WSG and Joint WSG / Foundling Museum Bursaries for 2019 now open

In 2016 to celebrate its 30th anniversary the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 began a bursary scheme. This year WSG pleased to offer two bursaries: one of £750, and one of £500 jointly with The Foundling Museum.

The WSG bursary is offered to an early career researcher*, independent scholar or PhD student who is a member of the WSG and the bursaries are intended to support research in any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837. The joint WSG / Foundling Museum bursary is also offered to the Foundling Hospital Research Forum (FHRF).

For further information about the bursary, and to apply, please download the application form.  The deadline for applications is 30th November 2019.  Applicants will be notified of the outcome by January 2020. For further information on membership, see here.

Pregnancy Portraits at The Foundling Museum: a tour with Karen Hearn

Karen Hearn will be giving a tour of her upcoming exhibition, Pregnancy Portraits, 1130am, Saturday, 15th February 2020.

The exhibition opens on 24th January 2020 at The Foundling Museum and will close the 26th April 2020. It will explore changing social attitudes to pregnancy, and to the pregnant female form, through images and other artefacts (mainly made within Britain) dating from the 15th century to the present day.

If you would like to attend the tour, please send an expression of interest to Miriam Al Jamil.

WSG seminar series 2019-20

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 is pleased to announce the speakers for their seminar series 2019-20.  All seminars will take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members. The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including for those who are partially sighted. Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum afterwards.

Saturday 21 September, 2019. Chairs Gillian Williamson and Carolyn D. Williams
Charmian Kenner: Sarah Andrews: furthering the cause of Latin American independence in early 19th century London
Sonia Villegas López: Female libertinism in Gabriel de Brémond’s transnational oriental fictions
Rebecca Simpson: Scandal and the Maternal Imagination in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Confessions of Mary Toft [WSG Bursary awardee, 2018]
Alison Daniell: Of False Hair, Bolstered Hips and Witchcraft: The Regulation of Women’s Bodies and an Act of Parliament that Never Was

Saturday 23 November, 2019. Chairs Miriam al Jamil and Felicity Roberts
Masuda Qureshi: Celestial Revolutions: Hester Pulter and the circular skies.
Natasha Simonova: ‘Semiramis does not stand still’: Amabel Polwarth and Amateur Authorship
John Beddoes: Anna, Emmeline and Maria Edgeworth, Three Sisters of the Enlightenment: “I do not wish to be the cause of one of your tight laced faces.”
Francesca Saggini: Below and Beyond. On Re-reading Burney’s Biographies

Saturday 18 January, 2020. Chairs Angela Escott and Miriam al Jamil
Charlotte Young: Women’s involvement in Canterbury sequestrations, 1643-1650 [WSG Bursary winner, 2019]
Carol Stewart: Penelope Aubin’s The Noble Slaves and the Politics of Opposition
Anne Stott: Princess Charlotte of Wales: gender and the “reversionary interest”
Katherine Woodhouse: “Madam Smith says, what shou’d the Captain do with such a wife as me who can only sit with a book in her hand”
Anna Jamieson: Madness Exhibited: The Margaret Nicholson Scandal

Saturday 21 March, 2020. Chairs Carolyn D. Williams and Angela Escott
Lindy Moore: The Scottish Schoolmistress in the Eighteenth Century
Alexis Wolf: Women and Mentoring in the Late Eighteenth Century: Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret King and Mary Shelley
Rachel Eckersley: Female benefactors to dissenting academies in England
Catriona Wilson: “Some attention to those female members”: Feminised monarchy in the first exhibition of Kensington Palace’s State Apartments, 1899

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page, or contact the organiser Carolyn D. Williams.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

WSG Summer visit: The Gibson Library, Saffron Walden, and Audley End House, 4th July, 2019

Many thanks to WSG member Miriam Al Jamil for writing this fascinating report.

Hidden gems and women collectors

Uncovering hidden gems in plain sight became the theme of this year’s visit to the small Gibson Library in Saffron Walden with its range of quirky and unexpected holdings, and to Audley End House at the opposite end of the scale with its fascinating collections where the curator revealed unacknowledged female contributions both to the objects on display and to those largely kept in storage. WSG member Gillian Williamson efficiently organised our full and thought-provoking day which was well-attended and enjoyed by all. This was a first for the group as it ventured further afield than the metropolis to explore resources which were new to most of us. These provided the focus of a pleasurable and sociable occasion in the picturesque Essex market town and the country estate nearby as well as inspiration for potential scholarly engagement in the future.

