CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 37. . . .May 24, 2013
Vic Steinberg was the pseudonym used by a female investigative reporter who worked for the Toronto News in the first half of the 1890s. This was a paper sold to middle- and working-class readers who enjoyed the sensational stories, local gossip, and crime coverage that it offered. Vic Steinberg was a rare creature, a female journalist at a time when few women worked as journalists. She had her own byline and was not confined to writing about topics like fashion and homemaking that were targeted to women readers. In fact, Steinberg often went undercover, sometimes dressing as a man, in order to research material for her columns.
Welldon draws upon 10 columns that Steinberg published that explored life in disguise as a man at a rugby game or visiting a tavern, and as a woman disguised as a fortune teller, a door-to-door book seller, a fencer, a seamstress in a tie factory, a domestic servant, a shop girl at a busy department store, and an even more personal piece on life as a Bachelor Girl, one of the New Women who earned their own money and managed to live exciting lives without a husband. Welldon typically includes a small quotation from one of the columns in a sidebar but retells the content of the story in her own narrative style as illustrated by the excerpt above. Sidebars, historic photographs, and the text, itself, are filled with details about life in late Victorian Toronto and the changes that women like Vic sought, such as more comfortable clothing for women and better working conditions for poor women scrambling to earn a livelihood.
Throughout the book, Welldon leads the reader to consider clues that Vic Steinberg reported that can help them understand more about the mysterious women who hid behind the pseudonym. While her true identity remains unknown, the clues suggest a young lady from an upper-middle class background with a strong sense of adventure and humour. One obvious clue that Welldon fails to explore is that of the reporter’s religion. Her pen name suggests that she was Jewish, and in her encounter with a demanding Protestant woman who hires her as a domestic servant, she declares that she does not belong to any church. This would have been an opportunity to include more information about discrimination and intolerance that existed in Victorian society.
A brief glossary and index add to the value of this book as an educational resource. The brief bibliography includes a varied listing of background sources on Victorian Canada and Toronto but lacks some resources that might have been useful, notably Marjory Lang’s Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada, 1880-1945 (1999) and Janice Fiamengo’s The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008). The bibliography is for adults. A separate list of recommended readings suitable to juvenile readers would have been most welcome. The typeface used is rather small but the book is laid out in a pleasing fashion.
Reporter in Disguise will support investigations in social history, women’s studies, Victorian Canada, and media studies.
Val Ken Lem is a collection services librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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