Desperately Seeking Users: Victorian periodical correspondents and their Web 2.0 counterparts

Annisa Suliman recently submitted her thesis “Being-in-Print”: Manufacturing Identities in the House of Cassell at Leeds Beckett University. In it she uses Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1865) as a case study to examine reader writer interactions and asks whether readers accepted a construction of self conferred upon them by the publication or whether they were active negotiators and co-creators of a modern working-class reader identity. She holds an MA in Victorian Literature from the University of Leeds, and a BA in English Literature and Language. Until recently she worked as a principal lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in the field of public relations and journalism, and previously taught at the universities of York St John and Teesside. Before becoming a lecturer, she spent 20 years as a media professional. She tweets at @AnnisaSuliman

The Guardian has revealed that during the initial peak of the pandemic, on average, Britons searched for Covid-related information on the internet six times a day. The analysis of web queries, carried out by data-intelligence specialists Kaiasm, offers interesting insights into the British psyche. Queries showed a high correlation with news coverage with the virus proving the predominant theme for health-related queries, however, as the year progressed user preoccupations increasingly revealed an impetus more reflective of individual hopes, dreams and fears. In the middle months queries around survival and risk began to give way to searches around the development of a vaccine, the re-opening of schools, gyms, pubs and hairdressers and holidays. While users were most anxious about the impact of the illness on their own lives, celebrity transgressors such as Dominic Cummings and Covid sufferers from the entertainment industries were also top trends. That concern for a breakfast TV presenter’s husband far outweighed queries over the Prime Minister health give further insight into the public consciousness.

Douglass Kellner (2011) is among those suggesting that the media provides important cultural environments which “contribute to educating us how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire” (7). Research into lifestyle magazines shows this is especially so during times of social upheaval or personal uncertainty (Hermes, 1995, McCracken, 1990; McRobbie, 2000; Furlong, 2016; Currie, 2001). My own investigation of letters’ pages in Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1867), a penny periodical aimed at the working-classes, too illustrates a tendency for correspondents to engage with media products in order to meet a variety of needs – from knowledge-gathering to self-preservation, entertainment to self-advancement. As with increased traffic on web sites during Covid, a surge of interest in correspondence columns in the Victorian period points to a desire to make sense of a progressively technologically-driven world in an era Alfred Tennyson described as “a terrible moment of transition” (Pollard, 1987, vii.).

As Margaret Beetham attests, correspondence columns in “date-stamped” periodicals are valuable because as predominantly reader-responsive productions they are infused with “traces of collective fantasies and desires, as well as the traces of [historical readers’] material lives” in a particular socio-historical context (Beetham, 1990, 21; 2000, 92).

Fig 1. Extract from “The Editorial Table”, Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, May 3, 1856

Figure 1. illustrates CIFP readers’ desire to occupy the textualized environments for a variety of purposes. There is as diverse a range of topics as you would expect to find on contemporary search engines. The majority are attempts to elicit referential information, others are reflective of more personal journeys – unrequited love, as in the case of “Evangeline”, or, for “Tempus Fugit”, the urge to emigrate for a better life. Entries give a glimpse into the experience of readers living in a world growing increasingly consumerised and global. Much of their information about the modern age came from the periodical press which, in the 1850s, was enjoying a “golden age” (Bradbury, 1971, 183).  To understand how media engagement might impact upon reader concerns, I put Matthew Rubery’s (2009) assertion that there was a rich intertextual relationship between the reporting of events in popular culture and literary production to the test by looking at trends in letters relating to failed marriage and the mining of precious metals. By mapping reader’s letters to the occurrence of news stories on those issues, my findings go some way to proving Rubery’s surmise in that head-lining events affect reader concerns. For example, following news stories of precious metal discoveries during the mid-1800s and the introduction of new UK divorce legislation in 1857 there was a rise in reader queries on those topics.

Emigration for Financial Betterment

From the 1840s there were multiple discoveries of gold in the colonies with rushes in California (1848-58), Canada (1850s) and Australia (1840s-60s) all featuring in the press. In 1856, CIFP correspondence columns experienced a surge of interest in emigration for financial gain which coincided with increased news coverage of finds in the Antipodes. Late in the year, two stories appeared within weeks of each other. On October 8, 1856, The Blackburn Standard reported large discoveries in Nelson and Auckland, New Zealand. The story was taken up on November 18 by leading national morning paper the Morning Chronicle (Brake and Demoor, 426). On December 5, the Chronicle broke the news that prospectors were gathering “a bucketful of gold in an hour” in Albany, Australia. In the weeks after publication, letters in CIFP regarding emigration to the region formed more than 16% of total queries compared to totals between 0 and 3% during periods where there were no reports of significant finds.

Failed Marriage and the Introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act

On January 1, 1858, following considerable debate in Parliament and the press, the Matrimonial Causes Act (MCA) came into effect. Bringing about radical changes in divorce legislation, it replaced an ancient system whereby divorce had been under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, and only granted upon the passing of an Act of Parliament.

