How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

 

Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures

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Portrait of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889; (c) Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

During the 1890s Eleanor Sidgwick (always known as ‘Nora’ as by her friends) loved taking part in the regular Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society discussions. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend and fellow-member Louise Creighton recalled. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’ (Creighton, 97) It’s a delightful image that seems to contradict the serious face of the woman in the portrait that hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge today (see above). She was the college’s first Vice-Principal and its second Principal at the end of the Victorian era, and taught mathematics to its students. ‘We had immense respect for her,’ one of them later recalled, ‘she was soft-voiced, slight in figure and generally pale in colouring, but in her grey eyes shone the light of the pure intellectual, quite unconscious of itself, but making one painfully aware of one’s own amateurish inferiority.’ (Phillips, 54)

Although she was known for her ‘fastidious austerity’ (Fowler, 7), Nora’s students knew that she could take a joke. One college production in 1895 featured a lively song with the lines: ”Mrs Sidgwick she up an’ sez ‘Look at the fax/…the one thing we ax/Is – do treat a girl as a rational creature.” (Fowler, 20) Her marriage to Newnham’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick was both an affectionate and a deeply rational partnership, based on working together to promote equal higher education opportunities for women. (They also shared a lifelong passion for psychical research, and probably met during a séance at her brother Arthur Balfour’s house: see Jane Dismore’s excellent guest post from 2017 here.) Eleanor Sidgwick’s ODNB entry notes that ‘her concern for women to be regarded as rational creatures naturally led her to support the growing campaign for women’s suffrage.’

Growing up in the Balfours’ stately home in East Lothian, Nora had always been treated as a rational creature herself. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics, so her mother Lady Blanche insisted that she should be taught Euclid alongside her brothers Arthur, Gerald and Frank. While they all went off to study at Eton and Cambridge, Nora stayed at home to manage the three large family estates, giving her a practical education in finance that would come in useful later. At Newnham she personally micro-managed the college accounts (‘chasing twopences’) and also had the far-sighted strategy to ensure the future of its campus site by purchasing adjoining land and organizing a new road, Sidgwick Avenue, planted with plane trees that she paid for herself.

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A new book by Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019) shines light on another, less well known aspect of Nora’s work in Cambridge: as a physicist who contributed to Rayleigh’s discoveries. The Philosophical Society, the subject of Gibson’s excellent book, was a scientific society for Cambridge graduates which has had a worldwide influence since 1819, but for over a hundred years it did not accept women as members because they were not permitted to hold Cambridge degrees. In my recent Times Literary Supplement review (currently only available in print or to subscribers) I wrote how my favourite chapter in the The Spirit of Inquiry is ‘A Workbench of One’s Own’ about what the Philosophical Society was missing in terms of the scientific work that Cambridge women were doing in their segregated, poorly equipped laboratories. Earlier in the book Gibson explores the work of Lord Rayleigh, who in 1904 became Cambridge University’s first Nobel Prize winner for his study of the density of gases and the discovery of Argon (see Katrina Dean’s ‘Discovery’ blogpost here). In the 1870s and 1880s Rayleigh worked alongside Cambridge graduates, but his ‘closest collaborator’, according to Gibson, was his sister-in-law Eleanor Sidgwick, ‘a brilliant experimenter ‘who co-published several papers with him and

‘worked painstakingly with Rayleigh and the others to set up the great spinning coils of wire, the scales and magnetometers, the Argand lamps, the looking glasses, and the telescopic eyepieces needed to record their measurements. The researchers often worked overnight, toiling away when the laboratory was silent and still, exhausting themselves in pursuit of the elusive numbers.’ (Gibson, 166)

