Monday, 27 July 2020

Judy the Obscure

 I’ve just read Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade. I loved this book. It’s about a group of women whose lives and work I find really inspiring though I don’t know much about some of them, and nothing at all about one (HD). The other women are Dorothy L Sayers (I’m a huge fan), Virginia Woolf, Eileen Power and Jane Ellen Harrison.

I’m moved and encouraged by their passion for and dedication to their work. I love the way they just kept going through all the discouragements and disappointments. I’m fascinated by their lives between the wars. I’m infuriated by the attitudes they faced – which still ring oh-too-true today. I eagerly devour these stories of women who were not just seeking but creating their own space.

Of course, space here doesn’t just mean their physical space, but how and where they chose to live is a huge part of it. Hence the book’s brilliant focus on place, on a place: Mecklenburgh Square in London. The book gives a vivid sense of how they lived, in their public and also their private spaces. As I read, one aspect struck me: that not one of the women assumed responsibility for cleaning or maintaining that space. They all relied on other women to do it for them.

Most of them had been brought up in homes where they had servants. If they went to university to study or work all cleaning, care and maintenance was done for them. So was the cooking, though some of the women did cook occasionally, but only because, like Virginia Woolf, they enjoyed doing it – and there was someone else to do the washing up. When they set up private homes for themselves, they employed housekeepers, cleaners and cooks. If there were children, they had others to help with the child care – HD had her friend Bryher and paid nannies; Dorothy L Sayers sent her child to live with a cousin in Oxford.

I don’t think it would have occurred to them that any other arrangement was possible. Dorothy L Sayers rented just one room in Mecklenburgh Square – but she employed a cleaner. Virginia Woolf, who had always lived with servants, did begin to question the system, but I had the impression that she was more interested in how it affected her than the people she employed. She hated the lack of privacy, and she felt uncomfortable about being a socialist and feminist who relied on working class women to do the dirty work. Her solution? Move the servants out. And that’s what the Woolfs did when they lived at Monk’s House in Sussex: they bought a couple of cottages in the village for their gardener and cook-housekeeper. Peace at last – with all the housework done and meals prepared!

I’m not criticising these women for employing cleaners. In fact, I think it’s great that the women they employed were paid to do work that countless other women have been conned into doing for nothing for centuries. I can’t help thinking, though, how much easier it was for them to leave the cleaning to someone else when they’d never been brought up to do it. But then neither had their brothers or fathers or uncles. I’ve yet to read a biography of Charles Dickens or D H Lawrence which even mentions that they didn’t do the dusting.

The world turned upside down?

Drearily, it’s an issue that is still with us. Only a month ago Caitlin Moran had to defend her decision to employ a cleaner. As she pointed out, “Martin Amis has never been asked if he loads his own dishwasher.” It is not, Moran insists, a woman’s issue, or a feminist issue: “Housework is the concern of all.”

The rest of the world, though, hasn’t caught up with that now (for more on this see the links below), and it hadn’t caught up with it then, when the women in this group biography were living and working in Mecklenburgh Square. Unlike Moran, I think housework is a feminist issue while women and domesticity remain linked. Consequently, these five women’s rejection or subversion of domesticity is closely connected with their feminism and freedom.

But while I love the way that they achieved so much and set such inspiring examples, I can’t help thinking of all the women who never stood a chance of achieving what they did, who were never even able to try. The women whose schooling consisted of sitting in huge classes in dowdy schools where they spent hours doing needlework and cookery while the boys learned maths and science. The women who had to leave school, such as it was, at fourteen or fifteen and go to work. The women who might have attempted to teach themselves, but who didn’t have lots of books and even if they did, didn’t have the time, energy or a quiet place to read them. The women who didn’t have parents who could afford to send them to university, or pay monthly allowances so they could live an “independent” life until the royalty cheques started to arrive. The women who were the odd ones out in their families and social circles because, just like Dorothy L Sayers and the others, they didn’t want to settle for the narrow sphere life had mapped out for them because of their gender, race, class, where they were born.

I wonder if one of those women ever picked up a book to dust it and paused with it in her hand, flicking over the pages, longing to be able to make all the wonders it contained her own. I wonder if when she approached one of those cluttered desks she ever dreamed of herself sitting in the chair, every now and again gazing out of the Georgian window across the Square, with the pen in her own hand poised over sheets of paper covered with her thoughts, her ideas. I wonder if she ever put down her dustpan and brush for a moment when she was outside a study door and listened to the buzz of conversation inside, feeling its energy, its excitement, its fellowship. I wonder if when she went in to collect the used cups and glasses her heart turned over with longing to be one of those wonderful, trailblazing women talking, laughing, smoking, drinking, reading.

