Introducing #FemaleScribblers

Exploring and appreciating women’s writing and literary history before 1900

 

There will not for many years be another decade like the 2010s for major anniversaries relating to women authors. 2017 alone sees the bicentenaries of Jane Austen’s death (July), and the publication of her last two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (December); and on 1 January 2018, it will be 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The two hundredth birthdays of two of the Brontë sisters also fall during this decade – Charlotte’s was commemorated in 2016, and Emily’s is to come in 2018 – while George Eliot’s will be marked in 2019.

It might have been hoped that all the media attention focused on these iconic authors’ anniversaries would generate more interest than it has done in other women’s writing and literary history of the same, or even earlier, periods. If the Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë bicentenaries give any indication, however, their effect seems largely to have been to reinforce these authors’ exceptional status as canonical figures (however much merited). Only infrequently have their long shadows been lifted from a host of other, important literary women of the same and earlier periods, many of whom achieved at least equal fame in their lifetimes.

Neglected women writers of later periods have enjoyed a more visible and sustained renaissance in print and on the internet. Feminist publishing imprints such as Virago and Persephone have long championed ‘forgotten’ twentieth-century women writers (and in its earlier years, Virago also published works by pre-twentieth-century women). More recently, online and social media initiatives such as #Readwomen and Women In Translation Month on Twitter, and a plethora of podcasts, have expanded public awareness of a diverse range of women’s writing – though with authors from the twentieth-century and contemporary periods again tending to predominate.

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Dramatist and novelist Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), in about early 1790. Stipple engraving after Henry Wigstead (d. 1793). New York Public Library.

Far from being dissatisfied with these projects, I’ve been delighted to find them lavishing so much attention on some of my own favourite twentieth-century authors. I’ve also loved discovering new modern and contemporary authors through others’ blogs and tweets. As a specialist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature in English, however, it seems to me that many women writers of pre-1900 periods still deserve to be better appreciated, beyond the mainly academic publications, conferences, and social media feeds where they tend to be discussed (with a scattered few, very recent exceptions).

I’ve  set up this Twitter handle (@Fem_Scribblers) and hashtag #FemaleScribblers as an experimental space for the exploration and discussion of pre-twentieth-century women’s writing and literary history, for at least the 2017-18 period during which Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Emily Brontë will remain so prominent in both the academic and public domains. My intention is to draw together insights from recent and current scholarly research in different pre-1900 periods, alongside relevant items of news and informed comment from beyond academia, and links to primary texts. I hope to be able to include information on women’s writing in all genres – and from as many national and cultural backgrounds as possible (while Austen and the Brontës will by no means be left out).

And why #FemaleScribblers? Decades before Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous 1855 denunciation of the ‘scribbling women’ he feared were infesting the American literary marketplace, the English author M. G. Lewis wrote to Lady Charlotte Campbell in 1811 that he had ‘an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers’ – meaning women writers like his acquaintance Susan Ferrier, who hoped to publish a novel. ‘Scribbler’ still occasionally crops up with derogatory reference to journalists and non-‘literary’ authors of fiction in particular. The term has recently (if my online searches are anything to go by) been applied disproportionately to women writers, and so is perhaps ripe for the feminist reclamation which is already in progress – as it is increasingly being adopted as a badge of pride by individual women writers, and women’s writing groups.

#FemaleScribblers is not only intended to reclaim a misogynistic slur in the manner of #DerangedPoetess, however – though many historic women authors’ lives and writings do have striking relevance to current debates concerning women writers’ identities, purposes, and public visibility. ‘Scribblers’ also simply seemed appropriate to my main period of focus – that era before the pc, or (for the most part) the typewriter, when, whether or not an author intended to publish her work, she had to inscribe it physically – to scribble – in order to bring it into existence at all.

Do follow @Fem_Scribblers – or join the discussions using #FemaleScribblers.

