Jackie Mulhallen: performing Sylvia Pankhurst

WSG members frequently combine their research into early modern and eighteenth-century women’s history with present day activism.  Here, long-time member Jackie Mulhallen reflects on her recent experiences touring her play Sylvia, about the life of Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), the prominent suffragette, communist and anti-fascist.

I lead a double life – apart from writing academic articles and books, I am an actor and playwright. I thought WSG members might like to know how a play, written in 1987, can evolve through performance, interaction with the audience and the impact of other events, despite the script changing very little. This is what is happening to Sylvia, a one woman play written and performed by me, about Sylvia Pankhurst’s early career as an artist and suffragette.

Sylvia was so successful that it ran 1987-1992 with a revival in 1997. Designed for schools (suffragettes were, and are, on the National Curriculum), we also visited museums, libraries and arts centres. Among the 250 slides accompanying the performance are most of Sylvia’s extant paintings which are generally acknowledged to have promised a brilliant career, if she had not given it up for politics.

We decided to take a break from the theatre and I began a Ph.D. But by 2013, three new biographies of Sylvia had been published, there had been a conference in Woodford, Essex, an exhibition of her art at the Tate, and a campaign to have a statue erected to her.

It was time to revive the play – but it could not be the same! In 1997 I was very fit. Now I have back problems, making it difficult to walk. Yet Sylvia got older and fatter – digestive problems were a consequence of the many hunger strikes she undertook – and walked with a stick. So my interpretation of Sylvia aged. Instead of a William Morris style dress with brown hair, she now is silver grey, wearing a 1950s suit! William Alderson re-directed the play to keep movement to a minimum. One side of the stage became an art studio with easel and stool, and a new emphasis was developed. Sylvia the artist had equal weight with Sylvia the suffragette.

Something else happened. The earlier Sylvia was still young and shy, although eager to encounter new challenges. Now she was an old woman, those challenges having been met. My knowledge of her had developed through keeping up with the biographies and exhibitions, resulting in an enriched performance of the older Sylvia who now had greater authority.

This spring we toured from Newcastle to Surrey. We follow the play with an open-ended discussion which ranges through history, politics and art to detailed contributions from the audience – many interesting people who added to our own research and knowledge. Often audience members had ancestors who had been suffragettes – one turned out to be Flora Drummond, a prominent suffragette, nicknamed ‘the General’. We were joined for one post-show discussion by Chris Wiley, an expert on Ethel Smyth, and for another by Dinah Iredale, author of The Bondagers, a study of women agricultural workers in the North East. Sylvia toured Britain in 1907 researching and painting women at work. We learnt more about the pit brow lasses from our audiences in Wigan; about a local suffragette and pottery worker, Sarah Bennett, at Stoke on Trent; and in Northampton someone had written about women working in shoe-making.

It struck me how similar our audiences were to Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes – they were women, men and children and included immigrants. At one performance, women hissed Christabel Pankhurst when she expelled the Federation from the Women’s Social and Political Union – just how Sylvia’s members must have felt! They reacted just like the uninhibited audience as the eighteenth century actors I had researched for my Ph.D. This is really interactive research!

Material Girls: Women Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference and WSG panel report

The Women, Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference took place at Kings College, London on 11 May 2017 and three WSG members formed one of the panels delivering papers, writes Johanna Holmes. Co-ordinated by Miriam Al Jamil, the panel spoke on married women’s use of their moveable property as security in the credit market in eighteenth-century Scotland (Rebecca Mason, University of Glasgow), women painters constructing careers in the art world of the period 1820-1850 (Johanna Holmes, Royal Holloway) and Eleanor Coade, a woman who meant business in decorative stonework in the eighteenth century (Miriam al Jamil, Birkbeck College).

The conference was extremely well-attended – an estimated 100 or so delegates and panel speakers, including international delegates who had made a special trip. In view of this, conference organisers Emma Newport and Amy Murat also facilitated a visit for delegates the following morning to the Foundling Museum, a trip partly inspired by WSG’s connections there.

