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.

Felicity Roberts: Mary Delany and her collages

Front cover of Materializing Gender (Routledge, 2016)A new book edited by Jennifer Germann and Heidi Strobel, Materializing Gender in Eighteenth-Century Europe, has recently been published by Routledge.  The collection was actually seen through the press by Ashgate USA’s Margaret Michniewicz, until Ashgate’s acquisition by Routledge.  Margaret is now pursuing new projects as Bloomsbury’s Visual Arts/Art History Acquisitions Editor, and she tweets as @BburyViaAshg8.  Expect some exciting announcements from her account soon.

Materializing Gender includes essays on the needle artist Mary Linwood (see her fantastic portrait of Napoleon at the V&A here), and almanacs, mantillas, guns and silver, amongst objects, as well as WSG member Felicity Roberts’ chapter on the eighteenth-century gentlewoman Mary Delany whose hybrid scientific and art practices included diary- and letter-writing, botanising, shellwork, collaging, needlework, and the writing of a novella.  Felicity explores how Delany’s class and gender shaped her serious botanical interests, and how she expressed and shaped this complex subject position through her famous flower collages and novella.  Felicity hopes to follow up her interest in Mary Delany with a wider study of women, natural history and material culture in the long eighteenth century soon.  Beginning with Charlotte Smith’s ‘Beachy Head‘… what do readers think? What other ‘hybrid’ literary, art and scientific works are there in this period?

Carolyn Williams: thoughts from BSECS 2016

In January the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 presented a panel at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.  Here one of the panel speakers, WSG committee member Carolyn Williams, reflects:

Anonymous, The wonderful and surprising English dwarf, etching, c1725, BM PD 1872,1012.4329 By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum
Anonymous, The wonderful and surprising English dwarf, etching, c1725, BM PD 1872,1012.4329
By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum

“The BSECS annual conference has been the site of encounters that have played a significant role in the formation of the WSG itself, so we feel we have a special relationship with it. We have always fielded speakers there, and since the organisers declared they welcome panels, these are what we have offered. Now there is an annual theme we also like to adhere to that, but we don’t let it cramp our creativity: the enlightened mood of the conference encourages broad interpretations.

The 2016 theme was ‘Growth, Expansion and Contraction’, and we called our panel ‘Minds, Bodies, and China as Sites of Female Growth, Expansion and Contraction in the Long Eighteenth Century’. This year BSECS kindly provided a chair, Dr Penny Pritchard, to look after us. We tried to be good, to stick to time limits, and to sort out our technology before the panel was due to start: particularly heroic because we were on at 9 am!

Dr Tabitha Kenlon flew in from the American University in Dubai to read a paper on ‘The Virtues of the Gothic: Lessons in Female Comportment from the Gothic Novel’. She examined the relationship between Gothic novels and conduct manuals, showing they both extended and restricted boundaries by presenting heroines who defied and embodied social conventions. Her argument took its rise from Eliza Parsons’ novel The Castle of Wolfenbach, where the heroine, on encountering a mysterious woman dwelling in secret at the castle, asks her for guidance, saying, “I shall think myself particularly fortunate if you will condescend to instruct me, for… more attention has been paid to external accomplishments than to the cultivation of my mind, or any information respecting those principles of virtue a young woman ought early to be acquainted with”.

As panel organiser, I put myself in the middle, the position which usually attracts fewest questions, and I used no technology: everybody has different skills and my speciality is distracting the audience’s attention while people behind me do clever things with computers. I took the theme literally and applied it to the human body, in a paper entitled ‘“Marry a Monster? Who would have them?”: Size and Female Sexuality’. My inspiration was the 2015 workshop, headed by Elaine Hobby, who had discussed her forthcoming edition of Aphra Behn, and particularly some episodes in The Rover Part II (1681) where men of average size pay court to a giant and a dwarf. Examining the language applied to them in this play, and also its sources, Parts I and II of Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso, or, The Wanderer (1663), I found that the ladies’ difference from the average was often seen as a matter of quality rather than simple quantity, and that, though size did not mean everything, it could, in certain circumstances, mean anything.