Evidence in CIFP columns suggests that stories leading up to the introduction of the law and its adoption, plus the coverage of often salacious divorce court testimonies, stimulated reader responses. On January 9, 1858, CIFP printed “The New Matrimonial and Divorce Act” on its letters’ page. Framed as a response to several inquiries “from married ladies on the subject of grievances for which they may obtain redress by the new act” (96) it provided a factual outline of the legislation. It was a timely intervention responding to and anticipating a welter of queries on a highly newsworthy topic. From January news stories about the MCA’s introduction began to be replaced by reports from the divorce courts which had quickly become a journalistic staple. Between January 14 and March 30, 1858, British Library Newspapers records 14 occurrences of columns featuring multiple divorce court reports. (Though BLN, because it represents just a fraction of journalistic titles and gives priority to publications leading with social and political movements (Conboy, 2008), may be an imperfect means of discovering all UK-wide coverage, it is a reliable indicator of a high level of interest across national and regional papers.)

The number of queries in CIFP rose dramatically a month after the Law’s inception. This gap can be partially accounted for by the three-to-four-week turnaround between letter submission and publication. Individual queries peaked in March at 14% of the total. Overall responses to queries involving failed marriage were much lower than with emigration – typically 1-2 per issue with three each in issues of February 13 and March 27, hardly surprising since the Paper was intent upon fostering the ideal of marriage for life.

Fig 2. Masthead: Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, January, 9, 1858

The spikes in February and March correspond to the detailed reporting of the unsavoury Spiers versus Spiers divorce case. On January 26, The Morning Chronicle carried the following headline: “A BRUTAL HUSBAND—THE NEW DIVORCE ACT AGAIN”. There was prolonged coverage as the story spread to the provincial press. It concerned violent drunkard, Timothy Spiers, “a rough-looking, powerful fellow” and his wife, Fanny, “a respectable-looking female”, who appeared in the dock sporting a black eye. After four years of marriage, Spiers travelled to America abandoning his wife and taking all their possessions. On his return, he threatened her with a gun, was repeatedly aggressive and had recently knocked her unconscious.

Desertion is a theme in the following queries: On February 13, 1858, “B.O.K.” and “Caesar Borgia” are informed:

B.O.K. […]. The new act […] does not entitle a wife who has been deserted by her husband for two years to marry again. The circumstances under which a wife deserted by her husband can marry again are explained in answer to “Caesar Borgia”.

CAESAR BORGIA – The wife would […] be able to procure a “judicial separation”, formerly termed a divorce á mensá et thoro [sic], but this separation would not entitle her to marry again. She has heard from her husband within the space of two years, and it is only after a disappearance of seven years, during which the wife has made every effort to discover whether her husband is still alive, without effect, that the law looks upon him as legally dead to her that a deserted woman can remarry after two years (176).

While MCA made dissolution easier, re-marriage remained an issue. Though after a two-year period, deserted spouses could make an application for a legal separation, they could not re-marry and, in addition, as “Caesar” is warned, that a woman’s husband re-appeared she must return to him.


As with the Kaiasm study, my examination of reader queries provides insight into the collective and individual psyche of media users at a particular historical moment. While producer-led media dictated the news agenda and impacted upon the Paper’s content, the correspondence columns, much like web queries, offer a vital source for revealing the concerns of individuals in a particular socio-historical context. Analysis of such textual engagements allow for greater understanding of how media environments both reflect the world in which they are constructed and, in turn, help reconstruct it in new ways. It also illustrates how nineteenth-century consumers and their twenty-first-century counterparts exhibit similar tendencies when it comes to their use of media spaces.


Beetham, M., 1990. Towards a Theory of the Periodical as a Publishing Genre. In: L. Brake, A. Jones & L. Madden, eds. Investigating Victorian Journalism. Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp. 19-32.

Beetham, M., 2000. In Search of the Historical Reader: The Woman Reader, the Magazine and the Correspondence Column. Siegener Periodicul zur Internationalen Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft, 19(1), pp. 89-104.

Bradbury, M., 1971. The Social Context of Modern English Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Brake, L. & Demoor, M. eds., 2009. Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain. London: Academic Press.

Currie, D., 2001. Advice Pages as a Site for the Operation of Power. Feminist Theory, 2(3), pp. 259-281.

Furlong, C., 2016. Health Advice in Popular Periodicals: Reynold’s Miscellany, the Family Herald, and their Correspondents. Victorian Periodicals Review, 49(1), pp. 28-48.

Hermes, J., 1995. Reading Women’s Magazines: An Analysis of Everyday Media Use. Cambridge: Polity.

Kellner, D., 2011. Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture. In: G. Dines & J. Humez, eds. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. London: Sage, pp. 7-18.

McCracken, G., 1990. Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. 1 ed. Indiana: Indiana University Press.


Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1867)

“Analysis of Covid search terms reveals Britons’ hopes and fears in 2020”, December 28, 2020, The Guardian

Available at:, Accessed January 8, 2021

The Morning Chronicle, October 18, December 5