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

Friday, 17 April 2020

“Cheap and easy railway traffic”: Suffragettes and the Railways, Part 3: Arson on the Railways

In Part 1 of these three articles exploring the way in which the rail network influenced the suffrage campaign, I looked at how trains were instrumental in facilitating suffrage campaigns, including militant activism, as well as enabling suffrage organisations to set up and run their national networks. I also explored the way that trains became arenas for sometimes violent encounters between suffragettes and politicians. You can read "Cheap and Easy Railway Traffic: Suffrage and the Railways Part 1 here.

The second part described how the Glasgow to London train became the focus of a struggle with the police when suffragettes attempted to rescue Mrs Pankhurst on her way to Holloway Gaol. You can read "Cheap and Easy Railway" Traffic Part 2: The Battle to Free Mrs Pankhurst here.

In Part 3, I take a look at how trains and railway stations were themselves targets of suffragette militancy.

In March 1913, Hugh Franklin, who we met in Part 1 when he assaulted Winston Churchill on a train in 1910, was sent to prison for nine months for setting fire to a carriage at Harrow Station the previous October. In April an explosion blew out doors and windows at Oxted Station. In the same month a carriage was wrecked by an explosion at Stockport and another at a siding in Cricklewood. Three compartments of a train at Teddington were destroyed by fire and others damaged.

In May, a bomb containing nitro-glycerine was discovered in an empty third class carriage of a passenger train which had recently left Waterloo at Kingston. The fuse had been lit but had fizzled out. Attached to the device was a note saying, “Lloyd George is a rotter”. Another apparently read, “Give us votes and we will be contempt” (sic). In the same month, there was a bomb hoax at Macclesfield railway station. A fire was started at South Bromley Station, but extinguished before the Fire Brigade arrived.

In July there was an arson attempt at Shields Road Station in Glasgow, when fires were started in two ladies’ waiting rooms, and timber in a railway goods yard at Nottingham was destroyed by fire. In September, Kenton Station, Newcastle, was destroyed. A note was found nearby which said, “Asquith is responsible for militancy. Apply to him for damage”. A few weeks later there was an attempt to burn down Heaton station, also in Newcastle. In October 1913, there were fires at Hadley Road and Northfield Stations in Birmingham, and at Oldbury Station where a note was left saying “Militancy will go on.” In November there was an arson attempt at Streatham Hill, when petrol was used to light a fire in the booking hall. Another Birmingham station, Newton Road, was also set alight, as was Castle Bromwich station.

In addition, railway telegraph wires were cut in a number of locations. The London Underground was targeted too. A parcel containing nitro-glycerine was found at Piccadilly Tube Station in May 1913.

Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and others, 1911. While suffragettes attacked the railways, they still relied on them for their campaign.
The railway attacks continued into 1914. At Porthcawl the words “Votes for Women. You cannot govern women without their consent” were discovered scratched on a carriage window. There was a fire at Wigan Station in February and at Bangor Station in April. In June a bomb was found in a goods train at Wellingborough. In July 1914 the Morning Post, cataloguing suffragette militancy since 1913, cited ten arson attempts on railway carriages.

At the same time as the arson attacks were being carried out, some suffragettes were raising funds with collections or sweet sales outside railway and tube stations. You can’t help wondering how popular these were with commuters. Inevitably, the WSPU blamed any hostility on the British press and lauded the courage of women standing outside railway stations, as well as in other public places, “not knowing what they may have to face at any moment owing to the incitement of the Press to hooligans to attack them” (The Suffragette, 7 March 1913). The WSPU also launched a poster campaign at railway stations aimed at increasing sales of The Suffragette. Surprisingly, these were displayed at many stations.

It must be borne in mind that suffragettes were blamed for almost any act of vandalism during this period. For example, when cushions were slashed in a railway carriage on the Chatham line in February 1913, militants were said to be responsible. A month later, cushions were slashed on the North Eastern and North British Railways and labels saying “Votes for Women” were stuck to them. The presence of such labels was not always conclusive proof that suffragettes had left them.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that some at least of the attacks were carried out by suffragettes. As we saw in the case of Hugh Franklin, the police were able to bring charges in a few cases, though not all stuck. When Mr and Mrs Baines, their son, and local WSPU secretary Kate Wallwork of Manchester were charged with causing an explosion in a carriage at Heaton Railway Station, Miss Wallwork and the men were acquitted, and Mrs Baines absconded while on bail. In most cases, however, it seems those responsible were never discovered.

The WSPU leaders also implicitly claimed responsibility for some of the incidents. At a speech at the London Pavilion in March 1913, Annie Kenney noted the arrest of five women “for the constitutional action of trying to present a petition while the women who burnt down the railway station have got off scot-free” (The Suffragette, 14 March 1913). On the other hand, although many of these attacks were reported in the pages of The Suffragette, it was often with the comment that they were “supposed” to be the work of suffragettes. The WSPU leadership did not always know what its followers were doing, but they always defended their right to do it.

Confusingly, too, in June 1913 the WSPU issued a statement denying involvement in an attempt to wreck the London to Plymouth express saying that it “would be contrary to the policy of the Union”. They added that “no interference with the railway system is sanctioned by the WSPU” (The Suffragette 27 June 1913). This is presumably a reference to the policy that no life should be endangered by militancy.

In spite of the WSPU’s protestations, the public can hardly be blamed for fearing injury or death might be the result when people planted bombs on trains. Travellers could not have been reassured by the Aisgill tragedy in September 1913, when fourteen passengers died, many after being trapped in burning carriages, after two Scottish express trains collided. Their confidence could not have been restored by the publication a few days later of a report that there had been a rise in the number of fatalities and deaths on the railways since the previous year.

David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer

 On 23 October 1913, David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking in Swindon, commented, “It is no good burning down churches, pavilions, and railway sidings, and menacing the lives of poor workmen, who after all are not responsible for the present condition of things. You don’t gain anything by that” (Manchester Courier, 24 October 1913). Whether or not suffragette militancy did more harm than good to the women’s suffrage campaign is still as fiercely debated today as it was during the militant campaign. Nevertheless, suffragettes continued both to destroy railway property, and to rely on the smooth running of the railway network, to the end of their campaign in August 1914.        

Picture Credits: Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Others, 1911, Women’s Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

David Lloyd George Postcard – author’s private collection.

“Women and Transport: Historical Perspectives”

Circumstances permitting, later this year the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network Annual Conference will be looking at more aspects of women and transport. “Women and Transport: Historical Perspectives” will take place on Saturday 3 October 2020 from 10 am to 5pm at Central Community Centre, Emlyn Square, Swindon SN1 5BL. Deadline for Call for Papers is 24 April 2020. For further information see the WESWWHN website.

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