Blog

WHEN YOU’RE STRONG, RESIST! WHEN YOU’RE WEARY, RESIST!

Recently, I’ve been spending time in the archives at Girton College, Cambridge, where I’ve been digging into the correspondence of women who worked at the Victoria Press. Some of the same women founded Girton as Britain’s first residential college for women in 1869. Walking through the college’s long red brick halls, the voices of early feminism echo all around you. I can’t tell you how much I loved being glowered at by portraits of Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon—women who dissented in word and in deed. (TRUE FACT: I have a collection of bitchy-boss-lady-portraits WHICH I TREASURE. They judge all visitors to my apartment.)

Adelaide Procter is a less visible presence at the college, a different kind of voice. As I mentioned in my last, Procter (never Proctor, though it’s frequently misspelled) worked at the center of the Victoria Press operation. The daughter of parents who ran their home as a literary salon, she participated in print culture from a young age. Charles Dickens reported that as a child, Procter carried a handwritten album of literary quotations around the house “as another little girl might have carried a doll.”[1] Procter was smart, businesslike, talented, and physically frail. Perhaps projecting backwards after her death at age 38 from tuberculosis, contemporaries sometimes insist that she had a “doomed” look about her from childhood. But in her letters she is full of life and humor and spark. Consider her laughing assessment of herself at age 30, inviting her friend, EWJ founder Bessie Parkes, to dinner at the multigenerational Procter house:

Papa & Mamma are dining out & Grandmamma keeps her room this week so we shall be – can I say a juvenile party? – a single party – or an old maid party perhaps would be the more correct description.

She relates anecdotes with the kind of present-tense breathlessness that comes from laughing while you’re talking. Below, she fails to visit Bessie Parkes, but it’s not her fault. It’s a ROGUE CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLE:

There is really some strange fatality about my getting to you – I get up this morning – no headache so that I felt quite safe as they always begin in the morning. & feeling very brisk I go out to church – on my way back a “fiend in human form” perched on a high waggon sends throws with all his force an enormous cabbage – or bundle of cabbages directly on to my head – knocking off my bonnet & stunning me to an extent I wd. not have believed so innocent a thing could do.

A month later she replies to Bessie’s renewed invitation to come visit: “I shall like it very much indeed should no cabbage come in the way.” But despite her humorous tone, the cracks are starting to show in her health, in the mention of those headaches that follow her “always.”

As time goes on references to Procter’s illness in her letters become agonizingly specific. No one ever mentions the possibility of tuberculosis (or consumption as it was commonly known) but at times it feels like denial. You can almost hear it beating like a funeral behind every hopeful diagnosis of “bronchitis” or “irritation,” every insistence that she is getting better, stronger. Procter writes to Bessie: “I have been obliged to have a Doctor & he orders port wine & quinine three times a day – He now pronounces it is decided whooping cough!…” In a more detailed, later letter, she explains, again with humor:

I have another doctor who says it is not whooping cough clearly. But he does not know what it is – he only knows he never heard such a cough! Honest anyhow. But he is clever I believe.

But even a clever diagnostician can’t do much for her. She goes on:

He thought first it was nervous dyspepsia – then nerves of the lung – then spinal irritation. He has tried heaps of drugs….I am very, very weary of it. Opiates did quiet me one day – but they try my head so much the Dr won’t give me any more.

Though she doesn’t shy away from medical detail in her letters, Procter always seeks to reassure her correspondents that she is bearing up. In the same letter she warns Parkes, “don’t croak about me” to friends, to avoid worrying them. As in many nineteenth-century households, illness is omnipresent and debilitating at the Procter home: “The doctor came yesterday and does not promise me a speedy release from my cough,” she reports, “We have had quite a hospital, Mama keeping her room and one of my sisters her bed.”

But every day, despite her cough and the fact that her lungs are falling apart into little pieces, Procter KEEPS WORKING on what she modestly calls her “effusions.” She becomes a popular poet, publishing over 70 pieces in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words. Her illness makes her feel useless, but she never succumbs: “I am very very stupid, and not very bright, and must do some work for Household Words – and I feel sure it will be bad,” she writes in a letter. Even if she thinks it’s “bad” (and it never is), she gets it done. In addition to her poetic output, she works in the Victoria Press offices, editing the profitable Victoria Regia anthology and various issues of the English Woman’s Journal. Procter actually LOVES this work. When she’s well enough to get out of the house, she spends hours in the office, even when her boss tells her to take a break.

