Vice, Scandal and "News" in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers and their Literary Products


When one thinks of physical newspapers today, one typically envisions an unwieldy broadsheet: the front page might contain the major headlines of the day, with articles continued elsewhere in the paper; there might be sections devoted to Arts and Entertainment, Sports, Culture, Global Events, Local Flavour, Comics and Crossword Puzzles, etc. However, a 19th-century newspaper was a very different creature.

Prior to 1830, newspapers were purchased by an elite consumer who identified with an explicit political stance. The repeal of the taxes on knowledge – i.e. the removal of additional taxes for advertisements (1853), stamps (1855), and the weight of paper (1861) – enabled proprietors to lower prices, increase size (page-wise), and publish issues with greater frequency, allowing newspapers to go from monthly or weekly outputs to dailies, and thus increase their circulation rates exponentially. As a result, newspapers became a commodity that needed to be commercialized to attract buyers. To do so, a new layout was introduced: headlines to make the page more digestible; a front page featuring the shipping news – the most pertinent information for the 19th-century reader; pages of advertisements (births, marriages, deaths, lost, found, and perso- nal messages that came to be known as the “agony column”); the leading article in the centrefold (what we think of as front-page news today); a personal interview; foreign correspondence; serialized fiction; and then a back page of more personal adver- tisements.

This also created an expanded British reading public that included all classes of society able and willing to purchase periodicals for private consumption. However, despite the repeal, newspapers were slow to respond to the interest from lower class readers. As Richard Altick writes inThe English Common Reader: “They remained what they had always been, papers for the upper and substantial middle classes, giving most of their space to weightily reported political news and devoting relatively little attention to such topics of mass interest as sport and crime.” Thus, this gap gave rise to cheaper publications such as the so called ‘shilling monthlies’ and ‘penny dreadfuls.’

My project emerges from within this context, honing in on the changing nature of the periodical from 1850 onwards, and the way in which 19th-century serialized fiction in Britain refracted and reflected the political agendas of the monthly, weekly, and daily papers that housed them. Moving chronologically through Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, A. C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I explore the influence of newspaper and magazine layouts, the au- thors’ knowledge and exploitation of readership and circulation, the organization of the news, and the way in which authors incorporate current events and/or ‘front page news’ in their writing, demonstrating that serialization increasingly became a mode of narration and a form of logic.

Thanks to the F.A.G.’s funding, I was able to go to Oxford and London to work with the originals of shilling monthlies, such as The Strand Magazine (which serialized Sherlock Holmes), and gain an appreciation of the layout of the magazines, including the often-overlooked advertisements. For example, the emphasis on purity of British products and the generalized fear of foreign contamination that pervades many of the serialized fiction I am examining is also seen in the changed emphasis in the Cadbury’s cocoa advertisements from 1891 and 1892 below. The 1891 advertisement (bottom left) only points to the merits of pure cocoa – a reflection of Cadbury being the first UK company to implement Dutch processing techniques for unadulterated cocoa essence; whereas the advertisement from 1892 (bottom right) goes so far as to highlight the Englishness of Cadbury’s as compared to the “So-called Foreign Pure Cocoa.”

The significance to this purity is scientific, but the emphasis on its Englishness is ironic given the source of the cocoa bean: 1892 was the year in which the British Empire acquired ljebu (Nigeria), thereby ‘rescuing’ cocoa from foreignness. Englishness as a trade commodity, as demonstrated by political and cultural events reported upon and advertised in periodicals, is an important part of my research: it appears in the juxtaposition of teadrinking and opiumuse in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; in the contamination of English blood in Dracula; and in the critique of the newspaper ‘organ’ and rising foreign crime in Sherlock Holmes. And all of this can be traced to a seemingly simple addition to a chocolate advertisement.

Dr. Michelle Witen