Conference Report – Work/Leisure, Duty/Pleasure: 2019 Annual Conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals

Mariam Zarif is a PhD candidate at King’s College London with interests in New Woman writing, ninteenth-century women’s penny weeklies and New Journalism. You can find her on twitter @MariamZarif1

‘What Pompeii was to the Romans that Brighton is to Londoners’ exclaimed one Brighton Resident in his report of 1889. He elaborated on the city’s celebrated aestheticism: 

Nature and Chance were Brighton’s parents. The one gave her a beautiful and healthy situation, and an atmosphere of wonderful crispness and purity, which is nearly always saturated with sunshine; while the other has, for at least a century, been especially kind to her.[1]

A century later, nature is still kind to this city, as there was plenty of sunshine and scenic opportunities for the delegates and attendees at this year’s RSVP conference. 

The conference theme ‘Work/Leisure, Duty/Pleasure’ encapsulated the city’s vibrant flair, with a rich selection of panels, keynotes and conversations on diverse topics starting with the art of lockpicking, to the sensational accounts of Jack the Ripper in the nineteenth-century print press. The conference began with a welcome reception at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. The walk-in exhibition rooms narrated various aspects of Brighton’s history; walking through these rooms enabled one to become immersed in the rich history of its people, streets, parks, and venues. 

Following on from the reception the night before, delegates congregated at the Grand Parade campus to participate in the diverse selection of panels and papers on various aspects of the nineteenth-century journalism. As a researcher who focusses on production, editorship, and women’s magazines in the nineteenth century, I attended a number of fascinating panels, highly pertinent to my work, that interrogated the roles of editors, and women’s role in journalism, although I also listened to papers on sensation fiction, adaptation, and journalism for the working class. 

The panel, ‘Criminal Tendencies’, for example, examined the intersections between the public, the press, and role of social media in the redistribution of the nineteenth-century periodical press. From this panel, Clare Clarke’s paper “’A Shrine of Pilgrimage’: The Ripper murders, dark tourism, and the late-Victorian press”, for example, looked at sensational press coverage of dark tourism, examining the ways in which the popular press generated and sustained an interest in late-Victorian narratives of crime. Focusing on Isreal Zangwill’s ‘The Big Bow Mystery’ (1891), which first appeared in an East-London daily newspaper, The Star, Clarke discussed how this narrative took a satirical approach in its treatment of dark tourism and explained how the novel reconciled with actual events like the Whitechapel Ripper murders of 1888, which were documented in articles and illustrations in the press. Ann Hale then spoke persuasively about the need to interrogate multi-field periodicals including categories like law and medical journals. Her paper, “Lockpicking: Breaching Categories in the Study of Multi-Field Periodicals”, challenged the traditional disciplinary categories that often “oversimplified” and marginalised “multi-field” periodicals which represented two or more disciplines. She uses lockpicking and locksport as metaphors to test and breach the disciplinary categories. The panel finished with a discussion on digital repositories and the way they shape and filter our research. Shannon R. Smith suggested that digital practices of today, for example, live tweeting conferences, expands the academic digital vernacular. 

Throughout the day, papers were presented on literature, history, arts, and the press in digital age. It was certainly refreshing to see the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, as it brought to light the less popular periodicals and the works of less canonical journalists, authors and editors. This was particularly visible in the keynote lecture on “Tracing the Vocabulary of Pregnancy in the C19th Periodical Press” delivered by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge. The lecture traced the language of pregnancy in the Victorian era by searching for associational terms for being ‘pregnant’ in digitised periodicals as well as newspapers. Both Leighton and Surridge challenged preconceptions and showed the troubling associations of the vocabulary. Much fruitful discussion from the keynote continued into the Gala Conference dinner at the Royal Pavilion.

The second day began with a rousing parallel session on women’s work in journalism and editing and its status. I then gave a paper on male editors and their role in women’s penny weeklies, and how their engagement demonstrates the troubled gender binaries of the period. I shared this panel with two excellent papers that showed women’s labour and public duty in the late 1850s: Randi Mihajlovic discussed how women writers promoted women’s labours alongside pervasive cultural ideologies, and by looking at periodicals including All the Year Round and Edinburgh Review, Mihajlovic suggests that with these efforts to promote women’s employment opportunities a new discourse emerged which articulated women’s labour as public duty. Samantha Crain then discussed the influence of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in Charlotte Brontë’s first two novels. The discussion that followed came to centre upon women’s journalistic endeavours and how the periodical press employed a mode of representation that simultaneously observed traditional domestic ideologies and registered the anxieties that muffle nineteenth-century discussions of the Woman Question.  

Another fascinating panel on “Women in the late Victorian Periodical” led by Laura Vorachek and Artemis Alexiou also looked at women’s role in journalism and re-imagined the periodical as a gendered space which was constantly challenged by women at the turn of the century. Vorachek’s paper focused on the role played by the Society of Women Journalists in giving women who were entering the field of journalism a platform of their own. Introducing a unique approach to reading the design identity of women’s magazines, Alexiou argues that feminist periodicals used various design techniques to communicate their politically reformist editorial message. For Alexiou, feminist magazines like Women’s Penny Paper (1888 –1890) and Woman’s Herald (1891–1892) gave equal attention to their design to ensure that it reflected the editorial policy.    

The range of research interests at the conference was certainly thought provoking and reflected the breadth of research being undertaken in this area. The conference left many of us with renewed interest in nineteenth-century journalism and several new connections to pursue.


[1] ‘Chief Cities and Towns of Great Britain: Brighton’,  Penny Illustrated Paper, (1889), 12-13 (pp. 12-13).