Historical fiction and a modern-day agenda: ‘Ripper Street’, take 2


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It looks bad, I know – I announce with much pomp and circumstance my return to the blogosphere, and then take over a month to produce another post. I can only offer a thousand humble apologies, and explain that first, I was starting a new job, and then I came up against the monopolistic evil of internet provision in London and was cut off for the better part of a month, refusing to shell out for WiFi use in order to disseminate my Marxist-feminist dialectic from the hipster bars of Shoreditch.

The reconnection of my internet did, however, happily coincide with the advent of plenty of material for a new and angry post. This was provided in part by the return to the nation’s screens of the costumed soap opera/SVU mash-up Ripper Street, and in part by a conference on the topic organised as part of Birkbeck’s series of lectures and film showings as counterpart to the Victoriana exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. I won’t lie – I am as much of an omnibus and crinoline geek as the next Victorian Studies graduate, and can’t help loving the research and creativity that goes into the steampunk genre. ‘Victoriana: The art of revival’ is a gorgeous exhibition and I got childishly excited about dressing up for the neo-Victorian ball in the gallery crypt. Nevertheless, as the (for that evening) consumptive factory worker who authors the Marxism, Desire, Ontology blog pointed out, steampunk, and the entirety of historical fiction as a genre, is inherently reactionary. Like fantasy and science fiction, which offer, through their world-building possibilities, tremendous scope for subversion and breaking down of dominant discourses but practically always end up reinforcing precisely those discourses and presenting them as inevitable and ‘natural’, it thrives on titillation through the depiction of highly problematic ideas and actions without apology or contextualisation, the excuse being a nostalgia for an invented tradition in which political correctness had not yet been invented.

Councillor Jane Cobden – because the focus group says the show needs more women

These were the questions I had hoped to hear addressed at the conference on ‘re-writing the Victorians for TV and radio’. Unfortunately, the conclusion that Ripper Street used its historical setting to present itself as educational whilst incorporating cheap thrills appealing to its viewers’ latent brutality, and the acknowledgment of its frankly appalling gender, race and disability politics, were only stated outright at the very end of the afternoon, when time constraints no longer allowed for a fruitful (or even merely satisfyingly angry) discussion. What did emerge from between the lines of the papers and discussion, however, was a point that I think gives us considerably more cause for concern than merely the threat of rubbish television. This was the model referred to as ‘austerity BBC’. The speaker, Dr Benjamin Poore, used this to explain the decline of the golden era of the BBC adaptation of canonical texts as mini-series: the new model, he made clear, was responsible for the format heralded by Lark Rise to Candleford, which used the source text only as a springboard for a long-running soap opera-style programme. Since it requires only one custom-built set (and we find the BBC’s costume drama outfits regularly recycled) and has no fixed number of episodes, series on this model are cheaper to produce and have the potential to generate greater profits – as, for example, through the success of Downton Abbey.

An established madam – but her bruises were inflicted by another woman

I would argue, however, that there is a more dangerous implication to the workings of this kind of ‘austerity TV’ which is inextricably linked to the reactionary aspects of historical fiction. The third episode in the new series of Ripper Street, nauseatingly entitled ‘Become Man’, confirmed me in this suspicion. Many of the conference-goers pointed out the conspicuous absence of people of ethnic minorities in the first series, and the appearance, out of nowhere, of a substantial Chinese community in the first episode of the second – which promptly proceeded to demonise this community as poisoning the West with its narcotics. A similar argument may be made about the treatment of characters with disabilities in the second episode, which cast these stereotyped characters as completely disconnected from the wider community. In the third episode, a band of hysterical women kidnap the opponent of London’s first female City Councillor. Of course, sensible Councillor Cobden takes resolute distance from these ‘extremists’ whilst playfully embracing the image of herself as a breathily willing object of love and lust; meanwhile, the madam and the women’s ringleader form a mutually abusive and voyeuristically eroticised bond for no reason other than their shared femininity (and implied hysteria). Besides these grating facts, however, it struck me as extremely relevant that these female terrorists were former employees of the Bryant and May Match Factory who were not satisfied by the outcome of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike. Following this summer’s Matchwomen’s Festival to commemorate the Strike, and coming in a climate of industrial disputes in a crisis acknowledged to affect women disproportionately, it is impossible not to see this as a deliberate provocation and an undermining of the uniting and unionising of – particularly female – workers.

As I explored in my previous post in the context of modern-day recruitment techniques, the division of the workers along arbitrary lines of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation etc. etc. etc. is a well-worn capitalist tactic to undermine a united fightback. As in the Victorian period with the rise of its propagandist popular press, popular culture is a useful tool to spread these divisions in such a way as to make them seem embedded in ‘human nature’. Because of the reactionary nature of the genre, writers of historical fiction should always make extra efforts to guard against the uncritical adoption of modern-day stereotypes and prejudices in their pseudo-historical setting, but (and how consciously I cannot say with certainty) this brand of ‘austerity TV’ does precisely the opposite by cementing these stereotypes and prejudices – not because it is simply mindless and pretends to be no more, but in a setting that passes itself off as meticulously researched and educational, and thus does worse than excuse these attitudes.


The Case for Workers’ Self-Esteem, especially in times of crisis


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Hello all, and thank you very much for your patience during my hiatus from this blog. I can reassure any and all of you who are interested that the dissertation is in, the MA has been finished, and an all-too-brief holiday had. I’m back, partly because I’d left it much too long already, partly because I have a point to make, and partly because I’m angry – and the latter two, of course, are linked.

