One of the most important developments arising from the spread of literacy in the late-seventeenth century was the emergence of a new zone of free and open discussion, now known as the public sphere. Distinct from either the family or government or the royal court, this loose, unofficial network of social relations came into being through gatherings occurring in several different types of venue: receptions in salons or fashionable houses, meetings in private clubs and literary societies, casual conversations in coffee houses and taverns, all of them providing occasions when the leading issues of the day could be examined or thrashed out. What held these disparate encounters together (there were some 3,000 coffee houses in London alone in the early 1800s), informing and underpinning their many controversies and topical debates, was a rapidly expanding periodical press whose journals, featuring essays, criticism and poetry, were widely available in towns and cities. The public sphere was therefore more than simply a talking – shop; it was a highly literate urban reading public.

In his classic account of what he sees as the rise and subsequent decline of the public sphere, Jurgen Habermas (1962) claims that, at its best, it was distinguished by three mutually reinforcing characteristics. First, participants in the public sphere thought of it as an extended conversation among peers. Differences of social status were necessarily irrelevant to the clarity and cogency with which someone might convincingly state their case and thus should always be ignored. Moreover, in principle, discussion was open to anyone who had enough capital and education to enable them to become involved. And, by the same token, no one could ever be permanently disqualified from taking part. Finally and relatedly, debate was primarily conceived in terms of the exercise of one’s reason, so that no subject was beyond rational criticism and all disputes could be settled through logical argument. Put like this, the public sphere appeals strongly to the most hopeful humanitarian values: the commitment to a judicious, dispassionate exchange of views between free and equal individuals.

Of course, the weaknesses inherent in this formulation are also obvious enough. In practice, as the historical data on illiteracy would lead us to expect, the eighteenth-century public sphere was confined to a relatively small minority of privileged people, typically men, for whom mercantile capitalism provided the money, leisure and expertise to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in ‘rational-critical public debate’ (Habermas 1989: 43). Habermas is, however, well aware of these objections, noting that in Britain, the earliest example of a flourishing public sphere, the mass of the population were ‘so pauperized that they could not even pay for literature’, whether they were able to read it or not (Habermas 1989: 38). So it is important to see exactly why Habermas regards the public sphere as such a major cultural advance.

What matters most to Habermas is that, through the public sphere, independent rational criticism became an ordinary every­day occurrence, producing a lively, knowledgeable citizenry, at least among members of the reformed aristocracy and the commercial middle classes who formed the readership of journals like The Tatler. The aim of popularizing ideas, of reaching the broadest possible ‘publick’, while raising the general standard of conduct and discussion, was enshrined in the pages of the periodical press, or what Habermas has dubbed ‘the moral weeklies’, from the outset. Writing in his paper The Spectator in March 1711, Joseph Addison declared that he would be pleased

‘to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses’ (Steele and Addison 1982: 210). His twelve essays on ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’ which appeared in June and July the following year were precisely designed to instruct his readers in the subtleties of aesthetic discrimination, moving from the art of tea-drinking to the appreciation of fine writing and explicitly recommending ‘Conversation with Men of a Polite Genius’ as a ‘Method for improving our Natural Taste’ (366). Encouraged by such publica­tions, men from different social classes turned their attention to literary and cultural questions, as well as to matters of politics and public affairs. They were able to pursue their arguments further through the letter columns of their favourite journals, a device that vastly extended the operations of the public sphere across time and space. At Button’s Coffee House in London, for example, a lion’s head was fixed to the wall ‘through whose jaws the reader threw his letter’ to The Spectator (Habermas 1989: 42). In such small details Habermas discerns the origins of modern democratic public opinion with its constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly and expression.