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Review: Frankenstein in Bath (Bath, 16 June-30 Sept. 2016)

The Somerset spa town of Bath should perhaps be better known for having been home to some of Britain’s major authors of Gothic fiction. In the eighteenth century, Ann Radcliffe – whose Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is read in Bath by characters in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) – grew up there. It was while living in Bath during the mid-1970s that Angela Carter worked on the darkly erotic fairytales collected in The Bloody Chamber (1979). And exactly two hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1816, Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein (1818) during a six-month residency in Bath – as this theatrical walking tour, developed by Bristol-based theatre company Show of Strength, has reminded audiences at nightly performances this summer.

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View of Bath from Beechen Cliff, with Bath Abbey at centre

Bath’s harmonious Georgian terraces of yellow-grey limestone houses, and its history as a centre for water therapies and polite sociability, might not immediately suggest the macabre or grotesque. But there is a distinctly uncanny, even Gothic, tension in the contrast between the elegant surfaces and hedonistic spirit of Bath, and its traditional function as a refuge for the diseased. Frankenstein in Bath rightly mentioned the public lectures on the reanimation of corpses by galvanism that Mary Shelley attended in Bath as having probably influenced her novel; but the town’s existing associations with sick and dysfunctional bodies – as well as its significance as a marriage-market – might in any case have informed Shelley’s tale of a creature burdened with both a troublesome, monstrous body, and a craving for love.

Georgian Bath’s prestige as a fashionable health resort was shadowed by its attraction for women wishing to conceal illegitimate births amidst the comings and goings of its transient population. Such was the situation of Mary Shelley’s unmarried stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was about four months pregnant by Lord Byron when the two women arrived in Bath on 10 September 1816 – following the summer in Switzerland, with Byron and the then Mary Godwin’s married lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, during which Mary famously began Frankenstein. The birth of Clairmont’s daughter Allegra in January 1817 was not the only major occurrence to affect Mary Shelley during her time in Bath. That same six-month period saw the suicides of her half-sister Fanny Imlay (elder daughter of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft), and of Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet Westbrook – as well as Mary’s subsequent marriage to Percy Shelley on 30 December 1816.

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New Bond Street, Bath. Claire Clairmont lodged at No. 12 (black frontage immediately to left of passing car).

Show of Strength’s 75-minute tour began in the shadow of Bath Abbey, near the former site of the newspaper premises, adjoining the Pump Room, where the Shelleys lodged. Other locations on the ingeniously-plotted itinerary included 12 New Bond Street, where Claire Clairmont lived (currently a clothes shop); and the former York House hotel (now a Travelodge) where Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin stayed during his futile search for the suicidal Fanny Imlay in October 1816. The tour also highlighted Shelleyan associations with Bath from beyond 1816, taking in 25 Milsom Street, where Mary Wollstonecraft was employed as a lady’s companion in 1779.

Defying the evening chill in off-the-shoulder black velvet (after Richard Rothwell’s 1840 portrait of Mary Shelley), narrator Annette Chown skilfully projected the story across a challenging soundscape of road traffic, and university freshers’ week bar-crawlers. Sheila Hannon’s lively text presented the main facts accurately, and featured generous extracts from Shelley family letters, as well as from Frankenstein.  I couldn’t agree with all of Hannon’s interpretations of the dynamics between characters such as William Godwin and his secretive second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont (mother of Claire) – but she did acknowledge recent research that has exposed the hardships Mary Jane suffered in Somerset before her marriage, and highlighted her talent as a literary translator.

During the 1970s, Angela Carter and cultural historian Christopher Frayling proposed to Bath town council that a plaque be mounted to commemorate Mary Shelley’s work on Frankenstein in Bath. That proposal was rejected – but the absence of such official recognition has perhaps allowed greater scope for unusual and imaginative engagements with this episode in local women’s history, such as Frankenstein in Bath. To walk between the sites associated with Mary Shelley’s life in Bath was not only to be reminded of a chronological sequence of facts relating to one woman’s career. It was also to gain a renewed sense of how the Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Shelley women’s experiences of love, death, and literary work echoed and reflected each other – across generations, both in Bath and elsewhere.

