February’s favourite blog(s)

I had trouble choosing just one favourite blog this month, as there were some really excellent posts on a number of blogs that I regularly follow.

Firstly, Jem Bloomfield had some good posts on current issues in academia: an excellent response to the debate ‘University isn’t for Men’ (I’ll write more about this in my monthly roundup), and some interesting data about the representation of women as speakers at Christian conferences in recent years.

One of my favourite blogs for a while now has been The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates’ Researcher Blog, and this month it had a really great post by Clare Walker Gore (‘The Love that Dare not Speak its Name’) about the links between Victorian same-sex desire and disability in mid-Victorian novels, such as those by Dinah Mulock Craik. I enjoyed working on Craik’s shorter novels about governesses for my PhD thesis. I was especially struck by how many forms of love her writing explores – love between mothers/daughters, governesses/students, sisters/brothers… She even finds a way to reconcile women’s unrequited love with the religious culture of the time (it was frowned upon for women to experience desire except reciprocally). Clare’s blog post focuses on the intimacy between male characters in Craik’s John Halifax, and makes a link with the relationship in Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone between two disabled women (one of them wonderfully called ‘Limping Lucy’).

Another nineteenth-century blog that I’ve been enjoying is Mimi Matthews’s collection of posts about nineteenth-century fashion, marriage, and animals(!). This blog is a treasure trove of detailed information on nineteenth-century life. The 14 February post about Victorian Valentines was especially enjoyable.

But possibly my favourite reads this month were from William G. Pooley. Not one, but two fascinatingly thoughtful pieces about history, which really spoke to me. First came a piece drawing out how playing the lottery can perfectly express the wonder of how the momentous and dramatic can enter the lives of ordinary people – and can be found in our study of such ordinary people by historians. Then there were thoughts on the radicalism of understanding the traditions we live in – the legacies of Marx, Freud, Darwin, Einstein, Mandela.

When it came to Marx, I had to agree with his statement:

What the man asking if I was a ‘Marxist’ didn’t realize is that in a sense it is very hard not to be a Marxist in 2016.

Though I might agree for different reasons. These days, every time we discuss the UK Conservative government, my husband and I are struck by Marx’s perspicacity, in that our only explanation for many of their actions is: ‘the rich consolidate their power in the economic superstructure’ (we call this Marxist catechism. Try it – next time you’re asking how on earth they can abolish student maintenance grants/money from the disabled/tax credits for families…).

Of course his main point is nothing really to do with this, but is rather concerned with how there is a tendency to purify the past: reducing Freud to the Oedipus Complex; selectively reading Darwin, Huxley and Einstein to champion the ideal of the rational scientist and ignore the religious, spiritual, or occult elements of their thought; simplifying the complexity of Mandela and Pankhurst’s actions as unproblematic ‘heroism’. (I thought about this last night actually, while watching Ken Burns’s documentary about Theodore Roosevelt, in which historians endeavoured to go beyond the usual hagiography to speak about his imperialism and blood-lust ‘with dry eyes’.)

It isn’t normally considered a very radical thing to be called a ‘traditionalist’, but I suppose what I am saying is that it can in fact be quite radical indeed to think about the traditions we inhabit. In fact, that is the kind of radicalism that has long been the preserve of the folklorists, who seek to understand, rather than condemn the traditions we live within.

I don’t know that much about folklorists, but I’m certainly learning from this blog.

One thing I do know, is that I absolutely share this desire to understand the traditions we live within. This might in fact be at the heart of my project to explore the religious underpinnings of early feminism and how this has affected our thinking about, and as, women up to today.

So those were my favourite blogs of the month – what did I miss? What blogs did you find enjoyable/thought-provoking this month?



January round-up

I can’t quite believe this is the beginning of the last week of January – where did that month go?

While I didn’t get everything done that I’d planned to, I have been enjoying Twitter this month. So here are my thoughts on those stories and articles that caught my eye this month.

Debating Victorian Studies

There were some really great responses on JVC Online to Peter K. Andersson’s open source article ‘How Civilized were the Victorians?’. This article pointed out how Victorian Studies is dominated by narratives of discipline and civilization stemming from Elias and Foucault, leaving little room for competing narratives as they emerge from alternative sources. As a literary scholar I felt somewhat implicated in the criticism that it was Victorian Studies’ reliance on literary, bourgeois sources that encouraged this dominance, but I took comfort from his suggestion that close reading of such sources can provide evidence of the non-verbal culture that challenges the idea of Victorian culture as wholly restrained and disciplined. In the background to his article, and to some of the responses, was the V21 Collective’s push for more theory and more synthetic methods – which would tend to militate against the accumulation of more data, whether it undermined the current theory-inspired narratives or not. I’ve not fully formed my thoughts on V21 yet, but it would seem that Andersson’s article is useful to read alongside their manifesto.

