Celebrating Women’s Writing: Marie Mulvey Roberts in conversation with Janet Todd

The central ethos of WSG is to support its members to create innovative, rigorous and socially meaningful research into women’s history and gender studies. WSG members have been involved in path-breaking work in our fields, one being the formation by Janet Todd and Marie Mulvey-Roberts of the journal Women’s Writing in 1994. In a conversation that took place at Oxford, Bristol and Cambridge across 2016-17, Janet and Marie celebrated the journal and its festschrift edition for Janet, and reflected on the early days of WSG. It is our great pleasure to present selections of the conversation to readers now. This is the sixth post in our series celebrating the history of WSG. 

Celebrating Women’s Writing and the festschrift edition for Janet Todd (Women’s Writing, Volume 23, 2016 – Issue 3)

Marie Mulvey-Roberts and Janet Todd, founders of Women’s Writing

In conversation in 2016–2017

at Mansfield College, Oxford, Bristol and Cambridge  

JT: We are here for a dual purpose, and I’m very grateful for it. Let’s start with the journal which is so important to us both. Do you think, Marie, that the Women’s Studies Group (WSG) was an important factor in the founding of Women’s Writing?

MMR: Absolutely, it created the right sort of climate. I was fortunate enough to be around at the start of the WSG and have a vivid memory of the energy and drive of members such as Yvonne Noble, Isobel Grundy, Mary Waldron, Lois Chaber and Linda Bree. In those early days, it really did feel like being on the cusp of something new and exciting, of a different sphere of women’s writing being opened up. Everyone seemed so knowledgeable. I remember Isobel Grundy talking about Lady Mary Wortley Montague and calling her ‘Lady Mary’, as though they were close friends. And that was how several other members related to some of these early women writers. I wanted my own very special relationship too! I think of your unique rapport with Mary Wollstonecraft. At that time, I had been researching Freemasonry, so it was refreshing to get into a world of women writers and scholars. The WSG wasn’t exactly a female secret society, since the idea was to open up neglected periods of women’s writing, but it gave me a sense of being at the start of something almost under-ground, which has since surfaced, expanded and flourished. Here was a tangible community of scholars from which the journal could draw sustenance, so the existence of the WSG was certainly both timely and inspirational.

JT I was interested in starting the journal with you because I had ‘history’. I had actually started the first journal devoted to women’s writing ages before in Florida, but it came to a natural end when I left America. It was begun in 1969–70 and called The Mary Wollstonecraft Newsletter. Do you remember Cyclostyle printing? You had to ink the press by hand and then run it round and round. As more and more people wanted the newsletter, so I would have to roll off more copies, then put them in envelopes, find stamps and take them to the post – a one-woman enterprise at the start. I took the newsletter to Rutgers in 1974 where it became Women and Literature,finally morphing into a biannual volume of essays. But I think the most exciting period was that very early stage concentrating on Wollstonecraft and the largely ignored women of her period and working with just one or two other enthusiasts. I was amazed and very pleased to find that there was anyone other than maybe four or five of us who were really interested in this area, but very quickly I discovered there were people working on Helen Maria Williams, Charlotte Smith, Mary Hays etc. – writers who were absolutely unknown in the wider world and indeed in universities. When you and I talked of starting this new journal, I thought at first, “here we go again.” In fact it has been very different because the times are very different. There is now far more interest in early women writers than there was then. The articles submitted don’t have to be stodgily descriptive and informative, as some of them had to be in my first journal, because readers can be expected now to know something of the subjects; we can assume a culture of knowledge and a shared experience of feminist scholarship.

MMR I remember our discussions about finding a name. Because you had already run a journal called Women and Literature, you were understandably not keen when I suggested it for a title. You made the point that women’s writing was broader than that anyway and the new journal should encompass different kinds of writing, such as diaries, journal entries etc… so it made sense to call it simply Women’s Writing. That was also the kind of inclusiveness characteristic of the WSG. Members have been enormously supportive of the journal over the years as contributors, editors, referees, reviewers and readers. It was wonderful to see so many WSG members at the conference we organised to celebrate WoW [Women’s Writing] at Lucy Cavendish College in 2010 during your time as President there.

JT I was not there at the beginning of WSG, so please do say something about the early days? 

MMR I am proud to have been a founder member and was a member of the executive committee for some years.You might remember howI used to get guest speakers for the WSG section of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ annual conference. I also organised a one off event at Senate House called “Demystifying the Female: She-Devils, Saints and Signifiers” in November 1990. The most memorable speaker was Marina Warner. The lineup was far more eclectic than any conference the WSG would run these days. The call for papers had been too wide and we ended up with a New Age speaker on the feminine divine or the divine female, which ever one it was, it really didn’t work for the conference. Another speaker who was rather out of step was Devendra Varma, whose old-fashioned chauvinism grated on several speakers as sexist, so that when it came to discussing a possible publication, they refused to be published between the covers of the same book. Since he was the keynote speaker, I felt that I had to abandon that idea altogether. When the Enlightenment Congress came to Bristol, I ran the Women’s Studies section and had invaluable support and input from members of the WSG. Apart from conference organising, I have given talks to the group on Rosina Bulwer Lytton, Anna Wheeler, and also Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. You and I edited special anniversary issues on both of them, which you may recall.

JT I do indeed.