She’s Judy the Obscure – and perhaps one day I’ll write her story…


Caitlin Moran, ‘Yes I’ve got a cleaner, what’s your problem?’, published on line by The Times, 19 June 2020

Working mothers interrupted more often than fathersin lockdown – study’, The Guardian, 27 May 2020

Women’s domestic burden just got heavier with the coronavirus’, The Guardian, 16 March 2020

Women almost twice as likely as men to do the bulk ofhousehold budgetting’, Fawcett Society, 25 June 2020

Friday, 26 June 2020

"The suffragette who beat Win C": Theresa Garnett and the International Alliance of Women

I’ve always been interested in the “after life” of the suffrage campaigners in Britain – what they did after the campaign for the vote – especially since so many histories about them stop at the point when their involvement in the campaign came to an end. Because women’s war work during the First World War is associated with (and often cited as a direct cause of) the eventual enfranchisement of British women, these accounts often extend into the war, and sometimes into the Second World War. Thus we hear of women working in munitions, medicine or quasi-military organisations. We might also hear that they joined other women’s organisations, such as the Suffragette Fellowship or the Six Point Group. Often, though, you’d think that most women suffrage campaigners’ lives came to an end when the franchise campaign ended. Unless, of course, they were well known, in which case their lives are better documented.

So it was very exciting to discover evidence of one suffragette’s “after life” when I recently added a postcard written by Theresa Garnett in 1954 to my collection.

Theresa Garnett wrote the postcard from Elsinore, Denmark on 2 August 1954 to Norah Bowles at the News Chronicle newspaper at its London offices in Bouverie Street. The postcard depicted a map of Denmark. It was addressed “c/o International Alliance of Women, Folk High School, Elsinore, Denmark”.

The card was sent to ask a favour of Norah. It was, Theresa explained, impossible to get hold of English newspapers, and she asked Norah to arrange for copies of the News Chronicle to be sent to her. She added that she was unable to send money from Denmark, but would pay on her return, which would be in a month’s time.

The message ends, “The press here have got hold of the fact that the suffragette ‘who beat Win C’ is here and are trying to catch me!”

"Win C": Winston Churchill

Unfortunately, I can’t show you any images of Theresa Garnett's postcard as I believe it is still in copyright (to Kaj Brammers, b. 1892, who ran a bookstore, paper, music and photo shop in Elsinore, which he was still running in his seventies).

Leeds-born Theresa Garnett’s (1888–1966) militant career as a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had included chaining herself to a statue in the lobby of the House of Commons, window breaking in Whitehall, and a roof top protest in Liverpool. In November 1909 she carried out her most notorious action when she attacked Winston Churchill with a dog whip at Bristol Temple Meads railway station. She spent a month in Horfield gaol where she went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. She protested by breaking the glass over the gas light in her cell and setting fire to her pillow and mattress. She ended up in the prison hospital after she collapsed while confined in the punishment cell.

However, by 1910 Theresa had decided that militancy had gone far enough for her and she left the WSPU. She does not seem to have engaged in any further suffrage campaigning. During the First World War she worked as a nurse in London and at the front. After the Second World War she joined the Suffragette Fellowship and the Women’s Freedom League, where she edited the League’s Bulletin. And, as we have seen, she was a member of the International Alliance of Women.

Women's Freedom League Banner

The International Alliance of Women was founded in 1902 in Washington as the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Legal Citizenship. In 1904 it became the  International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). At a meeting in Paris in 1926 it changed name again to become the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship. In 1946 the organisation became the International Alliance of Women, by which name it still operates and continues its work for women and girls, focussing on such issues as peace, equality, and sexual and reproductive health rights.

The Elsinore Folk High School was associated with the Danish Folk High School (DFHS) movement. This movement originated in Denmark in the nineteenth century as a means of educating those who could not afford a university education. Its aim was to enable them to take their place in their nation’s political and social life. Students attended residential courses on subjects such as history, civics, politics, art and literature. The emphasis was on learning, and there were no examinations. The DFHS ideals spread to other Nordic countries and has since become a global movement.

I haven’t been able to find out why the IAW was at the Folk High School in Elsinore in August 1954, nor what Theresa Garnett’s role was. However, the Folk High School courses attracted individuals and groups from Britain, as well as being involved in school or youth exchanges. Theresa Garnett had trained as a teacher, and it’s possible that she still took an interest in educational issues. In addition, the DFHS’s emphasis on training for citizenship is likely to have resonated with the IAW. The IAW records are in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, so perhaps one day I’ll be able to visit again and investigate further.  

I haven’t been able to discover anything about Norah Bowles either, so I don’t know what her job was at the News Chronicle. The newspaper originated in 1930 with the merger of the left-Liberal Daily Chronicle and the Liberal Daily News, which was originally edited by Charles Dickens and later owned by the Quaker George Cadbury. The News Chronicle ceased publication in 1960.

So Theresa Garnett’s postcard has raised a number of questions – not least of which is: why would the Danish press be interested in something that happened forty-five years earlier? Undoubtedly, one reason is that Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister, the Conservatives having been returned to power in 1951. Clearly Theresa Garnett’s suffragette experiences still had significance to her and others. Even as new interests had taken the place of the suffrage campaign, she was mindful of her status – or notoriety – as “the suffragette ‘who beat Win C’ ”. Though the British women’s suffrage campaign was long over, it echoed and resonated down the years and was an integral part of the “after life” of Theresa Garnett and other suffragettes.  

