Overlooked lives

Now that spring seems to be edging slightly closer, I decided to write a brief round-up of some recent books, articles and blogs that throw new light on lives that have been gathering dust in the corners of history. The title is borrowed from the recent initiative by the New York Times that addresses the issue of ‘missing entries’ from the thousands of obituaries it has published since 1851. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female,” it admits. In its new ‘Overlooked’ section the paper promises to feature the lives of remarkable women that should have been acknowledged long ago. Entries to date include (amazingly) the writer Charlotte Brontë, the pioneering anti-lynching reporter Ida B. Wells, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge, the woman who introduced tennis to America in 1874. Readers are invited to nominate candidates whose lives and achievements should be written about here. It is certainly better late than never, and it would be wonderful if the London Times and others followed suit.

Illuminating books: One Cambridge woman whose achievements have been overlooked on this side of the pond is Mary Paley Marshall. In the 1870s she and her husband Alfred Marshall helped to establish the economics department of the newly founded University of Bristol, with Mary taking on the bulk of the teaching workload. She was an inspirational figure for the women students there (as well as in Cambridge, before and after her marriage), and I am very pleased that she features in The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 by Jane Duffus.

IMG_5346Other promising new books I hope to read soon include The Century Girls, which celebrates the lives of six extraordinary women who were born in 1918 or before. They have all been interviewed by the book’s author, Tessa Dunlop, and together they tell the story of the past hundred years of British history from their own unique perspective. I am particularly looking forward to finding out more about the life of Joyce Reynolds, the Cambridge classicist who still works at Newnham College, and Ann Baer (née Sidgwick) whose great-uncle Henry Sidgwick did so much to promote women’s education at Cambridge – not least co-founding Newnham College itself.

In February I attended a day of talks about British and Irish women’s suffrage at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. One of the most engaging speakers was the author Jane Robinson, who spoke with passion about the women from all backgrounds who took part in the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. She can be heard on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ here. The thousands of non-violent suffragists (male as well as female) have largely been forgotten about in the history of Irish and British women’s suffrage, so I’m delighted that her new book Hearts and Minds throws light on those overlooked lives. The Irish suffragist Mary Ward, a largely self-taught governess who became one of the first Cambridge women students, was one of the leaders of the 1913 Pilgrimage at the age of sixty-two.

lady sybilThe retired publisher Simon Boyd, one of this blog’s followers, became fascinated by his grandmother’s wartime exploits after discovering a battered old travelling trunk in a back room containing letters and diaries covering much of her life. His new book Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution tells the story of how during the First World War she travelled to Russia to help to set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd.

Blogs of others: Letters and diaries are not the only way of uncovering stories of the past. Another reader kindly drew my attention to this fascinating National Archives post by Sally Hughes about how objects as diverse as shopping lists, a scold’s bridle and dinosaur fossils can offer valuable insights when researching ‘unknown’ women’s lives. The British Library blog ‘Untold Lives’ is another very interesting and varied blog based on materials held in their collection. I have also enjoyed a wonderful new blog about (lesser known as well as famous) poets’ houses – many of them are in Cambridge – by John Clegg, a poet and bookseller at the London Review Bookshop. He has some requests for information here.

Reviews news: I recently wrote about two mothers of famous writers who have been not so much overlooked, as rather unfairly dismissed: May Beckett and Eva Larkin. My essay-review in the Dublin Review of Books was also featured on Arts and Letters Daily. Although Freud is hardly a forgotten figure, many of the people who first championed his writings after the First World War in Cambridge are. My take on an excellent new book, Freud in Cambridge, was published last week in the Times Literary Supplement; there is a snippet here. For repeating Lytton Strachey’s joke, I must apologize to Queen Victoria – a woman whose life was certainly anything but overlooked.


Copyright Ann Kennedy Smith 6 April 2018


11 thoughts on “Overlooked lives

  1. Lisa Kennedy says:

    Thank you Ann. Very enjoyable read. I’ve also just seen and enjoyed your Dublin literary review article too. Keep them coming!
    Lisa xxx

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Godela Weiss-Sussex says:

    Really fascinating stuff – and ‘d like to second your call for a major paper to ask its readers for ideas for an ‘Overlooked’ section! I also very much enjoyed your ‘Freud in Cambridge’ review!


  3. Simon Boyd says:

    Dear Ann

    Many thanks for kindly putting up a notice about my book about my grandmother, Lady Sybil. It’s very helpful. I suspect that your spellchecker may have changed my name from Boyd to Ward but no worries!

    the book can be ordered from : http://www.hayloft.eu

    Best wishes,


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sheila Boon says:

    Dear Ann
    About a year ago I sent you a message and just wondered whether you received it or maybe it ended up in your junk mail. Since then I have been following your blog.

    It was about Mary Ward who was married to James Ward.
    Some years ago I used to go to auctions in Midhurst and sell items on eBay. Among the items I bought was a collection of books and ephemera belonging to the Ward family. Unfortunately there wasn’t any interest in them here in the U.K. (though I found them very interesting) and they ended up going to a private collector in the States,

    Included was a book Mary had written about her son Kenneth which was published privately and also a hand written diary/notes about her daughter Margery as well as lots of theology and philosophy books belonging to James.

    Although the whole collection went to The States, I did type out the diary which was about Margery in her infancy and I still have it. If it is of any interest to you I would be happy to send you a copy.

    With best wishes
    Sheila Anderson

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

    • akennedysmith says:

      Dear Sheila, thank you for your comments and that interesting information about Mary Ward. I do remember your message from last year, and I thought I had replied to it, but it must have gone missing. Do please send me an email via my contact form on this blog, as I would love to hear more about the diary. With best wishes, Ann


  5. Twitter @FGentleman says:

    Liked this post! Thought you might be interested… I’ve written a novel about a feisty young female historian who is researching the overlooked lives of the suffragists and suffragettes – a kind of Jane Robinson and/or Diane Atkinson of the 1970s, when women were first accepted in Oxford’s male colleges. She’s asked to co-host the first mixed ‘Reading Party’ at her college, which proves testing. You might enjoy it? In any event, I’m enjoying your blog! Best, Fenella (THE READING PARTY is published 14 June)


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