I hardly need to make the point that, since the rapid development of the second and third waves of feminism between the 1960s and the 1990s, we are experiencing a backlash. This means not only that women’s rights activists are coming up against resistance in new and current campaigns for equality, but also that the rights we have won are being gradually eroded – for example, cuts to childcare facilities are causing many women to leave full-time employment to look after their children. Fortunately, the response has been a wonderful rise in grassroots feminist activism. Unfortunately, ‘men’s rights activism’ is also rampant on the internet.

gender pay gapI wouldn’t normally grant a platform to this vile piece of provocation, but ‘The Case Against Female Self-Esteem’ plays into a number of very current problems, and a society in financial crisis is a fertile breeding ground for many of the author’s statements. Forney’s main point appears to be that women are not entitled to self-esteem because they, unlike men, haven’t achieved anything to deserve the right to value themselves. According to Forney, ‘Most girls’ so-called achievements, the ones they take pride in, are complete jokes.’ Their degrees, he argues, are generally worthless:

‘If anything, having a college degree is a strike against a girl—unless it’s in something real like a STEM discipline—as it shows that she’s a conformist who thinks that credentials are a substitute for knowledge and experience.

‘The same goes for having a job. The vast majority of girls work useless fluff jobs: government bureaucrats, human resources and various other makework positions that exist to give them the illusion of independence. The jobs that keep the country running—tradesmen, miners, farmers, policemen, the military—are still overwhelmingly dominated by men.

‘If every girl was fired from her job tomorrow, elementary schools would have to shut down for a couple days, but otherwise life would go on as usual. If every man lost his job tomorrow, the country would collapse.’

This typical backlash reasoning, you will not be surprised to hear, has been around at least since the Victorian period, when women began to enter the public sphere, including the workplace, in numbers. Particularly during the financial crises of the 1840s and 1880s, the male reaction, both in the workplace itself and in the budding trade union movement, was hostile. Men whose pay was subject to repeated reductions saw women’s cheaper labour as a means to undercut their wages. In City of Dreadful Delight, Judith Walkowitz explains how the economic crisis of the late-Victorian period prompted working-class men to cling to stereotypical masculinity as high unemployment lost them their traditional masculine role of family breadwinner. She describes how employment insecurity ‘reduce[d] the authority of the male head of household to an absent or decorative role, one highly vulnerable to parody as something of a “comic disaster”’, as the women and children in families were taken on as cheap labour whilst the original ‘breadwinner’ remained unemployed because his labour was deemed too expensive. This, she shows, was reflected in popular music hall songs such as ‘We All Go to Work but Father’.

Organising committee of the Matchwomen’s Strike, 1888: a strike organised entirely by female workers at the Bryant and May Match Factory

Thus, Victorian working-class women took on much of the work previously done by men, and proved themselves equally capable of carrying it out. Nevertheless, they were employed primarily because their labour was cheaper than that of men. Furthermore, their employment was far from being more secure than men’s: they were often taken on on the implicit understanding that their job would be returned to a man as soon as there was less need for their employer to undercut men’s wages. Hence, women’s labour was used, successfully, to cause rifts between different groups of people within the working class.

Even amidst the growing call for workers’ unity, however, trade unions did not try to represent women and develop a climate of solidarity in which all exploited workers could unite to fight for fairer wages. Instead, as Walkowitz makes clear, ‘Men clung all the more tenaciously to patriarchal prerogatives, including wife-beating’ (2000: 44); and female workers were often intimidated and sexually harassed by their male colleagues in an effort to induce them to leave the workplace. Thus, as Marx and Engels point out in the Communist Manifesto, the ‘organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves.’

The striking dockers in East India Dock Road, Poplar, 1889

…and the London Dockworkers’ Strike a year later

These divisive tactics are still being employed today. I am currently looking for work myself, which means filling out an Equal Opportunities form with every application. And although I personally believe my sexual orientation is certainly no business of my employer’s, I recognise fully the importance of equal opportunities and wholeheartedly support equality and diversity in every place of work. What shocked me is the way in which people, in casual conversation about the unpleasantness of job hunting, bring up equal opportunities as something to resent. They tell me that all the jobs now go to people who tick multiple equal opportunities boxes, and present that as a reason why they (hard-working, able-bodied, white, straight men and women) struggled to get work. As well as being obviously untrue, this entirely defeats the aim of equal opportunities, and internalises an ideology based on playing workers out against one another to prevent the formation of a united front against exploitation. Denying people and groups of people something so basic (whilst still so often lacking) as self-esteem absolves one of the need to respect that person – and this is precisely what gets in the way of mass solidarity in reaction to the economic and political problems we are all facing. In short, the case should not be made against the self-esteem of any particular person or group of people, but for the self-esteem of individual workers and for workers as a social class, to allow us to unite against the divisive and exploitative strategy we are told the financial crisis necessitates employers to use.

To wash that down – not because my female self-esteem is grounded in my ability to bake, or because being unemployed leaves you with all the time in the world for these inconsequential things, but rather because I’ve been away, because I haven’t had time in the months I was completing my dissertation, and because several friends have told me off for the recent lack of cake on this blog: here’s a picture of my latest batch of cranberry chocolate flapjacks, made with heather honey from my dad’s bees:



To all you lovely people who read my blog regularly, I apologise for the shameful lack of posts recently. I think it’s high time I acknowledged that this blog will be on hiatus just until I hand in my MA dissertation at the end of this month. I find the demands on my time and concentration at the moment are too high for me to keep juggling all my writing work. Unfortunately, in order to prevent my work for the Literary Detectives from suffering while I spend my days moving commas around in my thesis draft, I’m afraid my personal blogging has to be sacrificed for now.

