I thought I’d share the table I put together to help me work out which conferences I’m going to to try to attend this year. It’s a very subjective selection, but might be of use to others interested in nineteenth-century women’s studies.
As you can see, this selection rather reflects how split I am at the moment between the US and the UK. So far I know I’m going to INCS and probably to BWWC, but the UK conferences are more difficult as I don’t yet know when I’ll be able to make trips back. I hope to at least make it to BAVS this year.
NAVSA in November and BERKS in 2017 just seem too far away for me to plan at the moment, but I definitely want to submit abstracts for those – I’ve heard good things about NAVSA, and the last big Berks in Toronto was quite an experience.
In any event, they all look like they’re going to be great. Thanks and good luck to everyone involved in organizing!
Probably because of my paper’s focus at the 2014 British Women Writers Conference (see previous blog post), I was asked to moderate the Olive Schreiner panel at this year’s conference: Stories of an African Farm. I decided to review the panel, based on my notes, so here are my observations and thoughts.
Anita Turlington (University of North Georgia) was first to present. Her paper ‘New Woman Novels and the Ethical Moment’ focused on the ethics of the New Woman writers and also explored the importance of time and space in African Farm. Like me, Turlington sees Schreiner looking to the future for a solution, but also identifies her in African Farm as looking back to a connected, mythic past. In fact, Turlington suggested that African Farm is set in an eternal present – rejecting linear time – and that Lyndall imaginatively transcends the limits of time through her visions and prophesies.
Turlington described the New Women writers’ ethics as a commitment to considering new ways to interact: they stressed connections between people rather than limits, and allowed the complexity and unknowability of the Other. In the same way as I see the young Lyndall as a perfect New Woman and the older Lyndall as a failed New Woman, Turlington sees her as the ideal ethical subject – an advocate of justice for the vulnerable – until she grows up and realises that the historical reality of her position as a woman in the late nineteenth century renders her unable to feel and advocate for others.
In terms of space, Turlington suggested that Schreiner’s allegorical interludes open up generic, ethical spaces. For example, the location in which Lyndall dies corresponds to the generic chronotype of The Road, an anonymous space in which people can meet and social differences can be overcome. There is also a threshold here between life and death, self and Other, which Gregory Rose attempts to overcome as he nurses the dying Lyndall – he lies across the door, yet can’t bridge the space between this time and the New World yet to come. Turlington’s reading of Rose was very helpful, pointing out that his altruism and commitment to his unknowable Other (Lyndall) transforms him into the ethical subject. His abject self-sacrifice leads to him moving from the position of absurd fool to dignified, transfigured Mother.
Benjamin Hudson (University of Georgia) also focused on Gregory Rose in his paper ‘Curious Bedfellows: The New Woman and the Invert in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm’. (His thesis title also has a great title, including a quote that was fun to read out at a conference: ‘“Dilettante Faggots” on nineteenth-century queer amateurism and the formation of the literary canon.’) Hudson interpreted any optimism in Rose’s story as coming from his ability to throw off his heterosexuality. Reading African Farm within the late nineteenth-century debate about sexuality, Hudson identified a contradiction. While he sees Schreiner’s Woman and Labour as promoting heterosexuality, unthinkingly, as the norm – he noted her scathing writing about the effeminate nature of men and the fate of the Greeks – he suggests that her personal correspondence and novels are more complex. He also mentioned that Edward Carpenter used to give his young male protégés copies of African Farm to test the waters for potential romance, suggesting that this novel was seen as tolerant of homosexuality.
I wonder, though, if this contradiction stems rather from a misunderstanding of Schreiner and an attempt to apply modern sexual categories onto her philosophy. From reading her allegories, I would suggest that Schreiner looked to a future where both sexes would move beyond their separate genders to both embody the principles of the ethical subject. As Hudson explained, Rose is transformed when he throws off effeminacy and histrionic masculinity and embraces transvestism: he moves toward an identity beyond or between gender. I agree that Rose’s adaptability leads to a glimpse of the dawn of a new life without the restricting concepts of romance based on gendered identities. However, until Lyndall can also achieve an identity beyond the heavily gendered one allowed her in the nineteenth century, there can be no future for them.
