The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Women's Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918–1939: The Interwar Period

Women's Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918–1939: The Interwar Period. Edited by Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney. Edinburgh University Press, 2017. x + 528 pp. £150.00 (cloth); $230.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Louise Kane, University of Central Florida

Consisting of thirty essays and introductory material by the editors, Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918–1939: The Interwar Period is an ambitious, far-reaching collection with a clear purpose: to reveal “the startling complexity of periodicals aimed at women readers and the various notions of the modern woman they suggested” (1). Assessments of interwar women’s periodicals often stress the role of magazines in reinforcing gender expectations and constructs that were at best narrow and at worst overtly sexist. Since Helen E. Haines’s assertion in 1916 that male editors of “the women’s periodicals” were “always shrilly asseverating their noble ideals of Woman,” reducing their readers to “one of three types…a Wife and Mother…an Expectant Bride…a Business Girl,” the elision of women-aimed periodicals and intellectual, social, or political limitation have characterized critical explorations of such magazines (264).  Against these assessments, this volume takes a revisionist approach. As the editors argue, “Often overlooked [by scholars] is how popular media aimed at female readers could also resist and oppose mainstream views” (1). The aim of this volume is instead “to open up the category of the ‘women’s magazine’ beyond the assumptions and expectations through which it is conventionally understood” (1).

This aim is certainly fulfilled both in terms of the sheer wealth of content this volume handles, and the nuance with which contributors explore their material. The emphasis here is not on rehashing old arguments about women in periodicals, but instead on exploring how women’s periodicals intersected with a variety of other print media, and to reclaim the “potential correspondences between periodical genres—modern fashion magazines and feminist periodicals, domestic magazines, and professional papers—[that] have been muted or lost entirely” (4). The focus of the essays can be summarized by their five groupings: “Culture and the Modern Woman,” “Styling Modern Life,” “Reimagining Homes, Housewives, and Domesticity,” “Feminist Media and Agendas for Change,” and “Women’s Organisations and Communities of Interest.” These sections are focused on the following respective concerns: modernist studies as a useful but limited lens for studying the culturally heterogeneous strata of early 20th-century women’s periodicals; the ways fashion and style magazines evince ideas of the “modern” and of “modernity,” rather than “modernism”; rereading domestic women’s magazines “organised around women’s culturally ascribed roles as housewives” (7); the use of print media by women as a tool for change, feminism, and protest about gender expectations and constructions; finally, the networks of communication, enabled and recorded by periodicals, through which women developed “a wide spectrum of feminist, professional, political, voluntary organizations” (7).  

All of the essays are excellent in their probing, nuanced analyses of women’s periodicals as complex, and sometimes contradictory, cultural products encompassing a plethora of diverse forms, styles, and functions, but several especially original frameworks and conceptual approaches require further elaboration. Claire Battershill’s “‘Tricks of Aspect and the Varied Gifts of Daylight’: Representations of Books and Reading in Interwar Women’s Periodicals” offers a deftly researched investigation into the “cultural construction of reading, and the representation and trafficking of books as objects” that takes place in the pages of periodicals like Everywoman (15). In her interrogation of how magazines used the book review and literary critical essay, together with pieces promoting the “book-as-friend metaphor” (14) to promote the book and its reading experience as special forms of cultural production, Battershill uncovers the often underexplored connections between women’s periodicals and the book trade in the interwar years. She also expands on how these connections blend the realms of “commerce, domesticity, and literary art” (16).  This methodological approach stands out for its unusual, yet productive, framing of the periodicals not just through periodical studies, but through scholarship in the history of the book.

