From the periphery into the unknown

I wrote about Frances Larson’s Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology (Granta, 2021) for this week’s Times Literary Supplement – I’m thrilled that it’s highlighted on its beautiful front cover (see below). Undreamed Shores is an excellent group biography of five women who were among the first students to take the diploma in anthropology at Oxford University between 1907 and 1918. (At Cambridge during that time there was only one comparable student, Winifred Hoernle, a South African who went on to become a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand.) Anthropology was one of a cluster of diploma courses including geography, education and modern languages to offer vocational training beyond Oxford’s traditional degrees, and many were taught by progressive tutors who welcomed female students.

After taking their diplomas, Maria Czaplicka, Katherine Routledge, Beatrice Blackwood, Winifred Blackman and Barbara Freire-Marreco were among Oxford’s first female lecturers. Instead of being content to work in libraries, as most male anthropologists had done, they showed extraordinary determination to travel to remote and inhospitable countries to pursue their research ‘in the field’. ‘Fieldwork was more than a job; it was liberation’, as Larson observes. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown, and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’

These ‘lady anthropologists’ had to fight hard to prevent men from compromising their ambitions. They encountered obstacles at every turn, and perhaps the most tragic story is that of Maria Czaplicka (pictured here), who left her family in Poland for the chance to study at Oxford. As part of her research, she trekked more than 3,000 miles through a frozen Siberian winter to live among nomadic reindeer-herders. Her book My Siberian Year (1916) was critically acclaimed, but she failed to get funding for further research trips and in 1919 she was forced to give up her Oxford lectureship after it was offered to a much less qualified male graduate who had returned from the war. She never recovered from this blow.

Undreamed Shores is a beautifully written book, engaging and enlightening. It also made me very angry to read about how the groundbreaking work of these talented and committed early anthropologists was not recognized during their lifetime. ‘Far from being celebrated as female pioneers in anthropological fieldwork,’ Larson writes, ‘they were almost entirely overlooked by those who followed.’ Her book does much to set this record straight.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 27 June 2021. All rights reserved.

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