This will only be for a few weeks, mind, after which I intend to resume my reading, baking and activism with a vengeance.

cake decorating

Trolls will be trolls: How feminist activists have stood up to abuse, postal, verbal and Twitter-based


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Much as I love Jane Austen, I admit to having my doubts about the extent to which the decision to have her featured on £10 bank notes from 2017 can be called a feminist victory. I do agree with the basis for the original campaign: the loss of Elizabeth Fry from the £5 notes, to be replaced with Winston Churchill, would initially have meant that no female historical figures or their achievements would be celebrated on this very public medium. However, what bothers me is the implication that any one historically important woman can simply be replaced with any other. Elizabeth Fry was a prison reform campaigner, Jane Austen was a novelist: both as people and in terms of their social and historical significance, they are worlds apart. The acceptance of one being traded in for the other seems to suggest that what we are celebrating here is their womanhood, rather than their achievements – men are lauded for what they do, women stand out because they are women who have done something (anything?). Of course the campaign was right in protesting the removal of the only woman represented, in favour of a man – but whence came the suggestion that accurate representation of famous historical figures requires a ratio of 1:4, with a single woman providing all the required balance against four famous men? Why is the idea of having two women represented in a single issue of currency so impossible to contemplate?

Jane Austen banknote

The concept for the £10 note featuring Jane Austen

Despite my wish to qualify my support for this particular campaign, however, I cannot but give my full and wholehearted support to its key campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, founder of The Women’s Room UK. As I said, she was right in standing up to the elimination of women from a medium that celebrates figures of great social and historical import to British history. And, as appears, sadly, to be increasingly common, she endured the most horrific abuse for making this simple – and, as the insertion of the prettified Victorian portrait of Jane Austen confirms, unthreatening – point. The amount of rape and murder threats she was faced with on Twitter led to a petition for a ‘report abuse’ button on the site, since the system previously in use was far too slow to respond to the barrage of intimidation the Twittersphere directed at her, as at many other feminist campaigners. A ‘report abuse’ button was introduced on Twitter’s latest iPhone app about two weeks ago, with promises from the site managers to expand the function.

I said it appears increasingly common for campaigners like Criado-Perez to receive similar abuse: many female public figures, from TV presenters such as Mary Beard and Clare Balding to feminist writers such as Suzanne Moore and Zoe Williams, will attest to the fact that platforms created by the internet, although they provide many original new voices with an audience and have democratised knowledge to a significant extent, also introduce a new vulnerability for those people who use them to make themselves heard. Particularly Twitter makes its users very accessible to any troll who bothers to look up their account, and very little can be done to stop their messages from reaching their target.

Unfortunately, as I keep finding in my research, the internet has only facilitated an ignorant impetus which has always existed, and emerges every time a privileged group feels its position threatened by a less-privileged group seeking equality through self-representation on a mainstream platform. An obvious example is the flood of hate mail Emily Wilding Davison received in the four days during she was dying of the injuries she sustained in her attempt to affix a suffragette banner to the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. But earlier campaigners for women’s rights also faced threats, on a much more personal level, and delivered in a manner that intruded their personal lives, than the expected attacks in the popular media. Annie Besant, in her campaign to democratise birth control, announced in court as she defended herself in the Knowlton trial of 1877 that she knew full well she was risking her reputation, the most valuable asset for a female public figure during the period. Besant tried to pre-empt the damage she knew her reputation would suffer, but in fact much of the public coverage of her campaign work helped her cause by bringing the birth control debate into the public sphere. Furthermore, she was already an experienced campaigner by this point, and was supported in court by her male colleague, Charles Bradlaugh, who would later go on to become a Liberal MP. She was helped, too, by the jury’s wavering verdict which she summed up as ‘Not guilty, but don’t do it again’. Nevertheless, a year later her estranged husband used her public appearance as a campaigner for birth control to deprive her of the custody of her daughter.

Josephine Butler in later life, and still indomitable

Other contemporary campaigners, however, were faced with a more immediate personal struggle similar to that which feminist activists are still obliged to engage in today. Josephine Butler was the perfect figure of a Victorian matron, the wife of a cleric, with a strong background in hands-on social work in the Victorian tradition of expanding the middle-class woman’s domestic sphere to include the needy and vulnerable in the wider community. However, when she stood up to defend the legal, political and bodily human rights of prostitutes, the broad support for her very vocal campaign was marred by persecution, social ostracism, and personal threats which would be delivered to her home and to the places she stayed at during her lecturing tours. Although her insistence that all women be granted their constitutional rights regardless of their social position or how they earned their living was entirely in keeping with the increasingly popular Liberal political philosophy, its context required her to address the prevalence and institutionalisation of the sexual double standard – and as a result, she faced opponents very similar to those defending the sex and porn industries today. Her campaign necessarily denied the common notion that prostitution was inevitable because men could not control their sexual urges, and the inherent acceptance that some ‘unhappy creatures’ would have to be sacrificed to them, becoming commodified and losing their status as human beings with human rights as a result.

However, Butler, like most other brave feminist activists today, did not allow the abuse she faced to deter her in any real sense. While to anyone who has suffered such a level of abuse and intimidation Butler’s qualification of them, in her memoirs some thirty years later, as ‘light and easy to bear’ in comparison to the impossibility of remaining silent and inactive in the face of injustice, will seem overly tolerant and dismissive, Butler’s refusal to be intimidated by her Victorian trolls is inspiring: she states boldly,

‘The call to action, the field of battle entered, with all its perils and trials clearly set out before us, were a joyful relief, a place of free breathing, compared with the oppression and the heart-woe which went before.’ (Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade, 1898: 8)

I contend that her resistance to the privileged groups attempting to stop her and her fellow campaigners from pursuing their own goals and speaking out on public platforms on an equal basis not only brought to light the iniquity of the Contagious Diseases Acts, but also contributed greatly to the social and political emancipation of middle-class women in Britain.

