Category Archives: Women’s history

Books History Politics Women's history

An astonishing veil of royal protection

What’s really most astonishing about The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is what’s missing. That’s no fault of the author, Lucinda Hawksley, but she has to leave large gaps in her biography, for documents relating to Princess Louise, who died in 1939, and her husband, who may have had his own secrets, as a homosexual in an intolerant age, remain classified and closed away.

We’re not talking about matters of state here, some deep secret about the First World War and relations with Germany that might somehow, distantly, have modern ramifications, or impact on anyone alive today – what we’re talking about are documents that probably, Hawksley concludes, show that Louise had an illegitimate child.

But when she went to the Royal Archives,she found a brick wall: “We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.” And she found that archivists in the National Gallery, Royal Academ and the V&A, as well as overseas collections in Malta, Bermuda and Canada, we bemused to find that material they expected to hold had been removed to the Royal archive.

Hawksley traces that probable child, adopted by the Queen’s accoucher, and family. She reports how his descendant, Nick Locock, tried to get his grandfather’s body exhumed, from a family mausoleum in Kent to establish that through DNA tests, which would have involved drilling through the coffin and removing a fragment of bone. A long legal battle ended with that being denied on the basis of “the sanctity of Christian burial”. “As Nick commented to me with a wry smile a few years after losing the court case: ‘I wouldn’t have minded so much if the very same church hadn’t recently moved about 200 bodies to make way for a coffee shop in the crypt!” (p. 93)

And the records of Queen Victoria – her volumninous letters and diaries are apparently available, but as Hawksley notes, not what they seem. For they aren’t the originals, but were heavily edited by Princess Beatrice. Given how much of a nasty, self-centred, vindictive character the Queen appears, it’s hard to imagine just how bad the originals are, Hawksley concludes.

Despite her upbringing, Louise was, for a royal, an interesting character. She tried to support Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act – and although she was stopped from that on the basis of “this is politics”, she maintained a friendship with Butler, as well as many deeply “unsuitable”campaigners and artists. Perhaps not surprising that a central London pub was named after her.

This is definitely worth a read for a glimpse into another world – and a perspective on current debates on child abuse and neglect – for Queen Victoria certainly treated her children in a way that would count as emotional abuse under proposed new laws. Of course whether she’d get arrested would be another question…

Books History Women's history

Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.
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Books Feminism History Women's history

Early modern women healers – a further blow to traditional views

First published on Blogcritics

The traditional view of women healers of the medieval and early modern period has been that they were marginal, distrusted figures, at risk always of being cast as witches, enjoying little or no respect, if some fear. It’s a view that modern scholarship is gradually overturning. I was fascinated when I was reading about early modern England to learn of the respect with which midwives were held, and how, particularly in London, they were subjected to rigorous training and a strict licensing system that involved testimony from women they had attended in childbirth.

Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany by Alisha Rankin is a further piece of the story, showing how a wide cast of noblewomen enjoyed considerable respect for their medical knowledge, not just from their peers but also professional physicians, with whom they operated in general in concert, rather than competition.

Indeed the final chapter in this book, focused on Elizabeth of Rochlitz, who had a modest reputation as a healer, but here is studied most as a patient, provides a fascinating Insight into the actual experience of being treated for illness in early modern times.

Physicians – classically trained in book learning dating back to classical times, and with a traditional contempt for empirical evidence (although Rankin suggests that was fading) – tended to prescribe regimens, particularly diets, to match what they saw as the underlying problems of the patient, rather than treat particular symptoms. Barber- surgeons dealt with wounds and at least some of the time dressings. pharmacists, including the gentlewomen described here, were the true scientists of the time, testing and trying herbal and chemical treatments, sharing and comparing them.

Elisabeth – it is a sad story, suffered more than a decade of illness, which she resolutely refused to allow to be diagnosed as “the French disease” (syphilis). Rankin maintains her professional uncertainty in saying we can’t be sure, but given her father and brother died of it, this seems highly likely. There was of course stigma attached, which Rankin says may have been one reason for refusing to accept the diagnosis, but another may also have been her dislike of regimens- one suggested to her involved giving up garlic, onions, mustard, horseradish, spices, smoked protein, all food fried in butter, beans, lentils and sauerkraut, and wine. Quite a lot to ask of an aristocrat, even a minor one.

Instead, she put her faith in herbal remedies, aqua vitae (distilled strong liquor – which certainly must have made the patients feel better) and a barber surgeon’s plasters of egg white, honey, saffron and flour. (Which might actually have done her some good.)
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Books Feminism History Women's history

Sex, love, marriage, a complicated story…

First published on Blogcritics

Reading The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, which covers relationships, courtship and marriage from 1920 to 1970, with a particular focus on the period around the Second World War, is a powerful reminder that marriage has never been a fixed and stable structure, but has changed regularly, certainly with each 20th-century generation.

