The Public Profile of the Victorian Journalist

Joanne Shattock
University of Leicester

This paper will examine the public profile of the Victorian journalist and implicitly the status of journalism through an exploration of entries of selected writers for the newspaper and periodical press in biographical dictionaries in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whereas in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004–) William Jerdan, Douglas Jerrold, Harriet Martineau and George Augustus Sala are designated as journalists, in the original Dictionary of National Biography, begun in 1881 , Jerdan and Sala were described as journalists, but Jerrold was designated a ‘man of letters’ and Harriet Martineau a ‘miscellaneous writer’. Some prolific contributors to the periodical press who majored in another genre, such as Dinah Craik and Margaret Oliphant, were described as writers or novelists, or in Oliphant’s case ‘novelist and biographer’; their writing for the press was sometimes alluded to in the memoirs, but frequently ignored.

A different picture is presented in the collective biographies of living subjects, the most notable of which was Men of the Time, later Men and Women of the Time, a precursor of Who’s Who. The preface to the 1862 edition, edited by Edward Walford, purported to focus on ‘the aristocracy of intellect’, a category hitherto under represented, it was argued, in collective biographies. The subjects included members of ‘the profession of literature’ as well as representative figures in the creative and performing arts. These were in addition to the usual categories of the established professions (the church, the law, the universities), politicians, the military, and the royal family. The entries varied in style, some designating a profession or occupation, others only a summary of the life to date. Their value for the student of the newspaper and periodical press are the details of often anonymous contributions to named newspapers and periodicals, not only by professional writers but by lawyers, politicians, scientists, clergy, and academics, a fact recognized by the editors of the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (1968-89), who listed Men of the Time among their sources.

The term ‘journalist’ was imprecise. It sometimes referred to those who wrote for the newspaper press as distinct from writers for the periodical press, who were variously described as essayists, critics, or simply ‘authors’. The classified index to the fourteenth edition, edited by Victor G. Plarr (1895) got round the problem of categorisation by adding bracketed designations under the list of ‘Authors’ — (‘and journalist’), (‘and dramatic critic’), (‘and editor and poet’), (‘and writer on art’). A separate category of ‘Journalists, Publicists, Editors etc’ similarly added (‘and author’), (‘editor’), (‘war correspondent’), (‘lit.editor and compiler’) beside individual names.

A key word search of digitised volumes of Men of the Time, and of the DNB would no doubt throw up some helpful statistics, particularly of the frequency of the word ‘journalist’. A survey of the obituaries of the same selected names would add another perspective, an impressionistic assessment of a writer’s oeuvre at the end of his or her life. In this preliminary study, I hope to draw some conclusions about the public perception of journalists and the status of journalism in the collective biographies of the period.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900