Fighting words

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Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death (edited by Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore, Skyscraper, 2019)

As part of my series on memoirs, I review a book first published in 1919 – in which a woman’s passionate voice finds honest expression through her letters.

‘In more than one way am I a hopeless case,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in 1911, ‘and nothing except death will stop me fighting.’ Born Olga Iklé in Hamburg in 1874, she was educated with her sisters in Paris, then moved to England in 1896 after marrying her cousin John Jacoby, known as Jack. He had been brought up in Manchester, and worked in the family’s successful lace-importing business. Olga and Jack set up home in West Hampstead, London and brought up their four adopted children there according to their progressive, ‘socialistic ideas’.

In 1909 Olga Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her doctor, a close family friend, told her he could not save her life but believed he could help to make her death easier if she followed his Christian faith. As a rationalist (and a secular Jew), Jacoby was having none of it. She is not ‘a weak-minded woman’, she tells him, and will live and die on her own terms. Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death is a collection of the letters that Jacoby wrote (mainly to the doctor) from 1909 until her death in 1913. ‘I must go on fighting as long as I live,’ she tells him. ‘I can’t help it, Doctor, and I love to have you as my opponent’.

Jacoby’s letters show her enjoyment of spirited debate about religion and science (‘Science is turning on the light,’ she tells the doctor, ‘but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out’) and humorously describe family life, and the importance of being open and honest with young children: ‘I do stir their little hearts, too much I sometimes think.’ Her children give her joy and a reason to keep living. ‘I was greatly amused by my boy explaining to me,’ she writes, ‘that even should I die they would not lose me, as they would take my skeleton to keep in a corner of their nursery’. She has adventures, travelling through Devon and Dorset, with her bath-chair pulled by a pony and her son walking alongside. She reads copiously and discusses the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Olive Schreiner and George Eliot as well as Thomas Huxley and H.G. Wells.

Jacoby strives to accept the limited years she has left (‘Know that death is not bad; it is we who make it so, and it is in our power to look at it calmly and even joyfully’) but her despair is often heartbreakingly apparent. ‘I had a sorrowful cry again last night; there is so very much I shall have to leave undone’. Despite her sadness at leaving her beloved family, the tone of the book is (like Jacoby herself) far from downbeat. She has strong views on topics of the day including tariff reform (she is against cheap American and German imports), the importance of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage (she believes women should exert their power as wives and mothers, not as MPs). Her passions help to give her the energy to put pen to paper. ‘When I am peaceful I cannot write,’ she tells her doctor. ‘A storm has to brew; some violent enthusiasm shake me; or a thought, new to me, awake my enthusiasm before the little bit of dormant vitality left in me will arise to the effort of writing.’

Words In Pain is about how to live, and also how to die. Olga Jacoby chose to end her life by taking the sleeping tablets she had saved up, at a time when suicide was still considered to be a capital crime. But  Jack, Olga’s husband, followed Olga’s lead in being honest. Under the heading ‘The Right to Die’, the Globe newspaper reported how during the inquest he sought a verdict of felo de se, and told the jury that his wife’s decision was based on the same principles by which she had lived. ‘His wife only did what she felt she had a perfect right to do, ‘ the report recorded. ‘He did not desire them to return a verdict from sentiment, because if they did it would be an insult to her memory.’

Words In Pain was first published anonymously in 1919, with the identities of the children and doctor concealed. The Times Literary Supplement of that year praised Jacoby’s ‘direct and simple literary style’, and ‘the clear-eyed, exalted spirit in which she faces death’. In 2019 Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death was reissued in an elegant ‘centenary edition’, with an informative introduction and supplementary endnotes by Trevor Moore, a lawyer and humanist funeral celebrant. He has identified the book’s author and the doctor, and traced her surviving descendents including Olga Jacoby’s great-granddaughter, the psychotherapist Jocelyn Catty. Her excellent afterword ‘Olga in life, death and writing’ adds fascinating details, including the moving stories of what happened to Jack and Olga’s four adopted children. As Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘These wonderful letters prove that true immortality lies in what we leave behind.’

In my TLS review last year I compared Words In Pain to W.N.P. Barbellion’s outstanding The Journal of A Disappointed Man, coincidentally also first published in 1919. One hundred years on, both books are well worth re-issuing and re-reading, and have new relevance in the ongoing debate over assisted dying. ‘But this is not a letter for the Doctor only,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in her first letter, as if aware that she would have, in time, a larger audience for her words.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 5 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Women at Cambridge: Eileen Power

Power

In her essay called ‘Women at Cambridge’, published in February 1920, Eileen Power recalled being asked by a male Fellow for a ‘woman’s perspective’ on a problem. She argued that ‘a women’s outlook on art and science has nothing specifically womanly about it, it is the outlook of a PERSON.’ In a recent Times Literary Supplement I reviewed Francesca Wade’s newly published Square Haunting (Faber, 2020) which throws new light on the work and lives of two women who began their academic careers at Cambridge: Jane Ellen Harrison of Newnham College and Eileen Power at Girton (my essay  ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’ features on the TLS front cover of 17 Jan 2020).

