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Women and Scotland

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Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Women in Politics and Culture

Legitimizing and propagating the ideology of domesticity: the People’s Journal of Dundee (1858-1867)

Christian Auer

Résumé

The repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855 triggered off a period of remarkable growth in the British press. The Dundee, Perth and Forfar People’s Journal, created on 2 January 1858, very quickly became one of the leading newspapers in Scotland. What distinguished this paper from the other newspapers of the time was that the People’s Journal clearly intended to work for the intellectual and social advancement of the working classes. It was mainly concerned with establishing a special relationship with its readers, asking them to take an active part in the creative process of the paper.

The writing competitions (open to both male and female competitors) as well as the column “to correspondents”, which explained to the authors of rejected manuscripts why their essays or stories had been deemed un-satisfactory for publication and which gave them technical advice as to how to improve their style, became major features of the paper. Drawing from the issues published between 1858 and 1867, this paper will first concentrate on the subjects of the competitions that were proposed to the readers, especially those dealing with issues related to women. It will then focus on the winning pieces that were printed in the paper in order to analyse how the women who took part in these competitions saw themselves before examining the adjudicators’ comments in order to determine the characteristics of their discourse and of their ideology.

Drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories on ‘symbolical violence’ and ‘masculine domination’ this paper will argue that the

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Dundee, Perth and Forfar People’s Journal (hereafter PJ), 17 July 1858.
  • 2 PJ, 15 January 1859.
  • 3 PJ, 21 April 1860.
  • 4 Ibid.

1 In July 1858 the adjudicator who had assessed the candidates’ papers of a poetry competition organized by the People’s Journal of Dundee presented one of the winning poems in the following way: “these beautiful verses [are] remarkable as coming from the pen of a native of Dundee, a young woman in the humble ranks of life, whose culture has been almost entirely self-culture, and who is at present earning her life in London.”1 The following year one of the contestants taking part in “The Burns’s Centenary Prize Verses” was also congratulated for the quality of her work: “Nelly’s, coming from a female, was very sweet and tender.”2 In April 1860, the adjudicator of another poetry competition proudly announced that “it is a good and hopeful sign of our land that such pure thoughts and loving aspirations emanate from the body of our people. Long may they continue to distinguish the inhabitants of a free and progressive country.”3 The adjudicator’s comment about one of the other pieces that had been chosen for publication read: “WD, who shows her sex by her handwriting, gives expression to some tender and lofty sentiments.”4 Words such as “self culture”, “sweet and tender”, “pure thoughts” or “tender and lofty sentiments” encapsulate the quintessential gender ideology of the People’s Journal of Dundee. This paper will try to analyse the nature of the People’s Journal’s ideology, especially in reference to its discursive construction of ideal womanhood. This paper will also explore the extent to which the People’s Journal reflected the broader gender ideology of the Scottish society of the second half of the nineteenth century.

  • 5 The PJ was founded in January 1858.

2The People’s Journal of Dundee was highly influential in Scotland. It started with an average circulation of 7,000 copies a week and, thanks to what nowadays would be called a clever marketing strategy, it reached a circulation of 37,000 in 1862, the biggest for any weekly newspaper outside London. The paper went on expanding at an impressive rate to reach the remarkable circulation of 100,000 in 1866. What distinguished the People’s Journal from other newspapers of the time was that it clearly aimed at establishing a special relationship with its readers by asking them to take an active part in the creative process of the paper. The writing competitions as well as the column “to correspondents”, which gave the authors of rejected manuscripts technical advice as to how to improve their style, were major features of the paper. Drawing from the issues published between 18585 and 1867, this paper will first concentrate on the subjects of the competitions that were proposed to the readers, especially those dealing with gender issues, before focusing on the winning pieces that were printed. The adjudicators’ discourse will finally be examined in order to determine the People’s Journal ideological characteristics.

  • 6 As the prospectus of the paper declared in January 1858: “In this new journal our aim will be not t (...)