With a total of twelve panel sessions and two plenary lectures, it was a long and busy day, but the number and enthusiasm of delegates ensured that every panel had a good-sized (and discerning) audience, and that speakers found plenty to stimulate their thoughts when not on the platform. The full programme and speaker details can be found on the event website. Audio will be available shortly.

The WSG panel’s personal highlights of the day included:

  • The consistency of a number of themes emerging from the discussions, particularly in recognising women’s agency in a wide range of business activities in various forms of family and business relationships with men – this was history with women in equal focus
  • The opportunity to share research and emerging thoughts with other enthusiastic delegates.

WSG member Carolyn Williams gave a paper independently, on women and their makeshift ways of making money, which was full of illuminating quotes and anecdotes about the lengths to which women had to go in order to survive.

So WSG were well represented at the conference. Many thanks to our speakers!

WSG interviews: Andrew McInnes

In February, WSG began an occasional series interviewing group members about their research and influences. This month we’re speaking to Andrew McInnes.  The interviewer was Felicity Roberts and the conversation took place over email.

Hi Andy, tell me a bit about yourself.

I’m a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Edge Hill. My research interests include Romantic period women’s writing, the geographies of Gothic fiction, and children’s literature. My first monograph, Wollstonecraft’s Ghost: The Fate of the Female Philosopher in the Romantic Period has recently been published. In a weird way, this combines all of my interests: the book explores Wollstonecraft’s legacy on Romantic period writing; it does so by focusing on the way she seems to haunt women’s writing of the early nineteenth century; and she is a profound thinker about the urgent need to improve the education of children: to prepare boys and girls to be critically thinking citizens – as necessary now as then! 

What’s your current research?

At the moment, I’m dividing my time between two projects: one on how Austen continues to engage with the Gothic, beyond Northanger Abbey, by positioning it in different locations – London, Ireland, the Mediterranean, Antigua, fairy land – away from the geographies of her novels; the other looks at how contemporary children’s literature makes use of the past in ways which move beyond nostalgia.

I haven’t read beyond Austen’s major novels but will you be using any of her juvenilia for instance? I loved Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship last year (an adaptation of Austen’s Lady Susan), and wondered why nobody had done it before.

I love that film! It presents such a different vision of Austen from most other adaptations, focusing more on her satirical wit, verging towards cynicism at times. I read an interview with Kate Beckinsale, who plays Lady Susan in the movie, and she felt the character was full of rage, which I think is a new perspective on Austen. We still tend to think of her like Virginia Woolf did, as the cool, stylish one, contrasted with Charlotte Bronte’s anger, but I want to think about an angrier, more awkward Austen, railing against the injustices her heroines face.

Tell me about a formative influence on your work; it could be a person, a book, an exhibition, or a piece of advice.

My PhD supervisors, Jane Spencer and Adeline Johns-Putra (who also supervised my MA on Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden) remain my models of how to be academics: pastorally and personally supportive, intellectually and academically challenging, excellent scholars both.

I know of Jane! She’s written some great stuff on the links between 18thC natural history and natural rights.  I think 18thC women’s studies and ecocriticism have a lot to say to each other.

Yes, Jane was moving into Animal Studies over the course of my PhD – I remember she presented a paper on the orangutan in one of Peacock’s novels! She was a fantastic supervisor, shaping the development of my ideas through patient, scrupulous, and encouraging discussion.

What’s your own personal recipe for researching or writing successfully?

I think I’m yet to discover the perfect recipe but I find writing the first draft of a piece of work the closest I can get to transcendence in this fallen world.

Are there any support networks you’ve found useful?

I’d be a hopeless wreck without my wife, Abbi McInnes, and my writing would be a hopeless wreck without the editing skills of my friend and PhD peer, Rebecca Mills.

(Interviewer’s note – Rebecca researches 20thC poetry and geography – proving you don’t have to be an expert in your friend’s field to be able to critique a friend’s writing. In fact, it often helps not to be)

Finally, what’s the last thing you read or saw – it doesn’t have to be work-related?

