Irish Women Writers and the Argosy (1865-1901)

Tove Lilith Conway, University of St. Thomas

The title of the Argosy (1865-1901) conjured up the idea of a ship filled with rich cargo. Indeed, each monthly issue of the magazine offered tales of travel and adventure, along with a steady supply of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction prose. The magazine was initially produced by Alexander Strahan and edited by Isa Craig; however, after the controversial serialization of Charles Reade’s sensation novel Griffith Gaunt (1866), Strahan sold the magazine to London-based novelist Ellen Wood (Ehnes 154). Within three years of her takeover, the magazine’s monthly circulation rose to 20,000. Alvar Ellegård describes the Argosy as “appealing primarily to a genteel, middle-class, lady public, of low to fair educational standard” (17). Yet under Wood’s editorship (1867-87), the magazine addressed complex themes, destabilized gender roles, and upset boundaries between high and low culture (Phegley 187). It also turned readers’ attention to cultures and locales outside the metropolis. It often featured content focused on Irish culture. For example, the Argosy published numerous short stories that ranged in topic from Irish rural landscapes to the Irish peasantry. Irishness was an integral part of the magazine’s identity, themes, writers, and readership.

During Wood’s editorship, the Argosy often included Irish writers on its list of contributors, and the magazine’s emphasis on Irishness continued after her death, when her son Charles Wood assumed the magazine’s editorial mantle (1887-1901). Irish women writers had a particularly important role to play in building the magazine’s popular reputation. The Argosy not only provided an inclusive space for Irish women writers to publish their work but also implicitly argued for their central role in constructing Britain’s hybrid national identity. Some Irish women writers who contributed to the Argosy included Narissa Rosavo (Hutton) (1818-91), Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), Maria Henrietta (“May”) de la Cherois Crommelin (1849-1930), Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), and Elizabeth Owens Blackburne (1845-94). Kavanagh and Rosavo are particularly notable for their Irish travel writing and articles in support of female independence.

Little is known of Narissa Rosavo (1818-91) beyond her published writings. In total, Rosavo published nine signed works in the Argosy. These contributions vary in subject matter (ranging from funerals and weddings to mediums and priests) and cover both fiction and nonfiction genres. In her essay “Irish Idiosyncrasies” (August 1875), Rosavo delineates Irish characteristics within social classes, thereby introducing readers to Irish life and customs. She reminds readers of the long-held traditions of Ireland while also acknowledging that these customs and their positive effects on social life will soon be lost. She warns that it is “probable that the use of the Celtic language will eventually die out” (142). Moreover, she notes that Celts have adhered to the ancient customs of universal education but then adds that they “are now beginning to depart from their old habits” (137). The same decline is evident in modern Irish clothing, the disappearance of the Celtic language, and the absence of keening practices at funerals. By noting that the lower classes nevertheless remain “rightly directed [in] faith and reverence” in the midst of rapid social change, she makes an argument for their wisdom and virtue. Rosavo’s claim aligns with the goals of the Argosy to extend readership to all classes. It also supports the magazine’s interest in folk practices located outside the metropolitan centers of Great Britain.

Julia Kavanagh (1824-77) was a novelist, short-story writer, and biographer born in Thurles, County Tipperary. She published thirty-two signed contributions to the Argosy, ranging from poetry (mainly sonnets) to short stories with international settings. Spending much of her childhood in France before moving to London in 1844, she described herself as “Irish by origin, birth and feeling, though not by education; but if I have lived far from Ireland she has still been as the faith and religion of my youth” (Sturgeon). Her proposed Irish writing projects were embraced by London publishers, and her independent female characters and refined “ladylike” literary style were praised by her contemporaries (Sturgeon). Her passion for travel is conveyed in a short story, “Sylvie’s Vow” (June 1868), which tells of a woman who seeks vengeance against the cruel sea for taking the lives of her father, brother, and betrothed (35). While Rosavo focuses more on the intrinsic nature of Ireland in her contributions, Kavanagh’s writing is more mobile, conveying themes such as grief and change across international borders. She begins her story by claiming that we do not travel to see more picturesque places; rather, we travel to change (31). Kavanagh’s travels between her homeland, France, and England clearly altered her conception of cultural borders: it is the process of travel, not a sense of static national identity that informs individual development.

The Argosy was not powered by political, scientific, or philosophical articles. Rather, it offered sensation serials and tales of travel intended to stimulate the imagination about places near and far (Onslow 127). Irish women writers’ contributions were integral in achieving this aim. Writers like Rosavo and Kavanagh increased awareness of Irish culture. They directly or implicitly made an argument for female agency while acknowledging the hybrid status of Irish women writers working in London and other metropolitan locations. Highlighting their role in the history of the Argosy helps us understand the magazine’s hybrid nature as both British and international in its travels, affinities, and literary riches.

Tove Conway is currently pursuing an MA in English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her research traces ecocritical perspectives in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. She is also interested in recovering women’s writing and art from the late Victorian press and the modernist period.

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Works cited:

“Argosy, The.” The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900, Series 2. Ed. John S. North. North Waterloo Academic Press, 2003. Online edition.

Ehnes, Caley. “The Poetics of Popular Poetry in the Argosy.” Victorian Poetry and the Poetics of the Literary Periodical / Caley Ehnes. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

Ellegård, Alvar. “The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain: II. Directory.” Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, no. 13, 1971, pp. 3–22.

Kavanagh, Julia. “Sylvie’s Vow.” The Argosy : A Magazine of Tales, Travels, Essays, and Poems, vol. 6, 1868, pp. 31-42

Onslow, Barbara. Women of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain / Barbara Onslow. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Phegley, Jennifer. “Domesticating the Sensation Novelist: Ellen Price Wood as Author and Editor of the Argosy Magazine.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 38 no 2, 2005, pp. 108-198.

Rosavo, Narissa. “Irish Idiosyncrasies.” The Argosy : A Magazine of Tales, Travels, Essays, and Poems, vol. 20, 1875, pp. 137-143

Sturgeon, Sinéad. “Kavanagh, Julia”. Dictionary of Irish Biography. (ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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