Picture Credits

Winston Churchill c 1907: Postcard, Author's Collection. Photograph is by Reginald Haines (1872-1942)

Women's Freedom League Banner: Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

Find out more:-

International Alliance of Women

Danish Folk High Schools

 The News Chronicle and






Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The Father of Virginia Woolf: Women and the Essay

I recently read A C Grayling’s biography The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt (2000). It’s the fascinating story of a fascinating man, elegantly written and immensely readable. Hazlitt was an essayist, arts critic, and a life-long radical. Unlike the friends of his youth, Coleridge and Wordsworth, he never abandoned his radical politics. He was devastated by the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the subsequent restoration of European monarchies. He was an independent thinker, who wrote in an intensely personal and original style.

Hazlitt was also a philanderer, a man who had numerous infatuations and affairs, and who frequently visited prostitutes. In one bizarre and rather obscure incident in the Lake District, he is said to have “spanked” a local girl. Mmm. I think the word the biographer is struggling for is “assaulted”. According to Grayling, Hazlitt did this because she must have been “teasing him, or leading him on and then denying him”. Hazlitt later divorced his first wife – by that time they were living apart – because he was obsessed with his landlady’s daughter, a girl half his age. He described this relationship in the autobiographical Liber Amoris, causing a scandal into the bargain.

William Hazlitt
Of course, Hazlitt’s admirers do not characterise him as a philanderer or serial adulterer. He is a lover, a romantic, a man who believes in love at first sight only to have his heart broken, an unfortunate in love, a man of profound passions, an unrequited lover. And who’s to say that he wasn’t also these things? Perhaps the tragedy of Hazlitt’s attachments is the way that the sense of male entitlement with which he was brought up lay at the root of much of his pain and suffering. He believed he had the right to assault a woman who rejected his advances, and he was convinced that his love for the landlady’s daughter was so profound and important that the object of his passion must return it. Such views distorted his relationships and his self-image, and created unbearable tensions between his ideal and the reality.

But whatever the truth is about his private life – and indeed, if the truth can ever, or even should, be discovered about his or any person’s private life – Hazlitt is regarded by many, and certainly by Grayling, as the greatest English essayist. The essay is an art, says Grayling, in which “English literature is incomparably rich”. In an appendix to The Quarrel of the Age, he traces the development of that art from classical authors – Cicero, Pliny and so on – through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and on to the eighteenth with Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and Richard Steele. Hazlitt is “the supreme English essayist”, though there are others worthy of note: Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas De Quincey, Leslie Stephen, Matthew Arnold, Robert Louis Stevenson, Augustine Birrell, etc etc etc.

And lest we should fear that women have been omitted from Grayling’s pantheon of greats, Leslie Stephen (“an essayist of the first rank”) is also the “father of Virginia Woolf”. 

Well, you can’t get fairer than that, can you?

Except that the fact that Virginia Woolf herself was no mean essayist isn’t mentioned at all.

There is not one single woman essayist mentioned.
Not one.

 An editor once told me that lists are boring. Reader, if you agree with that, look away now. Because what follows is a list.

 Of women essayists.

 Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

 Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)

 Hannah More (1745–1833)

 Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

 Jane Bowdler (1743–1784)

 Frances Brooke (1724–1789)

 Elizabeth Griffith (1727–1793)

 Eliza Haywood (c. 1693–1756)

 Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806)

 Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1720–1800)

 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)

 Alice Meynell (1847–1922)

 Dorothy L Sayers (1893–1957)

 Muriel Spark (1918–2006)

 Storm Jameson (1891–1986)

 Rebecca West (1892–1983)

 Oh, and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

And that’s not even mentioning any essayists outside Britain, such as Susan Sontag (1933– 2004), Adrienne Rich (1929–2012), Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964), Audre Lord (1934–1992), Joan Didion (b 1934)…Or any of the contemporary essayists working in what has been described as “a golden age of female essayists”[1]: Anne Lamott, Zadie Smith, Sarah Vowell, Roxanne Gay, Lena Dunham, Meghan Daum, Barbara Kingsolver, Taslima Nasrin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cherrie Moraga, Rebecca Solnit, Samantha Irby…

I could go on. Many of these women’s writings I have yet to discover for myself, but there’s clearly a huge, exciting range of work out there to be explored. Some of us might question why we have to talk about a “female” or “woman” essayist at all. We don’t, after all, talk about “male” or “men” essayists.

Which seems to me to be the point really. And that’s why I’ve added the following book to my “to be read” list:-

Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000, edited by Jenny Spinner. The book looks at the work of forty six British and American essayists, and lists 200 more in the appendix. It “lifts women writers from the cutting-room floor of essay scholarship and returns them to their rightful place in the essay canon.”

[1]  The Guardian, 18 November 2014