Who knows, she might even find her way onto our bank notes one day. I rather fancy her as the face of the £20 note.

The face of Margaret Harkness


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Breaking news:

This is far too exciting not to share. In a recent meeting with LC Robertson, she mentioned that she was the lucky owner of a copy of the Northern Herald Books edition of A Manchester Shirtmaker, which included a reproduction of the only known portrait of the author Margaret Harkness (John Law). It had originally appeared in the journal The Queen in 1890, alongside a biographical profile of the author.

Photo: Will the real Margaret Harkness ... ?Margaret Harkness was an accomplished novelist, particularly of working class life - writing in the late 1880s and 1890s under the pseudonym 'John Law'. She was, for a while, an active socialist - though quite a lot of mystery surrounds aspects of her life. The conventional wisdom is that no likeness of Margaret Harkness has survived - surely the most influential writer of the late Victorian era to have no enduring photo or image.But it transpires there is a likeness of her - published in a journal called 'The Queen' in 1890 to accompany a profile of her. Indeed, the image adorns a republication of one of her novels, 'A Manchester Shirtmaker' by a small imprint, Northern Herald Books, a decade or so ago.Many thanks to Lisa Robertson for alerting London Fictions to this image - and behold, Margart Harkness!

Margaret Harkness, in ‘The Queen’

Based on this image, LC Robertson and Harkness biographer Terry Elkiss analysed a group photograph of the Matchwomen’s Strike committee, taken in 1888. Harkness was known to have been involved in organising the strike alongside Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows. They reached the conclusion that the woman seated front centre may well be Harkness.

The Matchwomen’s Strike committee, 1888. Annie Besant is behind the lectern; to the left of her is Herbert Burrows. The woman seated front centre has been tentatively identified as Margaret Harkness

Many of us Harkness aficionados had accepted up until this point that no likeness of the author and social campaigner had survived. In other words, we have waited since 1890 for a portrait…

Both of these images have appeared on the London Fictions Facebook page thanks to Andrew Whitehead.

My own post on Harkness’s novel In Darkest London appeared on the London Fictions website on 25 May.

30/08/2013 Bad news: Unfortunately, further research by Dr Elkiss has shown that the figure in the committee photo above cannot be Margaret Harkness, but is instead likely to be one of the Matchwomen themselves. Then again, having found one likeness, it would not to become greedy. Terry’s research continues.

Whose fiction is it anyway?: The reinforcement of dominant discourses of oppression in Victorian penny romantic fiction


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While I thoroughly enjoyed all the papers I heard at the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s fifth annual conference last Wednesday and Thursday, one I found particularly interesting was Cheryl Deedman’s analysis of ‘The importance of virtue and the protection of the female body’. Addressing the conference theme of ‘bodies’, she examined the peculiar balance between the passivity and activity required of the working-class female body in penny romantic fiction.

Ladies of Fashion

‘The London Journal’, ‘the most popular fiction carrying weekly of the period’ – Deedman

The price of these romantic dramas in instalments makes it very clear that they were aimed at working-class readers, many of them newly literate. It is equally clear, however, that they do not accurately reflect the reality of life for an ‘unprotected’ working-class girl in the mid-Victorian period. First and foremost, the heroines of these narratives display a level of passivity simply impossible for someone who is working to survive. Secondly, the moral of each of these stories appears to be that one’s virtue is more valuable than one’s life. During a period when many working-class couples simply could not afford to marry, the values these stories endorse seem slightly out of touch – indeed, it is very clear that these are middle-class values, which simply did not apply to working-class reality.

Interestingly, Deedman’s talk followed a paper by Anne-Marie Beller on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which pointed out that most popular fiction aimed a working class which was both newly literate and able to afford the cheap penny numbers was, in fact, written by middle-class authors. In a middle-class ideology which still felt that young women should be passive, not being required to work (ideally, as W.R. Greg stated, they should be ‘completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others’ – Why Are Women Redundant, 1869:5), the only thing they were expected to exercise active control over was their own body – a body reduced to the single defining characteristic of chastity. And, with the stereotype of uneducated people such as women, young people and working-class people being exceedingly vulnerable to the nefarious influence of novels and stories, this emphasis on middle-class instruction of the newly literate working class according to their own values could be seen as an extension of middle-class philanthropic work for the betterment of the poor – always on middle-class terms, of course.

It would be interesting to examine this emphasis on working women’s chastity in the context of other social debates which emerged during the period designated by Deedman, 1839-1889. Within the context of my dissertation research, I immediately thought of the neo-Malthusian debates which came to a head with Bradlaugh and Besant’s publication of the 1832 pamphlet Fruits of Philosophy, or: The private companion of young married couples. As S. Chandrasekhar points out in A Dirty, Filthy Book, a historicisation of the Besant/Bradlaugh trial,

‘During this period [1870s, 1880s] the social reformers went about preaching that couples had no right to have children unless they could adequately support them. This action countered to some extent the evangelical doctrine that “it is God who sends children, and He will in due course provide for them”.’ (1981: 47)

Besant’s advocacy of birth control for the working class directly opposed the suggestion put forward by many middle-class commentators concerned about overpopulation – which, particularly among the urban poor, was leading to serious overcrowding and loss of quality of life – that working-class couples should simply delay their marriage and abstain from sexual relations up to that time. This plays into Deedman’s observation that there is no hint of sexual or romantic desire as felt by the virtuous working-class heroines of the penny fiction she analysed. Until she whispers a compliant ‘yes’ to the hero’s proposal, there is no suggestion that the heroine is attracted to him at all. Similarly, those women who do fall pregnant and serve as a dire warning in the text are presented as failures and must die. Within this context, no blame is put on the men who impregnate them: according to the common notion at the time that men could not help their sexual urges (an argument often cited to justify the ‘inevitability’ of prostitution), the responsibility is placed solely on the woman to safeguard her virtue, for which she will be rewarded through marriage.