MMR For the Mary Shelley one, I did something a bit out of the ordinary for a journal by including a play by Judith Chernaik, which consisted of a dialogue between Mary Shelley and the ghost of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. I dedicated it to my mother, who died the year it came out in 1999. A few years earlier, I found my very own woman writer – Rosina Bulwer Lytton and started working on her, as well as her mother, Anna Wheeler. Because of this, I was drawn to a workshop in 2008 that the WSG were running on mothers and daughters, so I asked Joanna Goldsworthy who had been researching Wheeler and translating her work from the French to give a joint paper with me. We wrote it up for a chapter in the WSG book on female collaborations, which was being put together in memory of Mary Waldron.

JT Mary, of course, was our excellent Reviews Editor for Women’s Writingand later became a member of the editorial board. She also edited one of our best ever issues, which was on Jane Austen.

MMR And we are revisiting Jane Austen for another issue in the not so distance future.Even though I have spent most of my academic career in Bristol, it was Mary’s work on Ann Yearsley that prompted me to start looking into links with early women writers and the city and that is something that has continued and is evident in this book too in fact. The WSG book is a tribute to her major contribution to scholarship and her stalwart membership. The book, edited by Carolyn Williams, Angela Escott and Louise Duckling is called Woman to Woman: Female Negotiations during the long Eighteenth-Century and it really captures the collaborative nature of the WSG. You did a book which reminds me of it called Women’s Friendship in Literature, written while you were teaching in the States in the 1970s. Did you find any differences with feminism in America as opposed to Britain?

JT There was a feminist movement in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but there wasn’t much of an academic literary one and not much empirical historical groundwork being done — at least not much that I came across. Political socialist feminism was vibrant; but less of the academic sort that was so helpful to people in their careers in America. The book on women’s relationships which I wrote then was well received in the US and the topic seemed timely. In fact I discovered that Nina Auerbach was writing a book on communities of women in the 19th century at the same time and we realised we were doing similar kinds of interpretative and excavating work for different periods. In England however, when the book came out there, I had a real blast in the T.L.S. from Anita Brookner. Most of us remember bad reviews, completely forgetting the good ones. I remember this one vividly because it objected not so much to the book, which was hardly mentioned, but to the notion of female friendship. Brookner’s point was that anything that proposed to go against the great heterosexual romance was dangerous, and the idea of female friendships undermined it. I found it particularly sad because I loved Anita Brookner’s novels. She was just that little bit older than me, and just a little bit further ahead of me in life; I used to think I could read one of her books and know what was coming my way.

MMR You mapped out the field for academic feminism with your dictionaries in the 1980s – A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers1660-1800 and then the Dictionaryof British Women Writers.Were they very daunting tasks to put together, because you were a pioneer?

JT The first one, the Restoration to the eighteenth century, that was a huge amount of work, and I struggled to get contributors — Betty Rizzo in particular was a wonderful and very willing help. But on the whole I found it very difficult to get people to write entries on women they didn’t know; so I was forced to write a fair number of entries myself to complete the book. Nowadays, I would spend a lot more time on each of the authors, but I gather that my quick and rather summary opinions have allowed more dedicated people to begin talks with “As Janet Todd curiously thinks.” In this way I have performed a service to the academy.

MMR Your service is often seen as your work on Mary Wollstonecraft and collaboration with Marilyn Butler. What drew you to Mary Wollstonecraft when she was such a neglected figure?

JT It was a joy to do something like this with Marilyn Butler, a woman I admired immensely. Originally I knew only The Rights of Woman but came to appreciate so much more. After editing the Works with Marilyn, I edited the letters by myself. And it was the letters that really drew me in. I found Wollstonecraft a very emotionally attractive figure –and, I thought, very understandable. I worked on her for so long that I started to, well, not identify with her, because after all she was supremely clever and original, but I did see and sympathize with her prickly, difficult side. So, when I came to write a biography of her, I felt I was able to make one or two critical remarks about her despite the fact that she had come to be the great icon of early feminism. Looking at her through the letters of her sisters, I realised what a struggle it was for them to cope with this brilliant sister despite her being so generous to them. In other biographies she was made more romantic and simply heroic: for me she emerged as very human while being a brilliant trailblazer. I loved her writings including her novels and letters. Way before it became common, she was trying to describe her inner life and fluctuations of emotions. It isn’t quite Elena Ferrante, but Wollstonecraft was getting very close to the nitty gritty of female experience in a way that I don’t think any other woman had done before her.

MMR Do you remember the issue of Women’s Writingyou and I edited together on Mary Wollstonecraft, and the cover? I went to a Mary Wollstonecraft conference in Norway and I came across an exhibition at an art gallery where there were spoof covers of her books based on Mills and Boon-type romances, so we decided to use one for the Vindication of a bare-chested man with a woman gazing adoringly up at him, and it did upset some people. I think that was our favourite cover. One of the other surprising things about the journal is that we have never had an issue so far on female biography if you think of all your work. But the good news is that we arehaving one soon and it will be edited by Gina Luria Walker and Mary Spongberg. In fact, it will include the first article of mine to be published in the journal, which is going to be about Rosina Bulwer Lytton and how her biographer treated her.

JT Yes, I remember that rather startling cover for the Wollstonecraft issue! I have loved writing biographies — after Wollstonecraft, I went on to write about her tragic daughter Fanny and her Irish pupil Lady Mount Cashell — and I look forward to our issue on the subject of biography in general. When I began writing women’s lives, it wasn’t very fashionable in universities, but now biography has become a subject of study in its own right while the practice has become excitingly experimental.

MMR I wanted to ask you about the transition you have made from biography to fiction with your latest book, A Man of Genius. Did you find it difficult to make that transition and is there a lot of your academic work coming through?

