Review: WSG Seminar (25 September 2021) by Miriam Al Jamil

This is a review of the WSG seminar that took place on 25 September 2021. The speakers were:

  1. Valerie Schutte: Anachronistic representations of Edward Underhill
  2. Helen Leighton Rose: Women’s subversion of the Scottish Church Courts 1707-1757
  3. Matthew Reznicek: Healing the Nation; Women, Medicine and the Romantic National Tale
  4. Norena Shopland: Women Dressed as Men

Abstracts of the speakers’ papers are available to read here.

Our 2021-2022 Seminar season began with an excellent selection of papers from four speakers, ostensibly on a variety of unrelated topics and yet subtle connections emerged through the discussion.

Valerie Schutte’s paper examined the afterlives of Gentleman Pensioner Edward Underhill’s 1561 memoir which traced his life as a Protestant under Mary I’s reign, beginning with his arrest for publishing a now lost ballad at her accession in 1553. Elements of the memoir later appeared in John Strype’s 1721 Ecclesiastical Memorials which was used by Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland in their Lives of the Queens of England, From the Norman Conquest, With Anecdotes of Their Courts (London: Henry Colburn, 1845) and by the prolific writer W.H. Ainsworth in his popular The Tower of London (London: Bentley, 1840). Schutte offered Underhill’s devotion to the queen in spite of his anti-Catholicism as a more nuanced alternative to the standard view of hostile Protestant reaction to Mary. The nineteenth-century writers she examined were sympathetic to Mary, citing her marriage to Philip II of Spain as the source of Protestant oppression throughout her reign, although Charles Dickens’ unequivocal characterisation of ‘bloody Queen Mary’ still prevails as part of the national historical narrative.

In the discussion Schutte expanded on archival evidence of ballads against Mary I, citing twenty surviving examples, handwritten on cheap paper, most in single copies at the Society of Antiquaries. The writers were persecuted, though some of their ballads no longer exist. Underhill’s Catholic friends gave him the nickname ‘the Hot Gospeller’, a term picked up on by Ainsworth. Schutte also noted that the Strickland sisters’ romantic study of the Queens of England focused on them as women rather than simply as wives, which makes the book unusual.

Helen Leighton Rose’s paper presented her ongoing work on cases brought before the Scottish Kirk in two localities. She discussed the different recorded cases brought before the sessions, the types of moral offences and forms of punishment. The crimes included adultery, for which the punishment was six appearances wearing sackcloth in a public place of repentance, and fornication which involved three appearances. The ultimate sanction, meted out to a woman who repeatedly refused to appear was ‘lesser excommunication’, which meant she was shunned by her community, denied marriage, baptism or a funeral and banished from her place of birth. Rose pointed out that this had serious implications for accessing poor relief. The case studies revealed intriguing facts about women who were unafraid of accusing and naming the men implicated in their crimes, and who defied the punishments meted out to them. They also highlighted the fact that wealthy men could often avoid embarrassing personal repercussions by helping their pregnant victims circumvent the kirk disciplinary system and give birth in arranged lodgings in Edinburgh, while they themselves could evade punishment by paying fines. The case studies brought the individual women uncovered from the archives vividly to life.

Discussion points included the role of the well organised private lodging houses in Edinburgh, which require more research. A question was asked about cross-dressing as a recorded crime, and Rose has not found this or homosexuality mentioned in the records yet. The rich subject of her research clearly offers many different rewarding paths for future work.

Our third paper centred on Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) Vol. I, II and Vol. III,   

and Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui, or Memoirs of the Earl of Glenthorn (1809).

The paper interrogated the idea of healing as a potentially feminist intervention. Reznicek gave a close reading of these novels, in the light of the social and economic conditions of Ireland which contributed to high mortality in nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks, and the concept of a healthy social body composed of healthy individuals to which the woman as healer made a crucial contribution. Owenson’s novel is usually cited as the first ‘national tale’, but is not usually interpreted as a story of sickness and healing (See for example, discussions in:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-companion-to-the-irish-novel/national-tale-and-allied-genres-1770s1840s/7195FADCF1F85A2DB7E05A43EE49A15E [accessed 28 September 2021]).

Reznicek suggested that Owenson’s use of the word ‘physicianer’ to describe her character Glorvina was a deliberate subversive one to challenge contemporary male-dominated medical practice. The plot of the novel reveals that the threat of disease and religious fervour in the Prince of Inismore character makes his integration into the new social body impossible. Edgeworth used fever as a potent metaphor with multiple meanings. Her novel Ennui poses literature as the remedy of ennui as a disease. Once again, the woman is healer within the plot and in the broader context of the national social body.

Discussion ranged from the disabled body in Romantic fiction such as the Waverley novels, to Swift’s The Story of the Injured Lady in which ‘Ireland’ is the wronged virgin and ‘Scotland’ is the sickly rival for marriage to ‘England’, in Swift’s critique of marriage.

Our final paper was an overview of Norena Shopland’s writing projects, specialising in LGBT history, highlighting pertinent issues for many researchers into womens’ history. The instability of terminology and changes of definitions over time means that it can be difficult to find people from the past, particularly in the case of women living their lives as men, dressing, and working as men, unrecorded and marginalised. Shopland mentioned such celebrated cases as Hannah Snell, the soldier; Mary Anne Talbot or John Taylor, a sailor; and the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Other unidentified women later worked as navvies on the railways or as bricklayers, etc. The pay was better for men’s work, and it could be a short-term solution to hardship.

During a lively question session, the point was made that the literary cross-dressing heroine usually returns to heteronormativity after her escape to follow her lover is resolved in the plot. The detective work necessary to uncover archival sources for the anonymous women and the confusion over national traditions of dress which might be interpreted as more male than female; the infantilisation of women as a subtext in the ‘breeching’ of boys who progressed to adulthood and left their sisters behind; breeches parts for women in the theatre; and the hazards of labouring as a man with the vulnerabilities of the female body were all topics addressed. The interesting textual alteration made to the 16th century Geneva Bible which described Adam and Eve using fig leaves to make themselves breeches showed the sensitivity to gender-appropriate terms, when it was illegal for a woman to take men’s clothing.

As usual, the discussion could have continued well beyond time. We found all the papers stimulating and thought provoking. Our thanks to all the participants, and we look forward to more insights into WSG speakers’ research in the months to come.

-Miriam Al Jamil

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