What of women readers? Habermas paints a complex picture. On the one hand, he recognizes that some key institutions like the coffee house were closed to women, despite their protests: hence the appearance of pamphlets like The Women’s Petition against Coffee, representing to Public Consideration of the Grand Inconveniences according to their Sex from the Excessive use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor in 1674. On the other hand, he also suggests that ‘the intimate sphere of the conjugal family created, so to speak, its own public’, since the home was one of the private domains in which discussion could take place (29). At the grandest level, salons or receptions devoted to literature and the arts were largely organized and orchestrated by wealthy and influential women, especially in continental Europe, where they sometimes acquired a reputation as centres of political intrigue. In general, says Habermas, ‘female readers as well as apprentices and servants often took a more active part in the literary public sphere’ than male heads of households (56). Here, at least, women could distinguish themselves as something other than wives and mothers. Moreover, from the standpoint of ‘the educated classes’ the world of letters and that of political debate were two sides of the same coin: ‘in the self-understanding of public opinion the public sphere appeared as one and indivisible’ (56).

In their concern with manners and decorum, writers like Addison or Swift could be extremely condescending in their treatment of women. Addison’s 1711 essay on ‘the Faults and Imperfections of one Sex transplanted into another’ is actually an occasion for mocking women’s presumption in holding strong political views, chiefly on the grounds that they lack ‘that Caution and Reservedness which are requisite in our Sex’ and soon reveal their essentially emotional natures. Consequently,

When this unnatural Zeal gets into them, it throws them into ten thousand Heats and Extravagances; their generous Souls set no Bounds to their Love, or to their Hatred; and whether a Whig or a Tory, a Lap-Dog or a Gallant, an Opera or a Puppet-Show, be the Object of it, the Passion, while it reigns, engrosses the whole Woman.

(Steele and Addison 1982: 253)

Elsewhere, Addison distinguished between those women for whom ‘the right adjusting of their Hair [forms] the Principal Employment of their Lives’ and those ‘reasonable Creatures’ who ‘move in an exalted Sphere of Knowledge and Virtue. . . and inspire a kind of Awe and Respect, as well as Love, into their Male-Beholders.’ Part of his motive in writing is, he asserts, ‘to encrease the Number’ of the latter by diverting ‘the Minds of my Female Readers from greater Trifles’ (212). While couched in distinctly unflattering terms, Addison’s tendentious contrast does have the effect of aligning a version of femininity with progress and civilization. As Jonathan Brody Kramnick has argued, it was ‘the prominence of “gentle” readers from the “Female World”, whose leisurely domesticity put “so much Time on their Hands” that augured the mannered elegance of modern English culture’ which Addison and others sought to promote (Kramnick 1997: 1089).

However, the most comprehensive analysis to date of the female contribution to papers like The Spectator is far more pessimistic

in its conclusions than Kramnick’s brief but suggestive remarks on Addison and his circle might lead one to expect. In her 1989 study Women and Print Culture, Kathryn Shevelow surveys the overall pattern of development followed by the early periodicals and argues that, although the presence of women readers and writers indicates that they were able to make significant inroads into the male dominated public sphere, the terms on which they entered tended to confirm their subordinate domestic status. To document her point, Shevelow compares John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury from the 1690s with The Tatler and The Spectator nearly two decades later and notes their very different approaches to readers’ letters. The Mercury was essentially an epistolary publi­cation, consisting almost entirely of answers to queries raised by readers. For John Dunton women were a vital segment of his target audience and the first issue even carried a subtitle that promised to resolve ‘all the most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious of Either Sex’. How many of the letters were genuine and how many were devised by journalists in pursuit of good copy it is impossible to say. But certainly the Mercury displayed advertisements encouraging correspondence from female readers on ‘all manner of Questions’ (Shevelow 1989: 60). Not so The Tatler. Despite the dubious ‘Honour’ of being ‘invented’ for ‘the Fair Sex’ (who ‘tattle’ or gossip), women were never meant to be the primary recipients of Richard Steele’s periodical. Indeed, letters were not the mainstay of The Tatler at all, for it gave pride of place to essays or commentaries offered by a literary persona who would incorporate various communications, ranging from ‘Letters of Gallantry’ to letters from the country, into his ruminations or flights of fancy. Under Steele and Addison’s editorship the periodical moved to a more tightly structured, rather ‘monologic framework’ in which ‘the persona usurped the act of reader self-representation by determining its nature and its context’; hence the tendency for the ‘I’ of the essay to summarize or paraphrase or even ventriloquize his readers’ observations, rather than allowing them the use of their own voices (106).

