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!

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).

Valerie Schutte: 500th anniversary of Mary I

Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte (eds), front cover, Birth of a Queen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte (eds), front cover, Birth of a Queen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Independent historian and WSG member Valerie Schutte and her co-author Sarah Duncan have edited a new collection of essays on Queen Mary I for the 500th anniversary of her birth in 1516.  Entitled The Birth of a Queen, the collection reflects on Mary’s life, tumultuous reign, death and “cultural afterlife”.

Valerie has spoken at previous WSG seminars and her book Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications was also published by Palgrave in its Queenship and Power series earlier this year.  She’ll be talking about aspects of her work in the next WSG seminar, at the Foundling Museum on 19th November 2016, along with Emma Newport on Sarah Sophia Banks and Chrisy Dennis on Mary Robinson.

Women’s Writing special issue on Janet Todd launch

In June at Mansfield College, Oxford, Ros Ballaster and Ruth Perry held the launch for their special issue of Women’s Writing, a festschrift in honour of Professor Janet Todd.  WSG member Angela Escott was there to hear Janet reflect on a life in scholarship.

Front cover of Women's Writing
Front cover of Women’s Writing

WSG has had a close association with the journal Women’s Writing since its early days. The Editor, Marie Mulvey-Roberts, was a member of WSG, and she encouraged other members to contribute papers given at our Saturday sessions or annual one-day workshop. In 2010 some of us co-edited a special issue in honour of Mary Waldron, an active committee member. Now current and former WSG members are contributors to a special issue in honour of Professor Janet Todd, the pioneering scholar of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, and a Founding (now Consultant) Editor of WW. The celebration took the form of an interview by Marie of her distinguished colleague in an imposing hall at Mansfield College, Oxford. Ros Ballaster, co-editor of the issue and fellow WSG member, hosted the event which included a reception and a banquet dinner.

Marie questioned Janet about her life and her extensive travelling both as a child and during her academic career. Janet spoke of the patronising attitudes towards women when she was a student at Cambridge University, and women were confined to three female undergraduate colleges. She told of the impossibility of choosing Mary Wollstonecraft as a PhD subject, so she wrote instead on John Clare. The only feminist theory being studied when she began her career was that of the French feminists, Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous. Todd bravely defended Anglo-American “socio-historical” feminist criticism and also challenged the jargon of New Historicism. A pioneer in the study of women writers, Todd founded a journal Women and Literature which can be considered a forerunner to Women’s Writing.

She described the pressure under which she published her Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, the immense and significant project she conceived and researched extensively by herself, and she spoke self-effacingly of the number of times she had read ‘erroneously mentioned by Janet Todd’ in references to the women covered in her Dictionary. In a question about role-models she described sharing a platform with Germaine Greer who towered above her in height and whose confidence she admired. Although female networks were an important part of her own research, and Marilyn Butler was a close friend, no network of women academics existed to provide support for Janet early in her career, particularly as she was working in the USA, Ghana, Bermuda and Puerto Rica. Finally, she spoke of her recent first venture at writing fiction, and of the lack of pressure to publish at the beginning of her career. Marie ended by reminding us of the impressive publication list of this inspiring academic, including the multi-volume editions of the works of Behn, Wollstonecraft and Austen.

Want to read more? The special issue of Women’s Writing is available here, with a subscription.  Ros Ballaster tweets as @BallasterRos.

Reminder: WSG workshop, Women & the Bible

Just a reminder that on 11 June at Senate House, University of London, the Women’s Studies Group annual workshop takes place and the theme this year is “Women and the Bible”.

Emma Major of the University of York is giving the keynote on Anna Letitia Barbauld, dissent and democracy during the age of revolution. To get an idea of Emma’s work, which is funded by the British Academy, you can watch this video:

WSG workshops always include a morning keynote followed by an afternoon of discussion in which all the attendees give 5-minute presentations on any research within the WSG time period relevant to the workshop theme.  There is still time to register, and attendees are encouraged to bring material on any of the following topics:

  • Women, violence, & religion
  • Gender & genre
  • Women & the nation
  • Gender, the public, & the private
  • Preaching women
  • Women, anonymity, & publication
  • Women & the Bible
  • Dissent
  • Women & religion

…What will you be presenting?