Review: WSG Seminar, 26th March 2022 at The Foundling Museum

Sophie Johnson: History’s ‘Other’ Sculptors: The Underrepresentation of Historic women sculptors (1558-1837) in the history of art

Charlotte Goodge: ‘Sedentary occupations ought chiefly to be followed by women’: The ‘Fat’ Woman and ‘Masculine’ Exercise in the Literary Culture of the long eighteenth century

Moira Goff: Evered Laguerre: A Female Professional Dancer on the London Stage

We returned to the Foundling Museum for our March seminar, after an absence of two years, to hear three outstanding papers and to enjoy an afternoon of lively and informative discussion. As so often happens, unexpected connections between the subjects emerged and we could certainly have continued our explorations for much longer. Sophie Johnson began by extemporizing on her research into women sculptors throughout the period covered by the Women’s Studies Group and beyond, to examine how the few who have found a place in art history have been represented and under what circumstances they forged a career in this overwhelmingly male-dominated art form. She discussed the amateur/professional binaries, the problems and risks surrounding the perceived transgressive nature of the art and emphasised curatorial practice and questions of mistaken attribution as crucial factors in the invisibility of women sculptors.

Charlotte Goodge tackled debates about corpulent women in the eighteenth century in the light of society’s expectations about women’s delicate nature and what kind of exercise was considered appropriate. She focussed on participation in the hunt and on mountaineering and walking, citing literary examples from Charlotte Lennox The Female Quixote (1752) and Thomas Love Peacock Crotchet Castle (1831). Through these literary examples, Goodge argued that the ‘fatness’ of their female protagonists was pointedly used to flag an immoderate excess in terms of over rather than under exercising. Contemporary anxieties about women’s over-enthusiastic exercise centred less on health risks and benefits and more on the fact that robust physical strength was perceived as characteristic of labouring people (especially labouring men), an undesirable outcome for women from the genteel classes. Women’s transgression in different forms was important in both these papers.

Moira Goff offered her findings on the life of the early eighteenth-century dancer, Evered Laguerre, whose remarkable career on the London stage lasted more than twenty years, from her debut at thirteen in 1716 to her final performances in leading dance roles for John Rich’s company in 1737 when she was only thirty-five. We had glimpses of her in a print depicting her dancing with Francis Nivelon in the pantomime Perseus and Andromeda (1731),and in a possible second representation as the ‘Lady dancing’ in Nivelon’s The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior (1737). During our discussion, Goff gave us further fascinating insights into the stage careers of young dancers and into the published dance notation for a Harlequin dance, perhaps related to The Necromancer; or, Harlequin Doctor Faustus (1723) in which Laguerre danced the part of ‘Harlequin Woman’.

The papers demonstrated the difficulties of finding women in the archives, but the importance of pursuing the research if we are to recognise their contributions, a perennial problem faced by those working on women’s history. They also highlighted the delicate line between compliance and error, recognition and notoriety and the inescapable judgements of a patriarchal system. Our thanks to all three presenters, and to those who joined us at the seminar.

Miriam Al jamil

Review: WSG Seminar (25 September 2021) by Miriam Al Jamil

This is a review of the WSG seminar that took place on 25 September 2021. The speakers were:

  1. Valerie Schutte: Anachronistic representations of Edward Underhill
  2. Helen Leighton Rose: Women’s subversion of the Scottish Church Courts 1707-1757
  3. Matthew Reznicek: Healing the Nation; Women, Medicine and the Romantic National Tale
  4. Norena Shopland: Women Dressed as Men

Abstracts of the speakers’ papers are available to read here.

Our 2021-2022 Seminar season began with an excellent selection of papers from four speakers, ostensibly on a variety of unrelated topics and yet subtle connections emerged through the discussion.

Valerie Schutte’s paper examined the afterlives of Gentleman Pensioner Edward Underhill’s 1561 memoir which traced his life as a Protestant under Mary I’s reign, beginning with his arrest for publishing a now lost ballad at her accession in 1553. Elements of the memoir later appeared in John Strype’s 1721 Ecclesiastical Memorials which was used by Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland in their Lives of the Queens of England, From the Norman Conquest, With Anecdotes of Their Courts (London: Henry Colburn, 1845) and by the prolific writer W.H. Ainsworth in his popular The Tower of London (London: Bentley, 1840). Schutte offered Underhill’s devotion to the queen in spite of his anti-Catholicism as a more nuanced alternative to the standard view of hostile Protestant reaction to Mary. The nineteenth-century writers she examined were sympathetic to Mary, citing her marriage to Philip II of Spain as the source of Protestant oppression throughout her reign, although Charles Dickens’ unequivocal characterisation of ‘bloody Queen Mary’ still prevails as part of the national historical narrative.

