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Romantic Interests: Love (and Music! and Fashion!) in the Time of Cholera


In the early months of 1832, London was experiencing a devastating public health crisis. A cholera outbreak, which originated in India and had had been lurching across Europe for years, finally arrived in Britain's metropolis. Officials were ill-equipped to contain the infection. The city was nearly quarantined, and eventually the "Cholera Morbis" claimed thousands of lives — among those that of William Godwin, Jr., the younger half-brother of Mary Shelley. 
Desperate times call for escapist measures. At the height of the epidemic, a ladies' magazine — of all things — debuted. The Ladies' Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance proclaimed itself the "anti-cholera" and rather callously asserted that unfortunates who had succumbed to the disease had been weakened by "three capital defects in their intellectual constitution": ignorance of — what else? — fashion, music, and romance. "Only think of their utter stupidity," urges the prospectus, "not to know the difference between the Argentine fringe, and the fringe Chryseon! ... No wonder they yielded to the Cholera!" 
Aiming thus to cheer its readership by diverting attention from the real troubles of the day, The Ladies' Cabinet became one of the longest running English woman's magazines of the century. Featuring a mix of short stories, poetry, sheet-music, special interest pieces, and reports on the latest in women's fashions, each issue also carried a suite of hand-colored fashion plates (learn more by visiting an index to the illustrations).

Uniquely, the magazine purported to be produced and edited by a pair of sisters, Margaret and Beatrice De Courcy. Glances into their upper-middle-class lives are provided by the "At Home" segments of early issues, which feature conversations of the sisters themselves. Typically representing the ladies engaged in their work on the journal, "At Home" functions as a sort of dramatic letter from the editors. We observe the De Courcys as they discuss editorial policy, banter with their parents, ridicule a piece of doggerel submitted to them for publication, and encounter some notable figures (the poets Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore, and Byron's publisher, John Murray, to name a few).

Click here to to listen to a sample of the music published in the Ladies' Cabinet.Click here to to listen to a sample of the music published in the Ladies' Cabinet.A handful of scholars in the last half century have pointed to the sisters, sometimes mistakenly as mother and daughter, as pioneers in their field. It wasn't unheard of in the 1830s for women to edit, but the majority of magazines — even those specifically for women — were edited by men. That The Ladies' Cabinet was put out by a team of women, made the De Courcys, at least, interesting footnotes in the history of women's publishing. Unfortunately, they may be merely textual entities.

The NYPL’s Pforzheimer Collection recently acquired the first three volumes of The Ladies Cabinet, a continuous run of monthly issues from January 1832 to June 1833. The title-pages for each volume bear the statement of responsibility "edited by Margaret & Beatrice De Courcy," described by our book dealer as "an enterprising pair of sisters." Initial research turned up little information on them, save the aforementioned recent scholarship. Finally, we came across an entry in the British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books (1882), which lists the De Courcys as pseudonyms.

We hoped that one of the various indexes of anonymous and pseudonymous works might name the De Courcys, but their true identities remain elusive. Were they women, perhaps actual sisters, who used noms de plume for privacy? Were they inventions of the publisher, George Henderson, designed to appeal to his target readership? It isn't clear at this point. Even if Margaret and Beatrice De Courcy are completely fictitious, their casual and often amusing dialogues "At Home" still provide insight into the era's publishing practices, preoccupations, and tastes.

And how, after all, did The Ladies' Cabinet fare against the cholera?

In the May 1832 "At Home" segment, the De Courcys discuss the weakening of the disease's hold on Britain. Beatrice, in a tizzy over lost plates of sheet music intended for the next issue, jokes that the missing quadrilles must be "off fighting cholera," which had subsided in London since The Lady's Cabinet commenced publication. She facetiously crows that The Ladies' Cabinet has, as promised, "waged war with the invader, and fairly beaten him off the field." Papa De Courcy tamps down her hubris by darkly reminding everyone that as bad as the cholera outbreak was, the Black Death of the fourteenth century had taken ten times as many victims.

"You must recollect," says Beatrice, "there were no 'Ladies Cabinets' in those days." 







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