Friday, August 24, 2012

The Colonial "Dolly" Magazine: Ethel and Lilian Turner's Parthenon

The Parthenon, 11 August 1890
The age of the print magazine may be over, especially for younger readers who are not as familiar with the idea of traipsing down to the newsagent each month, as I once did, to seek out a copy of the newest Smash Hits. Magazines are nevertheless still considered influential on girls in particular. In the past few weeks, a petition to encourage Cleo magazine to stop their practice of using Photoshop to erase blemishes or bodily imperfections from the images it publishes has gathered over 13,000 signatures. Earlier in the year, Dolly, a magazine with a younger readership,  drew criticism for resurrecting its model search competition. The competition ran throughout my girlhood, but was put on hold ten years ago. The editor of the time, Mia Freedman, felt that the quest for cover girls fuelled the pressure that girl readers feel to live up to a particular ideal of beauty and also launched girls into an industry that she described as "all about rejection".

The history of British and American girls' magazines is a developing and exciting field, but the girls' magazines of Australia and Canada have been barely examined. In part this is because fewer magazines were produced in the colonies and those that do exist are not easily accessible. My colleague Kristine Moruzi has spent hours in church archives in order to read some of the Canadian girls' magazines, which were mostly published by religious organisations. Because magazines such as the Girl's Own Paper were readily imported from Britain, there is really only one example of a nineteenth-century Australian girls' magazine, the Sydney-based Parthenon (1889-1892).

The writers Ethel and Lilian Turner, who were still in their teens, began publishing the Parthenon in January 1889. Ethel edited a magazine at her high school, the Iris, but after her graduation soon moved to build a viable commercial venture. The sisters not only edited the magazine, but wrote most of its content, managed subscriptions and sought out advertisers. There are only two complete sets of the magazine in Australia, so when I finally saw copies of the Parthenon I was surprised by the professionalism of the design and the quantity of advertising that the sisters managed to attract as the magazine established itself. It is an astonishing and unique achievement for young women of the period.

Masthead, 1 February 1889
While the Parthenon includes some of the traditional fare of women's magazines, such as fashion and society news, it set out to be most especially a literary magazine. It sought to transform a situation in which Australian readers tended to prefer to import English and American magazines, and to foster locally produced print culture. Though the Turner sisters were trailblazers in their publishing venture, the magazine is not radical in its gender politics. It actively supports better conditions for women journalists and higher education for women (so long as it does not interfere with the duties of home: see article about aligning your tablecloth with mathematical precision), but does not support women's suffrage without reservation. I've written an article recently that compares the Parthenon's attitude on these issues with the feminist women's magazine the Dawn, and ultimately the kinds of beliefs they share about women's careers and responsibilities are not too dissimilar in most areas.

The magazine ran for 39 issues and in its time it featured early versions of some of the works that Ethel Turner would go on to publish during her long writing career, including Miss Bobbie. She was assigned responsibility for writing the serials for the children's page by Lilian, a serendipitous delegation that no doubt contributed to Ethel taking up a lucrative post writing for the children's pages of the Illustrated Sydney News soon after their enterprise could not find a buyer and was forced to cease publication in 1892.

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