Emily [Faithfull]… made me promise not to stay much longer – but I like the work & one keeps thinking one will “stop soon” till the time runs on – & Emily has made me have some luncheon…

Above simply enjoying her work, Procter maintains that it is necessary and valuable. An obituary in the EWJ calls her the “animating spirit” of the whole operation. She isn’t some isolated intellectual, but a hands-on advocate for women’s employment and women’s rights:

Miss Procter at all times repudiated the idea that poets fought to be excused the usual duties of life, or were less responsible than others for the use they made of the talents entrusted to them…Certainly she excused herself nothing on this ground, and for two years continued to work on steadily; then her energy somewhat diminished, perhaps her physical strength was beginning to fail, though she remained on the committee for another year, and often took an active part in its proceedings.

Poets are NOT EXCUSED. Academics are NOT EXCUSED. We all have a duty to be active, to make use of our talents. In my last post I wrote about Procter’s sense of obligation, how she tells us to use our privilege to help where we can. She lived the way that she wrote—like millions of women who labor daily in spite of illness, disability, restrictive spouses, or the constant burden of producing more children.

An older writer and art historian, Anna Jameson, wrote to Bessie Parkes about the joys and responsibilities that come with having a poetic voice and the privilege to publish it. Naming Procter specifically in her letter, she sought to inspire the next generation to further action:

Remember! I expect much from you – for God has given you the power to rule & kindle other minds to set thoughts as well as feeling to Music! …how I should like to dwell among you – you young bright sprits!

Young bright spirits! Kindle those minds! I EXPECT MUCH FROM US.

 

[1] See Gill Gregory, The Life and Work of Adelaide Procter

Advertisements

IF I BROKE YOUR IDOLS…

As we begin the year 2017 with trepidation, I’m looking to the past to figure out how to look towards the future. One hundred and fifty six years and one day ago, Adelaide Anne Procter published her poem “The Old Year’s Blessing” in the English Woman’s Journal. (I include the full text of the poem below.)

Like most of Procter’s poems, “The Old Year’s Blessing” is above everything a useful bit of text, like scripture, or an advice column. Procter tries to answer questions that come up at the beginning of every year, which is also an ending. What do we do with our grief and loss when the calendar tells us it’s time for renewal? How do we make a fresh start when there’s no such thing as a clean slate? Procter emphasizes that the old year and the new year “work together.” You can’t have one without the other. You can’t move forward without remembering the pain and joy of what you’ve already moved through. The Old Year, personified, tells us to take intentions and turn them into deeds.

I brought Good Desires,
Though as yet but seeds;
Let the New Year make them
Blossom into Deeds.

For Procter, a Catholic convert, doing good is part of faith. We must turn the “Joy” of the old year into “Praise” in the new year. We must transform “sickness” into pious “patience” within ourselves. We must make “sorrow” into “strength,” “care” into “prayer.” As the rhyme sounds in our bodies like a bell, it warns us to convert our anxiety and worry into meaningful action.

If I brought you Plenty,
All Wealth’s bounteous charms,
Shall not the New Angel
Turn them into Alms?

I gave Health and Leisure,
Skill to dream and plan,
Let him make them nobler;—
Work for God and Man.

I’m not a Catholic, but I feel the pull of Procter’s call to action on this, the second day of our new year. I’ve had a good year, personally. I’ve had Plenty and Wealth, Health and Leisure in abundance. I’ve been surrounded by love, purpose, and burritos. But like many people I’ve been talking to, I feel that any personal gains are insignificant in the shadow of the pain that this year has brought to so many other people, and the prospect that things will only get much worse as we go forward.

If I broke your idols,
Showed you they were dust,
Let him turn the Knowledge
Into heavenly Trust.

Procter urges us to trust in God as a way of moving forward when the “dust” of everything we dreamed and planned is scattered on the dead ground. But trust, or faith, is not enough. We must give alms. We must use every skill we have to make things better for those around us.