3Working for the intellectual and social advancement of the people was the central ambition of John Leng, the proprietor of the People’s Journal and William Latto, who became its editor in 1860 and who was to keep that post for about forty years. The first leader gives us some precise indications as to the category of people the paper wanted to reach. It was the working classes6 the newspaper was interested in: terms such as “working classes” or “working men” were regularly used not only by the journalists of the paper but also by the people who were in charge of assessing the texts, poems or short stories that were sent to the paper and by the readers whose letters were published in the “Letters to the editor” column. William Latto and John Leng targeted the “respectable” sections of the working classes and showed little or no interest in educating the “unrespectable” part of the population, those people who were perceived as representing a potential threat to the stability of society and who were generally defined by negative characteristics such as irrationality, irresponsibility, immaturity, immorality or irreligiousness.

  • 7 PJ, 6 January 1866.

4“Self improvement”, “self culture”, “self-elevation”, “self education”, featured among the core ideas of the paper. The emphasis was put on the people themselves, on their ability to mobilise their own energy in order to acquire the knowledge necessary to their development: “some of our most valued correspondents are rural labourers – men who after toiling all day in the field, […] come home wet and weary and then sit down with a board laid across their knees for a desk to write an essay, a letter or a song for the People’s Journal.7 For the People’s Journal the moral and intellectual development of the working classes was an absolute priority. Let us remember here that the Victorians thought that every citizen could progress in society thanks to their personal efforts. Gertrude Himmelfarb has convincingly argued that “the Victorian ethos located responsibility within each individual; it is not surprising thus that the Victorians should have put such a premium on the self – not only on self-help and self-interest but also on self-control, self-discipline and self-respect.” (Himmelfarb 50)

  • 8 PJ, 16 January 1858.

5What makes the People’s Journal stand out among other newspapers of the time is its desire to establish a constant dialogue with its readers. The paper was intended to be written for the readers but also by the readers: “Our wish is that the People’s Journal should be as much [the People’s] own production as possible”.8 The space devoted to the texts sent by the readers was unusually large and sometimes even exceptional. In January 1859 for example the paper published two long poems and the first chapters of a novel that had been sent by readers, the whole representing three quarters of a single page. The readers were asked to discuss a wide variety of subjects as for example Christmas, scientific discoveries, slavery or the franchise for women.

  • 9 PJ, 14 May 1859.
  • 10 PJ, 16 December 1865.

6The analysis of the winning pieces and of the adjudicators’accompanying comments – the paper would indeed systematically issue reports with the publication of the texts that were chosen for publication– provide some essential information about the gender ideology of the paper. Although women were encouraged to participate, they were not supposed to deal with subjects or issues that were reserved to men. In May 1859 the paper commented on the appropriateness of creating Latin classes for girls: “Our own opinion is that the girls have enough to learn without learning Latin. Girls in this age have too much book-learning and too little of the knowledge which makes good housewives and mothers.”9 Intellectual knowledge for women had to be restricted to certain fields: there was a clear separation between the subjects that were considered as the preserve of males and those that were supposed to be learnt by females. In December 1865 the People’s Journal wrote that “the fair sex is less given to literature than to domestic economy”10 and, commenting on an essay that had been written by a woman, remarked that “the essay is a very peculiar one for a lady to have written. It treats the subject in a purely philosophical manner. […] It was a mistake to treat the subject in this manner”. The last part of the comment also illustrates another major characteristic of the People’s Journal, namely its normative discourse.

  • 11 The winning pieces were to be rewarded with “a handsome brooch” and “a gold Albert chain”.
  • 12 PJ, 7 October 1865.
  • 13 PJ, 9 December 1865.
  • 14 See for example PJ of 27 February 1858 or 15 January 1859.

7 In 1865, the People’s Journal ran a series of competitions11 in which readers were asked to draw the portraits of a “good wife” and of a “good husband”12. The “literary gentleman”13 who had been in charge of assessing the different texts congratulated the contestants for their sound judgment: “In forty-nine of the essays we did not detect one false thought on these all-important matters.” The report went on with the list of the main qualities a model husband should have: “We were able to gather from the aggregate that the character of a model husband consisted in the manifestation of sincere piety, true love, kindness of nature, considerateness, good temper, firmness, sobriety, industry and economy.” What the report seems to demonstrate is that, contrary to the indications that had been published in the paper, the contestants were not rewarded for coming up with personal or original views about the proposed subject but for adhering to the preconceived notions that were upheld by the paper. Not only was it desirable or necessary to give the comprehensive list of a good husband’s supposed qualities but it was also expected that the contestants should present them in a satisfactory hierarchical order. The first “quality” had to be religion, as the use of the word “foundation” clearly demonstrates. Religion lay at the core of the People’s Journal’s ideology, which should come as no surprise given the fact that William Latto had been one of the first members of the Free Church when it was created in 1843 and had attended a Free Church training college in Edinburgh. The stress on religion can also be accounted for by the fact that the people who were in charge of assessing the readers’ contributions were often ministers, as was the case of George Gilfillan, a poet, critic and author of books on Scottish poets, who was asked to assess the candidates on numerous occasions14.