I’m writing a lecture on the Romantic Self and have decided to tackle Wordsworth’s The Prelude- and in Andrew Bennett’s Wordsworth in Context, in an essay by Maureen McLane called ‘Wordsworth Now’, I stumbled upon a poem by Bob Perelman called ‘Fake Dreams: The Library’ which captures my divided feelings towards Wordsworth’s undeniable power and awfulness, ending in obscenity.

Obscenity! Do you mean Perelman’s poem ends in obscenity or your feelings towards Wordsworth do?! I know he’s frustrating at times… 

‘Fake Dream: The Library’ begins with a couple trying to have sex in a library, against the collected works of Wordsworth, which allows the speaker to engage in a poetic critique of Wordsworth’s self-representation. It ends in a men’s room with the speaker’s partner pointing out obscene graffiti, which McLane argues in ‘Wordsworth Now’ is Perelman’s surprisingly sympathetic rewriting of Wordsworth’s desire to write in ‘the real language of men’. I remember hating Wordsworth as an undergraduate, but one of the pleasures of growing up is changing your mind about things: now, I find parts of The Prelude – the ‘Crossing the Alps’ episode, for example – extraordinarily powerful poetry: both vertiginous and precisely ordered.

Romantic Novels 1817: Thomas Love Peacock

WSG member Susan Civale‘s Romantic Novels 1817 seminar series continues this month with a discussion of Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt lead by Dr Freya Johnston (Oxford).

The session will take place on Friday, 10 March 2017, at 6pm, at the University of Greenwich, in Queen Anne Court (marked ‘2’ on the map), Room 063 (a slight change from the first session). The seminar is free and open to the public.

Melincourt, Peacock’s second novel, is a vibrant satire of opinion, with a wide gallery of characters and a sophisticated armoury of stylistic and comic tools at its disposal. Female novelists, female dialogue, and female education all feature prominently, while the greatest joke in this novel of talk is that the hero, a chivalric orang-outang who strides triumphantly across a scene of human degeneracy, cannot speak at all.

Freya Johnston is a fellow and lecturer in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is general editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Novels of Thomas Love Peacock (2016-) and volume co-editor of his sixth novel, Crotchet Castle (2016).

A note on editions: Melincourt can be tricky to get hold of. There is a decent version of the whole novel available on google books.

The London & Southeast Romanticism Seminar, co-run by WSG member Susan Civale, is putting on a seminar series from January on “Romantic Novels 1817”.  After March, the next seminar is on Thursday 18 May, with Jenny McAuley (QMUL) leading a discussion of William Godwin’s Mandeville. Please contact @reading1817 or reading1817@gmail.com for further details.

WSG interviews: Tabitha Kenlon

This month WSG is posting the first of an occasional series, interviewing group members about their research, influences, writing tips, and anything else of interest that comes to mind while we’re at it.

In recent years, for students, independent scholars and career academics alike, blogging and social media have become an important way of working up ideas and making friendships.  There are great blogs out there exploring the history of women, gender and sexuality, medicine, work, science and archaeology.  But this online work is always inspired by, and flourishes with, older forms of generosity such as societies, reading groups and conversations.  With these interviews we hope both to trace our shared genealogy and build new forms of community online.

Tabitha KenlonOur first post is with WSG member Tabitha Kenlon, the interviewer was Felicity Roberts and the conversation took place over email.

Hi Tabitha, tell me a bit about yourself.

Hello! I’m currently at the American University in Dubai where I’m an Assistant Professor of English (my contract ends in June, though, so….). When I’m not grading student essays or advising the theatre club, I research eighteenth-century English novels, theatre and conduct manuals, with particular attention to women writers and characters.

What’s your current research?

