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Alexis Easley, New Media and the Rise of the Popular Woman Writer, 1832–1860

Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture, Edinburg UP, 2021, 274 p.
Marie-Françoise Cachin
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Alexis Easley, New Media and the Rise of the Popular Woman Writer, 1832-1860. Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture, Edinburg UP, 2021, 274 p. ISBN: 9781474475921

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1Professor Alexis Easley’s book examines the development of new media around the middle of the nineteenth century and its consequences for popular women writers, giving them the opportunity of entering the literary market and endowing them with a mission as national instructors. More precisely, Easley points out the growing number of Sunday papers and of cheap family periodicals, both playing an important role in the context of domestic culture and respectability. As is well known, this was made possible by the progressive suppression or reduction of the duties on advertising, paper and stamps, as well as by the development of advertising resulting in an abundance of illustrations and authors’ portraits.

2After a well-documented introduction on the historical and cultural background of the period chosen, Easley devotes four of the six chapters of her book to a close analysis of the beginnings of several women writers’ literary careers, some famous, others less renowned. The first of them is Felicia Hemans (1793–1835): presented as the first ‘Mass-Market Woman Poet’, she achieved widespread fame thanks to the numerous poems she published in The Mirror of Literature, a cheap family magazine at 6d., published between 1822 and 1847 and reaching a circulation of 150,000 copies. Using as an example her poem entitled ‘The Better Land’, which first appeared in the annual The Literary Souvenir in November 1826, Easley traces the story of its publication both in England and in the United States, as it was reprinted in various periodicals but also in volume form, in textbooks and school anthologies.

3Chapter 2 focuses on Eliza Cook (1812–1889), also described as a transatlantic celebrity whose poetry was popular due to the variety of formats in which it was published and thus made accessible to a large audience. She became famous after publishing a first poem in The Weekly Dispatch in 1836, one of the most popular Sunday papers in Britain with a circulation of 60,000. As with Hemans, Easley analyses the publication history of one of her poems, ‘The Old Arm-Chair’, to demonstrate how widely her work was circulated, pirated and re-appropriated. In 1849 Eliza Cook created Eliza Cook’s Journal whose miscellaneous contents reveal Cook’s strong sense of the popular literary market. Its success was enormous with a circulation of 50,000 to 60,000 copies, which was sensibly more than Dickens’s Household Words. However, Cook ended the publication of this periodical in 1854 on account of the frequent attacks against her masculine style and sexuality, which were increasingly visible, as appears in the various portraits reproduced in Easley’s book.

4Turning to more famous writers, George Eliot and the Brontë sisters, Easley shows in chapter 3 how their literary careers also began with poetry publishing. Poetry writing became a regular habit for George Eliot, and as she began her journalistic work by 1846, she used her knowledge of editorial practices in weekly newspapers to introduce series such as ‘Poetry and Prose from the Notebook of an Eccentric’. This series was printed in a regular column in the Coventry Herald, entitled ‘Literature and Science’. The Brontës also chose poetry publication to enter the literary market. Easley underlines Charlotte’s keen understanding of periodical genres and her interest in publishing, buying The Author’s Printing and Publishing Assistant to learn details of book production. The reprinting of the Brontës’ poems in various periodicals and their dissemination can be traced today, confirming poetry as a shareable content beyond the boundary of any single medium of publication, in a print culture made of poems and short texts remixed and embellished not only by authors but also by readers and editors.

5Chapter 5 examines the career of an Irish woman writer, Frances Brown (1816–1879), a key figure in the popular literature movement who, like Eliza Cook, came from a working-class family but suffered from a physical disability, becoming blind when eighteen months old. However she took advantage of her handicap and gained celebrity as ‘The Blind Poetess of Ulster’, many of her poems being published in The Athenaeum but also in American periodicals and magazines. She later turned to prose, contributing to the Library for Young People in 1848 and to The Leisure Hour, the penny weekly produced by the Religious Tract Society with serials for children.

6To complement the detailed study of these four women writers’ early careers, Easley illustrates the expansion of the periodical and newspaper press in the 1830s and 1840s, offering new openings for women poets and journalists in her fourth chapter, entitled ‘Women Writers and Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. This kind of cheap family periodical was destined to promote social progress through popular education, to which the contribution of women writers was essential. This is shown in particular through the four pages of tables listing the names of women contributors, the number and dates of publication of their signed contributions as well as the average pay per column, all most significant and interesting data.

7In her last chapter, Easley shifts her focus to women readers and to their reading practices as illustrated by the development of scrapbooks. The first use of the term as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1825 refers to the practice of paper cuttings selected and arranged according to a reader’s particular principle of organisation, as was precisely described in Ellen Gruber Garvey’s masterly study on the subject, Writing with Scissors (2013). Analysing the collections of scrapbooks held in some libraries as Easley does tell us not only what, but how Victorian women read. It shows women as active readers, not passively consuming reading material but recirculating it and giving it their own interpretation. Thus scrapbooking allowed women readers to become women writers in some way; this follows a process opposite to that described earlier by Easley when she analysed how more or less famous writers could profit from their reading practices to become writers.

8What gives Easley’s book its originality is her thorough knowledge of the publishing world, in particular as regards periodicals, used not only as the social and historical background of her study but as a fundamental element in the analysis of women writers’ careers in the three decades considered; though in her coda, Easley does mention the difficulty these writers had to adjust to the new market trends and genres. Her frequent use of digital data and archives, along with the presence of numerous illustrations, writers’ portraits, front-pages, reproductions of manuscript or printed poems, contribute to make her research on popular press and the new media a most useful tool to whomever is interested in the production, reception and consumption of Victorian literature, an essential element too often neglected in literary studies.

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Bibliographie

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

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Marie-Françoise Cachin, « Alexis Easley, New Media and the Rise of the Popular Woman Writer, 1832–1860 »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/11295 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.11295

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Marie-Françoise Cachin

Professeur émérite, Université Paris Diderot (Université de Paris)

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