The final paper, ‘Lady Philosophy and Beatrice Revised: Olive Schreiner’s Feminist Re-working of Traditional Spiritual Guides in Story of an African Farm’ was a fascinating reading of Waldo and Lyndall’s ‘Strangers’ as re-worked Dantean spiritual guides. Catherine Welter (University of New Hampshire) argued that the guides in this novel are male because Schreiner did not believe that women would be able to instruct until they themselves were delivered from their social position. Welter interestingly noted that Schreiner’s desire for realism led her to disapprove of Dante’s fantastical, heavenly instructor, Beatrice. Schreiner’s guides are more human, flawed, and focus on how to live in this life, embodying a far more secular philosophy.
I was very pleased that Welter included some discussion of Schreiner’s allegories in her argument. As Welter argued, the role of women in the allegories as martyrs and saviours of woman and mankind suggests that Schreiner changed her mind about women’s ability to help other women.
Not that many of the audience for this panel had read African Farm, so the Q&A session was quite wide-ranging. One questioner found similarities between Schreiner’s description of womanly, self-sacrificial love and Wollstonecraft’s theories of love; in her critique of economic man, women appear to love more sincerely and authentically. There was also an interesting discussion of the importance of childhood in the text; Turlington suggested that Schreiner does not let Waldo and Lyndall really grow up, partly because of their ethical and spiritual identities, but also as a result of the colonial setting. An interesting point was made about the difference of sympathy in African Farm; because the characters are so stunted, nuanced and unknowable, sympathy as described by George Eliot is more difficult. I would suggest that this is one of the aspects of this text that illustrates its break from the Victorian and its anticipation of Modernism.
Overall this was a fantastic panel to moderate, with three excellent, scholarly papers, and I hope we inspired a few more people to read Olive Schreiner’s work, especially TheStory of an African Farm.
At BWWC this year I was moderating a panel that contained three papers on Olive Schreiner, especially focusing on her novel, Story of An African Farm. Before writing my thoughts about this year’s Schreiner papers, I thought I’d remind myself of the paper I gave on Schreiner last year. For those who haven’t read The Story of an African Farm, it is available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1441/1441-h/1441-h.htm, as is her collection of allegories: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1439/1439-h/1439-h.htm (though I would really recommend Elisabeth Jay’s edition, available from Amazon).
‘Sitting Apart in Silent Contemplation’: The importance of religious reflection in the New-Woman writing of Sarah Grand and Olive Schreiner
Last year’s BWWC theme was ‘Reflections’, and my paper compared Sarah Grand’s New Woman writing and religious beliefs with those of Olive Schreiner. Both Grand and Schreiner were involved in campaigning for better conditions for women. Grand left her husband and took up work as a writer and journalist, and Schreiner engaged in social work with prostitutes as well as philosophically exploring the relations between the sexes with Havelock Ellis and others at the radical Men and Women’s Club. While Grand’s work suggests that she retained a relatively conventional Christian faith (which supported her linked faith in the better future to be brought about by the New Woman) Olive Schreiner famously lost her faith in Christianity.
Because of this, faith in a better future was more difficult for Schreiner than it was for Grand. While Schreiner did not wholly embrace agnosticism, she certainly lost any secure faith in an afterlife. Her only comfort lay in the ‘unknowable’ nature of the world, which was not enough to base any belief in heaven. For her, any happy future would only be experienced by those women who came after. Her book of allegories, Dreams, was dedicated
‘To a small girl-child, who may live to grasp somewhat of that which for us is yet sight, not touch’.
Schreiner’s reflections on religion then, made her work as a campaigner for women even more difficult – for her there would be no reward, only the struggle.