  • 15 PJ, 16 December 1865.
  • 16 The adjudicators’ reports were generally replete with comments about supposedly specific or intrins (...)
  • 17 PJ, 16 December 1865.

8Commenting on the winning essays on “a good wife”, the paper was very pleased to announce that “there is in all a uniform tone of moral and religious sentiment. All recognise the Christian element as essential to a happy home”15. The paper also indicated that the various authors of the essays valued women’s submissiveness and obedience16: “the greatest earthly blessing was a home made happy by a loving, thrifty and pious wife”. As a conclusion the paper expressed his satisfaction at the readers’ belief in fundamental values: “This indicates that in these days of progress and freedom of thought there is among the readers of the People’s Journal a healthful regard for the best principles of our social system.”17

  • 18 William Latto was secretary of the East of Scotland Reform Union that campaigned for the extension (...)
  • 19 PJ, 7 January 1865.
  • 20 PJ, 4 February 1865.

9There was more than a hint of smug self-satisfaction in the final report about the essays competing for the best portrait of a “model young man”: The three fundamental characteristics that, according to the People’s Journal, were supposed to define the ideal Victorian man, patriotism, philanthropy and reform, reflected the political and social views of John Leng and William Latto, who both were in favour of political reform18. Although the paper was interested in the social issues affecting the working classes, it did not wish to endanger the balance of society. Two examples will suffice: in a leader entitled “The impolicy of strikes” the paper came down strongly against strikes explaining that they were costly and counterproductive19. In February 1865 the paper explained to one of its readers who had complained about his employer’s excessive demands that an apprentice should always try to consider the constraints imposed upon an employer20.

10What about the “model young lady”? If the different contestants are to be believed, the ideal young lady had to be endowed with moral as well as intellectual qualities:

  • 21 PJ, 13 January 1866.

the prevailing opinions of the essayists are that the “Model Young Lady” must be possessed of a good temper and general amiability of disposition, combined with decision and energy, high moral and religious principles, industrious and orderly habits, and ability both to assist and instruct others in all household matters. She must also a well cultivated mind in whatever sphere of life she moves21.

  • 22 See for example P. Bourdieu (1984) Questions de Sociologie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2002), 9 (...)
  • 23 Ibid., p 103.
  • 24 PJ, 2 December 1865.
  • 25 PJ, 15 October 1859.
  • 26 PJ, 24 September 1859.

11In his book about the Scottish press of the 19th century, William Donaldson speaks very highly of the People’s Journal. Donaldson stresses the paper’s didactic approach and remarks that “the [People’s Journal] probed its expanding readership for signs of intelligence, imagination and literary ability” (Donaldson 14). It would be hard to deny that one of the paper’s ambitions was to “educate” the working classes but the analysis of the winning pieces that were deemed acceptable for publication and of the adjudicators’ reports shows the profound ambiguity of the paper’s process of “education”. The importance for learners to be predisposed to accept the authority of teachers is a well-known fact22. Communication in a situation of pedagogical authority requires legitimate teachers, legitimate learners, a legitimate situation and a legitimate language or discourse23. A legitimate language is a language with phonological and syntactical legitimate forms, that is to say a language that conforms to precise criteria of spelling and grammar. The teacher has the power of eliminating or excluding those who do not conform to these grammatical norms and that is precisely what the People’s Journal was doing when it assessed the contributions of its readers. The paper considered syntax, grammar and spelling as essential, and regularly explained to its readers that it could not publish texts that contained spelling or grammar mistakes. Grammar was the first element that was taken into consideration in the process of assessing a text, as the paper clearly indicated in December 1865: “setting aside such pieces as, from defective grammar, could not possibly have a chance of obtaining a prize”.24 Some of the comments could at times be very precise: “Selina should look a little to his syntax. ‘Thy’ should have been ‘your’ and ‘view’ and ‘love’ being active transitive verbs should have had some object after them.”25 Spelling mistakes were often heavily criticized: “Such spelling as ‘oppinion’, ‘moderon’, ‘nabiour’ and ‘soothed’ will not pass.”26

  • 27 PJ, 15 December 1866.

12The People’s Journal not only aimed at improving the linguistic skills of its readers but it also aimed at propagating a certain form of ideology. Its entire strategy consisted in using the contributions of its readers to propagate and to propose a cultural and moral model that actually stifled, rather than encouraged, personal creativity or spontaneity. As has already been noted the paper regularly praised participants for their sensible ideas but it also criticized the texts that were deemed unacceptable. In December 1866 one of the Christmas stories that had been sent to the paper triggered an indignant reaction from the adjudicator: “an unlovely tale, an evil thing which should never have been written; the third production in our ‘black list’ is an offence so atrocious that no words of ours can adequately denounce it […] the name of the criminal we do not know […] Whoever he is six months at the tread mill, with a bread and water diet, would be a mild punishment for his crime.”27

  • 28 See Preface to P. Bourdieu (1991) Langage et Pouvoir Symbolique (Paris: Seuil, 2001) and more parti (...)
  • 29 See Q. Hoare, G. Nowell Smith (1985) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Londo (...)

13It is fundamental to note that the whole process of ideological propagation took place with the consent of the readers themselves as the participants in the different competitions obviously agreed to abide by the rules of the organisers. Pierre Bourdieu has coined the concept of “symbolical violence”28 or “symbolical power” to designate a specific form of violence in which power is transmuted into a symbolical form and thus invested with a form of legitimacy it would not otherwise have. Those who are subjected to that form of violence take part in the construction of an arbitrary and hierarchical social structure that serves the interests of certain groups to the detriment of others. The concept of “hegemony” which analyses the cultural and ideological means whereby a dominant group strives to maintain its dominance by obtaining the consent of a subordinate group and by persuading the individuals of that group to willingly assimilate the world-view of the dominant group might also be mentioned29. I think this perfectly describes the strategy that was implemented by the People’s Journal. The female participants in the competitions accepted the paper’s patriarchal vision of society and wrote their texts according to the paper’s ideological expectations. It must be remembered that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, some women themselves thought that their primary function was to look after their families, husbands and children and that intellectual activities were the preserve of men. In Woman’s Mission, a popular book published in 1843, Sarah Ellis urged women to accept their legal, social and intellectual inferiority to men and stressed their fundamental function as moral guides for their children and husbands:

  • 30 Sarah Ellis quoted in J. Rendall 75.

Let men enjoy in peace and triumph the intellectual kingdom which is theirs, and which, doubtless, was intended for them; let us participate in its privileges without desiring to share its domination. The moral world is ours, - ours by position; ours by qualification; ours by the very indication of God himself.30

14Twenty years later the situation had but only slightly changed even if some women were asking to enter spheres that had formerly been male bastions.

  • 31 Quoted in Morse 24.
  • 32 See P. Bourdieu (1998) La Domination Masculine (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

