Despite the recent cold weather, the atmosphere at the Women’s Studies Group February seminar was as warm and welcoming as ever. We were treated to three very different, but equally fascinating papers, the individual chronologies of which stretched from the mid-seventeenth century to the 1820s and covered subjects as diverse as death and dying, legal and textual subjectivities and observations of nineteenth-century Chilean culture. At the heart of each, though, lay careful analyses of how women in the past constructed themselves and the world around them through the written word. The seminar was conducted via zoom and ably chaired by Trudie Messent.
First to speak was Dr Sarah Ailwood of the University of Wollongong. Sarah lectures in law and has previously authored a book on Jane Austen and masculinities. Her talk for the WSG, however, was entitled ‘In justice to myself’: Legal and Textual Subjectivities in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Memoirs’. Sarah’s central thesis was that by ‘harnessing emerging genres of popular, published life writing’, namely the print memoir, ‘women forged a new form of legal subjectivity.’ She began by outlining the theory developed by Costas Douzinas that those living within a modern liberal democracy will be typically both subjectus and subjectum in relation to the law: that is, simultaneously under the authority of the law and a participant in its creation. In contrast to this, women of the eighteenth century were only subjectus, bound to obey the law without participating in its creation. Sarah also cited the work of Peter Goodrich – that the power of the law rests in its cultural influence, as well as institutions and legal texts. From this theoretical starting point, Sarah explored the idea that the female-authored mid-eighteenth-century legal memoir allowed women to ‘create a new, resistant form of legal subjectivity’ and evidenced this through the work of two eighteenth-century women: Sarah Rippon and Anne Bailey. Rippon published The True State of the Case of Sarah Rippon in 1756 and used the subjectus persona of a poor, vulnerable widow to challenge both the legal system and the men who conspired against her, showcasing her knowledge of the system and her abilities as a litigant as she did so. Bailey constructed a similar subjectus persona through her 1771 text The Memoirs of Mrs Anne Bailey. In this she positioned herself as a victim caught in a cycle of debt, assault and exploitation even though the true purpose of the book was to publicly shame the men who had wronged her. Sarah argued that although both women ostensibly cast themselves as oppressed victims of the legal system, their memoirs speak to their authors’ resistance of that role and their determination to assert agency over the narrative of their life.
The second speaker was Daisy Winter, a PhD student at Northumbria University. She examined the writings of Lady Elizabeth Delaval within the context of seventeenth-century women’s devotional meditations. This was a time when women were expected to examine and reflect upon their behaviours, not least to use written texts to curate a ‘good death’ for themselves when the time came. However, Daisy argued that the motivations for Delaval’s musings were complex and may not have stemmed solely from a fear of judgement in death. Two meditations were considered in detail. The first, written in 1662, was entitled ‘Upon the Singing of a Lark’. In this, Delaval used the ‘Godly’ bird to rebuke her habit of sleeping in late. The second was a cluster of prayers written as a response to a severe bout of toothache. This was allegedly caused by an infestation of more than two hundred worms(!) and inspired Delaval to contemplate her own mortality. Intriguingly, this gory episode may not have had its roots in personal experience. Daisy cited the work of Sara Read, who suggests that Delaval may have appropriated it from a letter originating at the court of Charles 1. As Delaval’s family were Stuart sympathisers, the tale could also function as an indication of political allegiance. Further, Daisy argued that Delaval’s writings also link to wider cultural concerns surrounding disease, death and decay: this was a time when the plague swept across England and Delaval, like so many of her contemporaries, was personally affected by it. Indeed, toothache was also not the inconvenience it is today but a potentially deadly illness, with tooth problems regularly appearing as a cause of death in contemporary bills of mortality. Daisy also explored the temporal disruption between the composition of the texts and their later transcription by an older Delaval into the curated manuscript that exists today, possibly as a precursor for publication. Daisy concluded by saying that although Delaval’s approach to crafting a good death was complicated, it was likely she did experience a fear of her own mortality, when ‘her neglect of her “penitential hours” [came] to haunt her.’
The final paper was given by Valentina Aparicio, from the University of Edinburgh. Her paper was entitled ‘Maria Graham’s Journal of a residence in Chile (1824): a transnational community of women’ and forms part of a wider research project concerning Scottish women who travelled to South America at the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries. Her paper for the WSG focussed on Maria Graham, who was born Maria Dundas and later became known as Lady Callcott. Graham travelled to Chile with her husband. However, he died before they arrived and she landed in South America as a widow. Rather than return home, she elected to stay in the town of Valparaiso and, during the year she spent there, Graham mixed with people from a number of different backgrounds, nationalities and classes. Generally, Graham appeared to be more sympathetic towards Chilean women, rather than the expatriate British women she met, whom she likened to Mrs Elton from Austen’s Emma. Valentina examined two of Graham’s encounters in detail. The first featured an elderly neighbour with a large flower garden who used her horticultural knowledge for healing purposes – La Chabelita. The second was with the women of La Rinconada who made the pottery Graham used at home. One of the most striking observations Valentina made was that Graham did not appear to apply her own British, classist, world-view to the Chilean women she encountered. Rather, she was prepared to meet with them in their own contexts and engage with them upon their own terms. For example, when she visited the female potters she was eager to sit down with them and join them in their work. As was later discussed during the questions, this may well have reflected a (post)Romantic ideal of the labouring poor but equally may have been something she would not have felt able to do in her own country where strict notions of class propriety would apply.
It was a stimulating and enjoyable session that provided much food for thought and a number of lively discussions during the questions. Huge thanks to all our speakers and to everyone who made February’s session possible.
Review by Dr Alison Daniell