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Kristine Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the Periodical Press, 1850-1915

Rosie Findlay
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Kristine Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the Periodical Press, 1850-1915, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, 231 p. ISBN : 978-1-4094-2266-2

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1The second half of the nineteenth century was a time of radical changes in society, and in particular the place and role of the young woman. Writing a book on a much-debated topic such as girlhood is no easy task and a challenge for any researcher. Kristine Moruzi has chosen to explore the development of this notion through a detailed study of the periodical press which targeted the young middle-class girl reader. The choice was a good one, for her work contributes to our understanding of an important sector of the modern press as well as to the on-going debate on the role and place of girls in society.

2The subject is not an easy one for the researcher who has to juggle with the opposing claims generated by its contemporary sensitivity and the polarizing attitudes it tended to create inside society, but Dr. Moruzi is highly qualified to undertake this challenge. She is a Grant Notley Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her research centres mainly on Victorian periodicals and the history of childhood, with specialisation in Girlhood studies and magazines for the young female reader in England in the nineteenth century. She has likewise researched the role of the press for young people during the Boer War and the First World War, and this present work is part of a wider study of girlhood which will extend our knowledge of girls’ school stories from 1749 to 1929.

3The author has given a great deal of consideration to her subject matter which makes the choice of title a bit disappointing. Contrary to what is implied, the ‘periodical press’ does not extend to the whole of the English-speaking world but rather to periodicals published in England alone. The precise periodization indicated in the title (1850-1915) is an important statement. The 1850s was the period when England’s repressive tax laws on the press were gradually abolished allowing a new conceptualized image of its role and place in society. With the steady increase in literacy and the growing awareness of ‘girlhood’, commercial publishing of children’s periodicals became not only possible but a new target for an ever-demanding society. The author uses the periodical press for the young girl/ woman in England to show the evolution of the concept of ‘girlhood’ as a distinct notion occupying its place in the cycle of life from childhood to womanhood.

4The author has an easy style and good turn of phrase which makes for easy reading for a scientifically researched subject. The book is clearly structured into 8 chapters, introduction and conclusion included, which broadly follow a chronological order (1850-1915). They explore various aspects of girlhood as depicted in the magazines of the period. Dr. Moruzi’s extensive knowledge of the press of the period allows her to illustrate the points she makes from an impressive variety of sources, from The Monthly Packet to the more contemporary Girl’s Realm and, more importantly, to contextualize using the detailed background knowledge of the period she undoubtedly possesses. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the book is the care taken in the insertion of the illustrations taken from the magazines she presents. Not only are these illustrations numerous and of excellent graphic quality but in many ways they ‘bring the text’ to life and take us back to the dynamism of the period.

5Constructing Girlhood is a first-class piece of academic research with a bountiful supply of valuable and detailed footnotes which contribute usefully to our understanding of the text. The bibliography however deserves to be singled out for particular attention. It is divided up into two sections covering both primary and up-to-date secondary sources and spans an impressive eighteen pages. As such it constitutes a mine of information for anyone wishing to explore the question of “girlhood” in England from a wide variety of angles and hopefully will encourage further research into these questions. As such it helps fill the gap recognised in the excellent work by Shelley Mosley and John Charles, The Suffragists in Literature for Youth. The Fight for the Vote (Scarecrow Press, Maryland, 2006).

6Six periodicals are examined in detail: The Monthly Packet, The Girl of the Period Miscellany, the Girl’s Own Paper, Atalanta, The Young Woman, and The Girl’s Realm, all in their own way highlighting the real problems faced by the young girls of this era of important social, political and also economic advances. Topics raised in this press such as the growth in education, the Empire, war, marriage, health and even women’s rights opened the doors to new opportunities for the ‘girl of the period’ to adapt to the changing world of late Victorian and early Edwardian life.

7The author analyses the different positions taken by the press of the period, showing that some reviews insisted on the nostalgic, traditional ‘woman in the home’ image while others took a more radical stance. Girls were seen by some to be the pure morally upright figures in middle-class society at the time where others saw them as future citizens and workers. It was even possible for some magazines to describe various ideals in the same publication; there was not one clear image of ‘girlhood’ defined, it was multifaceted—there was the religious girl, the educated girl, the healthy girl, the marrying girl and of course the modern girl.

8Dr. Moruzi’s book demonstrates how the press of the period played a significant role in redefining and to a certain extent delimiting the role of girls in society and helping them to a new awareness of the opportunities available to them as the nineteenth century unfolded. This reviewer was particularly impressed by the attention given to the Girl’s Own Paper (1880), which Sally Mitchell, in her work The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915, rightly described as ‘the first broadly successful magazine for girls’. As Dr. Moruzi amply demonstrates, this paper was created in response to two important changes in children’s reading patterns at this time. Firstly, children’s periodicals were becoming more and more gendered yet young girls appeared to have become the forgotten audience as many were apparently avidly reading the Boy’s Own Paper, published a year earlier by the Religious Tract Society. Secondly, with the arrival of the ‘penny dreadfuls’, the cheap sensational fiction published weekly and aimed at the adolescent working class there was no alternative for middle-class girls. Interestingly The Girl’s Own Paper tried to play down its religious origins by publishing under the auspices of ‘The Leisure Hour Office’ but its aims were very clear. The GOP was created not only to attract the young middle-class lady but also ‘girls of a less high position’ and servants, ‘for there is honesty and nobility even in the kitchen’. Its novelty lay in its focus being fixed not on home-making and religion like other periodicals but on the importance of health and physical culture. Gymnastics, for instance, ‘are not intended to be enjoyable but . . . necessary for a girl’s physical well-being’ (103) while ‘recreation is acceptable and necessary as long as it strengthens and prepares a girl to become a wife and mother’. Excessive sport on the other hand is ‘feared to encourage increasingly masculine behaviours . . . and could defeminize girls’ (although cycling, perhaps surprisingly given the controversy surrounding its practice, was deemed quite acceptable). Eugenics was the topical name of the game and physical deterioration a thing to be avoided at all costs. For Dr. Moruzi, the healthy girl of the late Victorian period was physically and mentally capable of attending to more than domestic concerns and the future for her was extremely positive.

9This book is a very valuable and thought-provoking contribution to the field of the periodical press studies, and a must-have for any researcher of Victorian and early Edwardian studies. It is yet another contribution by Ashgate to their series Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present, which includes work on the orphan in the 18th century, Victorian literature, as well as the modern Harry Potter and Twilight series. Long may they continue this series for much still remains to be done.

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Référence électronique

Rosie Findlay, « Kristine Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the Periodical Press, 1850-1915 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 16 mai 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/1010

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Rosie Findlay

University of Toulouse Capitole

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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