Silence in the Archives: Conference Report

Originally published at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

On 7th November, OCLW welcomed scholars from around the globe to our much anticipated conference, Silence in the Archives. This conference was designed to bring to life ways in which women’s life writing was censored or suppressed in the long nineteenth century, whether by the self or others, what those silences meant, and how they might speak to us today.

Our two keynote speakers were obvious highlights. Karen Hunt, of Keele University, spoke about silence – and rumours and gossip – in the representation and self-representation of Dora Montefiore: a ‘difficult woman’. Involved with a married man – an ‘intellectual soul friendship’ she claimed, though the scandal-mongers drew different conclusions – there was much chatter and little silence at the time, as private letters were made public, privileged communications were dragged into a court case, and the whole thing written up in the press. Montefiore was moved to defend herself in a powerfully emotional letter to Keir Hardie, expressing her disappointment at ‘sliding scales of morality’ among socialists. Yet in her autobiography, the entire episode was completely ignored. Hunt suggested that in working on women’s lives, scholars must take care to work around the silences without creating ‘straw women.’

Our evening keynote speaker was Janet Todd, departing president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her topic was the biographies of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft by their relations: nephew Austen-Leigh and husband Godwin. Both, Todd suggested, were writing autobiographies as much as biographies. They took on the role of ‘keepers of the flame’ but prioritised male figures in their stories and their own particular roles. Godwin was successful in personalising the feminist cause, but in his over-frank candour he made it impossible for other women to take Wollstonecraft as a role model. Austen-Leigh praised his aunt’s femininity. Godwin rejected Wollstonecraft the polemicist, criticising her writing as too masculine; Austen-Leigh rejects Austen the professional writer. Both wrote within the ideological confines of their cultural moment: Godwin emphasising sensibility; Austen-Leigh stressing sweetness. But neither engaged with or analysed the work. Godwin’s changes made Wollstonecraft less exceptional: the woman who had so trenchantly critiqued gender was situated firmly within it. Austen-Leigh did encourage a new generation of readers: he was the first of many men to try and rescue ‘dear Aunt Jane.’ Both were hugely influential biographies, but as Todd said, ‘happily neither had the last word on their subject.’

In between we were treated to a series of diverse and intellectually challenging papers: some engaged in the recovery of forgotten figures; some taking fresh perspectives on well-established figures. Our first panel of the day confronted issues of representation, reputation and manipulation. We were introduced to the ‘hostage letter’ by Catherine Delafield in her talk on the correspondences of Austen and Burney; the ‘ghost manuscript’ by Sonia Di Loreto, exploring the post-humous legacy of Margaret Fuller Ossoli; and the ‘White Queen’ image of Mary Margaret Slessor, so at odds with her Victorian heroine persona, by Baptiste Moniez. A concurrent panel focused on silencing poetic voices was led by Elaine Bailey, whose paper on Mathilda Betham revealed the empowering, if dangerous, capability of poetry for women writers as a tool against oppression; Jordan Lavers discussed the vital task of investigating beyond established critical representations, particularly in the case of Romantic poet Karoline von Gunderrode; and Mary Breen unravelled the public and private discrepancies in the suppressed archive of Mary Tighe, detailing how newly discovered manuscripts prompt fresh evaluations.

In a panel on politics and conflicts, Helen Mathers explored Josephine Butler’s complex and contradictory attitudes to autobiography and biography; and Stephenie Woolterton drew a tentative trail between suggestive archival clues and family traditions about a link between William Pitt the Younger and some servant girls within his household. Another panel looked at women involved with public life through theatre and the arts. Kate Newey led the discussion with her comparison of the archival remnants of Fanny Kemble and Constance Beerbohm, probing the ethical limitations of what researchers confront in the archive; Natalia Yakubova looked at the skewed representation of Polish actress Irena Solska through public censorship; and Paula Higgins spoke on the challenges facing talented women composers through familial suppression by investigating the case of siblings Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn.

In a fantastic session on the private (and not-so-private) thoughts contained within diaries, Kathryn Gleadle brought to life the lively, self-conscious and subversive Eva Knatchbull-Hugesson, elaborating on how her extraordinary diary might open up new perspectives on juvenile agency. Rhea Sookdeosingh analysed how women spoke about their complex relationship with food without a cultural discourse; while Lucy Ella Rose explored how women used diaries as a form of dissent by discussing her recent transcription of Mary Watt’s journal.

Our next panel brilliantly confronted some of tactical interventions made by women on their own archival records. Susan Civale discussed the ellipses in Mary Robinson’s memoir, rereading omissions as a strategic method of self-representation; Elizabeth Denlinger spoke on the potentially fabricated letters of Claire Clairmont, which could be read as autobiographical correctives rather than authoritative records; and Ceylan Kosker unravelled the coded meaning within the existing archival fragments of Violet Fane through a comparison of her multi-layered autobiographical projects.

The final panel discussed how women confronted and understood mortality. Wendy Jones discussed Mrs Birkbeck’s album as a form of life-writing; Sophie Coloumbeau described Hester Thrale Piozzi’s fragmented attempts to write her own life; and Joetta Harty suggested how two parents movingly wrote and rewrote their experiences of an exceptional child’s untimely demise. The parallel final panel investigated documentations of displacement in women’s archives. Molly Mann grappled with the mediation of the male-authored captivity narratives of Olive Oatman and Susannah Willard Johnson; Carrie Crockett presented her methods for assembling a fragmented archive based on the undocumented women of the Sakhalin Island penal colony; and Lorraine Paterson traced the paper trail of exilic experience in Algeria, revealing the gender transformation of one Vietnamese woman made possible by her expatriation.

Our aim throughout the conference was to overcome the challenges of silence by promoting discussions which would challenge the boundaries of period, genre and discipline. We were delighted by the positive atmosphere and the many exciting conversations and would love to hear of any future research avenues or collaborations which may develop.

We are grateful to Janet Todd, Karen Hunt, Kathryn Gleadle, Laura Marcus and all our chairs, speakers and delegates for their contributions to this very successful day. We also thank the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies for their generous sponsorship.

Lyndsey Jenkins

Alexis Wolf


The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, OCLW

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