I attended the 27 September 2016 performance of Frankenstein in Bath. The photographs were taken not on that occasion (it was dark!) but during 2015, while I was pursuing some research of my own on the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont in Bath.

Two other Shelley researchers have described the challenges of finding the sites relating to Mary Shelley’s life in Bath at Romantic Circles (2006).

 

 

 

Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale reissued in paperback

My edition of Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan’s Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale (1818) has just been reissued in paperback from Routledge. Originally published in 2012 as part of Pickering & Chatto’s Chawton House Library series, this is the first modern scholarly edition of this novel, featuring an introduction and explanatory notes alongside a reset text.

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Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan. Engraved by Robert Cooper, after Samuel Lover (1825).

Florence Macarthy is one of the most sophisticated of the four ‘national tales’ in which Owenson combined conventional romantic plotlines with discussion of political and social problems in Ireland following the passage of the Act of Union in 1800 – a formula she had pioneered in her third, and most famous, novel The Wild Irish Girl (1806).

The narrative of Florence Macarthy is concerned with the return to Ireland of General Fitzwalter, an Irish aristocrat who has been involved in the South American independence movement, and who seeks to reclaim his ancestral property from his usurping relations. Also central to the plot is the vivacious Irish patriot novelist (and mistress of disguise), Lady Clancare, who emerges as the novel’s eponymous heroine.

Through the autobiographical character of Lady Clancare, Owenson articulates the uneasy position of a politically radical, Irish woman writer patronised by the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, but attacked by conservative literary critics, during a period of backlash against the Irish rebellions of 1798 and 1803. While Lady Clancare was not the first self-portrait among Owenson’s heroines, in Florence Macarthy Owenson was newly explicit in representing – and retaliating against – the challenges she had faced from a reactionary and misogynistic literary establishment.

Richly allusive and learnedly witty, Florence Macarthy draws upon discourses ranging from history and politics, to antiquarianism and picturesque aesthetics. On display throughout the novel is the sophisticated yet playful use of multiple languages and literary registers that entitles Sydney Owenson to a place alongside Jonathan Swift and James Joyce, as an exponent of a specifically Irish art of experimental fiction.

I discussed Owenson’s engagements with Irish folk lore and customs in her earlier novel, The Wild Irish Girl, here.

I shall post again soon on some of the interesting points of language and contexts that arose from my preparation of the notes to my edition of Florence Macarthy.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Never-to-be-forgotten First of May’: Celebrating Bealtaine with the Wild Irish Girl

In her novel The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (1806), Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan) presented one of the earliest fictional depictions of traditional Irish Maytime, or Bealtaine, celebrations. In vivid detail, her narrating hero describes the survival of reputedly ancient customs in a rural community at the end of the eighteenth century. After gathering flowers at dawn, and drinking the dew from their petals, Owenson’s characters observe houses garlanded with foliage, and ‘May-bushes’ (small decorated trees) set up outside the local people’s cabins, and watch a sports tournament and dancing held in the open air.360px-Common_hawthorn_flowers

The Wild Irish Girl was conceived as a vehicle for Owenson’s Irish patriot sentiments in the period following the Act of Union (1800), which absorbed Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. It concerns the romance between Glorvina, daughter of the last chieftain of an Gaelic (‘wild’ Irish) clan, and Horatio, the dissolute and debt-ridden heir to an English-owned estate in the western Irish province of Connacht.

Guided by the beautiful and vivacious Glorvina – along with her father, the ‘Prince’ of Inismore, and their household priest, Father John – the initially ignorant and condescending Horatio learns to appreciate Irish history, culture, and popular traditions such as the Maytime festivities. The novel’s narrative consists of letters written from Horatio to his father and a friend in England – Owenson’s intention being that Horatio’s increasingly respectful and affectionate attitude toward the native Irish should set a positive example to English and Anglo-Irish politicians and landowners with responsibilities in Ireland.

