I was recently finishing up an article on 19th century (early Victorian) periodicals. I had presented an early, shorter draft of the work at The Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies in Baltimore a year ago (where a fellow presenter was none other than Isles Abroad’s co-founder Lindsey Flewelling, I might add). I spoke second on a panel of three unrelated papers. After our presentations and a formal reply came the typical Q & A session, during which I was asked an excellent question.
“Do you know who was reading the articles?”
At the time I had a very general idea of the “typical” reader: male, British, literate, likely of the upper classes, interested in politics. They were possibly politicians with the same political leanings as the journals they were reading, or maybe part of the wider population who would soon receive the vote with the Reform Act of 1832.
But I had not yet considered the real meaning of the question and its importance. The question of readership was fundamentally a question of impact.
Who was reading these articles and reviews? Could I prove that anyone was reading them? Did they make a difference? How could they have had an impact upon anything if no one was reading them? If I couldn’t find evidence of readership, then I would not be able to show that the authors and these journals had made any difference to the popular support and understanding of contemporary issues.
I went home and decided to approach the question in three ways: 1) go back and look for information about readership in the studies of the specific periodicals I had already utilised in learning more about the genre; 2) look for studies of readership, literacy, and audiences in 19th century Britain; and 3) look for evidence that the specific articles were being discussed by contemporaries in published works including newspapers, pamphlets, and other periodicals. I’ll focus on 1 and 2 here.
To paraphrase a former supervisor, I knew that I probably didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, and in a short time I had discovered that there have been some great studies published on readers in Britain in my time period and on the potential readership and impact of the periodicals. Readership became a topic that I wanted to discuss in my work as a way of showing that these articles and these periodicals mattered.
In the end, I discovered that the potential readers of the works I’d been looking at were far more varied than I’d expected, and also much more varied than the periodicals had planned on having. Studies of readership have shown that the journals knew that they couldn’t be sure of who exactly their readers were or even of the numbers, as subscription numbers didn’t reflect the number of readers per physical copy now that they could be found in cafes and coffee houses, circulating libraries, clubs, and reading rooms, as well as in the home where growing female literacy rates meant that both men and women were now more likely to be able read.
In case any of our readers find themselves needing to assess the potential impact of the 19th century sources they’re studying, here’s a list of some of the studies I found:
David Allan, A Nation of Readers: The lending library in Georgian England (British Library, 2008)
Jonathan Cutmore, Contributors to The Quarterly Review: A history, 1809-25 (Pickering & Chatto, 2007)
John O. Hayden, The Romantic Reviewers, 1802-1824 (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1969)
David Higgins, Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine: Biography, celebrity and politics (Routledge, 2007)
*Jon P. Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (University of California. Los Angeles, 1980)
Mark Parker, Literary Magazines and British Romanticism (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Mark Schoenfield, British Periodicals and Romantic Identity: The ‘literary lower empire’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Joanne Shattock, Politics and Reviewers: The Edinburgh and the Quarterly in the early Victorian age (Leicester University Press, 1989)
David Stewart, Romantic Magazines and Metropolitan Literary Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
Kim Wheatley, ed., Romantic Periodicals and Print Culture (Routledge, 2004)
*Klancher’s study was particularly useful to my work and has received praise from some of the later authors listed here.
Note that this list contains bibliographic details of the editions I looked at. Newer editions are available for some of these studies. This list is by no means exhaustive — it served my specific needs and I hope it might be a starting point for others looking to address readership and impact in their work, too. Suggestions for more resources are welcome in the comments!