Victorian Campaign

An early 20th-c. cartoon captioned ‘And the villain still pursues her’

However, practical advocates of birth control realised that delayed marriage was not a viable solution, and blaming the mother for the birth of children and driving unmarried mothers into suicide or dangerous illegal abortions through false morality would not bring about material change. The subtitle of Fruits of Philosophy, as early as 1832, made clear that it saw the bearing and rearing of children as the responsibility of the ‘young married couple’, not of the woman only – despite the fact that most of the advice it gave pertained to the female body. During her trial, Annie Besant responded to the Solicitor-General’s suggestion that access to birth control might encourage women to be unchaste with the statement that ‘It was a calumny upon Englishwomen to suggest they kept chaste only by fear of maternity’. To be sure, she goes on to say that ‘women who entertained such an idea – sex outside marriage – were already depraved and not to be corrupted by this book’ (Anne Taylor, Annie Besant: A biography, 1992: 115) – but her point remains: the arguments given for the defence of virtue, in the fiction examined by Deedman as elsewhere, simultaneously imposed a middle-class morality and embraced derogatory stereotypes of precisely the young working women they attempted to elevate morally.

A further hypocrisy comes to light when we consider that the information on birth control which Besant and others were making available to the working class – precisely the people judged by the middle class for having too many children – was already available to middle-class women and had been instrumental in the enrichment of the middle class generally and the emancipation of its women. Thus, the moral instruction contained within romantic fiction produced for working-class consumption reinforced dominant discourses of oppression on moral grounds. Central to these seemingly innocent pieces of escapist fiction, then, as Deedman states, is the issue of ‘control over women’s bodies’.

The Other Side to the Story: Abortion and Family Planning


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The Victorian Clinic

Tucked away in The Guardian supplement G2 this week was a fascinating article on how the media has long sensationalised abortion. The writer, Kate Manning, argued that “Victorian coverage set the tone” and looked at the ways in which the nineteenth-century press (like some of its modern-day counterparts) demonised abortion and abortionists – even those who seemed to have provided relatively safe and effective care.

Manning’s article encouraged me to delve a little further into the history of nineteenth-century abortions. It’s one of those topics that fascinates me precisely because it’s been so long obscured from the pages of popular history and literature.

On the face of it, abortions make for grisly research matter, not least because of the methods available to women in the nineteenth century – which can seem particularly barbaric and gruesome to modern readers, used to a more clinical and humane approach. In the early 1880s…

View original post 1,023 more words

Up the Suffragettes: Emily Wilding Davison, ‘Up the Women’ and tea towels


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Last week, Saturday 8 June, marked the 100-year anniversary of the death of women’s suffrage activist Emily Wilding Davison, best known for her attempt to fix a suffragette banner to the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. She fell under the horse and was trampled, and died of her injuries four days later.


Emily Davison is trampled at the 1913 Epsom Derby

Although her action was censured by many, and she received piles of hate mail over the four days before her death, it received enormous publicity and support as well. Her funeral was organised and attended by leading members of the WSPU and drew great crowds; and her name appears in every GCSE history textbook that mentions the suffragettes.

In the run-up to the centenary of her death, there has been a change in public perception of the suffragettes in general and Emily Davison in particular. In 2008, as one of my internal assessments for my International Baccalaureate, I focused an historical investigation on Davison’s contribution to the cause of votes for women, and, I’m ashamed to say, came to the predictable conclusion that, while popular depictions of Davison as hysterical and suicidal were unjust, her tragic death did little to convince the public in favour of female suffrage, which wasn’t won until women’s contribution to the WWI effort was recognised – and, equally predictably, this conclusion received top marks. In the last few years, however, there has been a tendency to recognise the activism of the suffragettes, at least to the extent that it finally lent urgency and publicity to a campaign that had been underway much longer than is generally known. As early as 1825, William Thompson and Anna Wheeler argued for women to be granted equal political rights; in the 1850s there was a vocal campaign to allow women to sit in Parliament; and many of the great female reformers of the mid- to late-Victorian period were in favour of some form of women’s suffrage.

However, while Emily Davison is now recognised as a martyr to her cause and has been commemorated with various events this year including the placement of a plaque at the Epsom Racecourse, there is still a reluctance to take her or the other suffragettes entirely seriously. A campaign to hold a minute silence at this year’s Derby was dismissed as ‘logistically impossible’. A petition to erect a statue of her in Parliament, which points out that ‘Of the 100 non-royal statues in the Palace of Westminster only 6 are of women’, has got just over 300 signatures thus far. She may no longer be dismissed as suicidal, but the emphasis in the telling of Emily Davison’s story is still on her failure rather than her commitment to the idea of ‘deeds not words’ in a campaign that had been subject to polite and impolite dismissal for well over sixty years.

I am concerned that this sense of dismissal still clings to the memory of the suffragettes, even now that the centenary of the 1913 Derby has helped to bring them back into the public consciousness. Modern-day depictions generally show them as disorganised and incompetent, whether as screaming harridans overcompensating for the boredom of their middle-class existence or dithering spinsters. And, whilst I acknowledge that the suffragette movement did have obvious class limitations and there was a great deal wrong with the politics of leaders such as Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, it is important to note that popular culture is much more inclined to emphasise this in a female-run campaign than in social and political reform movements led by men.