I have two projects. My larger project is a book examining the history of conduct manuals from the beginning to the present. I’ll be focusing on volumes advising women, trying to trace the evolution of the female ideal and evaluate to what extent it has changed over the centuries. I’m also a member of the Women Writers Project’s Intertextual Networks collaboration, and my initial contribution on Shakespeare and Hannah Cowley went up in November.

Are there particular ways in which these two projects link up? Can you tell me a bit more why Hannah Cowley especially?

Excellent question! Both of these projects are continuations of work I started in my dissertation, which focused on eighteenth-century British plays, novels, conduct manuals and the performance of womanhood, how these media participated in a conversation about, and helped shape, appropriate female behaviour. I didn’t have space to cover all the wonderful women playwrights of the eighteenth century, so I chose Hannah Cowley because her comic heroines are so clever and conniving, but they aren’t “bad women”; whenever they flouted convention, such as dressing as a man and seducing a woman, it was for a good reason, like retrieving the wandering husband and mislaid fortune (perhaps another book will reunite these strands..).

Tell me about a formative influence on your work; it could be a person, a book, an exhibition, or a piece of advice.

I can think of quite a few, but I’ll try to limit myself. First would be Dr Priscilla Holmes, who helped me discover feminism in a sociology class at the University of Guam. Another significant moment was seeing Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway years ago. Five minutes in, I caught myself thinking, “I can’t wait to read this.” That made me consider the different ways plays function, as words both static and living; Of course my PhD dissertation committee was important. Professor Elizabeth Maddock Dillon introduced me to performance studies, and Professor Nicole Aljoe gave me a comprehensive exam on eighteenth-century novels and theatre that I actually enjoyed taking. I figured if I had fun taking a test, then that must be the thing I should study.

What’s your own personal recipe for researching or writing successfully?

I’m still figuring this out! Since I’ve been teaching four classes a semester and holding ten office hours a week, making time for my own research has been challenging. What I have learned is to put myself first. It might sound selfish, but if I say I’ll do my stuff after I’ve graded these quizzes, responded to these emails, prepped for these classes…there will always be one more thing to do and I’ll never get to my own projects. But if the first thing I do, even if only for an hour or two, is my research or my writing, it gets done and I still have time for all those other things (which tend to take less brain power and energy anyway). I didn’t grade a quiz for six weeks while I was working on my book proposal; the students didn’t even notice. And I got the book deal. Lesson learned.

A book deal! Can you say who it is with?

Yes, with Anthem Press, and the publishing date is probably late 2018/early 2019.

Are there any support networks you’ve found useful?

My current institution is fairly small so we are generally encouraging of each other, and a colleague and I developed a lecture series to allow professors to share their research. Maintaining the contacts I developed during my doctoral studies has been the best way to exchange ideas with other specialists. I’ve been involved with WSG since 2013, when I was staying at Chawton House and Marion Durnin, one of my “fellow fellows,” as we called ourselves, told me to take the train to London and attend a workshop. I did so, I met Angela Escott and other lovely people, and two years later I was part of the WSG panel at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference. Even though it can be tricky from far away, I try to be involved with WSG and BSECS.

Of course I stay in touch with friends I made at Northeastern University, where I studied for the PhD. Sarah Connell, an office-mate and “writing buddy,” is the assistant director of the Women Writers Project; she told me about the Intertextual Networks collaboration, and through that I’ve chatted with other people working on interesting things. In the absence of substantial resources where I am geographically, I’ve been trying to develop a support network using technology. It’s important, with the difficult job market, to have encouragement both professionally and personally. Very few of my friends have the traditional academic career our advisors did, so just knowing how other people are navigating unfamiliar career paths and how scholarship shapes (or doesn’t) their jobs, is helpful and sometimes inspiring.

Finally, what’s the last thing you read or saw – it doesn’t have to be work-related?

I’ve just come back from a short holiday, and I always listen to a new book on the plane. This time it was Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I made a lot of accurate guesses, but I was still holding my breath the last half-hour. Hard not to love a good murder mystery. Of course, like a good academic, now I want to read a biography of Christie and a history of the Orient Express…