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Jessica Cox, The Queen of Sensation

2015 May 5
by lucinda matthews-jones

Jessica Cox is a lecturer in English at Brunel University, London.  She has research interests in Victorian popular fiction (particularly sensation fiction), the Brontёs, first-wave feminism, and neo-Victorianism.  She is the author of a short biography of Charlotte Brontё and editor of a collection of essays on Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  She is currently writing a book on the neo-sensation novel.  You can follow her on Twitter @jessjcox and email her at Jessica.cox@brunel.ac.uk.

 1861 was a busy year for Isabella Beeton, with the publication of her bestselling Book of Household Management, and the launch of a new paper by her husband Samuel Beeton, with Isabella acting as fashion editor.  The Queen, as the paper was called, did not survive long under Beeton’s management: he was forced to sell it after only a few months.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, it represents an early example of a form which would later become recognised as the tabloid newspaper.  Further, the target audience for this sensational paper was middle- and upper-class women. This was a time when it was not deemed advisable for women to read newspapers.  In 1863, the Medical Critic and Psychological Journal suggested that ‘young ladies who read newspapers […] will be furnished with an additional incentive to the exercise of caution and prudence with regard to the degree in which their fancies are to be indulged’.[1]  A year later, Emily Davies, who campaigned extensively for improvements in female education, noted ‘Newspapers are scarcely supposed to be read by women at all.  When The Times is offered to a lady, the sheet containing the advertisements, and the Births, Deaths, and Marriages, is considerately selected’.[2]

The Queen, though, sought to distinguish itself from The Times and its competitors, which were predominantly concerned with the public sphere of politics and world affairs.  In contrast, the first issue of Beeton’s paper declared:

[W]e need not trouble ourselves much with foreign affairs.  When we write for Women, we write for Home.  We shall offend very few when we say that women have neither heart nor head for abstract political speculation […] Therefore our survey of foreign affairs, and of politics generally will be recorded in a few notes.[3]

Instead, the focus of the paper was to be on ‘the daily life of society, its manners and morals – on books, music and theatre, [… and] the amusements which ladies most pursue at home and abroad’.[4]  In fulfilment of this promise, the pages of The Queen do indeed contain much on domestic concerns, fashion, needlework, literature, and the escapades of the Royal family – accompanied by detailed illustrations.

Current affairs was not merely limited to news of the Royals, however.  Each issue also featured articles discussing at length terrible accidents (often accompanied by illustrations) and a column entitled ‘The Black Book’, which included reports of serious and violent crimes, and the fate of offenders.  The first issue contained details of two railway accidents, under the headings ‘The Brighton Slaughter’ and ‘The Kentish Town Slaughter’.  The reporter notes, ‘[W]e have all travelled by railway; and we ourselves or our dearest friends may be mangled tomorrow as those unfortunates were yesterday’.[5]  The accompanying illustration of one of the crash scenes includes images of the injured lying on the ground and bodies being removed – hardly appropriate fare for the delicate and susceptible lady reader.  The reader is reassured, though, that ‘The scene presented details of horror which we do not care to reproduce’.[6]

Reports of violent crimes and deaths in The Queen are frequently preceded by an expression of reluctance at bringing these matters to the reader’s attention.  A story of a woman attacked by vitriolic (sulphuric) acid which appeared in December 1861 begins, ‘We are sorry and shocked to have to begin this column today with an almost incredible story of wanton cruelty’.[7]  An article entitled ‘Infant Mortality’ laments the prevalence of reports of ‘murderous assaults’ in the age of ‘cheap newspapers’,[8] while the first entry in the ‘Black Book’ column of the same issue details the case of a woman charged with murdering her illegitimate child.[9]

The appeal to the ‘respectable’ woman reader, and the blending of the domestic with reports of sensational crimes and terrible accidents, aligns the paper with the sensation novel.  Indeed, the timing of the launch of The Queen suggests it may be directly influenced by sensation fiction.  Its emergence followed the serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859-60) and Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne (1860-61).  Both the sensation novel and Beeton’s paper illustrate that the appetite for sensation extended far beyond the lower classes of society, while they each seek to preserve at least the façade of respectability.  To this end, though short-lived, The Queen nonetheless marks a significant moment in the history of the Victorian press, offering a medium through which the respectable woman reader could fulfil her appetite for sensational news.

 

Related Posts:

‘The deleterious dominance of The Times in nineteenth-century scholarship’

‘Full steam ahead! Murder on the Victorian Railway’

“As far away from England as any man could be”: The Luminaries as sensation sequel?

 


[1] ‘Sensation Novels’, Medical Critic and Psychological Journal, 11 (July 1863), p.519.

[2] Emily Davies, ‘On Secondary Instruction as Relation to Girls’ (1864), Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women, 1860-1908 (Cambridge, 1910), 70-1, quoted in Kate Flint, The Woman Reader, 121.

[3] The Queen, issue 1, 7 September 1861

[4] Advertisement for The Queen, various publications, August 1861.

[5] The Queen, issue 1, p.11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Queen, Issue 15, Dec. 14 1861, p.274.

[8] Issue 26, March 1 1862, 501-02.

[9] Ibid, 511.

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