JT I hope not! I’ve always wanted to write fiction. And I always did in some form. Some of the novels are finished and some now hopelessly out of date. I fell into rather than chose an academic ‘career’. It is not perhaps the easiest way to make a living, but it is a whole lot easier than making a living by writing (non-crime) fiction; you are not going to keep a family on royalties unless you win a big prize or in some way hit the jackpot. Now that I’ve stopped working for a salary I’ve got the chance to do it and it’s a real joy. The lovely thing about fiction is you don’t have to tell the truth. I’ve always liked speculation and I like speculation in biography. When I wrote the Aphra Behn book there was a lot of speculation in it simply because there are not so very many facts securely known about her; so, if you are not going to speculate, you will write a very short book. I brought in a lot from other people’s diaries and letters to provide a context for her and, I hope, make her live through her own and other people’s words and within her exotic and tumultuous time. I am about to revise it for renewed publication in 2017, over 20 years since its first publication, and I realise again how exciting both the character and her times are. It was the book I think that gave me most trouble to write and was in some ways the most rewarding since when I began I had no idea quite how remarkable a writer and woman Behn was. So it’s a good time to be writing biography but for me: it became a stepping stone to fiction. The speculation in biography needs to be as close to the truth as it can be – and I hope I stayed with this in the Aphra biography. But in fiction one can follow other kinds of ‘truth’ than just the straightforward and empirical.

Audience Because of the difficulty for feminist-minded scholars to get a foothold into institutions of learning [in Britain] – and you are one of the pioneering figures – did you position yourself in a coterie of any kind? Did you feel, at the time, that you were able to connect up with like-minded women scholars, or did you feel you had to just pursue what you were doing as well as you could?

JT I was in America and the scholars you refer to were in England. So, no, I didn’t know them. The people I knew were Elaine Showalter and Adrienne Rich and Catherine Simpson, and so on – the coterie of New York. Very impressive women from a completely different background from me. At Rutgers, Douglass College we started the first Women’s Studies programme in America, and I did find that world quite nurturing intellectually. Coming back to Britain was something of a shock. Beyond Marilyn Butler I hardly knew any women scholars. I loved the work of Barbara Hardy and Barbara Everett, but I didn’t really know them. I was first of all at Southampton University where French theory including French feminist theory was the dominating intellectual system. I enjoyed reading Kristeva and Cixous, but was not much influenced by their manner of writing. I remained interested in excavating early women writers – I remember Kristeva in New York and finding her very politely critical and slightly contemptuous when I showed her my journal with its Anglo-Saxon ‘empirical’ work! The greatest excitement for me was my first reading of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politicsin America. It is mistaken in most of its close interpretations but the whole tenor of the book and the overall thesis were amazing to me then: the notion that indeed the personal and the political could cohere and be found together in literature.

Audience: Who have been your greatest role models throughout your career?

JT I don’t think I had any role models – that’s probably my trouble. We moved so much when I was a child that I didn’t have a schoolteacher I liked for any length of time. In Sri Lanka my mother made me cut out the ‘Worthy Women’ from a comic called Girlwhich we had sent out from England. I put the cutouts in a scrap book. The women were the sort who went off to become missionaries, travelling into the Gobi Desert on camels or steamy jungles, wearing enormous scarves tied round floppy hats; then the queens like Boudicea. I couldn’t much relate to them. As I speak, I’m still thinking of role models and I’ve come up with someone I might have had: I once shared a platform with Germaine Greer. She was already famous because of TheFemale Eunuch. She and I came together in the US, because we wrote on Aphra Behn. On the platform she was standing there about five feet taller than I, completely upright, and riding roughshod right over what I thought of as my far better arguments. I was bowled over by her self-confidence and wish I had had someone like that to copy in the beginning. But probably at just over five feet and with many Welsh inhibitions I would not have got far!

MMR Being Welsh too and also around the same height, that alerts me to announce that we have published an issue in Women’s Writing on Welsh Women Writers, edited by Jane Aaron – so look out world for that!

JT Back to what I was saying – no, I have no real models. I don’t know if I really understand the concept. Do you have them?

MMR Alas yes. I can honestly say that when I first joined the WSG, it was awash with role models, which was inspiring of course but also a bit overwhelming too!

JT Well you are rather younger than me, Marie! Let’s just say that we are a mixture of role models and friends for each other, which is why it has been such a pleasure to work together.

How to organise a WSG workshop

The biggest event in the WSG’s calendar is always the annual workshop. In the fifth in our series exploring the history of WSG and to coincide with the recent publication of Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen and Sword, 2018), members Vicki Joule and Sarah Oliver remember their roles as Committee members and workshop organisers, and some of the most memorable events WSG put on.

VJ: After several years of membership, Sarah and I were invited onto the WSG Committee and slipped into the organisational roles of co-treasurers and workshop organisers.

SO: Yes, between 2008 and 2012. There were ups and downs, but we had fun. Most of the preparatory work and head-scratching was carried out in my kitchen, but thankfully, Vicki never let the paperwork, emails and the hastily scribbled notes between us go.

VJ: Our way of managing these roles reflected the ethos of the Group: we shared, discussed and laughed. My enduring memory of our time together as co-treasurers and co-workshop organisers is firmly located in Sarah’s attic-flat, which is appropriate for scholars of eighteenth-century writers as it evokes the image of the stereotypical Grub Street hack. We spent many an hour working in the eaves albeit with warmth, good food and drink so actually far from the conditions of those attic-writer dwellers. Sarah’s open plan and richly-coloured interior, like a cross between a Moroccan and Italian roof terrace, seemed to invite relaxed and lively conversation, and our WSG work-meetings trickled into other meetings. Sarah’s tables and floors would be spread liberally with papers and Sarah would make sure the food and wine were equally if not more liberally spread.