Currently in Cambridge there’s a great opportunity to get a flavour of this fascinating historical scientific work in the ‘Discovery‘ exhibition at the University Library, which runs until the end of August. You can see Rayleigh’s hand-crafted bird whistles and other apparatus that he devised to detect ultrasonic waves, including a box full of bright green iridescent beetles and even a delicate blue butterfly wing used in his experiments on light waves (see photographs here).  There is Newton’s own annotated copy of the Principia, a letter that Darwin wrote from the Beagle and an early typescript of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (intriguingly with a different title). Also on display, for the first time ever, is the 1967 pulsar chart reading made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who rolled out her experimental charts on the long floor of the old Cavendish Laboratory where she was working on her PhD. Seven years later it was her supervisor Anthony Hewish who was awarded the Nobel Prize, but despite this, Bell Burnell’s continuing work and influence have made her a role model for female scientists throughout the world. In 2018 she donated her $3 million Breakthrough Prize to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics.

It’s not hard to imagine Nora Sidgwick’s serious face lighting up at this news. How interested she would be to see, and hear about, the scientific discoveries that male and female Cambridge scientists have made – and continue to make – by working together. Eleanor Sidgwick’s own ‘hidden figures’, like those of other women scientists, are part of that story.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019 (Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures’: https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); Katrina Dean, ‘Discovery: 200 Years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’ blog post at https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17330 (accessed 11.5.2019); Helen Fowler, ‘Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in Cambridge Women: Twelve portraits, eds. Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker (1996) & ‘Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019); Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Ladies Dining Society 1890–1914’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2016); Phillips, Ann (1979), ed., A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge: CUP); E. Sidgwick, Mrs Henry Sidgwick: a memoir by her niece (1938)

An invasion of croquet

A new version of one of my first blogposts – about the father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen’s years as a fellow at Cambridge. He objected to fellows getting married, but later changed his mind.

Ladies' Dining Society 1890-1914

Long before he became famous as the co-founder of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885 (and as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell), Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge from 1854 until 1864. During his ten years there, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridgeby A. Don.

In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls…

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Pesky feminists

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“And I’d have got away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky feminists!”, or so Caroline Criado Perez imagined Sir Neil Thorne saying this week. Thorne is the former Conservative MP who attempted this summer to move the Grade 2 listed statue of Mrs Pankhurst from its present location in front of Parliament, to an obscure corner in the grounds of a private university in Regent’s Park.

In August the author and suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford used her informative ‘Woman and sphere’ blog to draw attention to plans to dismantle the statue. Even though the online petitions protesting against it had raised thousands of signatures, Crawford explained that Westminster city council was under no obligation to take notice of them, but it did have to pay attention to complaints made to them via their planning applications procedure.

Thanks to the efforts of Crawford and Criado Perez, who helped to publicize the campaign, in less than a month Westminster city council received 896 comments on the proposed move, of which 887 were objections (including mine). It was slightly more time-consuming than clicking on an online petition, but it seems to have done the trick, as last week it was announced that the proposals have been withdrawn.

Mary Ward (Martin) copy

 

Mary Martin Ward (Newnham Hall 1876-1879), photograph reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College Cambridge

Last year the ODNB asked me to write an entry on one of Cambridge’s longest serving ‘pesky feminists’, the Irish suffragist Mary Ward (1851-1933). I knew that she was one of the original members of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1880s, so I turned to Crawford’s landmark reference work, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide to find out more. That led me to the Cambridgeshire Archives and to the archives at Newnham College (where she was a star student) and finally to the Women’s Library at the L.S.E., to consult the papers of Olwen Ward Campbell (Ward’s daughter).

My blog about Mary Ward is here, but I have been thinking about her again this week because on October 4th I’m giving a talk about her suffrage work at the Museum of Cambridge. It’s part of events supporting the  ‘At Last! Votes For Women’ exhibition that has come fresh from the LSE, and runs until 11 November. With sashes, badges and documents telling the story of the fight for equal voting rights, the campaign methods of the three main groups for women’s suffrage in the years 1908-14 are explored.