When Steele and Addison discuss the relations between men and women they are essentially writing as moralists. In his essay on ‘Poor and publick whores’ (1712), for example, Steele attacks for their lack of compassion those society ladies whom he dubs ‘the outragiously virtuous’, noting that although ‘[t]he unlawful Commerce of the Sexes is of all other [Sins] the hardest to avoid;

. . . yet there is no one which you shall hear the rigider Part of Womankind speak of with so little Mercy’ (Steele and Addison 1982: 266). As this comment suggests, for Steele and Addison morals and gender were inextricably linked. Thus in an earlier review in The Tatler, Steele had argued ‘That the Soul of a Man and that of a Woman are made very unlike, according to the Employments for which they are designed’, so that the ‘Virtues have respectively a Masculine and a Feminine Cast’. Here the idealization of femininity is made possible through a parallel idealization of domesticity since, according to Steele, ‘to manage well a great Family, is as worthy an Instance of Capacity, as to execute a great Employment’ (156—7). This doctrine of separate but complementary spheres — Steele is careful to say that men do not have ‘superior Qualities’ — also underwrites Addison’s eulogy on the ‘Pleasures’ of ‘a happy Marriage’ with all its ‘Enjoyments of Sense and Reason’, from whose satisfied heights he deduced that ‘Nothing is a greater Mark of a degenerate and vitious Age, than the common Ridicule which passes on this State of Life’ (262). In the pages of The Tatler and The Spectator the elevation of women rested upon their effective confinement to the private domain of the home.

This raises a more general problem. As Shevelow points out, part of the market logic of including women in the periodical press was to move towards the specialization of content along gender lines. Publications that catered for women tended to concentrate upon ‘Domestick Life’ rather than ‘Publick Affairs’ and this was as true of the monthly ‘ladies’ issues’ produced by the Athenian Mercury as it was of Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator, said to be the first periodical written by and for women and published nearly half a century later. To be sure, the latter represented an important new stage of development for, while it drew upon some of the essayistic conventions established by Steele and Addison, it also included readers’ letters and fiction and, above all, relied explicitly upon the editorial identity of a female persona that ‘substantially qualified or broke down altogether the hierarchical distance between writer and reader’ typical of previous male-dominated publications (Shevelow 1989: 168). However, in adopting a more intimate form of address, the Female Spectator was continuing to reinforce the assumption that the social world could be divided between distinctively masculine and feminine modes of experience. This stance paved the way for the early women’s magazines such as novelist Charlotte Lennox’s Lady’s Museum (1760) with its miscellany of poems, essays, serials, letters and illustrations; and by the mid-1770s titles like the Matrimonial Magazine or Monthly Anecdotes of Love and Marriage began to appear which also featured recipes, fashion items or needlework patterns.

Shevelow believes that these publications not only ‘offered images in which readers could locate themselves’, but that they put in place an ‘ideology of domesticity’ whose final form was the claustrophobic patriarchal household typified by the Victorian phrase the ‘angel in the house’ (Shevelow 1989: 193). Read beside Shevelow’s study, therefore, Habermas’s claims regarding women’s participation in the literary public sphere — at least if we take this as referring to those journals which tackle both political and cultural issues — start to look disappointingly thin. However, a thorough evaluation of the public sphere thesis also needs to consider Habermas’s account of its decline as well as its rise, in other words its ‘structural transformation’.