Adelaide Procter was not only a poet but also an activist. She used her time, and the income from her poetry, to help people who were suffering. She published her own volume, A Chaplet of Verses, in aid of the Providence Row Night Refuge for Homeless Women and Children in London. She begins her preface:

THERE is scarcely any charitable institution which should excite such universal, such unhesitating sympathy as a Night Refuge for the Homeless Poor… women and children utterly forlorn and helpless, either wandering about all night, or crouching under a miserable archway, or, worst of all, seeking in death or sin the refuge denied them elsewhere. It is a marvel that we could sleep in peace in our warm comfortable homes with this horror at our very door. (vii)

For Procter, every cause should be personal. She can’t sleep in peace when other women are dying in the cold street. She doesn’t want us, her readers, to sleep in peace either. So she uses poems like “The Old Year’s Blessing” to unsettle us, to show us that even in our warm comfortable homes, where we have plenty of hot coffee and all the streaming television we could ever desire, we should feel discomfited. We should be afraid of the horror at our door. If we’re too comfortable, we risk inaction.

“The Old Year’s Blessing” was Procter’s last poem in the English Woman’s Journal before she died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, in the same year the Journal went into bankruptcy and folded. It seems the publication couldn’t live without her: an obituary calls Procter the Journal’s “animating spirit.” The great thing about poems is that they live on when the periodicals in which they appeared are nothing but digital dust. And as long as we can read them, they can still be useful to us. As we move into a year when our “list of Errors” does indeed seem particularly long and dark, I’ll be taking direction from poetry that tells me to be nobler, braver, kinder, and more generous. To always think of the pain of others, even when I’m comfortable. And to turn that sorrow into strength.

 

 

THE OLD YEAR’S BLESSING
Adelaide Anne Procter

I am fading from you;
But One draweth near,
Called the Angel-Guardian
Of the Coming Year.

If my gifts and graces
Coldly you forget,
Let the New Year’s Angel
Bless and crown them yet

For we work together;
He and I are one:
Let him end and perfect
All I leave undone.

I brought Good Desires,
Though as yet but seeds;
Let the New Year make them
Blossom into Deeds.

I brought Joy to brighten
Many happy days;
Let the New Year’s Angel
Turn it into Praise.

If I gave you Sickness,
If I brought you Care,
Let him make one Patience,
And the other Prayer.

Where I brought you Sorrow,
Through his care, at length,
It may rise triumphant
Into future Strength.

If I brought you Plenty,
All Wealth’s bounteous charms,
Shall not the New Angel
Turn them into Alms?

I gave Health and Leisure,
Skill to dream and plan,
Let him make them nobler;—
Work for God and Man.

If I broke your idols,
Showed you they were dust,
Let him turn the Knowledge
Into heavenly Trust.

If I brought Temptation,
Let sin die away
Into boundless Pity
For all hearts that stray.

If your list of Errors
Dark and long appears,
Let this new-born Monarch
Melt them into Tears.

May you hold this Angel
Dearer than the last,—
So I bless his Future,
While he crowns my Past.

PROBLEM SKIN?? TRY SPERMACETI!

When the English Woman’s Journal debuted in 1858, there were already many British periodicals aimed at women, from the long-running Lady’s Magazine to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and the Lady’s Monthly Museum (and many more that managed to make their audience known without using the word “woman” or “lady” in the title). It was a crowded market! The English Woman’s Journal claims, explicitly and implicitly, that it is different from the crowd of women’s magazines. With its social-science methodology and laser-focus on issues of female employment, it represents itself as far removed from the province of recipes, sewing patterns, and advice columns.

But WAIT, it DOES have an advice column, LAAADIESSS! It’s called Open Council, appears in every issue except the first, and contains between one and twelve letters (but usually three or four). As I’ll explain, Open Council strives to present itself as SERIOUS BUSINESS, just like the rest of the periodical. I’d like to start by reprinting some chunks from a truly excellent meta-letter that skewers advice columns from within one. It appears in October 1861, from the pen of “a Polite Letter-Writer.” Bear with me, because it’s worth reading. Our correspondent begins by deploring the state of the correspondence column of any “extremely second-rate magazine,” which include letters so dull and similar that they must be “fictitious.” She throws a LOT of shade at these terribly dull columns. This is how INCREDULOUS she is about them:

Is Mary Jane really bent on the perpetual inquiry, how cold cream may best be made? And is she for ever receiving a bona fide answer that it is composed of “almond wax, one pound; rose water, one pound; (sic;) white wax, one ounce; spermaceti, one ounce; and otto of roses, half a drachm?” Does Richard truly want to know how he and Susan can get married before a registrar? and does the editor constantly inform him of the legal particulars, throwing in a strong injunction to consult the clergyman as well? Is there an agriculturist always seeking to know when mangel-wurzel was first introduced into the United Kingdom? and a mother inquiring at what age her daughter Lavinia ought to begin to learn her scales ?

