page introduces the topic of readers' letters and answers to correspondents in Victorian periodicals, with a particular focus on women's and children's magazines. The Victorian Agony Aunts page includes more information about this together with further examples of this fascinating journalistic genre.
I shall also, from time to time, print comments from readers on the articles published on this website, and respond to relevant queries which seem likely to be of general interest. I welcome mail from readers with an interest in the concerns of this site, as well as from former students, readers who have attended one of my public lectures and anyone considering joining one of my courses. If you wish to email me please use the Contact Form. I look forward to hearing from you!
Among my more intriguing queries are one on Mr Tye and hyacinth bottles, and a suggested solution to a puzzling competition. Previous correspondents would still be pleased to hear of any material relevant to their queries.
A reader from Holland, Patricia Coccoris, writes to say that, living in what used to be the centre of the bulb trade, she has become fascinated by the history of the vases in which hyacinths were grown, and is researching the work of Mr Tye. She points out
... that England produced these vases for a good two centuries. Not only did they produce them but they invented quite a number of new types and shapes, led by Mr. Tye. Mr. Tye patented his new invention in 1850. .
Patricia is keen to get in touch with anyone who has more information on Mr Tye and his works, particularly his booklet "Practical Hints on the Cultivation and Properties of Hyacinths", which like Mr Tye himself is proving rather elusive. Does any librarian anywhere have a copy? I have been able to give Patricia some help by posting up most of the additional information from the New Monthly Belle Assemblée in the feature on Gardening and giving her the volume and page reference.
The Editor is flattered to note that Patricia arrived at Victorian Page by a most distinguished route - the Royal Horticultural Society could not help her trace Mr Tye's booklet so sent her to the British Library who discovered Victorian Page and our article on his hyacinth stand which referred to his handbook.
What was a "Middles" Competition?
I recently received an enquiry from a correspondent in Australia. Her father-in-law was going through the contents of his deceased parents' attic and came across a letter dated 1914 from “Pearson's Weekly “ (the English edition) declaring his mother the winner of their magazine's "Middles" competition. The cheque was for £500 which would have been a handsome sum at the time. They wondered if I could tell them what a “Middles” competition was to solve this family mystery. I could of course hazard a guess or two, but as I had never come across the term before, and don't have ready access to a run of the 1914 magazine - which would provide a solution to the poser - could give no help.
Is there anybody out there who can help? I shall then pass any messages on.
A suggested solution
Dr Ellen Jordan of the University of Newcastle, Australia replied to this query when I posted it on the *VICTORIA discussion group some time ago, and she has given me permission to reprint it here:
This seems to me a very plausible explanation, especially as I have also come across a reference by the writer and journalist Ella Hepworth Dixon to contributing 'articles on general subjects for the middle page' of the Daily Mail. The context indicates that readers would have clear expectations of what that "middle page article" offered, a lively treatment of something topical and controversial on which readers were likely to hold a strong opinion. Two topics she mentioned were "Are Modern Young Men Decadent?" and "Is Marriage a Failure?"
*Information on "Victoria", managed by Patrick Leary, can be found on his Victoria Research Web. See External Links on the Editor's Jottings Page
Previous Letters published
Question of Identity - Fashion Writer on "Woman's World"
I've made such suggestions as I am able to, but if there is a reader out there who has come across Mrs Johnstone/Johnson in his/her researches do please pass on the information:
I wonder if you or any of your readers can help me with a scholarly search? I'm currently editing Oscar Wilde's journalism for OUP and I need to track down the Mrs Johnstone who was fashion correspondent for the 'Woman's World' in the 1880s. I've tried all the normal avenues without success. Do you think that she might be the Mrs Jack Johnson who wrote for 'The Gentlewoman' in the 1890s? The spelling of the surname does seem to vary and, according to 'The Lady', a 'Mrs Jack Johnstone' was present at a party in 1889 which Constance Wilde also attended.
I'd be very grateful for any suggestions.
Professor of Modern British Literature
King's College London
In contrast to the Victorian editorial rebukes in my article below, I was delighted to publish this correspondence. One item raises an important point about the influence of "ladies' pages" particularly in times of national crises; the other comes from a descendant of the subject of one of my articles.