In the discussion Schutte expanded on archival evidence of ballads against Mary I, citing twenty surviving examples, handwritten on cheap paper, most in single copies at the Society of Antiquaries. The writers were persecuted, though some of their ballads no longer exist. Underhill’s Catholic friends gave him the nickname ‘the Hot Gospeller’, a term picked up on by Ainsworth. Schutte also noted that the Strickland sisters’ romantic study of the Queens of England focused on them as women rather than simply as wives, which makes the book unusual.

Helen Leighton Rose’s paper presented her ongoing work on cases brought before the Scottish Kirk in two localities. She discussed the different recorded cases brought before the sessions, the types of moral offences and forms of punishment. The crimes included adultery, for which the punishment was six appearances wearing sackcloth in a public place of repentance, and fornication which involved three appearances. The ultimate sanction, meted out to a woman who repeatedly refused to appear was ‘lesser excommunication’, which meant she was shunned by her community, denied marriage, baptism or a funeral and banished from her place of birth. Rose pointed out that this had serious implications for accessing poor relief. The case studies revealed intriguing facts about women who were unafraid of accusing and naming the men implicated in their crimes, and who defied the punishments meted out to them. They also highlighted the fact that wealthy men could often avoid embarrassing personal repercussions by helping their pregnant victims circumvent the kirk disciplinary system and give birth in arranged lodgings in Edinburgh, while they themselves could evade punishment by paying fines. The case studies brought the individual women uncovered from the archives vividly to life.

Discussion points included the role of the well organised private lodging houses in Edinburgh, which require more research. A question was asked about cross-dressing as a recorded crime, and Rose has not found this or homosexuality mentioned in the records yet. The rich subject of her research clearly offers many different rewarding paths for future work.

Our third paper centred on Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) Vol. I, II and Vol. III,   

and Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui, or Memoirs of the Earl of Glenthorn (1809).

The paper interrogated the idea of healing as a potentially feminist intervention. Reznicek gave a close reading of these novels, in the light of the social and economic conditions of Ireland which contributed to high mortality in nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks, and the concept of a healthy social body composed of healthy individuals to which the woman as healer made a crucial contribution. Owenson’s novel is usually cited as the first ‘national tale’, but is not usually interpreted as a story of sickness and healing (See for example, discussions in: [accessed 28 September 2021]).

Reznicek suggested that Owenson’s use of the word ‘physicianer’ to describe her character Glorvina was a deliberate subversive one to challenge contemporary male-dominated medical practice. The plot of the novel reveals that the threat of disease and religious fervour in the Prince of Inismore character makes his integration into the new social body impossible. Edgeworth used fever as a potent metaphor with multiple meanings. Her novel Ennui poses literature as the remedy of ennui as a disease. Once again, the woman is healer within the plot and in the broader context of the national social body.

Discussion ranged from the disabled body in Romantic fiction such as the Waverley novels, to Swift’s The Story of the Injured Lady in which ‘Ireland’ is the wronged virgin and ‘Scotland’ is the sickly rival for marriage to ‘England’, in Swift’s critique of marriage.

Our final paper was an overview of Norena Shopland’s writing projects, specialising in LGBT history, highlighting pertinent issues for many researchers into womens’ history. The instability of terminology and changes of definitions over time means that it can be difficult to find people from the past, particularly in the case of women living their lives as men, dressing, and working as men, unrecorded and marginalised. Shopland mentioned such celebrated cases as Hannah Snell, the soldier; Mary Anne Talbot or John Taylor, a sailor; and the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Other unidentified women later worked as navvies on the railways or as bricklayers, etc. The pay was better for men’s work, and it could be a short-term solution to hardship.

During a lively question session, the point was made that the literary cross-dressing heroine usually returns to heteronormativity after her escape to follow her lover is resolved in the plot. The detective work necessary to uncover archival sources for the anonymous women and the confusion over national traditions of dress which might be interpreted as more male than female; the infantilisation of women as a subtext in the ‘breeching’ of boys who progressed to adulthood and left their sisters behind; breeches parts for women in the theatre; and the hazards of labouring as a man with the vulnerabilities of the female body were all topics addressed. The interesting textual alteration made to the 16th century Geneva Bible which described Adam and Eve using fig leaves to make themselves breeches showed the sensitivity to gender-appropriate terms, when it was illegal for a woman to take men’s clothing.