I mean, I don’t think these are exactly boring-sounding problems. These women are being told to rub spermaceti (which comes from the inside of a whale’s head) ON THEIR FACES. And like WHERE DID THE MANGEL-WURZEL COME FROM? (Answer: unknown, but they make terrifying jack-o-lanterns.)

But whatever my interest level, the writer of this article is plainly frustrated by the stunning mundaneness of most advice-column queries. She goes on to list other irritating recurring topics:

Chloe wants to know if Damon “means anything,” and the editor always replies oracularly that he possibly may, but probably does not, so as not to commit himself either way;…Then Lucy dreamt she saw the date of her own death on a tombstone, only luckily it was for a certain day in last year; and Robert cannot sleep in his bed till he knows whether Helen of Troy has an authentic tomb; and Politico inquires where he can get a complete edition of Louis Blanc’s works; and Theologicus wants to be sure where the Bishop of Oxford was born, and when. An Anxious Inquirer is told that it’s no use going to law about a lapsed life insurance policy; and Heliogabalus is warned that it is unsafe to eat oysters unless there is a letter r in the name of the month.

Again, who DOESN’T need a helpful mnemonic about mollusk safety (a shellfish question if ever I read one)? Perhaps thrown into doubt by her own hilarious list of examples, the author of this screed finally confesses that she and her “highly intellectual lady friend[s]” derive great enjoyment from advice columns:

…there is something in the simple homely life thus revealed in the popular whim of correspondence which I cannot help sympathising with, and that I have often bought a penny periodical at the door of a railway carriage, that I might see exactly what Richard and Mary Jane were about, whether the cold cream had got any recommendable new ingredient, or poor little Lavinia was permitted to be free of her scales for a year or two longer.

Reading advice columns is a guilty pleasure for her! I should know, because I buy Us magazine every single time I’m in an airport (along with Twizzlers, obviously). What’s great about the idea of the advice column is that it presents gossip without malice (unlike Us). We get to hear about the love lives of Richard and Mary Jane (or Richard and Susan—that Richard really gets around!) without causing any harm to real people and their very real reputations. In a way the letters’ suspect veracity actually makes them better and more fun. If they’re not real, who are we hurting by reading about them and trading gossip with fellow readers?

Another pleasant element of unreality in advice columns comes from the use of generic names. In the example above, some are classical references: “Chloe” and “Damon,” figures from Ancient Greek literature, or Heliogabalus, a decadent Roman emperor. Others are thematic, like “Politico” and “Theologicus.” Generic titles like “Anxious Inquirer” are the category most recognizable to readers today. I’m an avid reader of Slate’s Dear Prudence column, now written by Mallory Ortberg. Recent columns include letters from “Literally Nauseated,” “Old Wounds, New Hope,” and “Perfectly Balanced.”

EWJ readers continued the tradition of using generic names when writing into its advice column, Open Council. Signatures include: “An Italian,” “One of the Propserous,” “A Voice from the Work Room,” “Papianus,” “A Constant Reader,” “Country Resident,” “A Gray-haired Londoner,” “A Practical Mistress of a Household,” and “A Ball Goer, Who can unfasten her gown for herself.” (Dirty.)

But EWJ letter-writers also did something different—they actually discussed real issues. Open Council served as a forum where people asked advice on where women might be trained as printers, clockmakers, or doctors. They also wrote in to notify other readers of opportunities for work. In the May 1859 column alone: one writer recommends avenues for charity work; one suggests educating girls in the workhouse to be servants and “ladies” to be hairdressers; and three debate the dangers of wet-nursing.

In the same month’s column, a frequent contributor, the reformer Jessie Boucherett, writes in asking for confirmation about the abuse of female pottery painters. Apparently, male pottery painters, becoming concerned that skilled women would take their jobs, decided that women should not be allowed to use a maul-stick, a tool that helps stabilize the wrist while painting. As a result “the women’s painting has been reduced to mediocrity, and the men still enjoy the highest wages in happy security from rivalship.” Boucherett asks readers to write in if they have any knowledge of this practice, so that she can publish it. “Although I had it upon what appears to be good authority,” she writes, “it yet seems hardly credible that so lawless an act of oppression should be permitted in the nineteenth century.”

It kind of breaks my heart to read that qualifier “in the nineteenth century,” as if it is unthinkable that labor conditions can be so oppressive in such a modern age. The optimism of these reformers is unbounded and sometimes blinding. Jessie Boucherett lived a long life and made it into the twentieth century, dying in 1905. Oh Jessie, WHAT would you have to say about the twenty-first century’s lawless acts of oppression?