As many critics have noted, in The Wild Irish Girl and in other novels Owenson adapted the conventions of earlier Irish aisling poetry (a development of older national myths of goddesses such as Macha and Ériu), in which women representing the Irish land confer sovereignty over it upon worthy male suitors. Herself the offspring of an Irish father and an English mother, Owenson presents the idealised, harmonious ‘union’ of Horatio and Glorvina as an allegory for what she hoped relations between Ireland and England might become after legislative power had been transferred back to London from the Irish Parliament in Dublin – which had lasted only eighteen years following its formation in 1782. The more radical Irish patriots, including Owenson, expected the British government to improve conditions for Ireland’s majority Roman Catholic population, then denied the rights to vote or to sit in Parliament.

Horatio has already fallen in love with Glorvina when, on May Eve, she invites him to witness the local revels, remarking:

‘“the first of May is our great national festival; and you who love to trace modern customs to ancient origins, will perhaps feel some curiosity and interest to behold some of the rites of our heathen superstitions still lingering among our present ceremonies”’.

Father John then joins Glorvina in explaining the origins of the Irish Maytime celebration – without using the term Bealtaine, but stating that it derives from an ancient Irish practice of sacrificing to ‘Beal, or the Sun’ on the first day of May. The classically-educated Horatio instantly notices the similarities between the pagan Irish god ‘Beal’ or Bel, and the Greek sun god Apollo (patron of poetry and music). The priest then alludes to an ancient theory that Ireland might have been the location of the mythical Hyperborean Island, where Apollo was reputed to have lived. He also goes on to note the similarities between the floralia, an ancient Roman flower festival of early summer, and the Irish practice of gathering flowers for Maytime garlands.

In these and other instances throughout the novel, Father John represents a then well-known type of Irish nationalist antiquary who endeavoured to prove the descent of the Irish people, and their arts and cultural forms, from the classical Greek civilisation celebrated in Western literature and culture since the Renaissance. Glorvina, too, draws frequent comparisons between various Irish traditions and those of the ancient Greeks; but she also appreciates her Celtic heritage independently both of these associations, and of the folk Catholicism practised by the local Irish. She is the first of several heroines whom Owenson created as updated Irish sovereignty-goddesses, instructing their suitors in the ancient, and more modern, ways of their land. As Owenson’s text and footnotes indicate, Glorvina’s thinking is informed by works such as Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1738), Sylvester O’Halloran’s General History of Ireland (1778), and John Toland’s History of the British Druids (1747). All of these authors presented then-influential accounts of ancient Irish fire-festivals drawn from classical authors and some early Irish sources such as the Lebor Gabala, which recorded that two waves of ancient colonising settlers had arrived in Ireland at Bealtaine. Keating in particular locates the original Bealtaine fires at a royal seat in Connacht, the Irish province where Owenson set the Wild Irish Girl – having herself lived for some time in Sligo, one of its counties.

Taking up the conversation from Father John, Glorvina expands its focus on May Day to other fire festivals of the traditional Irish year, such as Midsummer’s Night (20 June), when ‘unconscious perpetuators of the heathen ceremony dance round the fire in circles’. She then describes her own favourite of the seasonal celebrations, ‘Samhuin’ (31 October; now usually spelt ‘Samhain’), which by O’Halloran’s account was dedicated to a moon-god of the same name. As Glorvina admits, ‘“though I adore our inspiring Beal with all my soul, I worship our popular deity Samhuin with all my heart – he is the god of the heart’s close-knitting socialities, for the domesticating month of November is sacred to him”’. The priest further explains how ‘ “on the eve of the first of November we make our offerings round the domestic altar (the fireside), of such fruits as the lingering seasons afford […] performing many superstitious ceremonies, in which our young folk find great pleasure, and put great faith’”. Glorvina agrees with him as to the pleasures of seasonal festivities such as Beltaine and Samhain, exclaiming, ‘ “I love all those old ceremonies which force us to be periodically happy”’.