Suffragettes Votes For Women Cotton Apron Preview

A ‘Votes for Women’ apron: proudly display the WSPU sash – in the privacy of your kitchen!

Whilst men of reforming zeal are honoured in modern-day popular culture with must-watch biopics from Amazing Grace to Diarios de motocicleta, televised commemorations of women’s activism seem inclined to focus predominantly on the littleness and domesticity of their work. Thus, for instance, the strategic brilliance of the suffragette boycott of the 1911 census is represented only by one or two photographs in the Guardian’s ‘Census in Pictures’ feature. And, much as I love my new acquisition, a ‘Votes for Women’ tea towel from the British Library, the idea of printing the slogan on a tea towel is suggestive of a quirkily subversive domesticity that your dinner guests may remark on, in the protective atmosphere of your own kitchen. One example of this persistent notion is the new BBC comedy series Up the Women, the first series of which aired on 30 May. A second series has already been commissioned. Written and produced by women, with a predominantly female cast starring, among others, Judy Parfitt and Vicki Pepperdine, it has an interesting premise, looks lovely in terms of mise-en-scène, brings the suffrage movement back into the public consciousness in an accessible and entertaining way, and sounded like a great idea all round. I enjoyed watching it, but also made me increasingly uncomfortable.

Up The Women

The cast of ‘Up the Women’

Anyone who has ever been involved in grassroots activism will know that organisation comes with practice and experience, so the idea of focusing a sitcom on the comic potential of the mishaps in the early stages of political organisation by people with no experience (and, for social reasons, little natural confidence) is legitimate, as is the occasionally heart-warming development of a sense of solidarity and independence amongst the women united by a common cause. But the women of the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Politely Requests Female Suffrage are singularly inept – so much so that it becomes historically inaccurate. The campaign for women’s suffrage emerged from an increasingly politicised tradition of women’s work for social reform: middle-class women had spent the second half of the nineteenth century carving out a niche for themselves in the public sphere, and there was an increasing sense of women proving their worth and ability through social and political organisation. In Victorian Women, Joan Perkin makes clear that,

‘For centuries prior to the Victorian era, upper-class English women were engaged in charitable activities on behalf of the poor and sick. Philanthropy, usually performed under the auspices of religious bodies, was long considered the proper work for privileged women. They also had no hesitation in getting involved in politics. Although women did not sit in Parliament, they expected to exert direct influence over their friends who did, and gain patronage for their relatives, friends and protégés. The greatest families kept large town houses and used them as centres of national politics. More important than any formal education, perhaps, was the knowledge of politics that upper-class girls absorbed from adolescence onwards.’ (1993: 202)

It is true that the characters in Up the Women are predominantly lower-middle and middle-middle class, but to them middle-class female social reformers such as Florence Nightingale, Emily Hobhouse and Josephine Butler, who had definite political affiliations, would have been held up as examples. Despite what the tableau in the third episode suggests, the Queen of Sheba and the Virgin Mary were not the only role models available to female activists in 1910.

The characters, furthermore, are caricatured to an extent that cannot be explained or excused as merely ironic. Each ‘archetype’ of woman – the self-effacing spinster, the serial mother, the skilled social climber and her tempestuous young daughter and aged nymphomaniac mother, and even the self-educated organiser conquering her own insecurities to rally her sisters and break out of her enforced petty idleness – is out of touch and, at bottom, simply dim. And although the men are, if possible, even dimmer and weaker, and this is skilfully and hilariously used to discredit contemporary anti-suffrage arguments, one feels the fight for women’s suffrage should not be based on the fact that most women and men are as slow as each other.

In the end, despite the popular revival of the suffragette image, the fact remains that while men, even (one would suggest most military and political strategists) those who bungled, get statues and biographies and dramatised biopics, revolutionary women receive hate mail and are depicted as hysterical for generations, only to be reclaimed with cake, sitcoms and tea towels.

Women and the Novel: Jane Austen, Cranford, and the inversion of gendered power structures


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The original 1811 title page of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ – ‘by a lady’

As part of my research for the Literary Detectives, I have done a great deal of work on the complicated historical question of women and the novel. In Jane Austen’s day, following pioneering work by Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe, novel-writing was well on its way to becoming a respectable occupation for ‘a lady’, and although her name was not put to any of the four novels published during her lifetime, Austen’s identity was sufficiently well-known for the Prince Regent to contact her and request that her next novel (Emma, published 1816) be dedicated to him, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818 with a ‘biographical notice of the author’.

Although Jane Austen probably had good reason to conceal her name and safeguard her middle-class respectability, her writings make it very evident that she sees no shame in novel reading or novel writing. Apart from her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey, her letters and other writings reflect her own enjoyment in novels, and also her belief that, in the words of the eminently sensible clergyman Mr Tilney, ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’ (NA, ch. 14). In a letter to Cassandra in 1799, she shows hearty disdain for the Mr Gould who ‘walked home with me after tea. He is a very young man, just entered of Oxford, wears spectacles, and has heard that Evelina was written by Dr Johnson’. This brief and efficient annihilation at once takes on the ancient institution of Oxford University as perhaps too ancient and churning out scholars completely out of touch with contemporary popular culture and literary advances, and the implicit sense of superiority of the educated young man over the – formally – uneducated woman.