But I digress. I hope it’s clear even from a brief summary that the EWJ took the personal format of the correspondence column and tuned it into something professional. In Open Council, readers showed that they were continuing debates off the page, talking about issues of women’s professional employment in a domestic space, the home. In another meta-letter, one reader even asked if the “valuable hints” from Open Council could be compiled and indexed, since “so much information is given on various topics, and that information so scattered among the numbers, that great difficulty is experienced in finding out passages or referring to previous notices.” (47.357) Her letter shows that at least some readers saw Open Council as a practical aid, something worth preserving—a place to speak and be heard.

READ WITH YOUR EYES OPEN

I’m a White middle class feminist, and I spend a long time studying the White middle class feminists at the Victoria Press. In my writing, and in the writing of other scholars, we often characterize the women of the Victoria Press Circle as sympathetic champions ahead of their time, working earnestly for their cause. But MAKE NO MISTAKE: Like other White feminist movements throughout history, the Langham Place women contributed to the oppression of people of color.

A good example of the kind of racism that the EWJ perpetuates can be read in its articles about slavery. Most of the run of the periodical coincided with the American Civil War. EWJ contributors were resolutely opposed to slavery and frequently denounced it. In 1860 an editor writes:

That Slavery, the foulest blot the world has ever known, should exist at all among the enlightened citizens of what claims to be a model republic, is a personal scandal and disgrace to every American, man, woman and child, for not more guilty is the Southerner, who grows slave cotton and slave sugar, than is the Northerner who uses the one in his manufactories and the other in his house. (IV.23.359)

Okay, strong words. This author carefully takes into account the guilt that Northerners share in perpetuating slavery (although she doesn’t go so far as to implicate Britain). But this account is NOT REPRESENTATIVE of the tone of the publication in considering the issue of slavery. More typical is the author of an 1858 article, who actually asserts that slavery is WORSE for White people than it is for Black people.

Slavery destroys family feeling, and affords the Whites every temptation to immorality. It nourishes their ignorance, their despotism, their overbearing pride and brutality—in fact it is more hurtful to the White man than the black. (II.8.97)

In this account, slavery turns wonderful White people into IMMORAL BRUTES against their will! It isn’t hard to find the roots of White victimhood in accounts of Black suffering.

Bluntly, Black people in this Journal are synonymous with enslaved people. In factual articles and in serialized fiction, the EWJ consistently portrays enslaved people and formerly enslaved people as childlike innocents who do not understand their condition. They are ignorant, they are victims, and they are as comic as they are tragic. In one of the most offensive articles, “A. S.” reports from an American church service led by a “slave preacher.” “A fine young black (quite black)” is leading some lessons. In another pew, our correspondent observes a “pretty little delicate White girl” teaching a group of “woolly headed” boys (V.25.42). Commonly in the EWJ, authors reduce Black people to Black bodies, a collection of hair and skin, while White people are either polite observers, or religious teachers.

Throughout “Slave Preaching,” the article’s author maintains a sense that she is not complicit in the system. During the service, she reports:

I sat humbly down on a back seat, a negro said “Ma’am, go forward to the front, ma’am,” so I moved into a pew higher up, but not quite in advance; the negroes in the pew said “Go to the front seat.”

I said ” No thank you, but why?”

“Whv! because Whites don’t like to sit with blacks.”

“I am English, not American!” (42)

The correspondent insists on her difference, her liberal impartiality. She will not be mistaken for a caricaturist, because she takes what she evidently sees as a clearheaded, sociological approach: “The negroes here have a very agreeable manner, nothing exaggerated or ridiculous, such as the American caricatures would lead you to suppose.”(45)

And yet the picture she draws in “Slave Preaching” is broadly comic, portraying enslaved people as simple, childlike, and easily manipulated. The Black audience, for instance, has short attention spans: “A certain pathetic expression of resignation was the prevailing expression, which changed to radiant merriment the instant any occasion was presented.” (46) When our correspondent actually hears the preacher, an enslaved man, she subjects him to a humiliating “grammar” lesson in her text, winking at the reader behind his back: “Generally Benjamin’s grammar was good; the mistakes I noticed I have given, he always said expired man for inspired, and confused corrected and directed; said borned for born, and pronounced going gwine.” (47) The EWJ correspondent consciously portrays herself as a kind of amused outsider, not culpable in the scene or, by extension, in slavery itself. But every word of her text reinforces the system she purports to deplore.