On ‘the never-to-be-forgotten first of May’ itself, Horatio and Glorvina meet at dawn by ‘a little hawthorn hedge richly embossed with the first-born blossoms of May’, where they drink to each other in dew from the petals of wild roses. Later in the day they attend the local festivities, where they are hailed as guests of honour by local characters, including an ‘old bard’ (a seanchaí, or storyteller). As Owenson states in a footnote, Horatio’s account of fiddle and pipe music, community dancing, and a wrestling-match the victor in which is crowned ‘King of the May’ is based on a similar ‘rural festival’ which she witnessed during 1802 in Tipperary, where she had been employed as a governess.

When Glorvina joins in dancing a jig at the May festival, her ‘grace and elegance’ are displayed to full effect to the admiring Horatio. The Bealtaine episode of the novel thus completes its narrative purpose of further advancing both Horatio’s enthusiasm for Ireland and the Irish people, and his desire for a more personal involvement with both, through union with Glorvina. In the case of the real-life Union of England and Ireland, however, no such happy ‘marriage’ resulted. Owenson, like other Irish Patriots, lost patience with the British government’s slow progress in effecting either Catholic emancipation (not achieved until 1829), or the relief of poverty in Ireland.

In her subsequent ‘national tales’, written under her married name of Lady Morgan, Sydney Owenson continued to rework the aisling tradition and sovereignty myths, but in manners that demonstrate her rejection of the English-Irish compromise presented in The Wild Irish Girl (though she had herself married an Englishman, the physician Sir Charles Morgan, in 1812). In O’Donnel (1814), Florence Macarthy (1818), and The O’Briens and the O’Flaherties (1826) the heroes who court the Irish goddess-figures are not English, but are Irishmen from old, dispossessed noble families, who have become alienated from their heritage, and thus also neglectful of their duties to land and nation. Unlike the semi-reclusive Glorvina, Owenson’s later Irish heroines are engaged in working for independent livings (the heroine of Florence Macarthy is a professional author who divides her time between writing, working on her land, and aiding the local poor).

Sydney Owenson was a lifelong religious sceptic – so her interest in ancient Irish goddess-figures is not to be compared with modern-day ‘goddess spirituality’, or with Celtic-inspired forms of neo-pagan belief. Her use of mythic allusions and imagery in her fictions arises largely from her engagement with a liberal, largely secularist, European intellectual culture which had become increasingly interested in the study of global mythologies and comparative religion, partly as a consequence of British and French imperial expansion.

While intended to convey her specific political concerns, however, Owenson’s imaginative uses and reuses of Irish legend, and her allusions to popular customs, in themselves afford intriguing glimpses into the development of ‘traditional’ Irish folklore as this now tends to be recognised. She was evidently a significant, if now neglected, contributor to the ‘canon’ of Irish folklore constructed throughout the nineteenth century by better-remembered figures such as Thomas Crofton Croker and Jane, Lady Wilde.

Owenson’s reference to the folkloric figure of the leprechaun (which she spells ‘leprighaun’) in O’Donnel (1814) is still the first modern-period usage cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (the three earlier instances are from the early seventeenth century); while in Florence Macarthy (1818) she retold stories of early Irish saints such as Brigid and Gobnait. In The Wild Irish Girl, as in these later works, with her observations on Irish lore and customs Owenson assisted both to preserve and to popularise narratives and practices that had previously been confined largely to antiquarian studies or oral tradition.

Quotations in this post are taken from Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s edition of The Wild Irish Girl for the Oxford University Press ‘World’s Classics’ series (1999).

For an excellent discussion of Owenson’s engagements with myths of Irish sovereignty-goddesses within the context of her Enlightenment sensibilities (with specific reference to the heroine of her novel The O’Briens and the O’Flaherties), see Mary Helen Thuente, ‘Lady Morgan’s Beavoin O’Flaherty: Ancient Irish Goddess and Enlightenment Cosmopolitan’, New Hibernia Review 16:2 (Summer 2012), 33-53.