Dr Johnson, looking suitably studious

Dr Samuel Johnson himself would probably have been appalled as well by poor Mr Gould’s slip-up. In Jane Austen: Feminism and fiction, Margaret Kirkham sums up his attitude towards the novel as follows:

‘In the eighteenth century the novel was new, and was seen to engage with the contemporary world and problems about conduct in it in quite a new way. The controversy over Pamela and later Tom Jones, in which Dr Johnson played an important part, was sharpened by fears about the effect of novels upon impressionable readers. Johnson, in Rambler 4, sees that the novel, or “familiar history” as he calls it, invites readers to apply what they learn from it to themselves, as the romances of former times did not, being “so remote from all that passes among men”. Further, the novel was read, without tutorship, by readers whom Johnson did not feel could be trusted to draw correct moral inferences from it […] He does not mention women specifically, but we may take it that he had them in mind, for the satirist’s nightmare of romantic girls and their giddy governesses shut up together with a cache of novels from the circulating library, was already familiar. Ignorant young women were not the only readers likely to be unhinged by fiction of doubtful moral import, but it was widely believed that they were peculiarly vulnerable.’ (1987: 13)

Of course, sharp-witted authoresses such as Jane Austen were thoroughly aware of this stereotype, and of the challenges it posed to the adoption by female writers of a new form of writing fiction that did not yet have a firmly established masculine and patriarchal tradition, and they engage with this notion frequently and on many different levels. Aside from the well-reasoned and impassioned defence in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen also tackled the sexist stereotype of the vulnerable young female novel-reader in more subtle and comic ways. For example, in her unfinished novel Sanditon, set in an up-and-coming new watering place, the gender stereotype is inverted completely through the character of Sir Edward Denham, a poetry-spouting coxcomb enamoured of the heroine, Charlotte Heywood. Austen remarks of him,

‘The truth was that Sir Edward, whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot, had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s; and such authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character. – With a perversity of judgment, which must be attributed to his not having by nature a very strong head, the graces, the spirit, the sagacity, and the perseverance, of the villain of the story outweighed all his absurdities and all his atrocities with Sir Edward. – With him, such conduct was genius, fire and feeling. – It interested and inflamed him; and he was always more anxious for its success and mourned over its discomfitures with more tenderness than could ever have been contemplated by the authors.’ (Sandition, ch. 8)

Thus, Sir Edward, despite his title and his sex, is precisely the sort of person Dr Johnson ought not to trust with a novel: weak-minded and frivolous, he takes much worse lessons from his reading material than impressionable young women such as Catherine Morland – for they cause him to harass women and think himself a hero because of it.

Charles Dickens as a young man.

The young Charles Dickens

A similar literary gender inversion takes place in my favourite Victorian matriarchal novel – written, strangely, by a woman whose fiction does its utmost to uphold the social status-quo. The town which lends its name to Elizabeth Gaskell’s serialised novel Cranford is populated – and therefore ruled – entirely by single middle- and upper-middle-class ladies, who are able, within the confines of their town, to lay down their own rules of social etiquette. Ruler supreme amongst them is the old clergyman’s eldest daughter, Miss Deborah Jenkyns. Miss Jenkyns takes the teachings of her late father very much to heart, and this has led her to model her own (letter-)writing style on Dr Johnson’s. Thus, it is she who takes to task the upstart man Captain Brown for his admiration for The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s forerunner of what would become the new Victorian novel. Interestingly, her reprimand to him, though milder, is strikingly similar to

‘Johnson’s well-known rebuke to Hannah More, on hearing her speak with levity of “some witty passage in Tom Jones”, shows that he believed even rather learned and highly respectable ladies, no longer so very young, to be in special danger: “I am shocked to hear you have read it, a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.”’ (Kirkham 1987: 13)

Miss Jenkyns, we assume, was permitted to read The Pickwick Papers, as an elderly and well-educated woman, who is well above being corrupted by a new-fashioned popular author. At any rate, she is able to tell Captain Brown with the all the weight of her learning and moral superiority,

‘I must say, I don’t think they are by any means equal to Dr Johnson. Still, perhaps, the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.’ (Cranford, ch. 1)

Elizabeth Gaskell 1832.jpg

A miniature of a young Elizabeth Gaskell

Thus, in this scene we have Miss Jenkyns embracing the traditional Victorian female role of a morally superior being – but she is policing the morals of a grown man, and not in a familial context, but from her position as the local social despot. Although her strong sense of right is a direct result of her father’s upbringing, it is clear that her father passed on to her much of his own education, and persuaded her of his moral sentiments because he was convinced of them, not because she was a girl and unfit to read other works.

Furthermore, it is important to be aware of the publishing context of Cranford: it appeared in instalments in Dickens’s magazine Household Words between 1851 and 1853. Thus, her reference to Dickens’s first novel-writing success functions at once to set the scene in its historical context and to show how behind the times the Cranford ladies are, but also allows the matriarchal despot of a town populated by impoverished but genteel spinsters – fair game for caricaturists everywhere – to take Dickens, the literary sensation of middle-class novel-reading Victorian Britain, down a peg.

What She Says (not what she looks like): The objectification of female activists


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In my research, I am constantly coming across ‘forgotten’ female figures in history. Since my interests are in issues of class and gender in the mid- to late-Victorian period, many of these are female writers and political activists, speaking out on matters of particular relevance to women, which tended to fall by the wayside in the male-dominated political discourse of the day. Thus, it is easy to assume that the only reason we have not heard of these women now, is that nobody took them particularly seriously at the time. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that this is not the case: Margaret Harkness was close personal friends with Eleanor Marx and very active in her political circle; Annie Besant’s reputation preceded her and caused many to recognise her on sight when she attended her first meeting of the Social Democratic Federation; Clementina Black was a well-known author writing popular reviews on canonical authors such as Hardy, but she was also an active and successful trade unionist and her pamphlets were widely read. Is there, then, a reason why Harkness’s name only rings a bell to those who have read Engels’s correspondence; why George Bernard Shaw is still on all school curricula whilst Besant features predominantly as one of his lovers; why Black’s novels are impossible to come by?