As usual, the discussion could have continued well beyond time. We found all the papers stimulating and thought provoking. Our thanks to all the participants, and we look forward to more insights into WSG speakers’ research in the months to come.

-Miriam Al Jamil

Great explorations: a fictional midwife and fictions of ideal women by Louise Duckling

Following on from the arrival of WSG’s anniversary volume in paperback format, Louise Duckling introduces new books launched by two of its contributors: Sara Read and Tabitha Kenlon.


On an autumnal evening last September, a small crowd gathered at Harris & Harris Books in Clare, Suffolk, for one of its popular Author on the Stairs events. Gillian Williamson and I had been invited to talk about WSG’s anniversary book, Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558–1837, which had recently been released in paperback format.

As one of the book’s editors, I wanted to convey the scope and originality of our authors’ contributions in my talk. Therefore, I chose to address the question: why had so many of the women featured in the book been left out of the historical record? I considered how women’s history was constructed (and gendered) in Victorian biographical dictionaries, using our ‘bookend’ queens Elizabeth I and Victoria as opening case studies, before introducing some of the women whose lives are explored in our anniversary volume.

This approach led neatly into Gillian’s talk about her chapter on the Gentleman’s Magazine. Gillian eloquently described how the magazine constructed ideas of gender in the eighteenth century, specifically referencing the emergence of obituaries in its pages. The obituaries were used by Gillian (with some brilliant flashes of humour) to show how femininity was framed in the Gentleman’s Magazine, while also providing glimpses of a less-neatly gendered society.

There was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions and handle some of our original source material – an 1866 edition of a female biographical dictionary and an early volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine­. We enjoyed lively discussion and hospitality, in the perfect setting of an independent bookshop. Reflecting on this evening, in such an intimate and sociable environment, it is clear we were very fortunate. For anyone releasing a book right now, any ‘in-person’ events or celebrations will have to wait. This is exactly the case for two of our book’s contributors, whose latest work has been published during the lockdown.

The first of these new books is by Dr Sara Read, who specialises in cultural and literary representations of women, reproduction and medicine in the early modern period. Sara played a pivotal role in the WSG book, serving as both co-editor and contributor, with her chapter focusing on The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie (1622) by Elizabeth Clinton and highlighting views around childcare and breastfeeding. In her latest work, Sara continues to draw upon this rich subject knowledge, while venturing into new territory: the genre of historical fiction.

In her excellent debut novel, The Gossips’ Choice, Sara has created an atmospheric world for her protagonist, the midwife Lucie Smith. The book has been described as a seventeenth-century version of ‘Call the Midwife’, as we follow Lucie’s cases during the plague year of 1665. It is a beautifully crafted and impeccably researched novel, drawing upon a wide range of historical sources. For example, some of the events in the book are inspired by A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), the memoir of midwife Sarah Stone. This approach provides authentic detail to a vividly imagined and compelling story.

The second new book release is by Dr Tabitha Kenlon. Tabitha’s research concentrates on eighteenth-century British novels, theatre, and conduct manuals. In Exploring the Lives of Women, Tabitha’s chapter provides a close reading of a single text, exposing the confused rhetoric in the cautionary pamphlet Advice to Unmarried Women (1791) written by an anonymous clergyman. Tabitha also contributed one of the two poems in our book, ‘Gretchen’s Answer’, which follows similar themes by exploring the consequences of “when society tells women how to think, how to act, how to feel” (Exploring, p. 98).

Tabitha’s first monograph continues this investigation. In Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman, Tabitha shows how the longest-running war is the battle over how women should behave. This is an exceptional study, being the first of its kind to provide a trans-historical approach: expanding upon previous period-specific studies, Tabitha considers the persistence (or alteration) of the female ideal over six centuries. Tabitha’s brilliant close readings of a wide range of texts are superbly executed and entertaining, making the book highly accessible to the specialist or general reader. It is a powerful book, written with compassion and flashes of anger, in an elegant and witty prose.

Until we can all meet to celebrate, congratulations to Sara and Tabitha for producing two great books. Full reviews of both publications will appear on this website in the coming months: watch this space!


The Gossips’ Choice by Sara Read is published by Wild Pressed Books for £12.

Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman by Tabitha Kenlon is published by Anthem Press for £80 (hardback) and £25 (ebook). Please ask your institutional library to buy a copy. A 20% discount is available to WSG members.

Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558–1837, the anniversary book by WSG, is published by Pen & Sword Books for £19.99 (hardback), £12.99 (paperback) and £5.20 (ebook).

Please support your local independent booksellers if you can. Harris & Harris Books is currently offering a delivery service.

Exploring the Lives of Women 1558–1837: celebrating thirty years of collaboration

Louise Duckling reflects on the collegial traditions of WSG and, in particular, its history of collaborative publication, which cumulated in the launch of the group’s latest book last year.

My first encounter with the Women’s Studies Group was in 1996. I had just begun (rather ambitiously) a part-time PhD at the University of Essex while working full-time as a media analyst.  My PhD supervisor was Elaine Jordan, a passionate proponent of feminism and gender studies in literature.  She was also a great believer in the importance of creativity, scholarly networks and the simple pleasure of loving what you do.  Unsurprisingly—given their common values—Elaine introduced me to WSG by sharing the 1996–97 seminar programme (featuring Marilyn Butler and Jacqueline Labbe as speakers) and subsequently keeping me up to date with group events. I was finally able to become an active WSG member, following a career change, in January 2001.

Exploring the Lives of Women on display at the book launch in Dec 2018

One of the earliest seminars that I attended was in June 2001 and the speaker was WSG committee member Mary Waldron. The paper was auspiciously entitled “A Very Different Kind of Patronage: Ann Yearsley’s New Friends”; within a year, Mary had become a new friend and a special kind of patron to me. As a Visiting Fellow at the University of Essex, Mary wanted to be of practical use in the department and so, in 2002, I acquired an additional informal supervisor.  I gained enormously—as did so many of us at WSG—from her incisive comments and breadth of knowledge.

Mary’s support encapsulated the generosity of the group and its community spirit.  By May 2003, when I was invited to join the organising committee, I naturally welcomed the opportunity to give back something in return.  During my time on the committee (2003–2017) there were some exciting changes within the group. In 2003, WSG hosted the first of its popular workshops (with keynote speaker Helen King talking on “The Reproductive Cycle: Menstruation, Pregnancy, Childbirth and Lactation”) and the seminar programme was relaunched (with fewer sessions featuring multiple speakers). For my own part, I really enjoyed sharing some of the skills gleaned from my professional life in marketing, working on publicity for the group and establishing an online presence.

Over its thirty year history, the WSG has continually evolved; however, its core commitment has always been to support and promote the work of its members and this fact is evident in the group’s history of collaborative publication.  Our edited essay collections, in book and journal form, provide a permanent record of the group’s activities and showcase our members’ research.  In each volume, the majority of articles were first given as papers at WSG events, augmented with contributions by other group members responding to our internal calls for papers.

The first publication was a special issue of Women’s Writing (Volume 8, 2001 – Issue 2, introduced by Carol Banks and Anne Kelley). This project evolved from WSG’s 1998 Day School on “The Body and Women” and featured a wide range of topics, ranging from Elaine Hobby on midwifery to Myra Cottingham on Felicia Hemans’s “dead and dying bodies”.  When Mary Waldron died, in 2006, Carolyn D. Williams was the energetic catalyst for two further publications that were inspired by and dedicated to Mary.  The first of these emerged from the 2008 workshop and was another special issue of Women’s Writing, this time celebrating “edgy” women (Volume 17, 2010 – Issue 1: Women Out Loud, with managing editors Vicki Joule, Daniel Grey and Sarah Oliver).  It included some fabulous characters, including two articles (by Kerri Andrews and Claire Knowles) on the subject of Mary’s research, the labouring-class ‘milkmaid poet’ Ann Yearsley. The second festschrift for Mary was Woman to Woman: Female Negotiations During the Long Eighteenth Century (University of Delaware Press, 2010), which I had the great pleasure of co-editing with Carolyn D. Williams and Angela Escott.  Fittingly, for a work by WSG dedicated to Mary Waldron, the book’s theme was female collaboration.  The essays were grouped into three core themes—family alliances, friends and companions, adventurous women—and included contributions from Jennie Batchelor and Judith Hawley.