My 2012 edition of Sydney Owenson’s Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale  for the Chawton House Library Women’s Novels series is available from Routledge. 

 

 

Podcast: On A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c.1790-91), Tate Britain

For the first day of Women’s History Month, I thought I would post a link to a podcast discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that I took part in for the History Vault online magazine during summer 2014.

You can listen to, or download, the podcast here (it’s just under a quarter of an hour long). I can recommend the other instalments in the same ‘Iconic Texts’ podcast series, too.

 

Lolly Willowes at 90: A February Celebration

On 6 February 1926, L. P. Hartley introduced the readers of the Saturday Review to the newly-published debut novel of Sylvia Townsend Warner:

Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman who sold her soul to the Devil in the year 1922, being then forty-eight years of age.’

Hartley immediately recognised the novel’s special qualities, praising the still-striking combination of ‘flexible sensitive unpretentious prose’ and ‘admirable low tone’ with which Warner narrated her middle-aged spinster heroine Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes’s initiation as a witch in a remote Buckinghamshire village.

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Still from the 1915 film Witch Girl. Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Ninety years on, Google “lolly willowes”, and you will be offered hundreds of links to newspaper articles, blog posts, and scholarly studies devoted to enthusiastic discussion of this best-loved of Warner’s novels. Readers have long admired its imaginative articulation of women’s need for ‘a life of one’s own’ through the symbolic device of witch-hood, and its heroine’s courteous (but firm) refusal of normative sexual and gendered roles. Academics have analysed it in contexts ranging from the social and economic conditions of British women after the First World War, to the rise of popular interest in witchcraft, folklore, and the occult in Britain during the 1920s.

I love Lolly Willowes most for its exquisitely arch and astringent comedic register, and its atmosphere of what I can only describe as benign ‘folk gothic’ (on which more to come on this blog). I might have posted a ninetieth anniversary tribute at any point during this year, but February seemed an especially good month in which to do so – as two crucial episodes in Lolly Willowes refer to, and take place in, February. Read together, they exemplify all the wit and poignancy, and the quality of a strangely friendly uncanny which – along with Warner’s skilful plotting – have made this novel such a favourite of mine.

The first occurs in the London home of Laura’s pompous and controlling barrister brother Henry and his wife Caroline, with whom Laura has been living since the death of her beloved father. Not wishing the introverted Laura to remain dependent upon them (as they believe she necessarily must be, if not married), Henry and Caroline introduce her to a succession of potential suitors. These candidates include a mild-mannered young lawyer, Mr Arbuthnot – who is quite unprepared for Laura’s response to his statement ‘that February was a dangerous month’:

‘It is,’ answered Laura with almost violent agreement. ‘If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.’

While Henry and Caroline exchange horrified glances, Laura silently amuses herself by imagining ‘a surprisingly vivid and terrible picture of Mr Arbuthnot cloaked in a shaggy hide and going with heavy devouring swiftness upon all-fours with a lamb dangling from his mouth’.

As a consequence of this incident, Henry and Caroline give up trying to marry Laura off. In the months of increased freedom that follow, she finally insists on leaving London for the Chilterns village of Great Mop, having read its name in a guidebook and map bought on impulse.

Laura’s bombshell remark about the dangers of February for werewolves is no mere eccentric non sequitur. A keen reader of esoteric and mythological literature, she seems, however loosely, to allude to the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia. Celebrated during February, the Lupercalia may partly have commemorated the she-wolf who suckled the infants Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome (Another possible inspiration for the festival was the Greek legend of Lycaeon, a man who was transformed into a wolf for attempting to deceive the god Zeus.)

