Reminder: WSG November seminar 2016

WSG’s second seminar of the academic year takes place in a little over a week at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  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 afterwards.

For the November session organiser Carolyn Williams has put together talks on texts, images and objects and the strong emotions they provoke…

Saturday 19th November, 2016. Chair: TBC
Valerie SchutteCelebrating the 500th Birthday of Queen Mary I in Manuscript Images.
Emma NewportInterplay and Interpretation: Lady Banks’s “Dairy Book” and the collection and collation of Chinese Porcelain.
Chrisy Dennis“We were born to grace society: but not to be its slaves”: Chivalry and Revolution in Mary Robinson’s Hubert de Sevrac, A Romance of the Eighteenth Century (1796).

Miriam Al Jamil: thoughts from the Geffrye

This year the WSG’s annual outing was to the Geffrye Museum.  WSG member Miriam Al Jamil writes about the day:

Family portrait (artist and sitter unknown), c1750, Geffrye Museum
Family portrait (artist and sitter unknown), c1750, Geffrye Museum

“This year our group visit was to the Geffrye Museum, coming close on the heels of our workshop.  So from discussions centring on the public voice increasingly claimed by women we turned to the traditional private sphere of domestic spaces.  The museum occupies a modest almshouse building which opened for pensioners of the Ironmongers Company in 1714.  It was built by the wealthy merchant Sir Robert Geffrye, and rooms in a side wing of the museum have been restored to display the accommodation offered to pensioners until the early twentieth-century. The emphasis was on cleanliness, godliness (regular attendance at the small chapel was compulsory), but also on a degree of comfort and stability. As a ‘Museum of the Home’ there is an emphasis on the variety and development of material culture from the seventeenth century onwards. The personal items included in the reconstructed pensioners’ rooms are the first examples we saw of the carefully displayed objects that characterise the Geffrye’s approach to historical engagement.

The main gallery conducts us through an enfilade series of period room settings beginning with 1630 and concluding in 1998. Although our visit mirrors the experience of progressing through the rooms in stately homes the emphasis is specifically on middle class life and culture. Informative displays of materials and construction, the trades and markets supplying necessities and luxuries are well presented introductions to each room. We are encouraged to imagine that the residents have just slipped out and we are thus voyeurs encountering the possessions that defined a family’s status and interests at particular points in time.

Arrangements and contacts made by WSG members Angela Escott and Marion Durnin meant that archivists had prepared a selection of books, documents and objects from the archive as part of our visit. This was certainly a highlight and I am sure will encourage further exploration by WSG researchers. The archive focuses on domestic material, mainly from London, and with an inevitable accent on women’s history. There is a fine collection of cookery and medical recipe books, household accounts and diaries, prints and manuals. A small chest of drawers with a pencilled note indicating that it was made for a woman in 1728 has rare provenance, as does a japanned corner cupboard of around 1750 with the japanner’s stamp inscribed. The museum keeps a selection of shipwreck porcelain tea ware, complete with barnacles, to demonstrate what might have been kept in the cupboard. These pieces could be handled, and are among resources available for a variety of educational programmes.

Items from the Geffrye Museum library and archive
Items from the Geffrye Museum library and archive

Our trip concluded with WSG member Helen Draper’s fascinating insight into the life and work of her research subject, the artist Mary Beale. Beale’s self-portrait with her husband and son of about 1660 is her first known painting and it was a treat to have the opportunity to examine and discuss it. The possibility that the artist had depicted herself in late pregnancy was of particular interest. Helen showed us sketches related to the work, and placed it within the context of Beale’s career. Our trip provided much food for thought as I am sure everyone who attended would agree. Many thanks are due to the organisers for such a pleasant and stimulating day!”

WSG member Helen Draper will be writing more about the artist Mary Beale in a forthcoming blog post.

Susan Civale: Chawton House fellowship

WSG member Susan Civale, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University, just finished a month at Chawton House Library researching the poet and actress Mary Robinson (1757-1800). She reflects on her experience below.