Everything changed for Eileen Power in 1920, when she was awarded an Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship which granted £1,000 to scholars for a year’s global exploration. Power, who had been a Fellow in History at Girton College Cambridge since 1913, was the first woman to win this international honour and she was surprised to get it, especially after one suspicious interviewer told her that “she might defeat the objects of the trust by subsequently committing matrimony.” Power travelled to China, Egypt, and India, where she was delighted, as a committed pacifist and Labour Party member, to meet Mahatma Gandhi. She was one of only six Europeans to witness the Nagpur Congress assembly vow to adopt Gandhi’s policy of Non-cooperation. When she discovered that the Khyber Pass was closed to women, she simply put on male disguise and made the crossing anyway.

Power’s easy charm and stylish appearance meant that she stood out against the more sombre hues of the university world. ‘I certainly feel there is something radically wrong with my clothes from an academic point of view’, she told her sister Margery during her time at Girton. Male historians, enchanted by Power’s looks and personality, habitually underestimated her work, but they changed their minds after reading her books. As Wade comments, ‘Power saw no reason why an interest in clothes and a sense of humour could not be combined with professional rigour.’

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Eileen Power in 1922

While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from the newly founded London School of Economics. She hesitated about leaving Cambridge, as she told a friend, “because it would mean a lot more teaching than I’ve done before & the screw is only £500 – but I want to be in London for a bit.” The LSE position was originally intended as a readership, with a salary of £800, but when they offered it to Power they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. Over the course of her academic career, even after she became a professor at LSE, Power was consistently paid less than her male contemporaries, despite the fact that she was a renowned scholar, invited on international lecture tours and awarded honorary degrees from respected universities. Her book Medieval People was published in 1924, and she co-wrote children’s history books with her sister Rhoda Power, gave public lectures, and presented a World History series for the BBC in the 1930s.

From 1921 until 1940 Power lived in Mecklenburgh Square on the unfashionable eastern edge of Bloomsbury, as did the economic historian RH Tawney, her LSE colleague and friend. Under his influence, Power’s medieval historical research took an overtly political turn. She and Tawney co-edited a book, Tudor Economic Documents, published in three volumes from 1924 to 1927, and were both founding members of the Economic History Society, an international alliance of scholars. Power edited its influential journal the Economic History Review. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were regular gatherings of political leaders, journalists, theorists and writers, including Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Hugh Dalton at both Tawney’s and Power’s rented flats, yet as Wade observes, today RH Tawney has a blue plaque in Mecklenburgh Square while Eileen Power does not. In Testament of Friendship (1940) Vera Brittain describes how, when she and Winifred Holtby were giving up their flat in nearby Doughty Street, one horrified friend asked them, “Why are you leaving the neighbourhood of Tawney and Eileen Power for a place called Maida Vale?”

For most of her life Eileen Power was opposed to marriage as an institution, convinced that its domestic binds were incompatible with a woman’s public ambitions. The ideal wife, she suspected, “should endeavour to model herself on a judicious mixture of a cow, a muffler, a shadow, a mirror.” When in 1937 she decided to marry her former student and LSE colleague Michael Postan, ten years her junior, it was a balance of head and heart. Sadly, just three years later she died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 51, and after her death much of her work was gradually forgotten, while the reputation of Postan and Tawney grew. To keep her memory alive, Eileen Power’s sister Beryl Power endowed a dinner at Girton College in her memory – “because men’s colleges had feasts and why should not women’s?”. Leading historians gather for the ‘Power Feast’ every ten years; the most recent Feast took place in January 2020, almost exactly 100 years after Eileen Power’s ‘Women At Cambridge’ essay.

A recent episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ called ‘Pioneering women at universities’ features Jane Harrison and Eileen Power, while ‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’, a free exhibition and events exploring the lives and work of women at Cambridge over the past 150 years, continues at the Cambridge University Library.

Sources: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (Faber, 2020); Maxine Berg, A Woman in History: Eileen Power (1889-1940) (CUP, 1996); LSE website; Girton College website

Hidden Lives

Clarke

“Women’s lives were meant to be hidden,” Norma Clarke writes in her memoir Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019). Her Greek mother Rena moved from occupied Athens to London when she married a British soldier in 1945. Unable to speak English, far from family and friends, she had to learn how to survive in a society that did not make her welcome. It was no wonder, Clarke writes, that for Rena and women like her, “those lives came to be all about subterfuge. Secrecy, silence, subterfuge.”

Clarke is a retired professor and literary historian who began to understand her mother better only when she started writing about her. Watching “my untaught mother’s scholarly zeal” with religious pamphlets and icons, Clarke realized that they had more in common than she thought. Themes in Clarke’s book Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019) include romantic and family love, historical war and the effects on those who survive it, and the battle to communicate. My review of this moving and insightful memoir appears (with a lovely photograph of Rena) in the first Times Literary Supplement of 2020, and can be read here with no paywall. My next review – of three fascinating new group biographies of 20th-century women’s “hidden lives” – will appear in the next TLS. It’s published on 17 January 2020 and I’m pleased that my review features on the cover.

Good life-writing has the intensity and narrative pacing of fiction, and the best memoirs have a ruthless honesty about them. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,” George Orwell wrote, “since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” In a future blogpost I will list some of my favourite memoirs; I hope you will tell me about yours.

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)

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