Margins of Print: Ephemera, Print Culture, and Lost Histories of the Newspaper

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Jessica Hindes - Speaker

'These extraordinary Answers to Correspondents': Accessing the Readers of Reynolds's Miscellany

George WM Reynolds (1814-79) was a British novelist and a key figure in the development of the penny press, the industry in publishing cheap serial novels and ‘novel-journals’ for the working-class readership that expanded with such rapidity over the early decades of the nineteenth century. The author of one of the century’s most widely-read (and longest-running) serial novels, The Mysteries of London (published in 624 weekly parts between 1844-56), Reynolds’s career as a writer of fiction ran in parallel to an even longer period spent as editor, first of the London Journal (one of the earliest examples of its type) and subsequently as proprietor of his own Reynolds’s Miscellany. When he died, the Bookseller’s obituary described him as ‘one of the most popular writers of our time… Dickens, Thackeray, and Lever had their thousands of readers, but Mr Reynolds’s readers were numbered by hundreds of thousands, perhaps by millions.’ (600).

Although Reynolds is attributed a number of readers far in excess of that enjoyed by his more canonical contemporaries, it is incredibly difficult to gain an understanding of what these readers were like: of their demographics, reading behaviours, gender or geographical location. Contemporary sources offer tantalizingly brief and contradictory glimpses into the kinds of people who were reading Reynolds’s novels; costermongers on the London streets, as observed by Henry Mayhew (I.25), or the Manchester dandies who bought the Mysteries from the bookseller Abel Heywood (Parliamentary Papers 374). Even the evidence from the surviving physical texts is elusive, paradoxical: and the serial parts are themselves almost impossible to find in their original, unbound form. The readership that Wilkie Collins described, in 1858, as the ‘unknown public’, is still largely a mystery.

It is unsurprising, then, that so much attention (relatively speaking: Reynolds and his contemporaries are still little-known) should have been paid to the ‘Notices to Correspondents’ column that formed a part of all of the most popular ‘penny novel-journals’ emerging during the 1840s. A kind of ‘Readers’ Letters’ page, the ‘Notices’ invited readers to write to the journals’ editor with queries on any kind of topic: Collins’s article, cited above and written for Household Words as a kind of anthropological investigation into that curious creature, the working-class reader, devotes a long section to an amused picking-over of the ignorance and ingenuousness betrayed in the brief replies that are all we see of the exchanges. Collins’s attitude is distasteful, the article full of a nasty superiority, but his assertion that these notices offered the readers a forum ‘to speak quite unreservedly for themselves’ (220), still has a kind of weight. Andrew King, writing on the Miscellany for a 2008 book of essays on Reynolds, is still looking to the ‘Notices’ for evidence on the journal’s readership.

This paper will attempt to elucidate some of the problems, as well as the pleasures, of working with the ‘Notices to Correspondents’ as a source. Starting with a précis of the problems encountered in investigating the reading history of work like Reynolds’s, I will look at the ways in which other literary historians have dealt with the ‘Notices’ pages, not only of the Miscellany but of other, similar journals, and the conclusions that they have drawn from them. Too often, I will argue, critics have sought to adopt a quantitative approach to the ‘Notices’ that is poorly served by the tiny number of issues they have chosen to examine. This is more troubling still given that, in the absence of readers’ original letters, it is never easy to be certain how much of what you are reading is genuine; how much filler, how much generated with the goal of advertisement in mind. Much of the content is meaningless or repetitious; it is easy to become frustrated as you pore over pages repeatedly recommending their readers to consult the same almanacs or books of household remedies, suspiciously published by the same firm as that originating the journal itself. Some literary historians, I will argue, have taken the Notices too much on face value.

However, whilst acknowledging their flaws and frustrations, in keeping with so much of the evidence available on this elusive group, I will also seek to explain the pull of the ‘Notices’, the attraction that keeps critics (that keeps me) coming back to this section of these journals. They are, genuinely, fascinating. In between the nonsense there are brief flashes of humour or humanity, queries or concerns that surprise you not only with their ignorance (as Collins so enthusiastically stressed) but with their sophistication; questions about the pronunciation of French words, recommendations for further reading, evidence that for all Collins’s quips this was a readership struggling to better themselves. There is something comic about the ‘Notices’, certainly, and something tricksy and hard to pin down: but this paper, a kind of portrait of this particular, ephemeral form, will emphasise the need not to abandon, but to interrogate sources of this nature. The Miscellany has been digitised and is available, in all its length, online; and I will conclude in the hope that this new availability might open up the texts to more serious scrutiny. The ‘Notices’, as historical evidence, are flawed, but they are in many ways the best evidence we have of group of readers who have been largely neglected by Victorian literary studies, and whose voices (however filtered and distorted) still deserve to be heard.
15 Jan 2010

Margins of Print: Ephemera, Print Culture, and Lost Histories of the Newspaper

Duration15 Jan 2010 → …
Location of eventNottingham University
CountryUnited Kingdom
Degree of recognitionNational event

Event: Conference

ID: 18036686