Wilkie Collins Journal Special Issue: Introduction: Victorian Popular Journalism

Janine Hatter and Helena Ifill

Our understanding of Victorian popular authors, such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, can undoubtedly be enhanced by a knowledge of their non-, sometimes semi-, fictional and/or autobiographical journalistic contributions to the periodical press. For example, reading Collins’s Magnetic Evenings at Home, his 1852 open letters in the Leader to G. H. Lewes about attending mesmeric séances, tells us much about why references to unconscious and psychic influences are so common in his novels, about his connections to other professional writers of the period, and about his ability (also apparent in his novels) to write on topics that were not only of interest to him but much of society at the time. A study of Victorian popular fiction in its original serialised format can also (as Newman’s article shows) offer new ways of reading and understanding the literature, its relationship to its immediate periodical context, and wider society. However, while authors like Collins often used journalism as a stepping stone towards a career in novel writing (implicitly valuing the latter over the former), for scholars of popular literature and culture the study of Victorian journalism is crucial. The numerous and varied publications of which the periodical press is comprised (including the daily news, penny bloods, family magazines, and Quarterlies) are one of our most direct links to the debates, information and entertainment that not only inspired writers like Collins, but which everyday Victorians from different walks of life were exposed to.

The ground-breaking Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900 brought the importance of the periodical press to the attention of academia in the 1960s, and undertook the essential work (that continues to inform later databases) of attributing contributors’ names to articles. This work was capitalised on by the Victorian Periodicals Newsletter (1968; The Victorian Periodicals Review from 1979). In Rosemary T. Vanarsdel’s celebratory 2006 reassessment of the Index (in the VPR) on its 40th anniversary (that includes the remarkable story of its conception and creation) she observes that ‘it is difficult for today’s investigator to realize what a wasteland Victorian periodicals scholarship was only two generations ago’ (258). Even as she was writing, the landscape of periodical research was rapidly and radically changing even further. Of all the growing areas of research into Victorian popular literature and culture, the study of the periodical press has probably benefitted the most from developments in digitisation. Huge subscription databases such as ProQuest’s British Periodicals Online offer digitisations of hundreds of titles. For those who cannot access these there are valuable and excellent free resources, ranging from massive collections such as the Internet Archive to more specialist projects such as Dickens Journals Online. Of course, the more that dedicated scholars show an interest in exploring and sharing periodical materials, the more becomes available and the more the field can grow. The fact that whole cohorts of students can now access (as Stockstill’s article shows) unprecedented amounts of online material – material which, not so long ago, individual academics would have needed to plan and fund a research trip to visit – is truly game-changing.

Online content is supplemented by publications such as the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland edited by Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor (2009), which offers much needed summaries of a wealth of periodical titles. Such a proliferation of available material leads to sometimes overwhelming and intimidating questions of what to focus on and why. This special issue showcases some of the exciting original research that is being undertaken (both online and in physical archives), and demonstrates some of the ways in which we can approach and learn from the wealth of periodical material that is now available to us, thanks to the (often voluntary) dedication, time and effort of previous researchers. The following scholarly contributions explore the journals and journalists themselves, the practices and motivations that bring journalistic writing into being, its relationship to Victorian popular literature, and the influence it had on Victorian culture.

The first two articles in this special issue discuss journalism and its link to crime. Firstly, Samuel Saunders’s article, “‘To get to the very bottom of the social fabric’: Mid-Victorian Journalism and the Police Officer, c. 1856-1877,” discusses how even though crime journalism expanded as a style of reporting from the mid-eighteenth-century onwards, it was completely disinterested in the concepts of policing or detection. Saunders’s article therefore focuses on mid-Victorian popular periodical journalism and how it engaged with the concept of the police force outside of crime reporting via such means as politicised commentary, social journalism, and creative writing. Saunders maps the changing journalistic attitudes towards the police from the mid to the late-Victorian era, exposing how these attitudes influenced political, economic and social views of the police force. Saunders ends by noting that by the late-Victorian era the “police force” and the “detective” were being superseded by the “private detective” due to continuing mistrust in the force as a whole.

