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    Schwan, Anne 2010. ‘Dreadful Beyond Description’. European Journal of English Studies, Vol. 14, Issue. 2, p. 107.



  • Janice Schroeder (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 March 2008

With the growth of the organized feminist movement in England at the end of the 1850s, women began to mount public lecture platforms in increasing numbers. By claiming a space in public assembly rooms through the simple use of their voices, women reformers such as Bessie Rayner Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon challenged the male privilege of public address, and changed the visual, oral, and aural culture of Victorian reform movements. Women's public speech in the 1850s and 60s was never linked with the kind of riotous responses provoked later by Josephine Butler or the women's suffrage movement. But even public speakers associated with a more moderate or “polite” tone, such as Parkes and Frances Power Cobbe, routinely received a mixture of moral censure and ridicule, causing them to question the value of publicity – both print and platform – for the feminist cause. However, one of the most prolific female public speakers of mid nineteenth-century England, Mary Carpenter (1807–77), seems to have escaped all such criticism and was repeatedly held up as a shining example, by both feminists and non-feminists, of appropriate womanly behavior in official public settings. Commentators on Carpenter's work and her public reputation were nearly unanimous in their approval of not only the content of her public speech but also its flawless delivery. What can Carpenter's apparently unique public persona tell us about shifts in the gendered dimensions of public utterance in the 1850s and 60s, when she was most active? More broadly, what does the history of women's platform speech have to do with a seemingly unrelated narrative: that is, the theorization of juvenile delinquency as a specific problem in nineteenth-century England?

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Lauren Goodlad . Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

Walter Ong . Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.

Janice Schroeder . “Speaking Volumes: Victorian Feminism and the Appeal of Public Discussion.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 25 (2003): 97117.

R. J. W. Selleck “Mary Carpenter: A Confident and Contradictory Reformer.” History of Education 14 (1985): 101–15.

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Victorian Literature and Culture
  • ISSN: 1060-1503
  • EISSN: 1470-1553
  • URL: /core/journals/victorian-literature-and-culture
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