Once the papers had been sorted and workshop folders packed, other women would arrive for book clubs, conversation and, on one occasion, baking where we exchanged our skills in pastry and scone-making. The WSG community seemed to have an impromptu base in the South West through Sarah and one that extended beyond the membership and official meetings. As our time as Committee members came to an end, we continued as members and our local book club had become well-established and the concerns and interests that WSG promoted were evident in the club. Whether we read ‘old’ or contemporary books, the question of women often emerged in our discussions.

The 2008 WSG workshop poster

Workshop 2008 – ‘The one with the journal’

SO: I remember that our first Workshop culminated in a wonderful collaborative project. The discussion that closed Marie Mulvey-Roberts’ and Joanna Goldsworthy’s ‘Mothers and Daughters’ session turned to the idea of gathering a collection of articles for a journal to commemorate one of our founder members, Mary Waldron. Marie offered to oversee the collection’s publication in the journal, Women’s Writing.  As we had recently completed our PhD studies, Vicki, Daniel Grey and I were anxious to flex our muscles as Committee members and so we offered to act as guest editors.  We had no idea what this would involve, and in the end, because they were invaluable in the process, we added the names of the readers to the list of editors, which must be the longest ever seen in literary history!

The project took several months, with each article read by two readers and passed on.  Daniel wrote the Introduction the night before the deadline, emailing me well into the night: I think we worked until 3am, but we did it.  The journal edition was entitled ‘Women Out Loud’.

The 2009 WSG workshop poster

Workshop 2009 –  ‘The Wax one’

VJ: The purpose of the WSG workshops is to learn from the expertise of the speaker on their chosen subject and then for the attendees to share their own contributions on the theme of the day in the spirit of collaboration. When Sarah and I took on the workshop organisation we kept to this successful format. As I look through my WSG folder it reminds me how productive and interesting these sessions were. In finding contributions for the workshop theme, attendees are required to think differently about their research and, if there are no connections, to look further afield for an example. The results are always surprising. For our second workshop, led by Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, the title was ‘Women and Wax in the Age of the Enlightenment’ (2009). This set a challenge for attendees, and for us to find a suitable and not off-putting picture of ‘women and wax’ for our publicity material! The talk was fascinating and Elizabeth took us on a tour of the cultural significance of wax from its scientific value including anatomical models to the symbolic and literal connections with women with wax dolls. The Group rose to the challenge in finding wax in the eighteenth century and I have an eclectic mix of papers as a result.

The 2010 WSG workshop poster

Workshop 2010 – ‘The one with the animals’

VJ: For me, our 2010 Workshop had the most communal and also special feel; this is partly due to the speaker, Jane Spencer, and how we had the tables set back so that following the talk we could move into a circle. It was wonderful to be able to introduce the woman who had inspired my interest in eighteenth-century women writers with her book The Rise of the Woman Novelist and, later, with whom I had the pleasure of being supervised for my PhD. There was also something about the topic – women and animals – that inspired so many exciting contributions and there was a real energy of interest in the room. 

SO: Yes, I too remember that very exciting day, Vicki!  This was another of our mad catering ventures, although at this stage, we didn’t have much difficulty in organising it (more later). However, we enhanced the buffet table, as usual, with small vases of flowers and luckily, found some charming animal printed napkins – much to everyone’s amusement.

The 2012 WSG workshop poster

2012 Workshop –   ‘The one with the catering’

SO: We must have foregone the pleasure of organising the 2011 workshop, but neither Vicki nor I can remember why [Teresa Barnard convened the 2011 workshop, featuring Prof Ann Shteir on ‘Myths of Flora’ – Ed.]. But, for me, the most abiding memory of this 2012 session is our anxiety over the catering at Senate House (of all things). On previous occasions, arrangement for the morning tea and coffee, buffet lunch and afternoon tea had been very easy and it had been handled by the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies. All we had to do was to ring them, speak to Flo or Angela, order what was needed and they invoiced us.

However, somewhere between 2011 and 2012, this had changed. After many telephone calls to London from Exeter, I finally managed to find out that someone called Chris had taken over the job of dealing with the catering and I wish, on this occasion Vicki, you had offered to take it on! After a dozen attempts I heard a voice on the end of the line who assured me that there was no problem. Chris asked what was required, and in response to my request for an invoice said there was no need. We were to put the cheque under his door when we were leaving!

If that wasn’t enough, the venue had been changed to a room in the bowels of Senate House. On a recce beforehand, I remember our panic as we tried to envisage what we could do if there was no sign of coffee and therefore, of course, there would be no lunch or afternoon tea. As workshops were held on Saturdays, there would also be no one around to ask. We planned to dash to Marks and Spencer for tea, coffee, milk, napkins and armfuls of sausage rolls. We would make the refreshments ourselves by borrowing a kettle and getting water from the bathrooms.

What a relief when the morning of the workshop arrived, and the tea trolley was sitting there complete with a friendly smiling face who assured us that lunch and tea would be taken care of. During a break in the afternoon I wearily mounted the stairs, found the relevant door and gratefully pushed the envelope containing the cheque beneath it. The workshop itself was a resounding success, with an excellent talk by Professor Gill Perry on portraits and female celebrity.