Author Claire Langhammer relies chiefly on individual accounts, often painfully frank and honest, looks into the guidance of “agony aunts” and other media reports, and occasionally official reports and studies, to conclude that over the total period of her study there was a significant shift from marriage as primarily an economic relationship – breadwinner support traded for the creation of a comfortable home –  towards a more “emotional”, demanding relationship even during the Fifties, which she suggests relationships were much less stable than we commonly suppose, meaning that the freewheeling Sixties were not marked by more demand for continuing love, but rather the transition of marriage into the late teens and early twenties, a reflection both of increasing wealth and less need to save for marriage, but that also that this was seen as an essential, normal step into adulthood.

Langhammer quotes a 1959 survey showing that a quarter of working class brides were teenagers on their wedding day; more than three-quarters were under 25. A telling item in the initial Boyfriend magazine in the same year tells the story of a young woman determined to do something with her life – transform and modernise her aunt’s cafe, which interferes with her love life. But eventually she finds a man who also wants to run a cafe, so they settled down together.

And particularly as the ideology of love and marriage going together, indeed being essential, spread, many of the same tensions and concerns we recognise in relationships today emerge.

One painfully honest ‘case history’ from the Mass Observation Survey from 1949 tells of a 19-year-old woman who has sex with a 24-year-old merchant seaman – although only after he reassures her he’s using a condom. “I agreed then. I didn’t want to but I liked him and he wanted to. He said: ‘You can’t be in love with me unless you will do it.”
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Books History Women's history

Recent Reading: Women and The People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England by Helen Rogers

You meet some fascinating women in the pages of Helen Roger’s Women and the People. The whole theoretical discussion left me a bit cold – not really my period or area, but I really enjoyed the characters,

There’s Miss Mary Anne Tocker, who in August 1818 successfully defended herself against a charge of libel brought by a lawyer who she had accused, writing under the name “An Enemy of Corruption”, of electoral malpractice in the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser.(p12)

Then there’s Eliza Sharples – suspect I might not have liked her had I met her, but she in January 1832 arrived in London seeking, with remarkable sang froid, to be a “general” of the reform movement. In that year she became the “editress” of the Isis, the first radical journal run by a woman and a celebrated lecturer, and formed a “moral marriage” with Richard Carlisle, a leader of the campaign for a free press – quite a place for a 28-year-old daughter of a Wesleyan counterpane manufacturer from Bolton. (p48)

It isn’t a story that ends well – by 1849, a widow, she was appealing to a leading Chartist for help for her three children, saying that both she and the eldest, Hypatia, aged 13, “were employed in needlework, the girl earning only two shillings a week”. She wanted to pay for a few months apprenticeship to a milliner so Hypatia could get better paid work. The girl was “trading in the steps of womanhood to the same extent of helplessness in which we are all placed.” (p.161)

More cheerfully, we learn about the author of the posthumously published The Autobiography of Mary Smith: Schoolmistress and Nonconformist. Born into a rural family of small but insecure means, from an early age she managed the family grocery in Oxfordshire, but it was in part a move as a companion to the wife of a minister in Westmorland that enabled her to by step her meagre schooling and become a governess and schoolmistress – setting up the first school for girls in the area, although the villagers, who worked mostly in agriculture,could afford only scant fees.

What see wanted was to be a poet, but by age 40 she conceded that she did not have the means to pursue a literary career, and would have to “follow patiently the harder and narrower fortunes of meaner women”. But Shea also became highly active in politics – in temperance, suffrage and liberal causes, entrusted to be editor of the Liberal Club Circular in Carlisle before the first election I which many working men could vote. (p241-282)

Books History Women's history

Mary Beard’s always worth reading…

A shorter version was originally published on Blogcritics

Mary Beard is pretty well public intellectual of the year, after her spirited performance on Question Time, and strong-minded reaction to the flood of misogynist vitriol she received as a result. I was really looking forward to her new Confronting the Classics, but I was a little disappointed on opening it to find a little-edited collection of book reviews.

As I got into the book, however, on a long train journey from Madrid to London – appropriately a swoop through a large expanse of the Roman Empire – my disappointment vanished. Sure the loose thesis that ties it all together – really we can know little of the actual lives of the Ancients, and often what we say has more to do with our “life and times” than their’s – is hardly earth-shattering.

But the ascetic wit and brutal honesty we expect from Beard shines through (she’s an entirely fair reviewer, but doesn’t pull punches or suffer foolish theses gladly) – commenting on Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica, she notes that the fiction writer of a series about the leader, Manda Scott “comes over as something of a nutter: ‘she now practices and teaches shamanic dreaming and spirituality’ and ‘she firmly believes her subject was given to her by the spirits’ … After this warning… The third volume of her series, comes as a relief (or at least the spirits we sensible enough to finger someone who could write”. (P. 156)

And Beard provide some fascinating details that we do know of ancient lives, and some great anecdotes that we don’t but are worth reading anyway,some supplied by the reviewees, some by Beard herself.
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