Unlike this author, most EWJ readers did not have firsthand experience of slavery, but they often drew direct comparisons between Black Americans and other “races” with whom they came in contact, particularly the Irish. From the previous article, we get this description of perceived racial characteristics:

…the upturned heads of the negroes all round, with their deep expression of attention, was a very wonderful picture. I was very near them, and saw their faces; some full, and some black profiles against the light. Some I should have taken for Jews, and some were Scotch in outline, with strongly marked features, and no negro trace; yet these same, when I saw their full face, were very black and had woolly hair. (48)

Their profiles clearly mark them as “other” before she can even see the color of their skin or texture of their hair. They might be Jews, they might be Scots, but they are not White.

An October 1858 article on “Slavery in America” shines some light on the association between Black Americans and European “others.” The author first denigrates slavery by describing its impoverishing effect on the South, where “all tells of neglect, and men look listless, and satisfied to let things be. Even the blacks, with few exceptions, have a contented, careless air, resembling that of the Italians. The desire to improve their condition has not entered into the mind of the mass.” (94)

Again, enslaved people are a “mass” without agency, and also ignorant. In the passage above they share their characteristics with another “Southern race,” the Italians. Below, in another passage from the same article, they share “attributes” with the Celt.

…the mulatto and quadroon are human beings, capable of being virtuous and useful members of society, and are eminently distinguished for gentleness, kindness, and all the gifts of the imagination; perhaps they are inferior to the Anglo-Saxon in certain mental attributes, but on the whole very superior to the Celt.

We visited schools for colored children and carefully examined competent persons who agreed with us that the mulatto and quadroon are equal in mental endowments to many European races. In Louisiana, the colored race is superior, both in health and beauty, to the White; and it seems probable that some day the shores of the Gulf of Mexico will be peopled by a race springing from the White and black, endowed both with the African’s physical power to labor in the sun, and the American’s intellect to guide and control commerce. (98)

Throughout the EWJ, the sociological approach, the careful tabulation which is so prevalent throughout the writing of Langham Place feminists, contributes to the rhetoric of eugenics. When applied to the subject of slavery, this impulse of classification is destructively racist.

The Victoria Regia (1861), another Victoria Press publication, is transparently a document of imperialism. Its title celebrates the Queen of Empire, and multiple British authors in the anthology approve of the “civilizing” force of empire. There is a repeated insistence that enslaved people in America are fiercely loyal to Queen Victoria: “her most devoted subjects” (EWJ V.25.48). In Harriet Martineau’s contribution, “Birth of a Free Nation,” she writes about the “spectacle of civilization” arising out of “barbarism” in Haiti (98). She discusses the “mulatto race” in Haiti from a pseudo-sociological perspective, “in whom the current of native feeling still ran strong, whether mixed with the pride of the Whites on the one hand, or the terror of the negro soul on the other” (101).

W. M. Thackeray, in his contribution, writes about a visit to Savannah, Georgia, where he meets two young boys on a plantation while dining with “their kind masters” (123). He relates their own story in a parody of their speech: “They both work in de garden. Jim has been licked by Master but Sady never.” (124). This matter-of-fact account of children being beaten is a source of humor for Thackeray.

[Above: Images from The Victoria Regia, p. 124-5]

The sketch obviously romanticizes slavery, portraying it as a benevolent institution. It concludes with a plea for peace that reduces the Civil War to nothing more than a dinner-table squabble among family members: “I have had so much kindness there, and I grieve to think of friends in arms, and brothers in anger.” (125) In this sketch, slavery is preferable to violence. Abolition is not worth the spilled White blood.

Then there’s “Loo Loo.” “Loo Loo” is a two part serialized story by Maria S. Child,* appearing in the EWJ from December 1858 to January 1859. A young American named “Alfred Noble” (PLEASE) falls in love with Loo Loo, an enslaved girl, when he first sees her as a young child (ICK). A little later he buys her and they live as husband and wife. But when he loses his fortune, he is forced to sell Loo Loo to the terrible “Mr. Grossman” (get it? he’s GROSS; “the oil of a thousand hams seemed oozing through his pimpled cheeks.”) Eventually Alfred rescues Loo Loo and they are married where it is legal in Canada. At the end he gives her a portrait of their daughter as a present, and this is his dear wife’s response: “Her eyes moistened as she gazed upon it; then kissing his hand, she looked up in the old way, and said, I thank you, sir, for buying me.” (332). HER HUSBAND LITERALLY BUYS HER, and she loves him for it. So Loo Loo is doubly enslaved, but repeatedly describes herself as “grateful” and “blessed” for her “wonderful” life (331). As they were printing this story, the female editors of the EWJ were busy campaigning for rights for married White women, so that they wouldn’t be treated as the property of their husbands.