Co-Treasurers

SO: At the AGM on Saturday 5th July 2008 it was announced that as the current Treasurer had been unwell for some time the role had to be re-filled. Not knowing what we were letting ourselves in for, Vicki and I offered to help and were officially appointed. Carolyn, who was safe-guarding the books, was to hand them over to me when we were next in London and a meeting was arranged.  I imagined a thin folder, but I’ll never forget the moment when Carolyn D Williams and I met at a bus-stop and she handed two very large, arm-breaking bags filled with ledgers and various papers! No problem; or so I thought as I struggled to take them back to Exeter. When we arrived at our local branch, we were summarily rejected. As far as the Bank was concerned, they had never heard of us and they didn’t want us to bother them!  We had chosen a time when the bank had merged with another; the bank was in chaos, and there was a very long line of irate people waiting to get attention besides us. However, we did attempt it again, and this time we were offered an appointment. The previous Treasurer’s Bank was contacted. We signed numerous forms in triplicate. Honour was served and order emerged from chaos.

VJ: We also received and sent emails from members regarding their research interests and publications which Louise Duckling needed for the website. The best part was that members often sent us lovely messages and postcards when submitting their subscriptions.

SO: But all good things come to an end, and when the Committee decided to respond to requests to have subscriptions dealt with by Paypal, we both thought it was time to call it a day. There had been highs and lows in this experience but the best part was being in constant contact with the community of full time academic women as well as independent scholars who, although busy with jobs, family and homes to look after, supported the Women’s Studies Group in all kinds of ways.

VJ: Finding Sarah at a WSG meeting when we were both working through our PhDs set in motion a friendship that would bring us and others together. We had met in the South West before, as we both attended the Symposiums and Conferences held by Exeter and Plymouth Universities, but it is in London that I really remember us securing a connection both intellectually and physically on our shared long train journeys to and from meetings. Fittingly, our first meeting was at a WSG Workshop in 2004, which was on the collaborative and creative intellectual community of the Bluestockings and their legacy, and was led by the excellent scholar Elizabeth Eger ahead of her National Portrait Gallery special exhibition. My tendency to archive means that I still have the delegate list complete with Sarah’s handwritten addition of her personal email address and telephone number.

We continue our Women’s Studies Group connection albeit in rather different places. Sarah is no longer in her flat and I am now living in a 1930s house bordered by Welsh mountains, and the Bristol Channel is now in between us. But, on a clear day you can see across the water to the South West and Sarah and I will in our various ways maintain our engagement in women’s writing as we now intend to try writing together.

SO: Yes, I very much look forward to spending some time in Wales, planning our future collaborative writing.  In the meantime, the Book Group continues – sometimes in my tiny house, situated a couple of miles away from my former City Centre flat. However, since I have some Toulouse-Lautrec prints in the sitting room which leads on to a small courtyard garden, my home now suggests Montmartre rather than Morocco.

Thank goodness for WSG, the friends and contacts we made over the years, but most important of all, the memories we share.

Home thoughts from abroad

Every scholar has had that moment when they’ve wondered if they’re ever going to get their project done, or get their enthusiasm for their subject back, whether it’s because of administrative overload, physical or mental ill health, or precarity. Groups like WSG can form a supportive network to researchers, particularly those who find themselves outside traditional academic structures. In the fourth of our series reflecting on the history of WSG and in honour of our new book Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen & Sword, 2018), Marilyn L. Brooks recounts how WSG has been a resource for her through the years.

I’ve found it extremely interesting and very enjoyable to be given the opportunity to look back over the history of the WSG and its influence on my life and well-being.

I came to academia late as a mature student in my 30s. I must have joined WSG in the mid to late 80s after being encouraged to make contact by Marie Mulvey-Roberts at a BSECS conference. This was my first opportunity to immerse myself in women’s studies. At the time, the period coverage was narrower, starting at 1600, but it firmly included my own specialism of eighteenth-century women’s literature and Mary Hays in particular. Right from the start I found a welcoming and encouraging atmosphere nurtured by the warm support and enthusiasm of Yvonne Noble, Lois Chaber, Mary Waldron and Linda Bree. I was struck by their belief in sharing our interests with others. During my MA studies at Queen Mary College, London, Chris Reid and Isobel Grundy also urged me to become involved in the meetings. I wasn’t able to attend regularly because my work for the Open University took place on Saturdays but those I could get to I found inspiring, not least the chats during the breaks.  I was pleased to see that one of my MA students, Marion Durnin, went on to be a committee member.

I gave a paper ‘Mary Hays and “My Struggles to Free Myself”’ in April 1988, which led to a regional Day School in Cambridge two years later called ‘Appropriations of Power’ (with the encouragement and administrative help of Yvonne). Another paper ‘Mary Hays: Reluctant Radical’ was given in 1996. This was followed by a joint (with Nora Crook) centenary conference on Shelley/Wollstonecraft in 1997 in Cambridge which was advertised through our group, with several members attending and offering papers.

In 2000 I had to retire from work through ill health (I had been diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder over 40 years ago and my condition was worsening) and, on medical advice, moved to southern France (for the light) so I was unable to come to meetings and I soon started to feel geographically and psychologically isolated (one of the reasons why Yvonne wanted to form the group in the first place).  As well as cancelling my subscription to BSECS, Women’s Writing, and Enlightenment and Dissent, I decided that WSG also had no further interest for me so I didn’t renew to that either and dropped off its mailing list. How many times did I say to myself ‘Do I need to know that so-and-so had published such-and-such or that, for example, a BARS conference ‘Women, Money and Markets (1750-1850)’ will take place at Kings College London in May 2017’? Well, yes I did and yes I do. I remember feeling that my isolation (geographical and psychological) was increasing by knowing what I was being excluded from so I thought STOP.  I don’t know when I decided how much I missed knowing what was going on in my subject area but after some years I decided to renew my subscription. I was glad to know for instance, that Janet Todd had published Death and the Maidens and Anne Stott had a book out on Hannah More, both of which I later read and enjoyed. I probably wouldn’t have heard of these elsewhere. I’ve noticed a very impressive progression from quite basic/rudimentary information to a sophisticated notice board giving dates on events and access to essential databases such as the Orlando projectled by WSG member Isobel Grundy.