The WSPU headed by Mrs Pankhurst believed in ‘deeds not words’, and the militant actions by its members made headlines in 1913. Mary Ward, then 62, belonged to the much larger NUWSS which condemned violence and believed that the vote would be won using the ‘peaceful and constitutional methods’ it had been deploying for almost fifty years. Ward may have disagreed with the tactics of the suffragettes, but in 1913 she co-signed a letter to the Cambridge Daily News protesting against the continuing focus of ‘the sensational Press’ on the militant actions of the WSPU, and she resigned her membership of the Liberal Party in protest against the government’s treatment of militant suffrage prisoners.

That summer of 1913 saw the Great Pilgrimage, a six-week march by the many thousands of suffragists who believed in non-violent protest from all over England and Wales to Hyde Park in London (the author Jane Robinson wrote about it in her excellent recent book, Hearts and Minds). Mary Ward was one of the leaders of the Cambridge suffragists, ‘marching through unfriendly crowds from Barnwell junction to Midsummer Common’, as Crawford puts it, before setting off for London.

You might say that Ward believed in deeds and words – a stinging letter, a well-timed resignation, walking with her head high through hostile crowds to make a point about women’s rights. It’s good to know that even today words (and emails sent to the correct authority) can make things happen too. But we have to make sure we don’t assume, as feminists today, that the fight has been won by women like Mary Ward and Mrs Pankhurst, and we can let our guard down. As Elizabeth Crawford wrote last week:

‘The proposals to remove Mrs Pankhurst’s statue and re-erect it in the grounds of Regent’s University have just been WITHDRAWN… However, we would be wise not to be too complacent…this may be some kind of tactical move. Be vigilant.’

More words from me (spoken this time) at the Museum of Cambridge on October 4th. I hope you can come.

 

Sources: H.M. Lawson Dodd and others, ‘Mrs James Ward (Mary Jane Martin), Newnham Hall 1876-1879’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter, January 1934, pp. 38-47‘Ward, Mrs Mary’ (1851-1933) in E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); ‘A Petticoat Pilgrimage’ Cambridge Daily News (21 July 1913); Cambridgeshire Archives CWSA Papers 1884 –1919. With thanks to Newnham College for permission to use the photograph of Mary Ward.

Best of Friends: Fanny Prothero and Henry James

Non NPG Work - NPG Portrait Index

(C. W. Furse, 1898. Collection unknown; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London)

She was, according to Henry James, “the minutest scrap of a little delicate black Celt that ever was – full of humour & humanity & curiosity & interrogation – too much interrogation”. In 1906 Fanny Prothero, 52, and her husband George Prothero, 58, the historian and editor of the Quarterly Review, took a weekend cottage in Rye in Sussex, close to where Henry James (63) lived in Lamb House. Although only part-time residents, both Protheros soon became part of James’s trusted innermost circle of friends there. However, it was with Fanny that he could talk most openly.

“James did like a yarn”, as the Irish writer John Banville wrote recently in the TLS.  “He was fortunate in having a large number of female friends who were lively, clever and inquisitive observers of the comédie humaine. It was mainly from these sharp-eyed and sharp-eared women, and most often at the dinner table, that he had many of the instances and ideas for stories that he recorded in his notebooks.” Sharp-eyed and sharp-eared as she was, Fanny Prothero was also excellent company. Over the next ten years James would write over a hundred letters to her, warmly addressing her as “Dearest Fanny” or “Best of Friends!” In 1912 he looked forward to inviting her to his new flat in Chelsea for tea “and perhaps another opium pill at (say) 4.30. Then there will be such tales to tell!”

Fanny was born Mary Francis Butcher in 1854, and grew up in County Meath, where her father was a Church of Ireland Bishop. Both of her brothers attended Trinity College in Cambridge and Fanny herself settled there in 1882 after her marriage to Prothero, a fellow of King’s College. (Caroline Jebb, who always denied being a matchmaker, was delighted to have introduced them). Fanny became good friends with Ida Darwin and in 1890 they were both invited to join the select discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society. In its early days at least, the group had strict rules about sticking to the set topic of the evening – champagne and personal conversations were forbidden – an approach that suited some more than others. “Fanny Prothero never really liked it,” the group’s organizer Louise Creighton recalled, ‘she at that time always wanted intimate talk with one person.”

