“Think of yourself as a merchant” : L. T. Meade and the professional woman writer and editor at the Victorian fin de siècle




Dawson, Janis

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L. T. Meade (1844-1914) was one of the most popular and industrious writers of the Victorian fin de siècle. She is remembered as the creator of the modern girls’ school story, but over the course of a professional career that spanned four decades, Meade wrote close to three hundred books and countless short stories in a variety of genres for readers of all ages. She also edited the highly regarded middle-class girls’ literary magazine Atalanta from 1887 to 1893. She was considered a literary celebrity by the influential Strand Magazine where her innovative medical mysteries and sensational stories of female criminals competed with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But Meade was more than a successful author. She was also an influential participant in London’s literary circles and an active member of numerous literary professional, and feminist associations. Despite the scope of Meade’s career and her significant presence in the literary marketplace, her name has now passed into relative obscurity. Assessments of Meade in the twentieth century have been limited, dismissive, and generally negative. But as I demonstrate in this dissertation, many of these assessments are based on a narrow reading of her girls’ fiction and an incomplete sense of her professional activity. This dissertation, based on a historically contextualized reading of a broad selection of Meade’s works, focuses on the author as a professional woman writer and editor and highlights some of her significant contributions to popular literature and popular culture generally. The chapters in this study are organized into sections that reflect the trajectory of Meade’s career. Part I, “Meade and the Market,” introduces Meade as a professional writer. It includes biographical information, a discussion of Meade’s self representation, and an examination of a selection of her texts to show how she identified literary trends and used topical issues to frame her stories and market them to publishers and the reading public. Part II, “Meade and Atalanta,” focuses on Meade as a professional woman editor. It consists of three linked chapters on Meade and the girls’ literary magazine Atalanta and includes an examination of Meade’s contributions to juvenile periodical literature as well as a discussion of Atalanta as a family literary magazine. Part III, “New Markets and New Genres,” focuses on Meade as a popular professional woman writer and examines her involvement with the popular press in the years following her departure from Atalanta. It shows how Meade’s involvement with the Strand Magazine signalled a new direction in her literary style and market orientation and highlights her significant contributions to detective and mystery fiction. Throughout this study, I argue that Meade was more than a popular girls’ author; she was also a successful professional woman writer and editor, a shrewd businesswoman, and a significant participant in the literary marketplace. I also argue that Meade’s career merits consideration because it offers important insights into the way fin-de-siècle women writers shaped their careers and positioned themselves in the literary marketplace.



L.T. Meade, Victorian women writers