; he said that the “mere connection” with Household Words was for an author a passport to other journals.

“Lizzie Leigh” by Elizabeth Gaskell opened Household Words, which later published the Cranford stories and others, including “The Old Nurse’s Story” and various Christmas number offerings. She found the discipline of serial writing, however, uncongenial, complaining that with North and South every page was “grudged” her. As a result she preferred not to write for All The Year Round, though she found herself committed to allowing her powerful novella “LOIS THE WITCH” to appear there. Afterward she sent what she regarded as her best work to the Cornhill Magazine. All The Year Round’s prioritization of serial fiction perhaps inevitably, if somewhat paradoxically in view of Dickens’s high-minded opposition to the crude criminal literature that was a staple of the penny dreadfuls, led to an emphasis on sensation and mystery to keep readers hooked. The magazine’s early success was built on A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and The Woman in White.

In the more favorable financial climate of the 1860s, new monthly magazines like the Cornhill rose to challenge old established ones. Blackwood’s Magazine, founded as long ago as 1817, was one of the survivors. By 1830 it had established its character and niche in respectable society, offering a mixture of creative literature, reviews, and essays on domestic and foreign affairs, largely eschewing anything controversial. Faced with competition from the newcomers, it made little attempt to emulate their innovations, hanging on to its core, albeit shrinking, readership by sticking to its editorial principles—the tradition of maintaining contributors’ anonymity, imposing minimal editorial interference, and developing a loyal group of writers. One of its longest- standing relationships was with (Margaret) Oliphant, who became Blackwood’s major literary reviewer in 1854, regularly supplying serials, short stories, and essays almost until her death in 1897. A fierce critic of the sensation novels of the 1860s, she was nevertheless an admirer of Wilkie Collins’s artistry, and one of the finest of her own short stories, “The Library Window,” has strong gothic overtones.

Elsewhere, popular novelists ran their own magazines. In 1867, the sensation novelist MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON launched the monthly Belgravia, whose title she described as “the best bait for the shillings of Brixton and Bow.” It became a vehicle for her own sensation fiction, though she also published work by other writers. Only after the magazine’s sale to Chatto & Windus in 1876 did novelists of the caliber of Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain, and Thomas Hardy appear within its covers, but with the loss of Braddon’s work its circulation declined rapidly. Another sensation novelist who successfully edited and contributed fiction to her own magazine was Ellen Wood. Her “Johnny Ludlow” series of short stories was one of Argosy’s most popular features.

Fiction was a staple, too, of many women’s magazines, from the romantic tales in fashion papers like the Ladies’ Cabinet to the educational stories of Charlotte Tonna, the one genre of fiction considered acceptable in the evangelical Christian Ladies’ Magazine, which Tonna had formerly edited.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Law, Graham. Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. London: Palgrave, 2000. Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. London: Palgrave, 2001.

Categories: British Literature, Literature

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