Chawton House Library
Chawton House Library

I spent the month of April on a Visiting Fellowship at Chawton House Library, the one-time home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, and now a research centre specialising in women’s writing 1600-1830. For the entire month, the three other Visiting Fellows and I had free rein over the library’s collection and reading rooms, its 275-acre grounds (which include a Walled Garden and a ‘Wilderness’!), and its ‘Stables’, the modest 7-bedroom ‘cottage’ which was our place of residence for the month. We had at our disposal the expertise and support of the Chawton House Head Librarian and the exclusive use of the upper reading room. We were also invited to attend evening lectures, to join the Chawton monthly reading group, and to give presentations on our own research topics. Needless to say, the collection, location, and research culture at Chawton House Library made for a period of study marked by productivity, creativity, and sociability.

Susan in front of the Mary Robinson portrait at Chawton House
Susan in front of the Mary Robinson portrait at Chawton House

My research at Chawton was focused on one of Jane Austen’s more scandalous contemporaries: the poet, actress, and royal mistress, Mary Darby Robinson, whose stunning 1782 portrait beamed out at me from the wall of the Library’s Great Hall on a daily basis. I was devoting my time at Chawton to a chapter of my monograph that examines the impact of Robinson’s life writing on her posthumous reputation. My argument is based around the idea that Robinson’s Victorian readers found her Memoirs seductive, perplexing, and sympathetic, a contradictory mix that is often borne out in complex affective nineteenth-century responses to her. I found exciting evidence for this argument in the archive at Chawton, where I discovered an original subscription copy of Mary Robinson’s Poems (1791), which had been bound and inscribed with the personal insignia of Victorian poet and memoirist Violet Fane, the pseudonym of Mary, Baroness Currie (1843-1905). Apparently, there are only three other books known to feature this same personalised design of the gold violet: Lady Currie’s own Collected Verses (1880) and the two volumes of her Poems (1892). However, the bound copy of Robinson’s Poems is unique in bearing the inscription of her pen name, ‘Violet Fane,’ on the front and back covers.

That Lady Currie took such pains to personalise her copy of Robinson’s Poems in this way suggests she felt an affinity with her eighteenth-century predecessor. The similarities in their private lives are certainly striking. Both writers were known for their loveless marriages, affairs, and scandalous reputations. Lady Currie, like Robinson before her, was nicknamed ‘Sappho’ by her contemporaries, and the thinly veiled satire of her marriage, Edwin and Angelina (1878), may be a gesture toward Robinson’s 1796 novel Angelina. Finally, Lady Currie’s unfinished manuscript memoir was written on the reverse sides of menus and other cards retained from social visits, a choice of writing material that recalls Robinson’s decision to draft her Memoirs on the backs of envelopes, many of which had enclosed letters from subscribers to her Poems (1791). Lady Currie seems to have been styling herself as a late-Victorian Robinson, a strain of self-fashioning that speaks to Robinson’s own highly skilled self-construction and her enduring literary afterlife.

Besides offering such exceptional opportunities for research, Chawton also fostered a scholarly camaraderie among the ‘Fellows.’ As we traipsed into the reading room every morning, chatted about our work over lunch, and walked to a country pub in the evening, we settled into a routine of research and leisure that was productive, enjoyable, and empowering. One of the nicest aspects of the Fellowship was engaging with three other academics who shared so many of my own research interests, but who each had her own unique area of expertise. With so much to talk about, and so many opportunities to discuss questions big and small, we got to know each other both academically and personally. By the end of my stay at Chawton I felt I had gained not only three new colleagues but three new friends.

Although it was sad to say goodbye to this idyllic Hampshire home at the end of April, I left Chawton inspired. In a letter written to her friend and fellow writer Jane Porter in 1800, Mary Robinson had articulated a particular wish:

“Oh! Heavens! If a Select Society could be formed, – a little Colony of Mental Powers, a world of Talents, drawn into a small but brilliant circle, – what a splendid sunshine would it display.”

I couldn’t help thinking, as I left the light-filled conservatory of the ‘Stables’ on my final morning there, that at Chawton House Library I had participated in just the kind of “small but brilliant circle” of inquiring minds and lively discussion that Robinson had imagined 200 years ago. The trick, now, would be to take that “splendid sunshine” back to Canterbury with me, and amidst the paperwork and exam boards, find time for the illuminating conversations with colleagues and students that are the heart and soul of every university campus.

The deadline each year for applying for a Chawton House Visiting Fellowship is usually April.  You can learn more about Chawton’s Fellowships here.   Susan tweets as @susancivale.