March’s favourite blogs

This month I came across Writing Lives for the first time. Many people may already have discovered this, but it’s a fantastic resource for anyone interested in life writing, or working class histories. The site includes blog posts that introduce the autobiographies held in the Burnett Archive of Working-class Autobiographies, held at Brunel University, and is being developed alongside the project to digitize these and other memoirs into an online archive of working-class writing.

The site is also interesting in terms of pedagogy. The blogs introducing the autobiographies are written by third-year undergraduates. Each autobiography is written about with regard to a number of specific themes – for example, ‘Home and Family’, ‘Life and Labour’, ‘War and Memory’, or ‘Education and Schooling’.

Writing lives

That there aren’t more readily-available (read non-manuscript) sources written by working-class individuals seems to be a perennial problem when writing history. I recently encountered this issue when trying to write about women and their subjective experience of education and religion in the nineteenth century. A couple of scholars, such as June Purvis in her A History of Women’s Education in England, and Meg Gomersall, in Working Class Girls in Nineteenth Century England: Life Work and Schooling, provided tantalizing glimpses of the working-class life writing they had accessed in order to write their histories, but as I wasn’t able to access these, I couldn’t ask any further questions of the material or draw any relevant conclusions for my project.

Jean Fernandez’s study, Victorian Servants: Class and the Politics of Literacy further problematized the form for me, pointing out that the autobiography could only be written after literacy had been achieved, and thus no longer authentically reflected the subjectivity of an illiterate working class life. In her particular example, Janet Bathgate, who wrote Aunt Janet’s Legacy to her Nieces: Recollections of Humble Life in Yarrow (1872 and 1894), Fernandez argues that Janet’s narrative became self-consciously about her acquisition of literacy, written in a form that mimicked middle-class autobiographies. However, I think we can fetishize authenticity, and also – in a rather patronising way – the idea of a particularly illiterate, working-class subjectivity. There can be a tendency to want to find the Otherness of an independent, inviolable working class and a corresponding dismissal of working-class subjects who cultivated ‘respectable’ or aspirant subjectivities as being victims of ’embourgeoisement’.

So for me, Writing Lives is a great resource and I’m already combing through to see how many of the women autobiographers wrote about their schooling, and if they linked it with religion. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to follow up by accessing these memoirs myself.



Special issue of WHR – ‘Love, Desire and Melancholy: inspired by Constance Maynard’

I’m immensely excited and proud to announce that the special issue I co-edited with Elsa Richardson and Jane Mackelworth was published last week!

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The special issue was initially based on the Constance Maynard Symposium we hosted at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) with QMUL Archives and the QMUL Centre for the History of Emotions, to mark the completion of the digitisation of Constance Maynard’s autobiographical writings. Maynard’s diaries and unpublished biography provide fascinating material for historians of women’s sexuality; she wrote in detail about her relationships with other women teachers and students. The symposium therefore did not solely focus on Maynard, but considered the wider question of how love is related to history, culture and religion. It also encouraged interdisciplinarity, through welcoming how the approaches of art history, literary studies, architecture studies and life writing could all contribute to understanding Maynard and the history of women’s sexuality.

When it came to editing a special issue for Women’s History Review we wanted to retain this wider focus and interdisciplinary approach.

The special issue starts with an introduction providing: an introduction to Constance Maynard, considering how she was both exceptional and representative of women of her time and background; a summary of the symposium; and a survey of directions women’s history has taken concerning women’s understanding of their sexuality and sexual identities through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Part 1 of the special issue includes articles that touch directly on Maynard’s life and writings. Pauline Phipps’s article reflects on her experience writing the biography of Constance Maynard (available to buy here).

My article then discusses the representations of women’s intimate relationships in religious literature of Maynard’s time, and how Maynard wrote about her relationships with women using the tropes of this culture. In her article, Naomi Lloyd continues this consideration of how Maynard’s religion interacted with her sexuality, but adds a discussion of how colonialist discourses of space also helped to shape Constance Maynard’s erotic imagination. Elisabeth Jay’s article then considers how an appreciation of the genre of spiritual autobiography can add to our understanding of Maynard’s life writing.

Lorraine Screene, the archivist responsible for the digitisation of Maynard’s writings, contributes an article that considers how archival materials can reveal the interaction of religion and education at Westfield College. And Lisa C. Robertson’s article explores how architecture and other structures challenged the domestic model of the college and impacted women students’ experiences.

Part 2 includes articles that extend discussion of the themes of the special issue into the twentieth century, and includes both a review essay and a reflective essay on these themes.

The section starts with an open-access article by Lesley Hall, which examines the cultural representations of women’s friendship in the early twentieth century, identifying a complex interplay between the tropes of female friendship represented in literature, letters, life writing, and also in sexological, medical and psychological texts by women.

Alison Twells’s article develops a new method for reading the ‘ordinary diary’ as she finds evidence of the formation and expression of heterosexual desire in a woman’s Second-World-War diary.

Our review essay, by Elsa Richardson, considers Laura Doan’s recent book Disturbing Practices (available to buy here), how it develops her influential work on the history of women’s sexuality, and how it might inform readings of the Maynard archive.

Finally, our reflective essay, provided by Carol Mavor, demonstrates how poetic interpretations of nineteenth-century art and photography might enable different strategies for women’s historians to get closer to the experience of a given culture’s narratives and values.

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You can access the special issue here (to gain access to the full text versions of most of the articles you will need your library to have subscribed to Women’s History Review).

You can access (limited) printable copies of my article here.

And (limited) printable copies of the introduction, co-authored by Jane Mackelworth, Elsa Richardson and myself, here.