My paper therefore argued that for Schreiner, being an agnostic feminist in the 1880s required a form of heroism, and that this was emphasized in her novel The Story of an African Farm.
Religious references in Schreiner
Despite her loss of faith, Schreiner’s work still contains a great number of references to Christian religion and the Bible. One thing I noticed was that both Grand and Schreiner make references to the story of Elijah. In Grand’s Heavenly Twins the church bells of Morningquest, where her story is set, chime the first phrase
‘He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.’
Both writers also seem to make use of the fact that Elijah discovers God not in a storm or the fire, but in a ‘still small voice’, with which they associate their New Woman prophets.
In the first part of African Farm the child Lyndall is a promising New Woman and is the very personification of the ‘still small voice’. When Lyndall and her cousin, Em, are being unjustly punished by Tant Sannie and Bonaparte, she quietly, almost passively, exerts her will over their tormentors. She stops Tant Sannie beating Em through simply laying ‘her small fingers on the Boer-woman’s arm’; and her simple commands, in their quiet deliberateness, have the power to give her temporary authority over her elders.
Sadly, though, by the end of the novel, Lyndall is a failed New Woman; and her death makes difficult reading.
Then the white face on the pillow looked into the white face in the glass. They had looked at each other often so before. It had been a child’s face once, looking out above its blue pinafore; it had been a woman’s face, with a dim shadow in the eyes, and a something which had said, “We are not afraid, you and I; we are together; we will fight, you and I.” Now tonight it had come to this.
The dying eyes on the pillow looked into the dying eyes in the glass; they knew that their hour had come. She raised one hand and pressed the stiff fingers against the glass. They were growing very stiff. She tried to speak to it, but she would never speak again. Only the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth.
Then slowly, without a sound, the beautiful eyes closed. The dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvelous beauty and tranquillity. The Grey Dawn crept in over it and saw it lying there.
Had she found what she sought for—something to worship? Had she ceased from being? Who shall tell us? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter.’
As Schreiner portrays the dying Lyndall looking into her own eyes in the mirror she telescopes the life of her heroine: reminding the reader of her childhood power and potential as well as her still strong sense of self. Lyndall’s awareness of her failure and impending death, and her continuing lack of faith in any afterlife, shows what it really means to sacrifice the comforting promises of Christian faith. The veil that obscures our knowledge of the hereafter is ‘terrible’ to Schreiner at this time.
Far easier to bear are the struggling women in Schreiner’s later allegories, published in Dreams.
In ‘Three Dreams in a Desert’, a woman has to give up love of man to become a pathfinder to the Land of Freedom for the human race. Her suffering is plain as she cries of her loneliness. However, what remains with the reader is the woman’s fortitude as she ‘grasped her staff’ and set off to dedicate herself in the very slow process of making a track to the edge of the river – so that one day the bodies of women like her might form a bridge over which future women will cross.
The allegory makes clear the woman’s pain and sacrifice, but makes it bearable through the religious form of the allegory – the woman’s emotion is contained within this bigger narrative: the service of a better future.
A potential comfort in Story of an African Farm is another allegory, placed directly before Lyndall’s return to the farm as an adult. The allegory of ‘the Hunter’ is told in this novel by a stranger, but was also printed as a stand-alone allegory in Dreams. Although this story appears to be non-Christian, it actually contains many religious aspects.
The story takes place in a primitive world, where characters such as Wisdom and Knowledge direct the Hunter’s quest for the elusive silver bird, Truth. His quest demands the Christian virtues of patience, hard work, suffering and self-sacrifice, as he engages in a life’s work building a stairway up the mountains to where Truth will be found.
Like Lyndall and the heroines of Dreams, the Hunter is required to renounce any belief in ‘Reward after Death’. But he nevertheless heroically commits himself to his mission to enable future generations to reach Truth. And in death, his last words communicate his certainty in his mission:
‘Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb […] My soul hears their glad step coming,’ he said ‘and they shall mount! They shall mount!’