Dr Emma Newport, from King’s College London, concluded the panel with ‘Interplay and Interpretation: Lady Banks’s “Dairy Book” and the collection and collation of Chinese Porcelain.’ Her paper brought to light an unpublished, hand-written account of Lady Sarah Sophia Banks’s Chinese porcelain collection, the ‘Dairy Book‘, as an example of how networks of exchange were created and complicated by the influx of Chinese goods, materials and ideas. She argued that the porcelain collection and the ‘Dairy Book’ engendered both expansion and contraction: as gateway to wider narratives, technologies and aesthetics, but also contracting as the porcelain metonymized these wider representations.

Question time was enthusiastic. As well as casting new light on Gothic fiction in general, Tabitha Kenlon attracted new readers to Eliza Parsons. Jane Austen, who included this book among the ‘horrid’ novels in Northanger Abbey, and who became notoriously ‘sick and wicked’ at the prospect of perfection in fictitious characters, must have really enjoyed it. A great deal of interest was expressed in Sarah Sophia Banks: her porcelain dairy opened up a new world for the audience. Dr Matthew McCormack, whose own paper, earlier in the conference, had expressed an interest in the relationship between humoral theory and masculine size, took my own subject in a new direction by asking whether there was any evidence of an interest in humours in depictions of giants and dwarves that I had come across. I could not provide any, but Emma Newport could: she has been conducting research into dwarves on the eighteenth-century stage, which she has generously offered for my perusal. I can’t wait!”

Do you have any further information about depictions of size on the early modern stage?  Get in touch with Carolyn here.

Valerie Schutte: women’s libraries in the age of Mary I

The independent historian Valerie Schutte recently gave a paper on ‘Pre-accession Printed Book Dedications to Mary and Elizabeth Tudor’ at the WSG’s seminar series.  Valerie’s  Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications: Royal Women, Power, and Persuasion is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is out now.  You can read a sample chapter here.  Valerie has another title, The Birth of a Queen, marking the 500th anniversary of Mary I’s birth, also in Palgrave’s Queenship and Power series, coming out in the spring.

After the seminar the WSG blog had a chance to catch up with Valerie about her various projects:

“I have several projects I am working on that are of interest to the WSG, and I can’t wait to come to another seminar to talk about them. Many still relate to Queen Mary I. I actually mentioned these at the WSG meeting and got lots of positive feedback. I plan on writing an article titled “Mary in Miniature.” I frequently get asked if any images are connected to the book dedications to Mary. Generally the answer is no. Mary’s books and manuscripts tend not to be illuminated or have gorgeous decoration. In “Mary in Miniature,” I am going to address this lack of images as well as address the few manuscript images of Mary that do actually exist. For my other project on Mary I am planning an essay on her relationship with Hampton Court Palace. This is a palace that she chose to use and visit for the most important personal occasions in her reign, such as her honeymoon and her first childbirth. I am going to address why she chose this palace and how she used it as Queen.

My next major project is one that I mentioned at the WSG meeting and was highly encouraged to pursue. In my first monograph, I spent a chapter recreating the personal library of Queen Mary I. It was some of my most rewarding and enjoyable research. Rather than undertaking a monograph on only one woman’s library and books dedicated to her, I have decided to write one where each chapter is about one woman related to or connected with Queen Mary I, such as Jane Dormer. Each chapter will cover a different woman and her books. Once I have around five or seven women and have recovered their literary history, I will put them together in a monograph along with an introduction and conclusion that tie the patterns of their libraries, book collections, and dedications together. This will allow me to draw conclusions about Mary’s literary influence at court.”

We’re looking forward to hearing further details of Valerie’s work as these projects progress.  You can see Valerie’s webpage for further details and relevant cfps.  Along with her Unexpected Heirs in Modern Europe and Shakespeare’s Queens (co-edited with Kavita Mudan Finn) collections, it looks like Valerie is going to be extremely busy in 2016.