The Lupercalia was apparently concerned both with honouring the dead, and with purifying the souls of the living, as well as stimulating their fertility, as they were initiated into the new, spring season following the darkness and stagnation of winter. Its rituals included the sacrificing of goats and dogs, whose skins were worn by young men who ran through the city, lashing at women with whips also made from the animal hides. The Roman civilisation thus ‘renewed’ itself by recalling its feral – and very un-civilised – mythic origin in a she-wolf’s den.

Initiated into one renewal of her liberty by her bold invocation of February werewolves, Laura comes to another initiatory threshold – marked by a sacrifice –during her first February at mysterious Great Mop, whose secrets, she has understood, she will not penetrate with her map and guidebook alone. On ‘a still, mild evening towards the end of February’ with ‘a smell of growth in the air’, Laura deliberately drops the map and guidebook into a disused well in the woods:

‘She scarcely knew what she had done, but she knew that she had done rightly, whether it was that she had sacrificed to the place, or had cast herself upon its mercies – content henceforth to know no more of it than did its own children.’

That same February ends with a ‘spell of fine weather’ – and with Laura spending ‘whole days sitting in the woods’ alert to the sounds of birds courting, and even of sap rising (‘She laid her cheek against a tree and shut her eyes to listen’). As spring advances, Laura acknowledges the depth of her twenty years’ loneliness and grief: ‘She trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been […] With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips absolved her’. She then affirms her complete freedom from Henry and Caroline and the whole civilised national apparatus they represent.

February has also, of course, always been a month for ritual observances at wells and springs in English and Celtic traditions. Laura’s sacrifice at the well, though, fulfils particularly Lupercalian ends of honouring the dead, and of personal renewal – a perfect spinster alternative to the Valentine’s celebrations also typically associated with this time of year.

And all this is before she is visited by a peculiar little black kitten…

New publication: Mary Wollstonecraft in Ireland

Update (27 April 2016): this publication is now available to read online or download at JSTOR Ireland – check whether your university or other institution’s library subscribes. 

My first publication of the new year is a feature for the January/February 2016 issue of History Ireland magazine, on Mary Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess in Ireland between 1786 and 1787.

In ‘From the Education of Daughters to the Rights of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft in Ireland, 1786-7’, I show how Wollstonecraft’s impressions of the privileged yet restricted lives of women and girls in a wealthy Anglo-Irish Ascendancy household informed her promotion of rational female education as a public good in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Wollstonecraft’s experiences of teaching the daughters of Lord and Lady Kingsborough of Mitchelstown Castle, Co. Cork, also inspired her educational book for children and their parents, Original Stories from Real Life (1788) – reprinted in 1791 with illustrations by William Blake (below).

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In the same issue of History Ireland, Wollstonecraft gets another mention in Fergus Whelan’s account of the library of radical literature amassed by her friend, United Irishman Archibald Hamilton Rowan; while Geoffrey Bell discusses the importance of the Irish revolution of 1916 to the work of another historic feminist, Sylvia Pankhurst.

My piece on Wollstonecraft in Ireland also follows a feature I co-authored with Pamela Clemit for the July/August 2015 issue of History Ireland, which described Wollstonecraft’s husband William Godwin’s visit to Ireland in the summer of 1800.

At the Threshold: The Oxford Sheela-na-gig

I had lived in Oxford for almost seven years – not counting my earlier, student years here – before I learned that a medieval stone sheela-na-gig was preserved inside one of the city’s most ancient buildings, the Saxon tower of St Michael-in-the-Northgate. All my explorations of the city had never led me up the tower stairs to the glass case in which the sheela lies amongst old church keys, clay tobacco pipe-heads, and presentation copies of the Book of Common Prayer. While trying to choose a subject for a first blog post, several months after my first visit to the Oxford sheela, I found myself thinking again of that paradoxically exhibitionist yet mysterious little figure.OxfordSheela2 (361x640)

I first learned of the Oxford sheela in the late summer of 2014, when I picked up a 1986 booklet called Strange Oxford in the local history section of the city library. One of its chapters, by Mary Karmeres, informed me that in 1928 the eleventh- or twelfth-century sheela had been removed from the west outside wall of the Saxon tower (built c.1050), and taken to the Ashmolean Museum for investigation. After being returned to the church, it was temporarily consigned to a ‘back office’. While some Victorian and early twentieth-century church authorities removed sheelas from public view because embarrassed by them, the sheela at St Michael’s was shut away for her own protection – having been so badly damaged by urban pollution that she could not be replaced in her outdoors position.