Schreiner allows the Hunter’s soul to outlive his worn out body: his soul is enabled to ‘hear’ as he experiences a supernatural aural ‘vision’ of the success to come. This metaphysical comfort is held out to Schreiner’s New Woman workers in their sacrifices. Rather than Elijah’s triumphant rising to heaven in a fiery chariot, Schreiner more often references Moses, who died before he could reach the Promised Land, but could similarly be consoled by the promise that his people would reach it because of his work.
A tentative conclusion
For Schreiner, in the midst of agnosticism, religious reflection was hugely important. Though she could not provide readers with hopes of rewards in heaven, her use of religious tropes and forms had the power to foster a faith in a better future. This brought comfort to what would otherwise be starkly painful tales of sacrifice for a future that her New Woman heroines would never see.
It’s been a great first day at the British Women Writers Conference. My highlights were the Jane Austen panel in the morning and the George Eliot panel in the afternoon. Though I probably won’t get round to doing this for all the panels I attend, I managed to summarise my notes and thoughts on the Austen panel for this blog.
Austen’s Networks: Brothers, Sisters, and Friends
Looking at Emma, Libby Bagno-Simon questioned whether Austen’s heroine really evolves at all through this narrative. Is it in fact simply a lesson of ‘there’s no place like home?’ as Emma learns that she had everything she needed before she started her journey of discovery through friendship and matchmaking? Is Austen suggesting that Emma doesn’t really need a close-knit female community? And is Jane Fairfax the friend that Emma ought to have had, or even the heroine that the novel deserved?
Interesting though these questions are, I’m not sure I agreed with the arguments in this paper. I’ve always read the novel as being a comment on egotism – Emma learns that other women aren’t simply mother or child substitutes, that they are in fact their own selves with their own lives and ambitions. This can of course lead to them being potential competitors – for the attentions of Frank and Knightley – but it can also lead to a different kind of friendship becoming possible.
On the question of Jane Fairfax, I’ve come to read her character as a sort of judgement on the way that some in society raise protegees above their station and who then in adulthood experience a mismatch of their circumstances and their sensibilities. Emma shows a blindness to social hierarchy not only in her raising of Harriet above her station, but in feeling inferior to Jane Fairfax. In a way this is very democratic, but it’s also shown to be short-sighted and leads to her treating both women badly. While Emma has the excuse of youth and naiveté, the Campbells should have known better than to raise Jane’s social expectations when she must either earn her living as a governess or stoop to deceit in order to make a good catch. At any rate, I think it’s very difficult to think of Jane as a typical Austen heroine, or even to like her that much.
Talia Vestri Croan turned to Pride and Prejudice to argue that Elizabeth’s development of character and self-knowledge stems from her sister Jane’s mentorship rather than to anything that Darcy might have said. Convincingly, Croan demonstrated how, while for Elizabeth emotional reactions lead to firm impressions – feeling being equated with knowledge – Jane understands that everything is open to interpretation and that we can only ever have potential knowledge. She employs this scepticism practically, in that she is happy to ‘doubt’ things that she is told about other people. This is also why Jane will not make decisions and has been seen as largely ineffectual.
I think this can be taken too far however. If we apply Sharon Marcus’s practice of ‘just reading’ to Austen’s text – a technique that seems very appropriate for Austen who clearly always chose her words carefully – we can read that Jane in fact does make her mind about some things – when they are positive. She does not like ‘to be hasty in censuring any one’, but she’s very happy to strongly and quickly believe the best of people. The extracts that Croan provided show that, fascinatingly, Jane’s quick reason can see the full implications of a potential truth and it is her horror at those that leads her to refuse to believe it can be possible – ‘do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner […] it is difficult indeed – it is distressing – One does not know what to think.’ Rather than express Jane’s scepticism as ‘doubt’ I would suggest it is a form of ‘faith’ in goodness and morality.