15The People’ Journal confined the readers’ creativity in a straitjacket of linguistic conventions and ideological precepts; the paper expected its readers to conform to a type of society based on the respect of religion and to become enlightened citizens who would eventually take up the cause of political reform. For the People’s Journal women were supposed to play a vital role in that process: it has been noted that one of the paper’s essential objects was to work for the intellectual and moral improvement of both men and women but we have also pointed out that men and women were not supposed to study the same subjects; females were not supposed to benefit from the same opportunities as their male counterparts. It was expected that working class women should conform to Victorian standards and acquire the necessary domestic skills to be good wives and good mothers, functions that had been assigned to them by nature. Reverend William Landel, in his book Woman’s Sphere and Work published in 1859, stated that a woman “finds her happiness in her entire devotion to the happiness of others. Her life is a constant sacrifice which never pains her, because to make it accords with the deepest instincts and the most powerful prompting of her nature.”31 The term “nature” seems to me to be of fundamental importance since it implied that men and women were in essence endowed with different characteristics and were supposed to play different roles. Pierre Bourdieu, referring in particular to the concept of masculine domination, has analysed the historical mechanisms that are responsible for the transformation of history into nature32. What in history appears to be eternal can be the consequence of a process of dehistoricization or eternalisation carried out by interconnected social institutions such as family, school, church, state or press. The process aims at taking out of history what intrinsically belongs to history. To put it in a more prosaic way, the aim of that manipulative process is to demonstrate that “it has always been like that”. The consequence of all that process of dehistoricization is that this form of domination appears to be natural and is finally integrated in both men’s and women’s psyches. At the core of the Victorian ideology lay the belief that a woman’s primary duty was to aid and support her husband, to offer him comfort and sympathy. The People’s Journal fully supported that vision since it believed that the ideology of domesticity would bring stability not only to the family but also to society as a whole by keeping citizens immune from the social evils of disease, filth, poverty and crime that had been brought about by the combined processes of urbanisation and industrialisation.

Bibliographie

Bibliography

The Dundee, Perth and Forfar People’s Journal.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Questions de Sociologie, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 2002.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991), Langage et Pouvoir Symbolique, Paris: Seuil, 2001.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998), La Domination Masculine, Paris: Seuil, 2002.

Donaldson, William, Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland: Language, Fiction and the Press, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The New History and the Old, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Hoare, Quentin, Nowell Smith, Geoffrey, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985.

Morse, David, High Victorian Culture, London: Macmillan, 1993.

Rendall, Jane, The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780-1860, London: Macmillan, 1985.

Notes

1 The Dundee, Perth and Forfar People’s Journal (hereafter PJ), 17 July 1858.

2 PJ, 15 January 1859.

3 PJ, 21 April 1860.

4 Ibid.

5 The PJ was founded in January 1858.

6 As the prospectus of the paper declared in January 1858: “In this new journal our aim will be not to write down, but to write up to the good sense of the working classes, whose interests will be carefully considered, and a considerable portion of space devoted to the discussion of questions in which they are specially concerned.” (PJ, 2 January 1858)

7 PJ, 6 January 1866.

8 PJ, 16 January 1858.

9 PJ, 14 May 1859.

10 PJ, 16 December 1865.

11 The winning pieces were to be rewarded with “a handsome brooch” and “a gold Albert chain”.

12 PJ, 7 October 1865.

13 PJ, 9 December 1865.

14 See for example PJ of 27 February 1858 or 15 January 1859.

15 PJ, 16 December 1865.

16 The adjudicators’ reports were generally replete with comments about supposedly specific or intrinsic female characteristics such as friendliness, graciousness, helpfulness or tenderness.

17 PJ, 16 December 1865.

18 William Latto was secretary of the East of Scotland Reform Union that campaigned for the extension of the franchise.

19 PJ, 7 January 1865.

20 PJ, 4 February 1865.

21 PJ, 13 January 1866.

22 See for example P. Bourdieu (1984) Questions de Sociologie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2002), 95-112.

23 Ibid., p 103.

24 PJ, 2 December 1865.

25 PJ, 15 October 1859.

26 PJ, 24 September 1859.

27 PJ, 15 December 1866.

28 See Preface to P. Bourdieu (1991) Langage et Pouvoir Symbolique (Paris: Seuil, 2001) and more particularly pages 36 to 40.

29 See Q. Hoare, G. Nowell Smith (1985) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London: Lawrence et Wishart).

30 Sarah Ellis quoted in J. Rendall 75.

31 Quoted in Morse 24.

32 See P. Bourdieu (1998) La Domination Masculine (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

Auteur

Agrégé, Professeur émérite à l’Université de Strasbourg, est spécialiste de civilisation britannique. Il travaille principalement sur les aspects économiques, politiques, sociaux et culturels de l’Écosse au xixe siècle. Il est l’auteur de nombreux articles et de plusieurs ouvrages dont Scotland and the Scots (1707-2007), A Reader (Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013) et Luttes et résistances des femmes écossaises, 1838-1915 (Paris, L’Harmattan, Collection des idées et des femmes, 2013).

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