Karmeres confidently stated Oxford’s sheela to be a ‘fertility carving’, repeating the notoriously unreliable folklorist Margaret Murray’s claim that brides arriving for their weddings at St Michael’s looked up at it to ensure a fertile marriage. Karmeres found it ‘unclear’, however, why it should have been positioned so high on the tower wall – where it could not have been easily visible from the street – rather than near a ‘feminine’ point of entry such as a gateway.

In fact – as I found from further reading – the sheela did indeed once overlook the medieval north gate of Oxford. The gatehouse formerly spanned what is now Cornmarket Street, and housed a prison in its upper storey. The north gate was demolished in 1771, but can still be seen depicted in earlier eighteenth-century engravings, two examples of which are displayed along with the sheela in St Michael’s church treasury.

When I saw the Oxford sheela in September 2014, I found that the explanatory text on the card propped behind it repeated the two still most popular theories of these objects’ significance: that they celebrated sexuality or fertility, or, conversely, functioned as grotesque, satirical emblems of the sin of lust. However, the Sheela-na-Gig Project suggests another interpretation for this particular sheela, based on its placement above Oxford’s north gate: that it might have been an apotropaic, or protective, device against evil influences (like the shoes and animal remains sometimes discovered within the fabrics of old houses).

Certainly, while the north gate still stood, the Oxford sheela was closely associated with the city’s architecture of secular authority and civic defence, even if only by coincidence. Scowling over the threshold to the city, she could well have been regarded as a ‘Hag of the Castle’ – the name given to sheelas by mid-nineteenth-century antiquaries who, observing them above doors and gateways in Irish non-religious buildings, conjectured that they had been intended as protective devices. For these antiquaries, the sheelas recalled the tutelary goddesses, and female personifications of land sovereignty, who had figured in the old Celtic legends.

The original positioning of the Oxford sheela halfway up the tower wall, near to both a belfry window and the gateway beneath, meanwhile tallies with Barbara Freitag’s observations on the liminal, ‘borderline’ positions typically occupied by sheelas in all the British, Irish, and European locations where they have been recorded. In Sheela na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (2004), Freitag favours the fertility theory of the sheela’s significance. She suggests that they represent the act of childbirth in particular while more generally signifying the cyclical processes of life and death. Most interestingly for me, however, Freitag also notes the  contrasting or contradictory aspects of the imagery of many sheelas – as seen in individual examples displaying both aged hag faces, and youthful, nubile bodies.

Similar contrasts might be traced through the whole tradition of the Sheela-na-gig as Freitag and others have described it. Sheelas have been associated variously with birth and death, youth and age, fertility and sterility, voluptuous invitation and defensive repulsion – as well as being interpreted as both celebrations of sexuality, and satires on lust. Oxford’s sheela is no exception to this paradoxical tendency. Forever frozen in her exhibitionist act, she remains concealed from outside onlookers, and separated from those inside by the glass case housed halfway up her tower: between earth and heaven, as it were. The almost total effacement of her features is one cause of her inscrutability – but such of her rather sardonic expression as can be discerned resists interpretation, too. She defies both sympathy and judgement.

Beginning this blog, the Oxford sheela-na-gig occurred to me as an inspirational emblem, not only as a sort of charm against the anxiety of exposure, but also to convey my still rather indeterminate sense of how I might proceed with the blog (though I have my ideas). A possible icon of both creative fertility, and death, seemed an apt subject for a first post – and could serve equally well, should this be a last one – but most of all, for the moment, I welcome the protective Hag of the Castle, to watch over this threshold.