The Q&A session was necessarily short, but was helpful in the way it recognised these two papers as both exploring the role of friends and sister relationships a bit more richly than has been so far. Rather than unproblematically seeing such relationships as preparation for marriage, Austen suggests that women’s relationships can provide mentorship just as effective, if not more so, as the male mentoring we see in Knightley and Emma. She also suggests that women can approach friendship in ways which lead to what might be seen as a failure of women’s relationships – but this doesn’t necessarily affect their marriages.
The final paper in this panel was a really interesting one on the potential of the Austen family archives for developing our understanding of Jane Austen and her novels. Alice Villaseñor has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen brothers’ engagement in the British elections of 1806 and 1807 and has some potentially radical suggestions about how involved they were in supporting abolition and working for the election of a more radical MP. Unfortunately we have no letters from Austen during this interesting time, and have no way of knowing whether this was because she was busy with these topics, or if the Victorians got rid of the evidence of her involvement, or – my opinion – she simply wasn’t writing letters because she was staying with her usual correspondent (Cassandra).
This is a common archival frustration, and I think we have to be very careful not to read into lacunae what we would dearly love to be there. As an English student though, I’m a lot happier reading something into an existent text – for example the wonderful possibility that Lydia’s tale in Pride and Prejudice of dressing a soldier called Chamberlain in women’s clothes could be an allusion to a newspaper piece – maybe by one of the Austen brothers – that painted a picture of the Hampshire politician, Chamberlain, retreating from the political fray, dressed in women’s clothing. A bit of a stretch, maybe – but you never know!
I never know what to call myself. It’s been over a year since my PhD was awarded and, like most of my peers, I’m not yet settled in a ‘proper’ academic job. In fact, just after I finished my thesis corrections, I moved to the States where my husband had got a job in an education non-profit, and where it proved far more difficult than I’d imagined to get permission to work and find a job. As a result, apart from some tutoring, I’m not teaching at the moment. I’m also not currently carrying out any research for anyone. So I’m not a PhD student anymore, not a fully-fledged ‘academic’ yet, not a research assistant, teacher or adjunct. I have to come down on ‘independent scholar’, which I hate for its obvious lack of affiliation with any status-giving institution, but perhaps should learn to love for its comparative freedom.
Anyway, it’s been over a year since I finished my PhD. It’s also been over a year since I last published on this blog.
This last year has been tough at times. Leaving London for me meant the loss of my scholarly community and peer group. I’ve also really missed the British Library and Senate House. I hadn’t fully realised how important these things are for helping ward off self-doubt and inspiring new ideas.
But this year has also been exciting. In May last year I presented at the triennial Big Berks conference on the History of Women, where I felt almost like I was being initiated into their amazing, international, academic (feminist) community. I also had papers accepted at the British Women Writers Conference (held in Binghampton NY) and the Victorians Institute Conference (held in Charlotte NC). I also made six applications last year for grants of various kinds – and got one! So in the next couple of weeks I’m heading to the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin to look at the papers of Charlotte Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey.
This blog was mainly started as a promotional tool for various conferences I was involved in. While I probably will still use it to promote events and publications, I hope to also use it to curate interesting work on women, religion and writing, and to share my experiences of postdoctoral life and research activities. I’ve found that I far prefer following and reading fellow-researchers’ blogs than scouring Twitter for interesting snippets – maybe for the same reasons that I prefer novels to poetry? – so I’m hoping to discover new and interesting blogs or websites out there in my field.
Even after four years of study, and even a year on from my PhD, I still find myself fascinated by how women writers in the nineteenth century expressed, represented and wrestled with their faith. Religion was part of their emotional as well as intellectual experience, and this can explain why women writers don’t always say what we think they should, or why their characters behave in ways we don’t understand. In the nineteenth century the emotional and subjective experience of being a woman was different from what it is now. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but the ways in which Victorian women’s experiences differed from ours, especially where religious faith was concerned, is still only just being explored. I hope my work contributes to this exploration, and that even this blog in its own small way can be useful to those finding their way through research questions, PhD courses and the postdoctoral experience.