Would I go up to the Foundling Museum if I could? Well yes I would. Workshops to which participants are asked to bring a 5-minute contribution shows the Group’s commitment to inclusion and participation especially relevant to newcomers. I saw that one recent workshop was advertised as offering discussion and conviviality, both of which are always guaranteed.

At times I’ve thought I can’t attend meetings therefore I’m not a real member. But of course I am. After rejoining I’ve felt that badly-needed intellectual support through the mailing list, sometimes two or more items arriving in a day.

The publications I thought I’d lost interest in after early retirement actually became central to my life here – a way of connecting. A major resource has been the members’ interests list. Scrolling down it I found Susan Purdie and Sarah Oliver shared my interest in William Frend and their article on his relationship with Mary Hays gave me a badly needed boost and being in touch has been a great boost to me. We’ve been lucky to have this extensive resource of members’ interests eg 4 Sep 2016 Judith Hawley asked for help with her work on Joanna Baillie and I am sure she got it. I was also asked for advice regarding a forthcoming viva on Mary Hays and was glad to offer some.

I have to admit that the frequent receipt of notices of events sometimes seemed to reinforce my feelings of isolation from the academic world but latterly I came to see this as a badly needed lifeline. I’ve found myself carefully reading the extensive synopses before each group meeting as if I could almost feel that I was going to attend. I like to know what’s going on and thus feel included. Do I need to know that our workshop on seventeenth-century portraits of women will take place on 6 May 2017 at the Foundling Museum? Well, yes I do! And maybe I’ll be able to come.

The format has become more and more sophisticated over the years and we must applaud the contribution made voluntarily by members. The coverage is impressive and a respected outlet for other sources e.g. BARS, academic blogs, outings, cfps, etc.

I should say that suffering from my worsening bipolar illness has fed this isolation even more by removing any input I would have liked to make. This is where the notifications have given me hope that my interests can resurface. In fact, due largely to the circle I find myself in I am silently encouraged to pursue my research on William Frend even though it looks very unlikely that it will come to completion. I’ve had to accept that some things are no longer possible but that I can still get enjoyment out of them. I’ve felt nurtured by interest in my work outside a competitive forum. The Group has unknowingly given me the courage to carry on.

I think this is due to the nurturing support of the WSG. Thank you Yvonne for the vision and thank you all for fulfilling it.

How to sustain a women’s studies group

After last month’s posts, you might think that organising an informal women’s studies group is a piece of cake. But there are always teething troubles. In the third of our series reflecting on the history of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837, and celebrating our book Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen & Sword, 2018), Lois Chaber gives an honest account of how WSG evolved …

Confessions of an OAP Survivor: Out of the thick murky mist emerges an illumined scene of figures around a table—no, not Hrothgar’s mead-hall rising bright from the dark moors, but the blurry memory of my first WSG meeting—female scholars drinking tea, not warriors downing beer, sometime in 1988, the year after the group was founded. But if my first memory is not clear, what is clear is what the Women’s Studies Group: 1558-1837 meant to me and did for me.

Where I was coming from, literally and figuratively, gave special meaning to my entry into WSG.  I had recently come to London after a long sojourn in the Middle East, living through the Iranian Revolution in that country and feeling the effects of the Iran-Iraq War in Qatar, struggling to teach Austen, T.S. Eliot et al., to students with mostly basic English with few intellectual colleagues, and pursuing research with dinosaur technology—no email, no internet, just eighteenth-century articles, photocopied and sent by a hired graduate student of an American friend, making their slow way across continents to my desk, and hefty books ordered from Blackwell’s in Oxford–sent at great postal cost.  Driven to England by my husband’s pursuit of a one-year business degree at LSE, we had hoped to leave London after a year to settle in New Zealand, but for a combination of reasons, London became our default home.  I was an American Anglophile with a skimpy CV, trying to write an article, in isolation, on Pamela’s cheeky treatment of John Locke in Richardson’s unloved sequel.

But serendipity rescued me from wallowing in self-pity.  My American friend, Carole Fabricant, a distinguished Swift scholar, chanced to be in London at the time of our arrival on these shores, and directed me to meet her in a pub—my very first one—where my American naiveté found me trying to order a Brandy Alexander and nearly getting booted out of said pub.  Carole happened to know Yvonne Noble, told me about her women’s studies group, and gave me her contact details.  When I called Yvonne, I was promptly invited to join WSG, and started coming to the meetings. The ‘herstory’ of WSG’s founding belongs to Yvonne; I was just an early member with modest ambitions who fell in love with WSG and became a dogged hanger-on.

At the meetings, I got to know Mary Waldron, another independent scholar like Yvonne and myself, all of us looking for a refuge from scholarly isolation.  I also have fuzzy images over the next few years of getting to know various women withfaculty positions, such as Carolyn Williams, Penny Richards and Clare Brant, as well as graduate students like Sarah Prescott and Emma Clery, who found WSG a resonant sounding board for their work-in-progress before moving on to successful academic careers.  Two WSG presentations particularly stand out.  Isobel Grundy, before the Canadians seduced her away from us with an offer she couldn’t refuse, regaled us with a talk on ‘Cheerfulness in Jane Austen’s Persuasion’—a counter-intuitive view of that notoriously autumnal novel, which won my heart by a close reading of the text that slowly but inexorably proved her case about the sunny form that Austen’s stoicism took. The second is an early talk by Mary Waldron countering another critical truism–a reading of Mansfield Park in which she argued that Austen intended Fanny Price to be a flawed, wrong-headed character–an interpretation which eventually became a chapter in her book, Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time (1999).  Interesting that my first impressions of WSG were of women going against the grain!