Joyce Goodman’s “Internationalism, Empire, and Peace in the Woman Teacher, 1920–39” is another essay that takes a novel approach in its exploration of the official organ of the National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT), Woman Teacher. Her description of how the publication differs from earlier journals in the field of education like the Schoolmistress and Woman Teacher’s Magazine reminds us of the professional ties and institutional symbolism of periodicals that stand to be obscured if we continue to frame them solely through a modernist perspective. The archival aspect of Goodman’s research is striking in its richness, and this is also a characteristic of wonderful essays like Vike Martina Plock’s “‘A Journal of the Period’: Modernism and Conservative Modernity in Eve: The Lady’s Pictorial (1919–29),” Catriona Beaumont’s “Housewives and Citizens: Encouraging Active Citizenship in the Print Media of Housewives’ Associations during the Interwar Years,” and Helen Glew’s “Providing and Taking the Opportunity: Women Civil Servants and Feminist Periodical Culture in Interwar Britain.” The latter two essays evidence the unique strength that the “Women’s Organisations and Communities of Interest” part brings to the volume: its focus on women’s organizations and periodicals that acted as their organs bears impressive detail and depth in its historical reconstruction of little-known women’s groups in the interwar years, and evidences the editors’ claim that “[t]he critical and recovery work represented by the contributors in this volume is crucial, literally making the otherwise invisible, visible” (6).

The volume’s focus on magazines as multimedia objects adds another layer of richness. Natalie’s Kalich’s “Sketching Out America’s Jazz Age in British Vogue” is fascinating in its account of how pictorials by Anne Harriet Fish and Miguel Covarrubias in Vogue saw the magazine enact a transnational blending of the latest British fashions with the iconography of jazz, such as the flapper and the “New Negro,” inspired directly by the Harlem Renaissance. Liza Shapiro Sanders’s “Making the Modern Girl: Fantasy, Consumption, and Desire in Romance Weeklies of the 1920s,” Lisa Stead’s “‘Dear Cinema Girls’: Girlhood, Picture-Going, and the Interwar Film Magazine,” and Gerry Beegan’s “The Picturegoer: Cinema, Rotogravure, and the Reshaping of the Female Face” provide vivid accounts of how magazines used illustrations and filmic representations to invest their pages with ideals of adventure, excitement, and escapism, and in doing so redefined ideas of femininity.

It would have been interesting to see increased focus given to magazines that are more geographically disparate, as despite inclusions of rigorously researched pieces like Lisa Sheppard’s “Y Gymraes (The Welshwoman): Ambivalent Domesticity in Women’s Welsh-Language Interwar Print Media” and Karen Steele’s “Ireland and Sapphic Journalism between the Wars: A Case Study of Urania (1916–40),” many of the periodicals evince the idea of “Britain” in a far more narrow, London-centric sense. There is a general feeling that in some ways the volume could have been slightly more expansive, if not experimental, in its range of methodologies and approaches. As the introduction outlines, “[r]ather than insisting on a single story or methodology, the larger goal of this volume is to promote and encourage new work in the field” (5), but few of the essays in the volume make explicit reference to methodology, or to some of the pertinent issues of remediation, digitization, and archival treatment that inform more recent attempts to theorize periodicals. However, it is true that this theoretical framing often occurs in a more subtle, implicit way that offers sophisticated, variegated readings of the complexities of women’s periodicals. Barbara Green’s essay, “Feminism: Evelyn Sharp, the Women’s Pages, and the Manchester Guardian,” is excellent in its description of some of the problems accompanying the tricky question of how readers—both contemporary and present-day—approach and navigate the “heterogeneity and polymediality of modern(ist) periodicals” (268). Her exploration of Sharp’s columns and their framing in “the conflicted space of the women’s pages” (269) exemplifies the volume’s commitment to producing a thorough investigation of the materiality of periodical sub-genres: the women’s page, the interview, the serialized essay series, advertisements, and the correspondence section are just some of the parts of a magazine that receive special attention in line with the volume’s holistic—rather than piecemeal—reconstruction of the periodical as a composite form linked into wider discursive webs of literature, politics, commerce, and trade.

The result is a volume that illuminates the complex networks of women’s periodicals and highlights the connections between periodicals and the social, institutional, and political structures surrounding them as rich seams demanding further research. As the editors point out, the volume “explores interwar women’s periodicals as a contribution to the larger public sphere” (122). In many ways this volume makes a similar contribution in its status as a heterogeneous, diverse collection of materials that, in its discussion of periodicals as part of a vast backdrop of historical, political, and socio-economic concerns, bears a significance and scholarly value that extends far beyond the sphere of literary studies.   

Works Cited

Haines, Helen E. “Some Reflections on Literature for Ladies.” The Unpopular Review, vol. 6, no. 12, Oct.–Dec. 1916), pp. 264–68.


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