Wednesday 8 June 2016

A Fate Worse than Death: Marital Cynicism in The Lady’s Magazine

I am so thrilled to be joined by Dr Jennie Batchelor to take a look at A Fate Worse than Death: Marital Cynicism in The Lady’s Magazine!


A Fate Worse than Death: Marital Cynicism in The Lady’s Magazine

 Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.
 Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.
The Lady’s Magazine, which ran for 13 issues a year from 1770 to 1832, was one of the earliest and most influential women’s magazines. In its more than six-decade run, it published an astonishingly diverse array of content. A true miscellany, it contained fiction, essays on education, politics and science, biographies, works of history, travel writing, fashion reports, agony aunt advice, births, marriages and deaths notices, and domestic and foreign news bulletins, as well as sheet music, illustrations, monthly embroidery patterns and, later in its run, stunning fashion plates. Its text-based material was a mix of reprintings of already published works (not always acknowledged as such, I should point out) and original works authored principally by unpaid reader-contributors usually writing under pseudonyms or the veil of complete anonymity. The likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth sit alongside those A. Z.s, Anon, Nobodies and Friends to the Fair Sex, many of them female and others male.

Frankly, I cannot think of a better window on the world of the heady more-than-half-century that spans the decades in which American Revolution began to that in which Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Nor can I think of a better place to chart shifting literary tastes and sensibilities than the Lady’s Magazine. If you want to know what people were reading in the later eighteenth century, read periodicals like the Lady’s Magazine, not the more famous fiction of the period. A typical print run of a novel in the period – a novel like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), for instance – was 750 copies. Respectable enough, you might think. But the Lady’s Magazine, at the height of its popularity, probably had a circulation of around 10000 to 15000 copies a month. Even my maths is good enough to see the significance of those statistics. 

And if that isn’t enough to convince you should be reading the Lady’s Magazine, then this might persuade you. It puts you in good company. Very good company. I am pretty much as sure as I can be that Jane Austen read the Lady’s Magazine, even if I can’t (yet) definitively prove it. But we do know for a fact that Charlotte Brontë did. How? Because she tells us in a very revealing letter she wrote to Hartley Coleridge on 10 December 1840, when as an aspiring writer, she recalled childhood days of reading copies of the magazine that had belonged to her mother or aunt instead of ‘minding [her] lessons’ and declared her wish that she too had been ‘born in time to contribute to the Lady’s magazine’. The letter is extraordinary for all sorts of reasons, but not least because of the dramatic end to her relationship with the Magazine. Her father, Patrick, on a ‘black day’ it troubled her to recall, burnt them because they contained ‘foolish love-stories’. [1]

Now, there are whole books to be written about what this episode tells you about Brontë family dynamics. But what strikes me most about it is how misguided Patrick Brontë was on this occasion. His pyromania can only be explained by one thing: he can’t ever have read the Lady’s Magazine.

What makes me so sure? Well, I have read the magazine - nearly (but not quite yet) every single one its many, many pages. And while the magazine’s fiction (which only ever occupied a relatively small portion of the magazine) can be romantic at times, what most impresses me about its attitude to romance more generally is how very cynical it is. We are used to thinking about marriage in eighteenth-century novels as the goal of every heroine (but, you know, I’m still not sure Lizzy Bennet and Darcy would work out no matter how much we all want it to). In the Lady’s Magazine, however, it’s as likely to bring you trouble, heartache and even absolute misery. 
 Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.
 Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.
The magazine is full of letters from happily unmarried women who call its readers to task for their failure to understand that the single life can be just as happy as the marital one. In fact, often, like the anonymous woman who wrote to the magazine’s agony aunt, the Matron, in the October 1777 issue of the magazine, they could be much, much happier. ‘I envy no married pair’, a woman who simply signed herself ‘A Spinster’ explained. While society might look upon single women with ‘disdain and think them ‘deplorable’, this signalled no more than a failure of imagination. Looking upon the plight of married couples, it was quite clear to all spinsters of every parish that ‘the advantage is greatly on our side’ (525-26).