The Gibson Library https://www.townlib.org.uk/society.html is housed above the main town library in two main rooms. The reading room is a quiet and pleasant space, surrounded by the elegant bookcases donated by its founding benefactor, the Quaker George Stacey Gibson. His name replaced the earlier one of Library of the Saffron Walden Literary and Scientific Institution, founded in 1832. The library was part of the nineteenth-century momentum to provide educational opportunities for both scholars and working people and continues to work with nearby universities and on projects to encourage readers from the area, schoolchildren and subscribers to visit. Gibson’s interest in botanical, herbal and horticultural books is reflected in the early donations to the library, and the scientific, historical and archaeological interests of the old Literary and Scientific Institution are clear in other parts of the collection. We explored a display of books from the shelves. These included Martin Luther’s copy of Josephus, complete with his own marginalia; local shopkeepers’ day books of 1765 and 1814; commonplace and scrapbooks, such as those related to The Great Exhibition; grangerised copies of Granger’s A Biographical History of England, and of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson; a sumptuous edition of Dr. Goldsmith’s illustrated The Roman History volumes; various early biographical publications such as an edition of Mary Anne Clarke’s Authentic Memoirs and Anecdotes and Last Moments and Death of Her Majesty Queen Caroline (3rd edition, 1821), as well as a rare 1800 original of James Penn’s potboiler The Farmer’s Daughter of Essex, or the Life of Miss Davis. Almanacs and guides to art and book history, as well as the complete set of The Gentleman’s Magazine and Eminent Women series find space in the surprising tardis-like space of the library.

Image taken by the author. English Heritage collection

It was hard to leave the enticing profusion of bibliophilic treats but we moved on to lunch and a tour of Audley End House https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/ which culminated in curator Dr. Peter Moore’s presentation from the archives there. Audley End began as an Abbey which was granted to Sir Thomas Audley (c.1487-1544) after its dissolution. The house is substantially Jacobean, although around one half was demolished in the early eighteenth century and the interiors remodelled in the second half of the same century, so that we see a glorious fusion of architectural styles, mainly Georgian but including later nineteenth-century redesigns. The painting collection was largely made by Sir John Griffin Griffin, 4th Baron Howard de Walden (1719-1797). His additions to the house and work on the landscaped park were ambitious, anticipating a visit from George III which never materialised. Sir John’s heir was his nephew, Richard Aldworth Neville, 2nd Baron Braybrooke ((1750-1825), whose Grand Tour is explored in a small exhibition at the house until October 2019. For a review by WSG bursary winner, Madeleine Pelling: https://www.bsecs.org.uk/criticks-reviews/souvenirs-of-italy-an-english-family-abroad/.

Image taken by the author. On loan to English Heritage from a private collection’

For the purposes of our visit, the curator had thought about female agency in the collections displayed in the house. The recent renovations and displays on the second floor make features of family life and the nursery which Lady Jane Cornwallis (1798-1856), wife of the 3rd Lord Braybrooke, redesigned to make a suite of comfortable rooms for her eight children to whom she was devoted. This clearly feminine domain is however, only part of the story. There are 16,500 objects on display at Audley End and the majority are presented in the context of patriarchal lineage and masculine networks of connoisseurship and influence, particularly through the ‘standard narrative’ of the 4th Lord Braybrooke’s (1820-1861) prolific natural history, geological and archaeological collecting, activities and writing. However, as the curator suggested, the influence of the women of the family has been consistently overlooked. Lady Jane’s travel diaries for 1836-46 show her interest, comments and observations which contributed to the family’s collections. The labels on rock samples are in her hand along with her description of the ‘curious Dropping Well’ ,(https://thejournalofantiquities.com/2013/03/20/the-dropping-well-knaresborough-north-yorkshire/, and petrified bird’s nest from Mother Shipton’s cave, labelled ‘1838 Knaresborough’. She was personally as much involved in shaping the collection as her husband though the objects are now seen solely as his initiative.

Image taken by the author. On loan to English Heritage from a private collection

Jane inherited sheet music annotated by her aunt, Lady Mary Singleton. This and other personal objects were part of her and her children’s domestic life. We all loved other items of female skill, such as the boy’s small red coat and the exquisitely sewn child’s dress in coral silk and lace, both of which are carefully preserved and rarely shown in public. A set of small watercolours, painted on ready-made card mounts were probably made by Jane’s daughters, Mirabel Jane (1821-1900) or Louisa Anne (1822-89), both of whom were talented artists but as with so much feminine production they did not leave a signature. But other objects such as paintings from family homes which were part of Jane’s Cornwallis family inheritance are hidden as such among the displays in the house and have no connection with Audley End. When an inventory was made in 1946 by the Ministry of Works after the house was acquired for the nation, much of the history of the family through marriage was lost. Female inheritance and provenance was absorbed into the default male story attached to the house.