Talking intimately was something that Fanny did very well, with both men and women. Horace Darwin, recovering from illness in 1889, told his sister Henrietta that “I honour a few ladies by allowing them to come and see me, the sprightly and vivacious Mrs Prothero and the gentle, charming and refined Mrs Sidgwick”. Fanny kept up her energetic nature well into her sixties, and when she became friends with Henry James she was useful to him in all sorts of practical ways – helping him to sort out furnishings for his London flat, finding him a reliable cook and popping into the kitchen at Lamb House to sit with her feet on a chair, chatting to his servants. “It was her way of keeping an eye on them,” James’s biographer Leon Edel writes – it seems likely that it was also because she was so interested in other people. She was as good at listening as she was at talking, although in 1913 Henry James confessed to his sister-in-law that Fanny’s vivid interest in what he was saying occasionally irritated him.

She has a tiresome little Irish habit (it gives at last on one’s nerves) of putting all her responses (equally), at first, in the form of interrogative surprise, so that one at first thinks one must repeat and insist on what one has said… It is her only vice!

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, both Henry James and Fanny (now Lady Prothero) threw themselves into charitable work for Belgian refugees and visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. By now, though, he was increasingly struck down by bouts of poor health, and Fanny became his devoted nurse. “She is as wonderful as ever in her indefatigability,” a grateful James told his niece Peggy on 1st December 1915. It was the last letter that he would ever write. The next morning, as he was dressing, his legs gave way beneath him and he fell to the floor. Although the doctor described it as a minor stroke, it seems that James had a premonition that his death was imminent. Later that day, he told Fanny that as he fell, he heard a voice distinctly say, “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” He knew that she would want to hear all about it: it was quite a tale to tell.

Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2018 (all rights reserved)

Sources: I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May 2018 update).

Henry James letters:  Dear munificent friends: Henry James’s letters to four women, ed. Susan E. Gunter (1999) 192, 228, 193; Horace Darwin, Cambridge University Library archives, Add. 9368.1.5204; Leon Edel, Henry James, A Life (1987); “So here it is at last…” Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934)

Principles into practice: Millicent Fawcett

Millicent FAwcettLast month, the London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that a statue of Millicent Fawcett by the Turner prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing will be erected on Parliament Square in 2018, in time for the celebrations marking 100 years since women first secured the right to vote. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was just nineteen when she organized the first petition for women’s suffrage in 1866, even though she was too young to sign it herself. Looking back at her life in later years, she found it hard to say at what age she decided that her life would be dedicated to the fight for women’s rights. “I cannot say I became a suffragist”, she wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government”.

One of the principles of ‘representative government’ currently under debate is how it can adapt and become a more accurate reflection of British society. The Fawcett Society, which continues the work begun by Millicent Fawcett 150 years ago and today campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, is currently supporting the possibility of two people sharing the job of MP, as discussed in a recent article in the Huffington Post. This would enable more parents with children, carers, and disabled people to be elected (there is a marked ‘motherhood gap’ in the Commons and there are only six disabled MPs). Job-sharing for MPs is an idea supported by a range of cross-party MPs including Caroline Lucas, Dame Margaret Hodge, Sarah Wollaston and Tom Brake, who are convinced that it would help to make parliament more plural and progressive by enabling a wider range of voices to take part in debates.

Last month I went to the House of Commons to attend a committee meeting organized by the Fawcett Society. The discussion was held on the first day after the summer recess, and the high-ceilinged lobbies and halls of Westminster echoed with the shouts and laughter of MPs and others catching up with old friends and colleagues. As I walked along the oak-panelled corridor leading to the committee room, a group of dark-suited men strode by, and it was hard not to be reminded of confident senior prefects at a boys’ boarding school.