Legions of essays on marital disquiet only reinforced such views. A June 1773 essay entitled ‘Causes of Unhappiness in a married state’ speaks for many dozens of articles published in the magazine’s history in its highlighting of the ‘wretchedness’ that so often attended the ‘nuptial state’ when couples are cajoled into ‘wedlock by their parents’ for ‘mercenary’ reasons or because they duped by the uncharacteristic behaviour of their intended during courtship only to find, once they are married, that their wives or husbands are not the ‘angels or divinities’ they pretended to be after all (294-5).

But it is the fiction that Patrick Brontë seems to be taking particular exception to in his burning of his daughter’s treasured copies of the Lady’s Magazine. What does it have to say about love, romance and marriage? Not much to instill faith in the institution is the short answer. Yes, the fiction in the Lady’s Magazine is often structured around a courtship plot. But the course of true love rarely runs smoothly in the periodical, and is often presented as a very perilous journey for a woman. 
 Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.
 Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission

One of my all-time favourite short fictions in the magazine appeared in May 1771. ‘The Retaliation’ tells the story of Clarissa. The allusion to the Samuel Richardson’s heroine, who endures rape and wills herself to death over many hundred subsequent pages is no accident, I think. But the magazine’s Clarissa is very different from Richardson’s. Jilted by her lover shortly before her wedding when he seizes a much more financially advantageous marital opportunity, she chooses revenge, not death, by contriving to persuade her former lover that she has poisoned him and killed herself. Neither of these things is true, but when her lover recovers from the faked poisoning, and believing his former intended dead, he is tormented by his ill conduct. When he then sees the very much alive Clarissa by accident, he assumes her to be a ghost and is driven mad as a consequence. Clarissa ‘almost’ pities him in his distress, but not entirely (475). And we readers have little sympathy for him at all.

LM IX ( Jan Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.
LM IX ( Jan Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

More disturbing still are the many tales of marital abuse in the novels letters to its agony aunt column and short fiction. One in particular, is the stuff of nightmares. ‘The Assault’ appeared in the magazine in April 1798 and starts where, like a considerable portion of the magazine’s fiction, where novels of the time generally end. Once a marriage has begun. The Irwins’ marriage is all the evidence any spinster who ever wrote to the magazine needed to prove the happiness of their position. By the time the story starts, Clara Irwin has sustained years of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her unjustifiably jealous husband. Eventually escaping to the sanctuary of her brother, her husband promises to reinstate his ‘power’ over his wife by means ‘the most violent’ to bend her to his will. He sends a servant to abduct her and return her to him. On the brink of death, she lies utterly abject in her marital home, whereupon her husband learns that his jealousy was entirely ill-founded. He miraculously repents years of ill-treatment of his wife in a few lines and supposedly reforms. But the damage – to Clara Irwin and to readers’ perception of marriage – is already done. 

Magazines, in the eighteenth century just like today, have a vested interest, of course, in presenting marriage as an issue that they can solve by packaging good advice together that we can buy in monthly installments in the hope that we too can learn how to secure our own happily ever afters. But I still feel that the Lady’s Magazine’s treatment of marriage suggests a depth of cynicism that can’t be explained by mere commercial interest alone. If only Patrick Brontë had actually read, instead of burnt, the Lady’s Magazine, he might have seen that ‘Reader, I married him’ was just as often a threat in its pages, as it was a tantalizing promise of future felicity.

[1] Letter to Hartley Coleridge, 10 December 1840, The Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë: Vol. I, 1829-1847, ed. Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 240.

About the Author
Jennie Batchelor is Reader in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Kent. She is currently running a major research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust on the Lady’s Magazine to make its content more accessible to everyone and is writing a book about the magazine’s place in the literary marketplace of the day. You can read more about her and the project’s work on its blog, Twitter feed or Facebook page.

Written content of this post copyright © Jennie Batchelor, 2016.


Sarah said...

Fascinating! thank you.

Stephen Barker said...

I found the statistic on the circulation figures to that of well known novels most interesting.