Annie Besant

There is a strong suggestion that the historical and literary canon filters its women according to a sense of ‘suitability’ to the image of their period – one which, fortunately, seems to be gradually breaking down with increasing critical and popular awareness of, for example, New Woman fiction by Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner and Ella Hepworth Dixon, and accounts of slum life by female activists such as Harkness. However, it seems that there is still little room for successful female political activists – at any rate, not for those who were better-known as activists than as women.

Despite her consistent focus on the Contagious Diseases Acts as a violation of the constitutional human rights of prostitutes, commentators then and now still fit Josephine Butler neatly into the mould of the mid-Victorian middle-class lady philanthropist: as W.T. Stead states in her first biography, ‘Mrs Butler always wanted to save DAUGHTERS’, explaining this as a direct result of her grief over the loss of her own daughter. Margaret Harkness remains an obscure personality, but, besides her novels, we have evidence of her wavering political sympathies to go on – thus, she becomes unthreatening as a ‘capricious’ woman. Annie Besant, of course – separated from her husband and, temporarily, from her children as she pursued her political work and campaigned, amongst other things, in favour of birth control – cannot be discussed without being sexualised.

This sexualisation and objectification of women in the public sphere remains a problem to this day. We are very used to modern-day campaigners against pornography being dismissed as frigid kill-joys, and ugly besides. Feminists engaging in online activism today are sadly more than familiar with the barrage of sexual threats and judgments on their personal appearance which, apparently, for many people stands in for well-reasoned counterarguments. The fantastic No More Page 3 campaign has not failed to make us aware of the first attempt to end Page 3 by Labour MP Clare Short in 1986, and of the insults flung at her for being sex-hating, fat, ugly and jealous.

However, I would argue that this intimidation through objectification spans more tactics, and one of them is the silencing of women’s voices by focusing predominantly on their beauty. Many female activists of the nineteenth century have been allowed to live on in the popular imagination partly because they were beautiful young women – thus conforming to patriarchal demands on femininity, and consequently less threatening and more acceptable as public figures. Roger Manvell, in The Trial of Annie Besant, implies an interesting but marginalising dimension by describing the court procedures against Besant and Charles Bradlaugh for reprinting a pamphlet on family planning as ‘one of the most celebrated trials of the nineteenth century, with a young and beautiful woman, notorious as a “freethinker”, defending the cause of population control and contraceptive checks in open court before an all-male jury’ (1976: vii). Thus, Besant the activist is here cast as a public source of male titillation. It doesn’t help that Manvell refers to her as ‘Annie’ throughout the book whereas Charles Bradlaugh is consistently indicated by his surname, and that there is a strong suggestion that Besant’s promotion of birth control was linked to her own relationship with Bradlaugh, who became a widower around this time. Besant acknowledges a desire for sexual gratification in both men and women, and argues on solid economic grounds that, as people are clearly going to have sex anyway, it makes sense not to oblige them to suffer the physical and financial disadvantages of an overly large family. Whether or not this had anything to do with her separation from her husband, inability to divorce him, and probable romantic love for Bradlaugh is completely irrelevant here.

Anna Wheeler

It is tempting to dismiss Manvell’s analysis, published in 1976, as a product of its time and not to be taken seriously nowadays. However, the same problem arises in a 1994 edition of the 1825 pamphlet Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretentions of the Other Half, Men. Edited by Marie Mulvey Roberts, well-known for her sourcebooks of nineteenth-century feminist texts, it includes an introduction written jointly by her and Michael Foot, former deputy leader of the Labour party. The edition gets off to a promising start by presenting this forgotten text as the most important (proto-)feminist publication to appear between the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and The Subjection of Women (1869). It goes on to point out that it seems strange that the pamphlet was first published with only William Thompson credited as its author, not acknowledging the co-authorship of Anna Wheeler, a feminist pamphleteer in her own right. The introduction provides some background as to how Thompson and Wheeler met and came to collaborate. And then I came across the following passage:

‘Anna Wheeler came from the same Irish background as William and she seems to have deduced the same sense of injustice of most of what she saw all around her but her fury was much more compressed and broke out more violently and uncontrollably. Indeed, part of her complaint was that the women of her time were given no orderly education and her protest was forced to find expression in more savage outbreaks. She was ten years younger than he but when they met in Bentham’s house she was already a raging rebel – and a raging beauty, as so many of the women leaders were, from Wollstonecraft to the Pankhursts. It is hard to believe than the passion unloosed in the Appeal did not come principally from her.’ (1993: vii; emphasis mine)

Again, Wheeler is objectified and hystericised, and, like Besant with Bradlaugh, her relationship with her co-author is cast in terms of an older man mentoring an attractive younger woman. Note, also, the immediate assumption that, in a text which does not clearly state the authorship of particular passages, the rational arguments are ascribed to the man and the ‘passion’ to the woman. Her predecessor in the feminist canon, Mary Wollstonecraft, is also objectified and sexualised – and many anecdotes of her focus on her sexual life as inseparable from her career. Thank goodness that sensible man Mr Mill saw fit to write a bit on the topic as well – only imagine if we had been stuck with only Harriet Taylor’s Enfranchisement of Women to bring the feminist canon into the Victorian period.

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