Katrina Navikas’s response made some great points about how historians of Victorian workers have used working-class autobiographies, Hegelian theories of experience, and labour geography in order to talk in more complex ways about class.

Sophie Franklin’s response defended the literate as a source, challenging Andersson’s suggestion that novels present the Victorians as being on ‘their best behaviour’.

Oliver Betts agreed with Andersson’s overall point, bemoaning scholars’ under-use of non-literary sources in museum collections and the work of Charles Booth (NB – I don’t actually recognise this, especially after my experiences with the Literary London reading group). Interestingly, though, Betts warns that Andersson’s approach risks isolating the Victorian working class, not seeing the cross-class context of identity formation.

And Lucinda Matthews-Jones added her voice to Anderrson’s concern over the dominance of literary perspectives and the V21 Collective. Like Oliver Betts, she was also excited by the potential of non-verbal sources, and added that art history has a role to play here.

Jane Eyre and the Book of Common Prayer

I thought that this was a really interesting reading of specific dates in Jane Eyre and linking them to the Book of Common Prayer – by a non-traditional independent academic (check out the bio). I found the essay especially useful as I’m in the middle of re-writing a chapter on Jane Eyre and missionary writing.

Don’t Worry be Happy

I think the Guardian was thrilled by the long-running controversy about its article by ‘anonymous academic’ listing 9 positive things about working in academia. While most people seemed to accept the article on its own terms, others were concerned that this downplayed the serious issues of casualisation in academia.

I enjoyed the article, but was concerned by Twitter’s suggestions that ECRs should be judged for jobs on whether they had a positive enough attitude – most people acknowledge that those adjuncting and looking for a job have a pretty bad time of it, demanding they put on a happy face is a bit crass.

Teaching Excellence Framework

Consultation on the Teaching Excellence Framework came to an end this month. Sally Hunt’s article stressed the impact of casualisation on teaching quality in universities, and discussed the problems of basing an evaluation of teaching on the national student survey and graduate employment rates. She also called for university teachers to be more valued.

Twitter debated whether academics should be split into teaching and researching camps and be treated in an ‘equal but different’ way, but (luckily) this seemed to peter out.

THE reported that students were keen for employment rates to be included in any evaluation of university teaching; in a poll they also suggested that contact time was a useful measure, but believed that the most useful proxy was the proportion of students who achieved a good degree. Unsurprisingly, this was not popular with Professor Graham Gibbs, the academic THE quoted in response, who warned of the dangers of responding to what students wanted rather than what was good for them (including grade inflation). Part of the problem here, I think, is that students have been educated in a school system that has espoused a growth-mindset. Students are told that they can achieve highly, if they put the work in (and if teachers work to get the best out of them). It’s logical therefore, that they link contact time with getting a good degree. Unfortunately I suspect there are some academics that don’t believe in a growth-mindset and tend to decide early on if a student is capable of getting a 2.1 or not.

The Safe Space/Academic Freedom Debate

This continued to rumble on, with Joanna Williams complaining that academics, as well as students have contributed to a lack of intellectual diversity through their focus on widening participation…

The Chronicle also published an article on ‘how fear is stifling academic freedom’, pointing out that ‘a key aspect of securing a job is to present oneself as entirely unobjectionable, to sand away the aspects of one’s self-presentation that might offend, well, anyone.’

I can’t help but feel it’s ironic how people keep complaining about how they can’t say anything any more – in published pieces in highly circulated publications… Interestingly, the Chronicle piece pointed out that the high-profile firing of Steven Salaita at University of Illinois was largely down to the influence of (special-interest) donors rather than politically correct students, which is hardly anything new in America is it?

Gender Politics

Early in the month Slate asked (and answered) the question ‘Is History written about men, by men?’ In their survey, around 75% of popular history books were written by men; the majority of biographies published were about male subjects, and usually written by men; and they discovered that history books were usually bought as gifts for men, and were therefore mostly about ‘masculine’ subjects such as presidents and wars.

But for me this topic ended up being dominated this month by the crazy #femfog rantings of Allen Frantzen’s website. I really have no words. Thank goodness for Twitter, and for Peter Buchanan, whose response I thought was truly excellent.

And Finally…

Stella Creasy’s interview with Caitlin Moran about feminism, online abuse and politics was (as expected) sane, inspiring, and great for when you’re just too tired of all the sexism:

I also enjoyed the Guardian’s run down of their top articles for academics of 2015, especially the ones about learning how to be better at failing, and how not to be a conference troll.


Olive Schreiner’s religious feminism

story of african farm cover

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.

Schreiner’s allegories

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.

Illustrated by E. M. Synge (On the shores of Great Seas) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.