The second article on crime and journalism picks up chronologically from Saunders’ piece. A. Luxx Mishou’s article, “Murder for a Penny: Jack the Ripper and the Structural Impact of Sensational Reporting,” examines the crime reporting on Jack the Ripper, arguing that what makes this Victorian serial killer so different is not what he did in 1888 – it is what reporters did with him. Through an examination of The Illustrated Police News, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Mishou discusses how these penny newspapers reported his crimes, detailing that it was their sensational strategies that influenced the Ripper’s creation, development, and dissemination. Mishou argues that they achieved this through directly influencing the material structure of the penny newspapers – Ripper reporting shifted column presentation, brought about changes in the content and role of newspaper illustrations, and impacted the rhetoric of newspaper advertising. It is these changes, Mishou argues, that reveal the morals behind each individual newspaper, and bring to the fore the cultural, gender and class prejudices of the era.

At the same time as crime reporting was undergoing changes, Carole O’Reilly’s article, “Professional Identity and Social Capital: the Personal Networks of Victorian Popular Journalists,” shows that the late-nineteenth-century was also a tense time for journalism as a whole: it faced intense competition between printed materials, it was self-critical of the relationship between journalism and its audience, and it perceived its audience’s attention span as dwindling. As a result of this situation journalists began to professionalise, and O’Reilly examines their processes through the concepts of social capital and knowledge networks. O’Reilly utilises the personal papers and recollections of journalists, notably Manchester’s John Howard Nodal, as well as the records of private members’ clubs and local literary and philosophical societies, to probe how journalists used their personal networks to enhance their status as literary authors, cultural commentators and urban citizens. This professionalization process raised journalism’s standing, placing it alongside literary writing as a culturally valued form.

Articles four and five shift focus from journalistic practice and reportage in periodicals, to journalism’s influence on the literature of the age, specifically the original periodical publications of two sensation fiction texts: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863) and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860). Kaari Newman’s article, “Temple Bar’s New Portrait of Femininity: Active Domesticity in Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd” reads against current critical debates as to whether or not Aurora is tamed into her “proper” role as a respectable young mother at the end of the novel, to argue that there is another layer of complexity so far overlooked. Read within the context of the novel’s seriality within Temple Bar, Newman notes that Aurora Floyd is one of several texts aimed at promoting a femininity that was both active and domestic. Examined alongside “Daughters of Eve” (1861-1863) and “Domestic Life” (1862), this “sideways” (Linda Hughes) or “tessellated” (Katie Lanning) reading disrupts the binary of proper/improper femininity to instead promote what Newman calls “active domesticity” for women predicated on an egalitarian marriage but on equality and trust.

Julia Podziewska’s article, “The Woman in White’s Vestry Episodes: Reworking Journalism as Novelistic Discourse,” examines Collins’s novel within the historicised context of the weeklies the Leader and Household Words – two periodicals Collins published in before the serialisation of the novel. Podziewska’s intervention in the field illuminates how Collins reshaped journalistic material on the insecure manner in which ecclesiastical authorities held public records – baptism, marriage, burial, and probate – into the formal properties of the novel, demonstrating wider connections to his progressive political commitment. Overall, Podziewska approaches fiction’s relationship to non-fiction through the optic of a writer who is active in two fields of mediated practice, as both journalist and novelist, examining the way themes and motifs are appropriated from one field of operation to be deployed in another.

The last essay in this special issue is Ellen Stockstill’s “Teaching Wilkie Collins and the Periodical Press,” an article that surveys and interrogates online materials and resources that academics can use to teach students about Victorian popular journalism and serialized fiction in order to introduce them to the conventions of Victorian writing, reading, and publishing. Stockstill builds on the work of Linda K. Hughes and Deborah Wynne to focus solely on Wilkie Collins and the impact of teaching his most well-known novels The Woman in White (1859-1860) and The Moonstone (1868) in their original serialised contexts. Key features Stockstill notes are the fact that a reader does not know how long the text will be, or when it will end, which disrupts the reading process; how anonymous publication challenges students to consider publishing practices that do not privilege the author; as well as the more fluid boundaries between the different types of pieces within the periodicals – there is little delineation between fiction/non-fiction and fact/opinion pieces. Each of these traits opens the door for students to discuss issues beyond the text and its themes, so they have a deeper understanding of nineteenth-century reading and publishing contexts. Stockstill continues her article by producing a useful teaching resource: an annotated bibliography of (digital­) archives and databases, with accompanying teaching ideas, which can be adapted for different teaching styles, learning environments and course objectives.

Collectively, these essays exemplify the rich and diverse ways in which we can explore Victorian popular journalism and its relation to Victorian society more broadly.



Vanarsdel, Rosemary T. “The ‘Wellesley Index’ Forty Years Later (1966-2006).” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 2006, pp. 257–265.


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