Thoughts on Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558–1837, by members of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837

As citizens of a very different world, though one in which work still needs to be done, the members of the Women’s Studies Group can honour both of them, along with many of the women whose lives we have been exploring, for their refusal to leave the world as they found it. 

Carolyn D. Williams

Women’s History as a scholarly discipline owes its roots, in part, to historical revisionism – whereby the narrative of history is re-written to accommodate those sorely neglected. As a movement, it is one worth following. The role of women in history shouldn’t read as a track record of supporting characters, rather, it is a deeply nuanced story of personal achievement – painstakingly recorded through keepers of diaries, on shopping lists, in book inscriptions – and ultimately how women have lived, survived and thrived through the great shifts of time. Beyond wives, mothers, daughters, and mistresses there are depths on race, economic circumstance, social standing, medicine, and a world of themes besides. Testament to this is the work of historians, hobbyists, and amateurs alike who devote the time needed to pull back the curtain on women’s history, read between the lines and present a continual stream of new stories, angles, and encounters from the passage of time. Such as group of luminaries are the Women’s Studies Group 1558 – 1837 – founded in the early 1980s and still going strong to promote the topic, engage and enable those studying it to be supported in their journey. Multidisciplinary, informal, and welcoming, the fruits of their labours can partly be read in the celebratory title: Thoughts on Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837, which I have the pleasure of calling a source in my own exploration as a history blogger.

A celebration of 30 years of the group’s activity, this book is an anthology of broad essays, introduced by Carolyn D. Williams. To the front, we’re given a comprehensive list of contributors and detail of their careers in history. I found this particularly interesting, as it’s wonderful to see how people enter history and their relationship to it – for example, Jacqueline Mulhallen is an actor, playwright, poet and author who at the time of publishing was touring in her play Sylvia, while Sarah Oliver is an independent scholar co-writing a novel set in the eighteenth century. Such footnotes are encouraging, showing the different ways that history can be accessed. The opening preface, too, focuses on the activity of the Women’s Studies Group (WSG), providing a brief history of how the group has thrived for 30 years, promoting broad scholarship and a nurturing environment. The book is, after all, a hearty celebration of the WSG – evidenced in the scope of the essays and extensive areas actively researched.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, c.1670.

This brings me on to how the book is divided. I’ve mentioned previously about the benefit of books that have thematic chapters and this one is no exception. Given the nature of the collected works from different authors, you’ll encounter different styles of writing – all rigorously researched with their own bibliographies and paths of study. Without being too limiting, I feel that each essay deals with women’s history either from the angle of gender, rank or power – pinpointing the individuals lives of an inclusive ensemble cast. The net is cast wide to include everything from queenship with Tudors royals to female radicals, actresses, and servants. You’re then given the opportunity to explore broader themes such as female friendship, ideologies, sexual agency an obituaries. Naturally, approaching these subjects can at first appear to be a daunting prospect, but, the chapters make each area accessible with initial notes from the authors who often include an overview of their research journeys. In her introduction, Williams mentions how the book is ‘intellectually rigorous, but accessible’, structured in such a way as to demonstrate the group’s depth, range and creativity. When reading through, you do get a sense of connections and interactions between the WSG and how all of the narrative threads are ultimately woven together in the tapestry of women’s history.

I am loath to abandon all Thoughts of Friendship, both because it is one of the brightest Vertues, and because I have the noblest Designs in it.

Marie Astell

I was most drawn, perhaps, to the chapter titled ‘Friendships: Commonalities across the Centuries’ by Julie Peakman – which I felt to be particularly apt in relation to the WSG and what it stands for. Indeed, Peakman notes the influence of meeting with other women scholars within the WSG, which prompts her to explore other versions throughout history of sisterhood and the meeting of friends. One such connection was between Emma Hamilton and Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, who used their alliance and the confidence fostered between them as leverage in wider political and social affairs – for example, Emma’s assisted Horatio Nelson in the battle for Malta. Such a mutually supportive relationship enabled the personal development of each individual, with a degree of care and nurture when you assess each woman’s career in a broader context.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, Plate 3: The Tavern Scene, Engraving, 35.5 x 41cm.

Equally, through looking at the inner world of 18th century prostitutes, Peakman demonstrates the power of companionship between women and the strength of support evidenced in times of desperation. For example, one woman involved in this trade, Peg Plunkett, contributed greatly to the funeral costs of her friend and brothel-keeper, Moll Hall. I found these stories fascinating and illustrative of the ways in which crossed paths could alter destinies in the lives of women.

Armada Portrait, Queen Elizabeth.

In the chapter ‘Queens of Literature: Royals, Role Models and the Construction of Women’s History’, Louise Duckling brings the book to a poignant conclusion, charting those women whose writing has inspired others after. Queen Victoria kept a private journal from 1832 to 1901 detailing her life and versions of this contribute to some 141 volumes totalling 43,000 pages of insight. In a similar vein, Queen Elizabeth’s humanist education equated to fragments of verses, translations, letters, prayers and poems that offer a tantalising glimpse into the workings of her mind. It’s because of these critical sources and the habit of writing that so many of us are able to engage with history and contribute to it ourselves – whether that’s through the study of it or through charting our own course.

The book is available to buy through the publisher, Pen & Sword here. I have been lucky enough to received books to review from their extensive collection – those titles that relate to my own personal interest in women’s history, material culture and art. I very much hope that you have enjoyed the above review. You can find out more about the activities of the Women’s Studies Group by following this link.

Tea & Temperance in Victorian England here…
The depiction of Eve in late-Medieval art here
The comb as a love token in Medieval & Renaissance Europe here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

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