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.

WSG at BSECS 2019

WSG member Miriam al Jamil reports from the recent BSECS conference.

WSG members make an increasingly strong showing at BSECS conferences, both as participants in our own panel and as speakers on others. This year’s conference took place in Oxford 4-6 Jan 2019 and the theme was ‘Islands and Isolation’, which inspired a broad and eclectic range of papers across a range of disciplines. Our panel was titled ‘Fallen Women, Missionary Wives and Castaways: Exploring Women’s Isolation in the Long Eighteenth Century’. It was organised by Carolyn Williams and chaired by Yvonne Noble.

Tabitha Kenlon’s paper was ‘Scold, Punish, Pity or Seduce? The Confused Rhetoric of Advice to Unmarried Women (1791)’. Readers of our book Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837 will be aware of Tabitha’s work on conduct manuals and her paper explored contradictions in an anonymous advice manual of 1791. Description of the process of seduction is combined with moralistic counselling of the young women at risk, characterised as victims who succumb to temptation. The language borders on the salacious as the reader is addressed directly as a fallen woman, her shame a ‘chronicle of male triumph’. The writer exhorts reform but is not convinced that a woman will ever be exonerated for her failure to anticipate the actions of her seducer. Tabitha interpreted ‘isolation’ as the social and moral wilderness into which the fallen woman was propelled.

Trudie Messent presenting at BSECS 2019

Trudie Messent presented on a WSG panel for the first time. Her paper was titled ‘Yesterday I left my native land and have now gazed upon it for the last time’: Isolation viewed through the life writing of Missionary wives in the Sandwich Islands and New Zealand, 1819-1832’. Trudie examined both the harsh physical journey and the emotional one which young newly-married wives experienced as they adjusted to life on the other side of the globe. She suggested that the letters and descriptions written by her subjects had a cathartic effect in the absence of social contact that their new lives entailed. Trudie’s paper was accompanied by some beautiful slides, showing routes taken, portraits and scenes which enriched the descriptions and quotations in her paper.

Carolyn Williams’ paper ‘Ladies unus’d to such hardships: Women on Desert Islands in two Eighteenth-century Novels’ began with a witty admonition for the incompetence shown by such desert island dwellers as Ben Gunn and Robinson Crusoe who were unable to recognise the potential resources available to them on their islands, such as the fermenting grapes or sea salt which could be put to good use to supply yeast or enable cheese-making. The delicate languishing ladies in Penelope Aubin’s The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family (1721) were given short shrift in Carolyn’s discussion which highlighted the shortcomings of an upper-class life as preparation for survival on an island. Their practical working-class counterpoint was identified in Charles Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit; or, The Female Crusoe (1792) whose scientific and mechanical facility rendered her desert island sojourn a period of comfort and creative energy.

Other WSG members who gave papers at the conference included Gillian Williamson, Miriam Al Jamil, Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, our bursary winner Madeleine Pelling, and Judith Hawley who contributed her insights at a round table discussion on ‘#MeToo’. I am sure there were other members and friends at the conference. There were many familiar faces. Speakers Olivette Otele and Cynthia Wall mined their academic experience for thoughtful keynote talks, and a delightful concert of eighteenth-century songs by soprano Valeria Mignaco and guitarist Jelma van Amersfoort put us in a convivial mood for the conference dinner. Plans are already underway for next year’s conference which will be ‘Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural’ and we are sure WSG will have a strong presence again in 2020.

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.

Extra WSG seminar August 2019

WSG is pleased to announce an extraordinary summer seminar, exploring the relationship between history and the imagination, creativity and research.
Creative Summer Seminar, Saturday 17 August, 2019. Chair: TBC
Sara ReadThe Gossips’ Choice: Drawing on the Case Notes of Midwife Sarah Stone in Historical Fiction
Kim Sherwood: Creative Writing Research and the Eighteenth Century
Caroline Douglas: Spectre of a Woman

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including those for the visually impaired.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.