The meeting room, with its red flock wallpaper and vivid red and green carpet, was quieter, and overlooked a rainy Thames river. The host was Heather Stewart, herself a job-sharing pioneer as Political Editor of The Guardian with Anushka Asthana. The event marked the launch of the Fawcett Society pamphlet Open House? Reflections on the Possibility and Practice of MPs Job-sharing, available as a free download here. The editors of the publication, Prof Rosie Campbell and Prof Sarah Childs (both Birkbeck) were present, and discussed how their research demonstrated how MPs job-sharing could help to address, if not entirely overcome, the existing representational deficiencies in the UK House of Commons.

Also present was Clare Phipps, whose 2015 bid to stand for the Green Party, as a job-share with Sarah Cope, was rejected by Basingstoke. They took the matter to the High Court, but were not permitted to proceed with the case because the judge felt that the decision involved “important practical repercussions which this court is not equipped to evaluate”. So the responsibility was passed back to Parliament to decide how job-sharing would be done.

The House of Commons does not adapt to change easily, and there is resistance to the idea, perhaps because of the practical issues involved (although it is notable that the majority of objectors are male). “Not long ago there was a shooting range here,” Rosie Campbell reminded us. “A crèche was only introduced in 2010.” Many cite the idea as unworkable, but as Sam Smethers, the head of the Fawcett Society, pointed out at the meeting, many MPs already have other roles such as being a minister or work in another profession outside Parliament: “Stretching one person into several roles seems to me to be more challenging in terms of their performance than dividing up that role between two people.” There is plenty of evidence that job-sharing among high positions can work, and others at the meeting shared their own positive experiences.

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Sam Smethers gave a historical example of one inspiring job-sharing couple: Millicent Fawcett and her husband Henry. Henry Fawcett was a Liberal MP as well as the Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. Millicent Garrett was just eighteen when they met; he was 14 years older than her and completely blind, but they had a “perfect intellectual sympathy” according to Millicent’s biographer. While she was ‘his eyes’, helping him with his work, Henry Fawcett also encouraged Millicent’s own budding writing and public speaking career as a suffragist. They worked together as a team, jointly dealing with practical matters as job-sharers do, although Ford Madox Brown gives their relationship a rather more sentimental aspect in his 1872 double portrait, seen here.

Next year Millicent Fawcett’s statue will be the first woman among the eleven men already present in Parliament Square. It’s a long-overdue recognition of her lifetime’s work dedicated to giving women a voice in the democratic process. Meanwhile, the process of enabling more diversity within Parliament itself continues. As Sam Smethers says, “Let’s move on to discussing how we can make this work.”

Ann Kennedy Smith October 2017 (all rights reserved). 

Notes: “I cannot say I became a suffragist…” in ‘Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett’ by Janet Howarth in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; David Rubinstein, A different world for women: the life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991); The Fawcett Society at http://www.fawcett.org.uk; Ford Madox Ford’s portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Writing Lives: the Jebb marriage

Richard_Claverhouse_Jebb MP, known as 'Ajax'. Vanity Fair, 1904

Bacchylides was of placid temper; amiably tolerant; satisfied with a modest lot; not free from some tinge of that pensive melancholy which was peculiarly Ionian’ (‘The Life of Bacchylides’, Richard Claverhouse Jebb, 1905)

In 1905 Cambridge University Press published the first English translation of poems by Bacchylides, with an introductory essay about the Greek lyric poet’s life. The author and translator, Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, was considered by many to be the most brilliant classical scholar of his time, and his seven-volume edition of Sophocles was widely celebrated. He was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and its Member of Parliament  (where he was nicknamed ‘Ajax’ after Sophocles’s tragic hero); he accepted a British knighthood in 1900, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in June 1905. A month later he and a group of academics sailed to South Africa with the British Association to promote its scientific and literary work. It was an exhausting and demanding lecture tour, and Richard’s health was not strong. He returned to Cambridge in October with a high fever, and died on 9 December 1905 at the age of sixty-four.