And all this time I was too paralyzed with fear and shyness to open my mouth during the post-presentation discussions.  Even though the first article I’d ever written in my Middle Eastern isolation had wound up in PMLA (beginner’s luck!), I felt terribly inferior to all these British scholars—even the graduate students—partially because I had no academic position (though a few others were in the same boat), but mainly from the conviction of being a country bumpkin, an innocent abroad in the Mark Twain tradition—and those teddiblyeducated British accents all around me were quite intimidating.  The gradual forging of a bond with Mary, and the friendly, non-competitive atmosphere of the group, eventually held sway, and after the first year or two in WSG, I began to find my voice.

*     *    *     *

It was WSG that alerted me to BSECS and encouraged me to attend.  Nevertheless, I have dug up my first ever programme for the annual meeting, only to find a telling example of the sticky conditions women scholars often have to operate within and why it’s so helpful that WSG is a welcoming and supportive place for them to be: threaded in haphazardly amongst the innocent and amateurish single sheet of the 1988 BSECS programme (a far cry from current BSECS slick, professional programmes with their multitudinous parallel sessions!), I had scribbled in biro the following self-instructions in order to accommodate going to the conference while my husband was studying full time: ‘check girls’[my two small daughters’] schedules’; ‘Have to arrange for pickup of girls & possibly (?) getting them to Brownies’; ‘arrange with Denyse for pick-up & keys to house’—and so on.  Evidently it all worked out in the end as I have notes on the various speakers’ talks. 

It is a triumph for WSG’s growing intellectual status–and its persistence—(mainly through the ongoing efforts and enthusiasm of Carolyn Williams) that after many years we eventually achieved a slot as an official panel, within the main time framework of the conference, during the later Oxford phase of BSECS—climaxing in 2015’s TWO WSG panels!

*   *   *   *

Back to our own regular seminars:  I finally worked up the courage not only to take part in discussion but to present my own paper in 1991, encouraged by what I had perceived as the unspoken ethos of WSG: to provide a supportive, constructive audience in an egalitarian context.  I was working on a new project—the treatment of childbearing in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Part II and Sir Charles Grandison and offered a talk on this topic for one of the monthly seminars.  As this was my first speaking occasion before a WSG audience, even my awareness of its usual friendliness didn’t stop me from having the jitters.  When I arrived at the venue, lo and behold, only two other members had turned up to listen—Peg Katrizky and loyal Mary Waldron.  Nevertheless, this ‘fit audience though few’ managed to give me some incisive feedback, which laid the basis for a tighter version of these ideas for the ISECS conference that year and eventually, for a substantial article in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. And this experience underscores one of the major virtues of the WSG seminars—their openness to work-in-progress, work not necessarily complete or perfectly polished, so that authors can receive feedback that helps their work develop further.  This WSG tradition has proven especially useful to graduate students and to young scholars in the very early stages of their career, as well as to independent scholars with no university structure to support them. (The downside of this, I must say, however, is that while some remain fiercely loyal, many fledgling scholars have in the past deserted WSG when their careers took wing.)

This first experience as a speaker also pointed to the flaws in our earlier WSG structure.  The (probably) overambitious goal of having a speaker every month all too often led to similar situations of scholars arriving at the seminar only to discover a disappointingly small audience—since these scholars were sometimes not even WSG members, they often felt let down at the underwhelming reception, and thus not disposed in the future either to join the group or to offer another talk. Later on, when we re-formed, Mary Waldron and I for quite a while had the responsibility of soliciting speakers for the sessions. Eventually, our present system, of having fewer sessions but more speakers at each—to gratify our speakers and make their efforts worthwhile by luring more punters into London, emerged from discussions, and, I believe, has worked well through to the present day.

*  *   *   *

Speaking of burdens, my last concern in these ‘confessions’, by way of enlightening newer members of WSG and plucking the consciences of older ones, is this: Yvonne Noble, as a major founder of the group, initially took on the responsibility of running allaspects of this group on her own—a virtual Atlas heaving under the weight of WSG.  The WSG members from this time period (and I am ashamed to say I was one!) allowed her to carry this burden alone for far too long. With her internationalist viewpoint and idealistic goals of widening the horizons of WSG, she made contact with feminist scholars outside the UK—in not only her native US, but also in many places in Europe, and coaxed them into becoming speakers, or at least members, of WSG. The membership ballooned, Yvonne’s duties swelled to enormous proportions and, inevitably, when Yvonne was offered a teaching post for a year at New York University, the group burst–and collapsed.

Finally, the implications of this crisis became clear to us, and a group of interested members met (at my home, in fact) to re-launch WSG on a more sensible and sustainable basis. We agreed to set up an organising committee and to share out all the responsibilities that Yvonne had taken on singly, a structure that has generally worked well to enable the WSG that we know today—with Carolyn Williams as our gadfly, nudging us into the unknown territory of WSG publications as well.  It’s not a perfect structure, to be sure, as there remain issues of further democratising the group and giving the non-committee WSG members more of a say in suggesting activities and making decisions, a goal rightly insisted on by Yvonne and one highlighted by the members’ survey she created a couple of years ago now.  We still have much to achieve in reaching that goal—one of the sticking points being where and when to have a ‘real’ AGM and how to get our geographically-scattered membership to attend—but as a witness of WSG’s own survival of its ups and downs—most recently our ejection from Senate House and quest for pastures new—I have faith that solutions will be found for this and that the future for WSG is bright and promising: the world is all before us…

Who can start a women’s studies group?