The test of whether this sphere of discussion and criticism could really be described as ‘public’ ultimately rested upon ‘the principle of universal access’. Clearly, ‘[a] public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all’ (Habermas 1989: 85). Habermas’s formulation suggests that the ideal was always flawed, or perhaps more accurately, that there was a gap between its universalistic pretensions and the narrow class and gender base of its main constituency. As Shevelow shows, while a journal like the Athenian Mercury was relatively even-handed in its treatment of middle-class male and female readers, women correspondents whose poor spelling and grammar and social circumstances placed them beyond the pale of bourgeois propriety were often denied a reply and could instead find themselves held up as a sad warning of ‘what almost all those sort of people must at last come to’ (Shevelow 1989: 213). The democratic struggles of the nineteenth century exacerbated these tensions and one effect of these new demands for political representation was a heightened sense of anxiety about readers and reading.

Victorian Britain can be described as a golden age of modern print culture. Between 1837 and 1901 something like 60,000 works of fiction were published, a figure that takes no account of the huge number of short stories in journals and magazines. And from the 1850s and 1860s we also see the growth of a new species of periodical, like the Cornhill or the Saturday Review, whose editors and authors were determined ‘to establish between themselves and their readers common principles and standards on the major political, moral, religious, and cultural issues of the day’ (Keating 1991: 35). Indeed, one could argue that this was a key phase in the development of what Habermas refers to as the literary public sphere.

Largely because of his predominantly eighteenth-century focus, Habermas tends to underestimate not only its complexity and importance, but also the central role played by women in the nineteenth-century world of letters. Throughout this period gender provided much of the vocabulary in terms of which judgements of literary success were made. So Charles Reade’s highly praised, but now long-forgotten bestseller It Is Never Too Late To Mend (1856) was commended for the ‘superb physical strength’ of his writing, prose that was ‘powerful’, ‘vigorous’, ‘lusty’ and ‘daring’ and whose stirring narrative offered a welcome relief from ‘the sentimental woes and drawingroom distresses which form the staple of so much of our circulating library fiction’. Nearly three decades later this sort of language was still in play in the obituary published by Punch magazine which contrasted Reade’s ‘virile creations’ with the effete output characteristic of the many ‘twaddlers tame and soft’ whose work defaced the literary scene (Thompson 1996: 27—8). Signs of femininity were widely held to indicate a fatal weakness in a writer’s style, so much so that Mrs Margaret Oliphant could applaud her fellow-author George Eliot for perfecting novels that were ‘less definable in point of sex than the books of any other woman who has ever written’ (Tuchman and Fortin 1989: 186). This kind of thinking, as Eliot herself keenly appreciated, placed women novelists in a double-bind. For if literary greatness was predicated upon their being able to negate or transcend their femininity, the critical esteem accorded to ‘manly’ writing seemed to condemn women to the perpetual risk of producing either pale imitations or hypermasculine caricatures.

Behind this dilemma lay the larger question of who controlled the literary public sphere. In their study Edging Women Out, Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin trace a growing male reaction against women’s commercial success as novelists in the 1840s and 1850s and, using data from publishers’ archives, they show how by the end of the nineteenth century more male authors were finding their way into print than their female counterparts, despite the fact that women submitted more manuscripts than men. Equally important, Tuchman and Fortin argue that by the 1870s male reviewers were beginning to employ gendered criteria to distinguish between serious fiction and popular entertain­ment. Male writing was said to display ‘ideas capable of having an impact upon the mind’, while women’s novels were associated with ordinary feelings and the trivia of everyday life (78). But these and other, far harsher views had deep roots in the official culture of the Victorian era and could be found everywhere from medical texts to advice manuals. In E. J.Tilt’s On the Preservation of the Health of Women at the Critical Periods of Life (1851), for example, there is a warning that:

Novels and romances, speaking generally, should be spurned, as capable of calling forth emotions of the same morbid description which, when habitually indulged in, exert a disastrous influence on the nervous system, sufficient to explain that frequency of hysteria and nervous diseases which we find among the highest classes.

(quoted in Flint 1993: 58)

Echoes of this same argument can still be heard at the century’s close when Annie Swan, writing in answer to the question ‘What Should Women Read?’ in the periodical Woman at Home, insists that to dwell too much on women’s ‘imaginative and emotional side is to create the morbid’ (61).