William Cox Bennett
Another Canadian correspondent, Carol Trotman, is distantly related to W C Bennett and her recent letter asking for further information reminded me that I had promised to post up more details of this interesting Victorian poet. I have now done so and you will find it on the Review Page.
The Editor April 8th 2008
Mr Roger Ellis, a great-grandson of William Cox Bennett, has written in response to my article on a review of his interesting poem, "Verdicts" (on the Review Page). Though Mr Ellis has family memorabilia and his grandmother was the subject of Bennett's best-known poem "Baby May", he knew little about Bennett other than that he was, according to his parents, "a minor Victorian poet". He wondered if there was any other interesting information or suggestions for sources I could pass on. I have been happy to do so, and also plan shortly to add a little more information about his ancestor on the Literature Page.
If by happy chance any reader of Victorian Page has any information they would like to pass on to Mr Ellis please do send it via the "Letter to the Editor" form and I shall be delighted to forward it.
The Editor November 25th 2007
Canadian Women Journalists and "Ladies' Pages"
Dear Barbara Onslow, Victorian Page:
As a biographer currently working on Canadian women journalists of the early twentieth century, I was interested in your very helpful article on "ladies' pages". I am now researching the lives of three Canadian women journalists living in London and Paris during the Great War--Mary MacLeod Moore (also known as "Molly Rees", who married Leonard Rees of the Sunday Times in the 1920s), Elizabeth Montizambert, and Beatrice Nasmyth. Before, during, and after the war, they all contributed regular columns to the ladies pages of their respective newspapers.
In researching the literature of the Great War, I find that women like these are forgotten; overshadowed by the huge interest in the literary figures of the day (Sassoon, Graves, Woolf, etc etc etc). Yet these women had huge readerships; and were influential figures in a bread and butter kind of way. I think that to truly understand Great War society (its attitudes, politics, literary culture) in Britain and North America, we need to pay much more attention to women journalists of the period and the "ladies pages" to which they contributed.
And a final word; if any of your readers has any information about any of the three women I have named, I would much appreciate being contacted at my email address: email@example.com.
Writer and Editor
Alberta, Canada October 23rd 2007
For a picture of Victorian woman journalist dealing with her readers' correspondence see the feature article on Victorian journalists.
READERS' LETTERS TO VICTORIAN MAGAZINES
Victorian women's and children's magazines encouraged readers to engage with "their" paper in a number of ways, all of which led to readers' correspondence to the editor - and sometimes to the authors of features. The practices of publishing readers' contributions, particularly poems - though not necessarily paying for them-; of mentioning in editorial matter suppliers of materials for creating the clothes, needlework and fancy goods which the papers' articles featured; together with the long-standing tradition of publishing educational articles and "conduct manual" style advice for women, led naturally both to readers seeking answers to their personal queries and problems, and to other readers' complaints about editorial decisions or suggestions for future content. The range of subjects on which the editor's advice was sought was very wide, resulting, in the case of multiple queries, in some curious juxtapositions:
*In the 1865 June edition of the Ladies' Treasury "Notices to Correspondents" carried a brief response to a reader who had presumably posed a query about a notorious murder suspect at the same time as complaining about the standard of puzzles printed in the magazine.
Jeannette - We can give no opinion respecting Constance Kent, We shall endeavour to obtain some original riddles.
[Constance Kent, who in 1860 when she was only sixteen, had been suspected of, though never charged with murdering her young half-brother, had in the April made a formal statement admitting to the crime. Though in the following month she would be convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to penal servitude, there was much public scepticism about her confession, made originally to her spiritual adviser during her stay at an Anglo-Catholic religious house. "Jeannette" 's query may have been inspired by this debate.]
“Answers” columns printed only the replies, and not the original
questions. Although detailed responses usually provided coherent advice
or information on an implied question, this practice could lead to some
intriguing puzzles for readers. One suspects that Victorian readers
speculated as avidly as any modern student might, as to what prompted
the following examples of editorial brevity. (from The Young Ladies' Journal 1873)
F.C.C. They are perfectly useless.