What do I do with the overwhelming irony of the English Woman’s Journal, which campaigns for the rights of White married women while normalizing the idea of Black women as property? I don’t ignore it, for a start. I write about it. As a literary scholar, I hope it is possible to read the work of these female authors without eliding or excusing the racist tropes to which they contributed. They were not “ahead of their time.” They were in it, in the weeds of it. I don’t aim to read them “objectively”—that’s not possible anyway. But I do want to read widely, with clarity and without fragility. Now more than ever, I promise to keep my eyes open.

* Possibly related to the American abolitionist Lydia Maria Child? I haven’t been able to verify.

THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK WILL GIVE WOMEN PROPERTY RIGHTS!!!!!!!!

Well, I had my quotations all queued up this week for a post about racism and imperialism in Victoria Press publications. One could argue that the eve of a historic election is a great time to talk about systemic oppression and how it manifests in the media over time. But reader, I just couldn’t do it to you, and I couldn’t do it to myself. Election anxiety is pressing very hard. Next week I will devote some serious thought to the pitfalls and promises of a white feminist like me studying white feminists of the past WITHOUT excusing or eliding their perpetuation of racial injustice.

This week, enjoy some unapologetic CLICKBAIT.

“Clickbait” headlines on articles are not a new thing. Since before the time of clicking, periodicals have been trying to attract your attention and your money. The more controversial or unbelievable something seems, the more likely you’re going to read it, or at least the first couple of sentences until you realize YOU’VE BEEN DUPED. The English Woman’s Journal wants to dupe you too. Here are a few headlines (which they actually did set in ALL CAPS, so it’s not just me, you guys):

WHY BOYS ARE CLEVERER THAN GIRLS

RIGHT OR WRONG?

A WORD TO THE WISE

WHAT CAN EDUCATED WOMEN DO?

A RARE OLD LADY

THINGS IN GENERAL, BY NOBODY IN PARTICULAR

WHAT ARE WOMEN DOING?

FACTS VERSUS IDEAS

GLIMPSES INTO A RURAL HOUSE OF BONDAGE

BY A DEATH-BED

A STRANGE CHANCE

DROWNED

THE DYING CHILD

A CARGO OF FIGS

INTOXICATING READING

EVERY-DAY GHOSTS

THE WHITE GHOST OF BERLIN

A WELL-AUTHENTICATED GHOST STORY

SECOND ANNUAL REPORT OF THE LADIES’ ASSOCIATION FOR THE DIFFUSION OF SANITARY KNOWLEDGE

Ok that last one might not qualify. And some of them are only startling because the connotations of words have shifted (I don’t know about you, but I think I’d prefer an urban house of bondage to a rural one.) But there are certainly a lot of ghosts, “strange” occurrences, and “rare” sights. Now, this is pretty tame stuff for the period. Victorian newspapers delighted in discussing (and illustrating) brutal crimes and bloody accidents. What’s interesting is that the English Woman’s Journal, unlike those newspapers, is by no means a sensational publication. As I mentioned in my last post, it had strong ties to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and erred on the side of facts and figures. Its tone is often sober, and sometimes so painfully straightforward that it is actually hard to read.

So in the case of EWJ clickbait, articles with flashy titles turn out to be earnest, fact-based examinations of issues related to women’s rights. “Why Boys are Cleverer than Girls” (October, 1858) for instance, is actually a piece about the poor quality of female education in England. Even though they’re paid lower wages and are thus a tempting source of labor, women aren’t competitive in many jobs (as shop assistants, for instance) because they’re not educated enough to be competent. The article even advocates for several solutions, some of which can happen at home:

Persons of education who have leisure cannot employ it more usefully than in teaching the girls arithmetic in parish schools, where but too often they learn only reading and writing, and are then sent out into the world to compete for their livelihood with boys who have been well instructed in arithmetic and book-keeping.

EWJ headlines aren’t written to shock, so much as to suggest that what’s in the article might be shocking (when it usually isn’t).