This is not the whole story. There is no shortage of essays proclaiming the necessity of ‘food for the mind’ or praising books as the medium of self-development par excellence. But the idea that a woman’s reading capacities were always already inscribed in the female body itself, an integral part of her physiology, died hard and was reinforced by a tendency to associate other changes in the social order with feminine characteristics. As Andreas Huyssen has argued more generally, throughout late nineteenth – century Europe ‘a specific traditional male image ofwoman served as a receptacle for all kinds of projections, displaced fears, and anxieties’, so that a ‘fear of the masses’ was ‘also a fear of woman, a fear of nature out of control, a fear of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the loss of identity and stable ego boundaries in the mass’ (Huyssen 1986: 52). One can see this interpretive slide at work in the reception of the ‘New Woman’ fiction in Britain in the 1890s, texts in which their chiefly female authors attempted to challenge received ideas on sexuality, marriage, careers and health. Predictably, male critics were quick to diagnose this kind ofwriting as a ‘literature of hysteria’ or even ‘a literature of vituper­ation and of sex-mania’, a symptom ‘of a restless and fretful age’ likely ‘to widen the breach between men and women, and to make them more mutually distrustful than ever’ (Stutfield 1897: 109, 116). But, from a woman’s perspective, what this often didactic fiction achieved was the opening up of a social space in which issues like venereal disease or the male double standard might be publicly discussed. In other words, the intimacy of the household could become a site of controversy, something like a feminized literary public sphere (see Flint 1993: 300). And it was these controversies that prepared the ground for women’s suffrage.

However, there is an important qualification that needs to be entered here. The huge expansion in Victorian print culture meant that publishing of all kinds was gradually ceasing to be a ‘small handicraft business’ (Habermas 1989: 180). It now had the potential to become a large-scale commercial operation with a relatively small number of powerful, highly capitalized and technologically advanced companies reaching out to millions of readers. For Habermas, this move towards economic concentration combined with the growth of a mass audience spelled the end of the public sphere. In his view, by the close of the nineteenth – century print was ceasing to provide a means by which men and women could engage in reasoned discussion of the major political issues that faced them, including, we might add, the question of their unequal relationship to each other, a point that Habermas has largely ignored. There is a very real paradox in Habermas’s account of cultural change. For, as we saw earlier, the eighteenth – century public sphere may have facilitated remarkably open and democratic exchanges among the relatively small number of people who took part in it, but women were only allowed a subordinate role at best.

The creation of a truly mass audience initially took place in the newspaper industry where innovative printing techniques, new styles of popular journalism and a steady stream of advertising revenue helped to push daily circulation figures over the one million mark by the first decade of the twentieth century. If more men and women were reading newspapers than ever before, the industry’s exceptional profitability meant that they were being served by extremely powerful financial interests. Whereas ‘formerly the press was able to limit itself to the transmission and amplification of the rational-critical debate of private people assembled into a public’, Habermas believes that the modern newspaper industry and the mass media more generally now tend to shape the terms in which the key national issues are posed from the outset. Another effect of this unprecedented growth has been to transform ‘the public sphere into a medium of adver­tising’ in which the reader is increasingly addressed as a consumer, rather than as a citizen (188—9). And insofar as the home has become the major site of consumption, women readers have become a new target audience, though whether this has resulted in their empowerment or simply in new ideologies of domesticity continues to remain a controversial topic. Certainly, these changes have raised ever more urgent questions about gender and the nature of reading under contemporary conditions, particularly given the tendency for texts to be organized into male and female genres. Can we still hold on to the notion of a literary public sphere once texts start to be marketed to a vast, anonymous and sometimes international pool of readers? Or, to paraphrase Terry Eagleton, has all discussion become absorbed into the culture industry (Eagleton 1984: 107)? Although writers like Habermas or Eagleton can make these sound deceptively like gender-neutral questions, they have frequently been framed and answered in gendered terms, whether wittingly or not.