May B.R. Most improper in both instances.
Clarice and Maud. The book you ask about is not fit for the perusal of young ladies.
And Mutual Compliments
*This common editorial practice was also the policy of the Ladies' Treasury though there were exceptions as here, where the original letter is quoted, in the same issue as the reply on Constance Kent:
S.G. sends us the following:- "Shall the readers of the Ladies' Treasury have the pleasure of finding, soon, another French story begun in its pages? And does the Editress care to hear, that of all the periodicals we Highland people see, there is not one we prize so much as the Treasury? " The Editress is exceedingly obliged for the kind message sent. She cares very much indeed, and is always highly gratified to receive cheering words; they are great helps to work, and strong inducements to perseverance. S.G. will kindly accept many thanks for the anagrams; some of them are quite new, and will be inserted.
[The first part of a short serial "L'Homme qui Cherchait une Femme" duly appeared in the July number.]
The correspondence columns, as this letter illustrates, also allowed editors to puff their publications through the words of their readers.
EDITORIAL REBUKES to VICTORIAN READERS
Though Victorian correspondence columns played an important part in developing reader loyalty to a particular magazine, editors could on occasion, deal firmly, even brusquely, with correspondents who had clearly irritated them, as the following editorial responses demonstrate. One suspects that the editorial irony and teasing was relished by those superior readers who were not its object, rather as viewers today enjoy reality TV shows. As for "Sappho" "Iolanthe" and Matilda K" - they would at least have learned something about the price of appearing in print. Luckily for them it was common practice for correspondents to use pseudonyms when submitting questions or comments. But see the Victorian Agony Aunts page for an unusual example where a reader included the house name of her address.
One common editorial criticism was of the standard of handwriting, spelling and punctuation, particularly of younger correspondents. Whilst this would seem a reasonable response to anyone enquiring about qualifications for a governess or submitting an article in the hope of publication, such remarks were often just tacked on to the end of an answer to something totally different. The Girl's Own Paper, aimed at a readership of girls in their teens and young women in their twenties, made a regular practice of this; though to be fair it also lavished praise on those with a neat hand. Sam Beeton was in typically bracing form in his reply to "Leontine", on the "Agony Aunts" page, which provides a good example of this didactic custom.
Sappho - We neither know nor care anything about the ages of actors and actresses; and we would recommend our correspondent not to trouble her head with such idle curiosity. New Monthly Belle Assembleé 1852
Iolanthe - We always regret that any of our correspondents should be kept waiting for answers, however unavoidable it may be. To remove the oil from drugget, see page 655, vol iii, answer to "Janey" ... You are perfectly at liberty to "doubt the genuineness of this correspondence," and we take the same liberty to doubt that you have written "eight letters" to us. Girl's Own Paper 1884
Matilda K - asks our forgiveness for having written to us an angry letter, because we did not answer a note she wrote two or three months since. She supposed that we had received the first letter, being quite confident it was put in the post safely. Her confidence was misplaced, it appears. The letter which we ought to have answered was "in the pocket of her dress". There is no reason for Matilda to ask our forgiveness. It was granted before it was asked. In truth, we are quite used to this kind of thing. Our experience of letter-writing and letter-receiving is something that could not be contained in two volumes of this magazine. Many and many a letter have we received without the slightest sensation of an address, and which bade us forward something by the very next post, as somebody was going to have a birthday, or there had been a marriage, or for some reason or other. Our readers will understand, however, that the absence of any address was a small difficulty in the way.....
Moral - Let everybody have their address printed at the top of their note-paper. It does not cost much, saves time, precludes error, and may be prettily done, so as to add to the beauty of the cream paper.
Opening and conclusion of a lengthy response by Sam Beeton, Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine 1862
The motif at the top of this page is from the Girl's Own Paper
The image of a Girl Writing is a detail from an illustration in The Young Ladies' Journal 1872
For important information on Copyright, Citations, Images and References please see my Home Page. There you will also find an explanation of the aims of Victorian Page, and a note about me.
Page Published October 2007 (last updated March 31st 2010)
© Barbara Onslow 2007
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