We enjoyed two memorable launch events for our 2010 publications, with Ron Waldron (Mary’s husband) attending as guest of honour.  The Women’s Writing special issue was launched at a champagne reception in June 2010 at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge, hosted by the journal’s co-founders Janet Todd and Marie Mulvey Roberts to coincide with their “Celebrating Women’s Writing” conference.  It was wonderful that so many WSG members were able to attend, given the long association between the group and the journal.  In October 2010 Lois Chaber hosted another splendid gathering for WSG members at her London home to mark the publication of Woman to Woman.

By a fortunate stroke of serendipity, the ideas for these publishing ventures were conceived around the time of WSG’s tenth and twentieth birthdays.  However, in 2016—with our thirtieth anniversary approaching—Sara Read proposed a deliberate strategy: to officially celebrate this important milestone in print.   The result was our latest book,  Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558–1837 (Pen & Sword History, 2018), a rich collection of essays sourced from WSG members and edited by myself, Sara Read, Felicity Roberts and Carolyn D. Williams.

As Carolyn notes, ‘the thirtieth year has a particularly organic appeal, because it measures a generation’ (Introduction, Exploring, p.xix).  As a celebration of the group’s ability to survive and thrive over its thirty-year existence, the editorial objective of the book was to reflect the essential qualities of WSG and the many and varied interests of our members. Unlike our previous publications, which focused on a single theme, it therefore provides an expansive, wide-ranging view of women from all walks of life­—featuring opera singers and mine workers, queens and prostitutes—within an accessible and affordable volume.

On December 8, 2018, Exploring the Lives of Womenwas formally launched at WSG’s thirtieth anniversary seminar at The Foundling Museum, London. This was a convivial and inclusive occasion, with attendees aged from 8 months to 80 years old and guests travelling from as far afield as the US.  The one great sadness was that one of our authors, long-term member Marion Durnin, died very shortly before the event. The seminar was a timely opportunity to remember and celebrate Marion’s significant contribution to WSG and to the book (which includes her last published work) in the company of her husband Kevin and son Owen.

While the launch provided an opportunity to reflect upon and commemorate the group’s history and achievements over a generation, the key theme of the event was “Women’s and Gender Studies in 2018 and Beyond”. This focus reflects WSG’s forward-thinking philosophy, equally evident in the decision to use all proceeds from sales of the book to fund the group’s popular bursary scheme, thereby supporting future research in the field.

I was privileged to open the event with anillustrated talk,describing how the editorial team sourced the public domain images included in the book’s generous plate section, before using these images to describe and celebrate each author’s contribution.  The next paper was delivered by our guest speaker Professor Bernadette Andrea (University of California, SantaBarbara). An expert on English women and Islam in early modern English literature, Bernadette introduced us to a unique narrative: Elizabeth Marsh’s The Female Captive(1769), the first full-length account of Maghrebian captivity written by an Englishwoman.  Bernadette provided close readings from the text to illustrate Marsh’s “sartorial negotiations” which delicately balance her abjection as a female English captive with her apparent assimilation to Moroccan gender norms. The final speaker, Felicity Roberts, provided a stimulating and thought-provoking talk on the issue of precarity in academia, considering issues relating to gender and marginalisation, alongside a personal and polemical view on the practical ways in which WSG could provide enhanced support to its members in the future.

One of the emerging trends within the group has been its desire to embrace the creativity of our members, demonstrated perfectly by WSG’s very first creative seminar scheduled for August 2019. This tendency is also reflected in Exploring the Lives of Women, which features two poems: ‘Gretchen’s Answer’ by Tabitha Kenlon and ‘Stilts’ by author and performer Jacqueline Mulhallen.  At our thirtieth anniversary event, Jacqueline entertained us all with a recital of ‘Stilts’: this was recorded by William Alderson and we are delighted to be able to share a video of the performance.

To conclude the event, it was fitting that the final words should be reserved for the personal reminiscences of long-term supporter Lois Chaber, who gave an honest and entertaining account of her life within the group and its evolution, and WSG founder member Yvonne Noble. Yvonne Noble wonderfully described how and why the WSG was founded as a support network, and urged us all to continue to work together to support the group and reach out to those who may benefit from its collegial spirit.

When I was urged to join WSG, almost twenty years ago, I expected to find friendship and community. Yet professionally and intellectually it has exceeded my expectations.  As an independent scholar, WSG has given me an unrivalled opportunity to publish my own work, collaborate with others and benefit from the significant skills, knowledge and experience of my co-editors.  WSG will continue to flourish in the coming decade and I am certain there will be plenty to celebrate in its fortieth year–and perhaps there will even be another book?

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.