A Mania for Magazines: John Maxwell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the Cultivation of Working-Class Readers

Jennifer Phegley
University of Missouri-Kansas City

In his early twenties John Maxwell entered the London publishing scene
as a newspaper advertising agent. He was a scrappy and ambitious Irish
immigrant with an interest in making a name for himself in the London
literary world. He lacked the gentility expected by the established
literary elite, but he made up for it with his willingness to take
risks and flaunt convention. Within a decade he had become one of the
leading magazine entrepreneurs of his age. As Chester Topp notes in
Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, Maxwell “had a mania for
founding magazines,” yet many of his publications were short-lived.
Perhaps his savviest move was to build both a personal and
professional relationship with up-and-coming novelist Mary Elizabeth
Braddon, whose contributions helped define his periodicals. While
Maxwell launched several successful magazines for middle class
readers, including Temple Bar (1860-67)—edited by bohemian
journalists George Augustus Sala and Edmund Yates—and Belgravia
(1866-76)—edited by Braddon—his real goal was to distinguish
himself by offering innovative magazines for working-class readers.

Maxwell believed the existing magazines for the working classes were
overly moralistic and uninteresting. His publications were intended to
offer these audiences higher quality literature at an affordable price
while also featuring everything from stunning illustrations to
page-turning serials to interactive correspondence columns; they
included the Welcome Guest (1859-61), Robin Goodfellow (1861-62), the
Halfpenny Journal (1861-64), and the Sixpenny Magazine (1861-1864).
Despite the importance of these periodicals to the cultivation of
working- and lower-middle-class readers and to Braddon’s career as
one of the best-selling novelist of the century, no scholar has
studied them in any detail. Indeed, there has been no sustained
attention devoted to their features, layout, contents, marketing
strategies, or interactions with readers.

I will begin to remedy this oversight by analyzing how and why
Maxwell’s periodicals shaped new reading audiences focusing, in
part, on the productive collaboration between Maxwell and Braddon,
whose skills as maverick publisher and sensational author were
perfectly suited to the readers they sought to engage. If Maxwell had
a mania for starting magazines, Braddon had a mania for writing serial
fiction. Braddon’s break-out novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1861)
appeared in both Robin Goodfellow and the Sixpenny Magazine, while
Lady Lisle (1861) appeared in the Welcome Guest, and the Black Band
(1861), the Octoroon (1861), and the White Phantom (1862) appeared in
the Halfpenny Journal. By analyzing Braddon’s contributions to
Maxwell’s magazines alongside her husband’s stated goals and
target audience I hope illuminate the crucial role this important and
neglected publishing partnership played in the development of
working-class periodicals in mid-Victorian England.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900