After the first guest post by Isobel Grundy in our new series reflecting on the history of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837, and celebrating the publication of our book Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen & Sword, 2018), you might be wondering who can start a women’s studies society, reading group, activist organisation… Well, anyone who feels the need for one can. Find your people, dig where you stand. In this post WSG founder Yvonne Noble explains her decision to start the group and argues for the importance of scholarly community.

Like many Americans of my generation, I come from a small town—right over the hill, four miles from Clairton, Pennsylvania, where the beginning of The Deer Hunteris set. College was a liberation and graduate school, study that could continue the encounter with literature that I had come to love, at last put me into a congenial community.  It took many years before I understood that I should prepare myself for a profession, but finally I proceeded quite successfully with good credentials and tenure at a very good university. When, fifteen years after most of my contemporaries, I found myself with the husband, children, and house that the 1950s had imagined, except located in England, confident of my competence and armed with imperfect advice, I resigned my tenure and found myself right back in the boots of the sixteen-year-old who has had a baby too soon—that is, with no job and therefore no funds to enable me to complete my research.  And no colleagues.

My dissertation had been an edition of The Beggar’s Opera. I had had a lot of trouble because at that time the principles of editing words and editing music were almost opposite, and people in different fields tended not to talk to each other. I was therefore an enthusiastic participant at the founding of the first (the International) Society for [Interdisciplinary] Eighteenth-Century Studies at St. Andrews in 1967. In my isolation in England, the three days of the local affiliate (BSECS) was my only time of professional contact. In their original conception the SECS societies required that all sections of the meeting be interdisciplinary, and it was found that two new fields—garden history and women’s studies—could most easily provide such interdisciplinary sessions. I was very interested to follow both fields, and I began to track where they overlapped, especially in the imaginative arts. (I had taught Paradise Lost and Clarissa and had ideas about the relationship of women and gardens.)

On this basis, supported by Ludmilla Jordanova, someone also interested in gendered imagery, whom I had met through BSECS, I obtained an unfunded but psychologically very valuable fellowship to the Bunting Institute at Harvard, in a program aimed to give a boost to women scholars whose careers had been impaired. There were more than forty of us in a year. We all in turn told our stories—and it was always the same tale. (This is all a commonplace of feminism, but it is always new to each individual woman.) The lesson, of course, was that our difficulties were not largely owing to our own inadequacy, and that it was important to have associates and colleagues.

With this necessity in mind, at the next BSECS meeting I attended, I called a pilot meeting to explore there being a group for women’s studies. I remember Jessica Munns and her sister Penny Richards being there—Penny has worked in 16thcentury history, hence our extension to include that period in the group. I didn’t keep a record of the others who came just then, but Isobel Grundy and Carolyn Williams were certainly members very soon, as well as Jean Bloch (in French at Royal Holloway), who interceded to arrange our meeting rooms at the University of London’s Senate House. Not long after Isobel brought in two mature students of hers, Mary Waldren and Linda Bree.

Our first session at the Senate House was on gendered imagery in Erasmus Darwin by Janet Browne, who went on to edit Charles Darwin (and never returned to us, though it was she who suggested that we name ourselves a “group.”) We tried to have single hour-long talks each month. Many times we also held Day Schools on a particular theme—I remember Marilyn Brooks holding one on ‘Appropriations of Power’ in Cambridge, and Marie Roberts (as was then) on the Gothic (with Devendra Varma in Mourning Dress). My favourite was a two-day meeting at College Hall in Gower Street on Liminality, which ran from boy actors in Shakespeare through the coming of actresses at the Restoration, hermaphrodites by Carolyn Williams, and castrati by me and by Pat Rogers, who embodied liminality by 1) turning out not to be the female Pat many assumed and by 2) wearing blue eyeshadow in accord with the topic.

At this juncture I was suddenly offered a year’s teaching at New York University, with a faculty apartment on Washington Square—first semester, undergraduate eighteenth-century novel and graduate eighteenth-century “intellectual prose”; second semester graduate eighteenth-century novel and freshman composition. My husband in England could manage his job, the house, and our two children, but not WSG and it collapsed.  By that time we had members in nineteen countries.

Carolyn Williams and Lois Chaber will have to tell you how they picked up the pieces and reorganized WSG with a committee, seminar sessions three times a year, a workshop, and an outing, and, with the coming of the web, thanks to Louise Duckling and later Felicity Roberts, invaluable online facilities.  When the changing financial policies of the University of London precluded our continuing at Senate House, Angela Escott found us receptive quarters at the Foundling Hospital. Our existence—and continuing existence, as you see—is sustained by improvisatory efforts of members without institutional support. We could therefore offer members a venue for day schools on new topics they would like to organize, with, as is the fashion, new edited collections to arise from the presentations given. We can offer support for activities yet unimagined that members may propose. We offer support and companionship for unaffiliated people like me.

I would say a word to scholars in women’s studies of our period who are fortunate to have permanent university posts: please keep up your membership!  We need you because it is you who know the men and women who complete PhDs and then cannot find permanent work—you can direct them to us, you can tell us who they are. We understand that you are very busy, that it isn’t convenient for you to come to us on Saturdays, but it is important to us to be able to ask you for advice and information from time to time.