What would this look like today? Perhaps:

THIS WOMAN GETS AN EDUCATION…YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT SHE DOES NEXT!!!

Or ~~*@****SINGLE MOMS EARN £200/HR WORKING FROM HOME****~~*@.

Or 12 GIFS THAT WILL GIVE YOU HOPE YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO VOTE SOMEDAY.

These are so fun to make up. This is how I should title the chapters of my dissertation.

 

headlines
From xkcd

DATA SAYS: PUNISH THE OPPRESSOR!!

 

dataRight now, I’m in the data entry phase of my project. I started in September and hope to be done by the end of this calendar year. You can see exactly what data I’m including in the data design section of this blog.

Data entry is more fun than it sounds!! I’m in the early stages of compiling contribution information for the English Woman’s Journal (EWJ)—working on Volume II, number 12 as I write this. So many EWJ articles are incredibly prescient in their discussions of women’s rights.[1]

The passage below, for instance, resonated for me, loudly. I just voted in the American presidential election, which, more than ever before, has been about gender.

I think, therefore, that as a general rule, women in happy circumstances resent the injuries inflicted on their much-enduring sisters less deeply than they ought, and that, sometimes from indifference, but oftener from timidity, they fail to punish the oppressor as severely as they could, and as it is their duty to do. I trust however that this Journal will serve to bind us closer together, till at length all English women shall form one vast society for the protection of their own sex. (II.7, p. 69-70)

This is from an anonymous letter to the editor, published in the EWJ’s recurring participation feature, “Open Council.” I like to imagine the author of this missive smiling to herself as she penned the words “punish the oppressor.” (!!!)

Exclamation marks aside, the EWJ constantly impresses me with its seriousness of purpose. Contributors to the Journal are agonizingly aware that women’s education and women’s employment are issues of life or death for many. One article puts it this way:

If only one sex is to be educated, that sex should surely be the female, for if a man be ignorant he can still earn his bread as a laborer, or soldier, or at the worst go to the backwoods, and hew his road to fortune with the axe; but the ill-educated woman has no resource but her needle, and that often fails to procure the merest necessaries of life. (II.8, p.118)

A needle is no competition for an axe! Even the worst employment available to a man is often better than the best employment available to a woman.

The EWJ relies on reason and statistics, publishing tables of the number of women enrolled in vocational training programs, or of wages for different positions, or of the composition of hospitals and workhouses. Why? Well, the same women who founded the Journal were heavily involved in National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (NAPSS).[2] They were into statistics! They never stated a fact without citing it! Their whole mode of operation is not far off from the data-driven focus of digital humanities projects, including my own.

Of course this earnest, social science-y approach is also a reflection of respectability politics. EWJ editors present their cause as rational, just, and calmly incremental. Their campaign is run by wealthy white women, several of whom are daughters of clergymen. And yet, it never stops tugging at its radical threads. Read our tables: punish the oppressor!!

 

[1] Read digitized versions of the EWJ here: nineteenth-century serials edition

[2] Including Jessie Boucherett, Barbara Bodichon and Adelaide Anne Procter.

The Victoria Press Circle: an Introduction

Reconstructing the community of the Victoria Press to explore connections among print culture, periodicals, and feminist history.

 Emily Faithfull and a group of feminist activists founded the Victoria Press as a charitable venture dedicated to “the Employment of Women.” It sought to provide new avenues for women to work in the printing industry. The Victoria Press Circle will offer network visualizations of the women and men involved in the Victoria Press, based on selected contents of the feminist periodical English Woman’s Journal (1858-1864) and three anthologies, The Victoria Regia (1861), Poems: An Offering to Lancashire (1863), and A Welcome: Original Contributions in Poetry and Prose (1863). All were printed at the Victoria Press by female workers.

Ultimately, The Victoria Press Circle’s open-access website will display three network visualizations of those involved in the Victoria Press: one composite visualization for the three anthologies; one visualization for the English Woman’s Journal (EWJ); and one combined visualization for all the publications. In addition to literary contributors, the visualizations will include compositors, engravers, printers, editors, and paper manufacturers.

This project will help to reconstruct the history of the Victoria Press, since there is no existing archive. Furthermore, it is the first project to represent Victorian poetry as a collaborative endeavor among women with a tripartite aim of social reform, literary recognition, and artisanship. None of these women currently have significant digital representation; The Victoria Press Circle joins a growing contingent of digital efforts to combat the critical undervaluing of texts in female-produced periodicals and anthologies.