13 December 1905, Wednesday. Funeral. Sunshine through a veil of mist… Ah, my dearest.’ (Diary of Caroline Jebb)

Richard’s death came as a shock to his American wife Caroline Jebb, then sixty-five, but her next move was obvious: she would write her husband’s biography. In this she was following in the footsteps of two of her friends, both members of her ladies’ dining club. Louise Creighton’s two-volume biography of Mandell Creighton, published in 1904, was praised by many, including Lytton Strachey. Eleanor (Nora) Sidgwick was busy co-authoring a memoir of her husband Henry, who had died in 1900. In January 1906 Caroline set to work. Richard had done much of the preparation for her already, having compiled scrapbooks in which he pasted letters, reviews, excerpts from his speeches and newspaper cuttings about himself. All she had to do was to choose what to include.

Weighty biographies of great men were plentiful throughout the nineteenth century, and in many cases they were written by people who were close to their subjects, such as a wife, sibling, son or daughter. This presented the home-grown biographer with a paradox. The ideal biography was, it was believed, conscientious in its gathering of documents and deeply respectful in tone. It should be heavy on its subject’s achievements, and light on their personal failings. Undignified anecdotes were avoided, and most of all, the biographer’s own personality and feelings should be suppressed at all times.

‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory’ Disraeli, 1832

To modern readers, the apparently respectful, authoritative ‘Lives‘ that fill the library’s dustier shelves reveal, on closer inspection, interesting hidden narratives about the people who wrote them. Mandell Creighton’s biography was written partly to defend his posthumous reputation from his critics and yet, almost accidentally, his widow lets slip his shortcomings as husband and father. Although Eleanor Sidgwick seems to choose humble self-effacement in her memoir of her husband (by never directly referring to herself), her absence only reinforces the reader’s sense of her supreme self-confidence in the central role she played in their shared life and work towards women’s education in Cambridge.

From her family letters we know that Caroline Jebb was a discerning and enthusiastic reader of literary biographies, and she was influenced by Leslie Stephen, the Dictionary of National Biography’s first editor and, until his death in 1904, a friend of both Jebbs. Like Stephen, she wanted to avoid what Thomas Carlyle called a ‘Dryasdust’ approach to biography, in which the traditional biographer was at pains to present his or her subject in the most reverential light. J.A. Froude’s edition of Carlyle’s posthumous Reminiscences (1881) was criticized for being too revealing about the Carlyles’ unhappy marriage, but Caroline found it fascinating. ‘I can’t help thinking Froude must have slipped in thing or two unmarked by Carlyle for publication’, she told her sister.  ‘Would I have mended his trousers while he was off amusing himself with Lady Harriet Baring? I would not.’ She had misgivings about John Cross’s ‘not altogether attractive Life’ of his famous wife but it gave her an insight into George Eliot’s ‘enormous mental industry. To read about her work took my breath away’.

In her Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, published in 1907, Caroline did not attempt to disguise her own authorial presence or her less than perfect marriage. She places herself in the first paragraph by adding a detail that only she could know. Describing Richard’s happy childhood in County Dublin, she depicts him as a boy who was both quick-tempered and highly sensitive. ‘A look of disapproval from his mother made him miserable: to disappoint anyone who loved him was all his life intolerable to him. “Dick sorry; forgive your Dick” was a phrase not confined to childhood.’ Instantly we have an insight into the Jebbs’ marriage: his quick temper and remorse; her amused tolerance. She suppresses information about his tendency to drink too much (which contributed to his poor health), but later in the book she  is humorous about his inability to manage money. ‘He never knew how much he had with him, or counted his change at railway stations’ she writes. ‘It filled him with a sort of disgust when less high-minded people – his wife to wit – assumed the existence of dishonesty’.

We get the impression of a real marriage with real arguments, and a man who, for all his achievements, was not always easy to live with. As Richard himself wrote in 1905, even Bacchylides suffered from ‘pensive melancholy’ sometimes, and some people might have considered Sophocles’s Ajax to be a bad loser.

Sources: Caroline Jebb, Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (Cambridge University Press, 1907); Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography