Monthly Archives: November 2012

Oscar Wilde’s editorship of The Woman’s World: An Overview

(This entry is reblogged from my current class teaching blog, wildedecadents.wordpress.com, and is aimed at students.)

By Petra Dierkes-Thrun

 During the brief period of Oscar Wilde’s editorship of the Victorian periodical The Woman’s World from November 1887 to July 1889, the women’s fashion magazine formerly named The Lady’s World was programmatically renamed, and in fact completely overhauled, under Wilde’s direction. “Turning ladies to women,” to use Richard Ellmann’s descriptive phrase of the new magazine, involved a revision of the magazine’s content, layout, as well as the targeted reading audience (Ellmann, 291). In the summer of 1887, Cassell’s Publishing House had appointed Wilde the new editor of The Lady’s World (a shilling monthly with colored illustrations, described as “A Magazine of Fashion and Society”), after 12 issues of The Lady’s World had already appeared (the first one in November 1886; see Mason, 218 ff.).  In a letter to the publisher, Wilde wrote about his substantial plans for overhauling the magazine:

It seems to me that at present [The Lady’s World] is too feminine, and not sufficiently womanly.  …  [I]t seems to me that the field of the mundus muliebris, the field of millinery and trimmings, is to some extent already occupied by such papers as the Queen and the Lady’s Pictorial, and that we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel. (Hart-Davis 1962, 67 f.)

As Wilde envisioned it, the new magazine was to be “the organ of women of intellect, culture and position,” with articles on literature, culture, the arts, society, and even politics, concentrating on women’s position in these areas (ibid., note 3).

Both The Woman’s World and its predecessor, The Lady’s World, must first and foremost be seen as commercial enterprises whose publication and circulation took place within a specific historical, economic, cultural, and sociopolitical context.  The Lady’s World and The Woman’s World were part of a developing market of women’s periodicals that were just starting to constitute their own special niche, while still being part of a strongly gendered world of Victorian periodicals.  While the predominantly male press addressed current and controversial topics of politics, religion, finance, and economics, the female press consisted mainly of topics in the arts, belles lettres, fiction, fashion, music, and gossip. The large market of family periodicals, aimed at both male and female adult readers as well as (to a certain extent) children, was also marked by an exclusion of “material regarded as potentially controversial and inappropriate for women” (Brake, 128).  In conjunction with a general explosive growth of the publishing industry, “the last two decades of Victoria’s reign were years of unparalleled expansion in publishing for women … not less than forty-eight new titles entered the field between 1880 and 1900″ (White, 58).  The new and complex evolving market of women’s periodicals was by no means uniform; following the laws of the market, there seems to have been a magazine for just about every woman, in every situation in life: working girls and lower-middle class working mothers supporting their families, middle-and upper-class housewives concerned with the social and economic management of their households and mainly interested in home topics (the hugely popular genre of “housewife” periodicals came to dominate the market), upper-class society ladies, in all their different ranks of the aristocratic and mercantile hierarchy. The picture is a complex one, and so the image of  “‘womanliness’ the magazines sought to produce was always contradictory and entangled with other differences–especially those of class, nation and religion” (Beetham, ix).

Within a Victorian market especially geared toward female consumers and their generically presumed topics of interest, cultural and socioeconomic constructions of what it meant to be female–what one had to do, to wear, to think, to say, and, above all, to buy–must be seen as important interventions into the debate around gender issues and male and female roles in society.  Despite the overall complexity of this marketplace, it one can easily make some general observations about certain recurring themes and features. In what Beetham calls the “Ladies’ Papers” of the 1860s to early 1890s, for example, the concentration on the topics of beauty (still led by the ideal of female beauty that persisted in high art), fashion and genteel household management and domesticity, as well as society columns, in Beetham’s opinion all “combined to create a femininity of surface rather than depth, of appearance rather than moral management” (Beetham, 90).

Interestingly enough, The Lady’s World and The Woman’s World can be seen as emerging from just such an upper-middle class market that had educated, upwardly mobile women as its marketing target, whose roots or affinities, however, still lay with London society (which was still very much hierarchized by aristocratic rank and affiliation). However, The Woman’s World, although practically re-entering into the same market as its predecessor, took a very different stance towards its readers. Brake’s excellent overview and comparison of the two magazines’ content and layout cites evidence that The Lady’s Worldclearly followed a “construction of women as leisured, domesticated, interested in society gossip, seemly accomplishments, sport, clothes, and a modicum of culture” (Brake, 136).  Sos Eltis recounts the regular columns of The Lady’s World as follows: “Regular monthly features were ‘Fashionable Marriages’, ‘Society Pleasures’, ‘With Needle and Thread: the Work of Today’, ‘Five O’Clock Tea’ (an account of the latest fashionable tea-parties and receptions), and ‘Pastimes for Ladies’, of which typical examples were shell- and pebble-painting, mirror-painting, or, for the more adventurous, sleighing” (Eltis, 8).  Wilde himself observed in a letter to Mrs Hamilton King that The Lady’s World was “a very vulgar, trivial, and stupid production, with its silly gossip about silly people, and its social inanities” ([? Sept 1887], Hart-Davis 1962, 205). Women were mainly addressed as consumers, as the intricate fashion plates, and the elaborate advertising sheet showed. It seems that it was mainly “the presence of commerce in the arguably literary to which Wilde objected” (Brake, 137). As chief editor, however, Wilde was not immune to the commercial context. Not only had he originally taken on his job as an editor because he urgently needed the money, but he also let the publishing house use his name as advertisement on the cover.

Against the open commodification of the female readership of The Lady’s World,The Woman’s World does not only try out a different format, but a different politics of content as well. In The Woman’s World, “women are constructed as serious readers who want (and need) education and accculturation[sic]” (Brake, 142).  For such a magazine, the name The Lady’s World, alluding to the tradition of women’s magazines that aimed at “re-making the lady” (Beetham, 89), was no longer a fitting description. At the particular urge of Mrs. Craik (a well-known authoress at that time, and part of Wilde’s circle of acquaintances), the new editor was persuaded to change it into The Woman’s World (Ellmann, 292).

The format of the new magazine were slightly enlarged numbers (48 instead of 36 pages), with a variety of both regular columns and solicited articles, the overwhelming majority of which were written by women. Wilde obviously used his wide circle of personal acqaintances to ask women of some standing in the cultural life of London to contribute to the magazine, but he also quite frequently included little-known female writers (whom he thought promising), and chose contributors according to specific topics that he wanted The Woman’s World to address. In Ellmann’s words, “Wilde had eclectic tastes and tried women of very diverse interests; the magazine took on a miscellaneous look which it never lost” (Ellmann, 292). But the dominant feature of the magazine was its concentration on the work of women in the public sphere (especially in the arts), both in the fact that its material was mainly written by women, in Wilde’s championship of women writers in his Literary Notes, and in the actual content of the articles.

Some prominent subjects in the twenty-odd issues under Wilde’s editorship are, significantly, higher education for women, the political status of women and the debate about the ‘woman question’, the question of female moral leadership, the debate surrounding scientific theories of women’s physical and mental inferiority to men, and the relation of the sexes in marriage and in society in general. The magazine also made a point of describing and addressing new professions for women (like medicine, teaching, nursing). Regular columns include reviews of current theater productions or famous actresses, articles about great female figures in the arts (e.g., Christina Rossetti [Feb 1888], Russian painter Mary Bashkirtseff [June 1888], and poetess Carmen Sylva [March 1888]), and about women’s life in different historical societies and cultures (e.g. “A Pompeian Lady” [Oct 1888], “A Lady in Ancient Egypt” [Nov 1888], “Roman Women at the Beginning of the Empire” [Sept 1888]). There are regular travel reports written by women, topics of arts and crafts interest (e.g. about embroidery or lace-making), a serial fiction story, and short stories and poems by women writers like Olive Schreiner, or Violet Fane.  Ireland featured prominently in The Woman’s World (in travel reports, arts and crafts, and literary notes) and here, too, Wilde “made sure that there was a place in the magazine for Irish women” (Coakley, 192), among them, of course, his mother, Lady Wilde, as well as some of her friends. For female authors’ contributions to The Woman’s World, individual “signature is mainly in the form of forenames and surnames […],  a form which invokes the convention of the professonal (male) writer” (Brake, 139).  The prominent announcement of names on the cover also functions as an important advertising function. According to Brake, “[t]he personalizing of journalism and the trailing of names associated with the disappearance of anonymity and the advent of the new journalism are far more pronounced in The Woman’s World; these new features credit the reader with more knowledge of authorship in general and also make more explicit the commodity identity of the periodical (it is commercial and for sale) and the consumer position of the reader whose discretion in purchasing the article is wooed through the renown of named contributors” (Brake, 135).

The most obvious important overall change to the magazine under Wilde’s editorship was the cover layout. The Lady’s World’s cover was a female figure (elevated like a mythological goddess on a pedestal), disinterestedly holding a book in her left hand, while gazing into her own image in a mirror in her right hand (an image of woman which in and by itself seems telling). Under Wilde’s editorship, not only does the title of the publication change, but the cover also announces and advertises its editor, and some of the most well-known contributors of articles. The fact that the title page of The Woman’s Worldprominently displayed the name of Oscar Wilde and uses his name to advertise itself, geared readers’ expectations towards the subject-matter of art as associated with Wilde’s name. The new layout, accordingly, evokes the context of Aestheticism as an art movement: having gotten rid of The Lady’s World’ssymbolic goddess, it is markedly abstract and vaguely aestheticized, in art nouveau fashion. Aestheticism as an avant-garde art movement also featured prominently in the magazine.

The arrangement of articles within the single issues of The Woman’s World, and the omission of certain columns that had been there before, were also significant. Instead of opening each issue with the monthly fashion report, as The Lady’s World had done, it was moved to the end of the magazine. There were no music and no gossip columns. However, to a certain extent, the idea of ‘gossip’ was retained, although elevated to a higher cultural level, through a change of form from social into literary discourse in Wilde’s Literary Notes. In another letter, Wilde had announced: “I am going to make literary criticism on of the features of the Woman’s World, and to give special prominence to books written by women” (Hart-Davis 1985, 70-1).  From these notes (which appeared regularly only in the first five issues [Nov 1887-March 1888], and then again from issues 14 to 21 on, in slightly modified form [Dec 1888-July 1889], it is clear that Wilde took his task of literary criticism of women’s work very seriously, and treated it on an equal plane with that of male writers.

Moreover, Wilde tended to review books by women which were interesting for their novelty of subject-matter, or beauty of style, or trying out new boundaries of writing.  One comment from a review of Lady Bellairs’s book on Gossip with Girls and Maidens in the second issue [Dec 1887] may stand in as symptomatic for Wilde’s liberal views here: “I am afraid that I have a good deal of sympathy with what are called ‘empty idealistic aspirations’; and ‘wild flights of the imagination’are so extremely rare in the nineteenth century, that they seem to me deserving rather of praise than of censure.”

From this short overview of the magazine’s layout and selection of articles under Wilde’s control, it seems to me to have become sufficiently clear that Wilde was consciously following an agenda of promoting and championing a construction of women as intellectually, culturally, politically, and even scientifically interested readers – serious intellectual beings who would find in The Woman’s World “an organ through which they can express their views on life and things,” as Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to a potential female contributor to the magazine (Letter to Helena Sickert [27 May 1887]; Hart-Davis 1962, 69).

As Arthur Fish, Wilde’s editorial assistant for The Woman’s World, professed in an interview in 1913, Wilde lost interest in his editorial work over time.  His regular work fell off after the fourth issue, as Wilde gradually delayed producing his editorial features for The Woman’s World.  He seems to have been hard pressed to live up to the tight publishing schedule and a lifestyle of regular office work .  Still, Fish writes, the general outlook and impact of The Woman’s Worldwas remarkable in hindsight:

The keynote of the magazine, indeed, was the right of woman to equality of treatment with man, with the assertion of her claims by women who had gained high position by virtue of their skill as writers or workers in the world’s great field of labor. All the contributions were on a high literary plane. … Some of the articles on women’s work and their position in politics were far in advance of the thought of the day and Sir Wemyss Reid, then General Manager of Cassell’s, or John Williams the Chief Editor, would call in at our room and discuss them with Oscar Wilde, who would always express his entire sympathy with the views of the writers and reveal a liberality of thought with regard to the political aspirations of women that was undoubtedly sincere.  (Fish, 18)

Bibliography

Beetham, Margaret. A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine 1800-1914. London: Routledge, 1996.

Brake, Laurel.  Subjugated Knowledges: Journalism, Gender and Literature in the Nineteenth CenturyNew York: New York University Press, 1994.  (See chapter on “Oscar Wilde and The Woman’s World,” 127-47.)

Eltis, Sos. Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fish, Arthur. “Oscar Wilde as Editor.” Harper’s Weekly (New York), Oct 4, 1913, pp. 18-20.

Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Hart-Davis, Rupert (ed.), The Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

—— (ed.).  More Letters of Oscar Wilde. 1985. Repr. London: Harcourt Brace, 1986.

White, Cynthia L.  Women’s Magazines 1693-1968. London: Joseph, 1970.

Wilde, Oscar (ed.). The Woman’s World. London; New York : Cassell, 3 volumes (1887-1889). Microfilm. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications Inc. (History of women periodicals ; reel 247)

Wilde, Oscar. Essays, Criticisms and Reviews. London, privately repr., 1901. [Unauthorized edition. Wilde’s editorial contributions for The Woman’s World from November 1887 to June 1889.] Microfilm. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications Inc., 1977. (History of women, reel 5572)

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A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

On Friday, October 26, 2012, my Stanford class tried out a new and slightly crazy idea: a one-day public literary Twitter role-play, impersonating characters from The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The idea had come to me spontaneously one morning as I was musing about what new kind of close reading activity I could develop for my “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents” seminar at Stanford:The Picture of Dorian Gray is such a canonical text, we should get the public involved … It should be a creative and fun group activity, combining individual analysis with readerly and writerly collaboration … Could we do this on social media?  What if we brought The Picture of Dorian Gray in dialogue with Huysmans’ A rebours and Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (two other French novels we had been reading, which importantly influenced Wilde’s novel)?  We could have them talk back to Dorian … ‘A Day of Reckoning for Dorian Gray’! I should write this up as a Twitter role-play exercise.”

And that’s exactly what I did, chuckling like a happy fool.  I couldn’t wait to share this with my students and eventually the public.  This would be fun!

My Stanford course this quarter is a traditional humanities seminar on the relationship between Oscar Wilde’s work and authors such as Baudelaire, Huysmans, Rachilde, Mallarmé, Gide, Lorrain, and others, with face-to-face classroom discussion, papers, readings, office hours, and all that.  But we are also experimenting with online learning elements and a partially open M(inimalist)OOC format around the theme of close reading, as our website  describes and I also discussed in a recent workshop at Duke University.  The Twitter role-play is another creative way to imagine close reading and collaborative practices online. You can find my assignment prompt  here.

Only three of my students had had a Twitter account in the beginning, so it seemed a tall order at first.  After a Twitter test run with students under the hashtag #digwilde went well, however, I bravely tapped my professional network of academic listservs (chiefly the 19th-century studies list VICTORIA 2,000+ members and the Modernist Studies Association discussion list) and posted the link on Facebook and Twitter, inviting colleagues, their students, and anyone who cared to participate, to join us on October 26.  I told them this would be their long-awaited “chance to talk back to Dorian” and dangled what I hoped would be a tasty morsel in front of their digital eyes: “if you’re lucky, Dorian will ‘personally’ reply.”

I am not aware that this kind of thing has ever been done before and had no idea whether it would actually take off on Twitter—after all, inviting open public participation throws you on the public’s mercy.  I was convinced it was worth a try, however.  Like so many of my traditional humanities teacher colleagues not originally trained in digital humanities, I have been a late convert to Twitter, but now I use it regularly and happily for professional and intellectual purposes.  It is a great source of information, certainly, but for me one of Twitter’s most wonderful aspects is its spontaneous interactivity with interested and knowledgeable strangers on topics of mutual interest.  New ideas are sparked via these interactions; wise and thoughtful observations, hilarious and clever commentary happen here, engaging brains and hearts.  Most often, one leaves with a sense of having learned something worth contemplating, and being thankful for the open format.  I knew Twitter was right for this new kind of exercise.

The Twitterverse did not disappoint.  On October 26, our role-play attracted enough public interest to keep it going all day long.  There were hundreds of tweets and more than 50 participants, many of them tweeting repeatedly, from different countries (too many interactions, in fact, to capture in the somewhat ordered Storify archive I created not long afterwards).  Popular characters were Lord Henry, Basil, Sybil, Alan Campbell, Jim Vane, and minor characters such as the opium den owner and Dorian’s manservant, as well as Des Esseintes from Huysmans’ A rebours and various protagonists from Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus, all giving Dorian a piece of their mind. Two students and I (and sometimes new participants) tweeted back taking turns as Dorian Gray, collectively making the point that Wilde’s Dorian is, indeed, a “complex, multiform creature.”  Other unexpected and wonderful things happened during the game that none of us could have predicted.  For instance, after several hours of back and forth between the Dorian Gray, A rebours, and Monsieur Vénus characters, people started mashing up the novel with other Wildean works such as Salomé, as well as with other 19th-century novels (e.g. Jane Eyre, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde):

Another pleasant surprise was that a major Rachilde scholar, Melanie Hawthorne, made an appearance as Raoule from Monsieur Vénus (she had edited the very edition we’d been reading):

And then there were the individual hilarious exchanges of wit and snark between the characters themselves… so many of them!  Here’s just a little glimpse. Witness  Raoule de Vénerande (from Rachilde’s novel) and Dorian:

Or this exchange, between Sybil and Dorian, about art, artificiality, and botox:

My students commented afterwards that it was wonderful to feel connected to other readers and students at different institutions studying the same material, and that they had gained some new comparative insights across 19th-century texts.  The Twitter format is interesting here because it really forces readers to approach textual analysis differently: in tweets of 140 characters or less, one must be creative to make a good or witty statement effectively; one writes and reads, in fact, together with unknown others who may have new insights or questions.  And to impersonate a well-known literary personage, one must imagine and creatively imitate that particular character’s style and point of view. The role-play also bridged the gap between our collaborative (openly accessible), but more static class blog, and the spurting intensity and spontaneity of a social media discussion, making us feel more connected to the world and enhancing our class blogging experience in turn.

The Twitter role-play was such a success with participants and such plain, raucous fun that I really hope the idea takes off and gets adapted by others.  In fact, one enthusiastic participant from the Maine Humanities Institute tweeted that her organization wants to take up the idea for their Great Expectations study day, with Pip tweeting back in response:

Future Twitter role-plays might pop up in other contexts, perhaps, e.g. in political, economic, or other cultural arenas.  Remember that brilliant spontaneous hashtag impersonation during the debates, @InvisibleObama? What about impersonating characters and collaboratively writing Twitter scripts for “Personages from History Debate American Politics”; “A Day of Reckoning for Goldman-Sachs”; “[Insert popular movie characters of film x] against [the producer and director of popular movie x]”; or my personal favorite, “International Writers United against Pesky English Grammar”?  I’d like to challenge you right now to start your own for Digital Writing Month!

What can we learn when we don’t control the rules or outcomes of others’ writing? What can we learn from one another when we are freed from the shackles of our own online identity and give ourselves permission to play?

I’ll be @petradt, and I approve your message.

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