At last, there is more awareness and progress in uncovering and reinterpreting the history of the collections at Audley End, the families who lived there and particularly the female line which has so sadly been forgotten. This new approach would surely benefit so many of the grand houses we can visit and ultimately recover so many lost histories. Aristocratic women are clearly subject to the same phenomenon of disappearance from the historical narrative which besets minor female figures in history and frustrates research into their lives. Our day’s visit uncovered a wealth of hidden texts and some exquisite material culture which was so rich and evocative. Our thanks are to Gillian Williamson and to Martyn Everett, chair of the Gibson Library Society who gave us an introduction, and to Audley End curator Dr. Peter Moore for such an excellent day.

A Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft

Many thanks to WSG member Emma Clery who organised this fascinating day and invited our group; the following report is by Charmian Kenner, one of a number of WSG members who attended.

A celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) held on 27 April 2019, the 260th anniversary of her birth, invited us to consider her ‘in the round’ by discussing her life, work and legacy through research in history, literary criticism, politics and philosophy; and by experiencing representations of Wollstonecraft through art, film and drama. We met in the atmospheric Old St Pancras Church in London, with participants sitting on either side of the aisle that Wollstonecraft walked down to marry William Godwin, and with a lunchtime visit to the original site of her grave in the churchyard. Participants came from around the UK and as far afield as Japan and the US.

A theme throughout the event was how Wollstonecraft’s thinking prefigured and fed into ideas and struggles of today. Hannah Dawson focused on Wollstonecraft’s central concern with freedom, or rather women’s lack of it, since economic dependence on men meant vulnerability and loss of self, leaving women obsessed with beauty as their only asset to hold the male gaze – a condition from which we have yet to entirely escape. Wollstonecraft’s argument that women were playing a part assigned to them by society, rather than this being their authentic nature, links directly with today’s views on gender as a construct we can change. Catherine Packham pointed to connections between Wollstonecraft’s critique of modernity, in particular the late eighteenth-century social and economic order, and analyses by current theorists such as Thomas Piketty. Laura Kirkley highlighted Wollstonecraft’s cosmopolitan outlook, seeing humans as globally interdependent with shared moral obligations, exemplified in her support for Native Americans and her criticisms of empire.

A rousing discussion of ‘What would Mary do?’ with Shrabani Basu, Charlotte Gordon and Bee Rowlatt, imagined multiple possibilities for a contemporary Wollstonecraft, from having a strong social media presence to speaking out on modern slavery and refugee issues, to being a campaigning member of the academy. The latter position was impossible to achieve in her lifetime, and Andrew McInnes reminded us of the tensions in being a ‘philosophesse’ in the late eighteenth century, when women thinkers were both celebrated and stigmatised, though Wollstonecraft tried to take a gender neutral position and establish herself as a philosopher first and foremost. Isabelle Bour pointed out that Wollstonecraft’s reception was different in France at the time, where her life was not seen as scandalous, and she was appreciated as an intellectual in the mode of Germaine de Staël. Translations of Wollstonecraft’s work were popular with moderate Girondin revolutionaries and her ideas became part of progressive French thought.

Janet Todd and Lyndall Gordon, whose studies led the way in research on Wollstonecraft, both contributed to the day. Lyndall Gordon, looking for missing pieces in the jigsaw of Wollstonecraft’s life, shared her latest investigations into Mary’s stay in Hamburg, where she seems to have discovered a fraud that shook her faith in lover Gilbert Imlay. Janet Todd relished the burgeoning interest in Wollstonecraft studies, compared to the 1960s when her proposed PhD on Wollstonecraft was deemed ‘too obscure’. She also warned us against making Wollstonecraft, who characteristically was ‘always prickly’ and swam against the mainstream, into a ‘national treasure’. Speakers and audience at the conference agreed that Wollstonecraft sustains us today with her resilience in the face of life’s challenges, both personal and political.

A number of organisations carry on Wollstonecraft’s legacy. The Mary Wollstonecraft Fellowship celebrates her writing with talks and events; the Mary Wollstonecraft Philosophical Society disseminates her work and that of other women philosophers of the period, including through university curricula; the Wollstonecraft Society promotes education in schools; Mary on the Green fundraises to place a statue of Wollstonecraft by Maggie Hambling on Newington Green; and New Unity has a Heritage Lottery funded project at Newington Green Meeting House, ‘Uncovering the Dissenters’ Legacy at the Birthplace of Feminism’.