English and Drama blog

3 posts from June 2021

30 June 2021

Stories and Pictures: Women in Victorian Society

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives, and a co-curator of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights. Emily Mary Osborn’s painting Nameless and Friendless is on loan from the Tate to the British Library for the exhibition, which runs until Sunday 1st August 2021.

At first glance there appears to be only one woman in Emily Mary Osborn’s painting Nameless and Friendless, a young lady in mourning clothes right at the centre of the composition. Look more closely though and you can see that there are actually three women portrayed in the picture, and each one reveals something about the position and status, or the lack thereof, of women in Victorian Britain.


Emily Mary Osborn's Nameless and Friendless, showing a woman attempting to sell a painting to a gallery

Emily Mary Osborn. Nameless and Friendless. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” – Proverbs, X, 15. 1857. Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Emily Mary Osborn (1828 – 1925) was one of the most significant artists associated with the campaign for women’s rights in 19th-Century Britain. She was a member of the Society of Female Artists, an organisation founded in the mid-1850s with the aim of helping women artists to exhibit and sell their work. She was also a signatory to a petition presented to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1859 which argued for women to be allowed to attend the Royal Academy’s schools. Furthermore, she was a close associate of the feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon, a key campaigner behind the foundation in 1869 of Girton College, Cambridge - the first university college in England to educate women. Beyond her commitment towards the fight for women’s rights, however, Emily Mary Osborn was also highly successful in her chosen career. Her paintings sold, and they sold for good prices, which leads us back to Nameless and Friendless and its depiction of a less fortunate woman artist, placed centre-stage and literally surrounded by the male-dominated world of art and commerce.

Men, of whom there are many in the painting, hold all of the status and wield all of the power. The gallery owner’s gaze, for example, is condescending; the financial future of the woman before him is in his hands. If she fails to sell her paintings and sketches then prostitution could be her only realistic means of obtaining money for shelter and food. Meanwhile a young man on a ladder looks down at the picture with an air of barely concealed boredom. To the left of the composition two men in top hats eye up the young woman with lecherous glances and it is here that the second woman in the picture can be found. Prior to leering at the woman trying to sell her paintings they had been admiring a hand-coloured print of a scantily dressed female ballet dancer, their interest deriving more, one suspects, from her looks and bare legs than from any appreciation of the print’s artistic merit.

The third woman in the picture isappropriately given her legal status, or lack thereof — even less noticeable. She has her back to the viewer and she is leaving the shop with her son. A married woman, comfortably off one assumes, but with her legal identity entirely subsumed by that of her husband, hence perhaps her literal facelessness. Until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 a wife had no independent existence under English law, and therefore no right to own property. In addition she had no right to enter into contracts separate from her husband, or should her marriage prove to be unhappy to sue for divorce or to fight for control and custody of her children.

Taken together these three depictions represent the fates of many women in 19th-century Britain: the single woman trying against the odds to make a living by her own endeavours; the sexualised object of male desire and the near-invisible wife and mother who has no legal existence independent from that of her husband.

Given that Emily Mary Osborn was herself a rare example of a commercially successful female artist the inspiration for Nameless and Friendless would appear to have its genesis in something other than her own experience. Many Victorian paintings took inspiration from literature and Mary Brunton’s novel Self-Control, first published in 1811 has been suggested as one possible source (the central character of the novel, Laura Montreville, attempts to sell her sketches in order to support her ailing father) but in her book Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life the playwright and writer Samantha Ellis makes the case for Nameless and Friendless having been inspired by Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). If correct, and the way the painting matches events from the novel is compelling, then the painting takes on an added dimension, and one highlighting further obstacles faced by women in Victorian Britain.

Photograph of Anne Bronte's headstone overlooking Scarborough

The final resting place of the feminist Brontë sister: Anne Brontë’s grave in St Mary’s Churchyard, overlooking the town of Scarborough.

If Nameless and Friendless is inspired by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall then the young woman at the centre is Helen Graham, the boy with her is her son Arthur and, tellingly, the mourning clothes she is wearing are not genuine. At the point in the novel in which this scene occurs Helen Graham’s husband, the debauched and dissolute Arthur Huntingdon, is still very much alive. By leaving her husband, fleeing with her son and attempting to start a new life Helen has broken not only the letter of the law, but also social convention. Putting on a widow’s garb lends her an air of respectability but her real circumstances, should they become known, would leave her ostracised from society. Leaving one’s husband, no matter how brutal he may be, was far beyond the realms of what was socially acceptable in Victorian society. Further, and of relevance to the scene in Nameless and Friendless, even Helen’s paintings, along with the paints, brushes, palette knives, canvases and easels she uses to create them are all the property of her still-living husband in the eyes of the law.

To 21st-century eyes Anne Brontë is arguably the true feminist amongst the Brontë sisters. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall argues that submissive wives encourage male oppression, and that dissolute fathers raise sons who, likewise, display a similar lack of respect for women. While Charlotte and Emily created brooding, flawed and charismatic Byronic heroes in the characters of Mr Rochester and Heathcliff similar characteristics in Helen’s husband, Arthur Huntingdon, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are warning signs, a point made beautifully by Kate Beaton’s cartoon ‘Get me off this freaking moor’.

Cartoon showing how contrast between the Bronte sisters' ideas about desirable men

‘Get me off this freaking moor’ © Kate Beaton. See more of Beaton's work on her website.

Whatever its inspiration Nameless and Friendless offers layer upon layer of insight into the status of women in Victorian Britain. Whether from the upper echelons of society, the newly emerging middle classes, or else from the traditional working classes, women were at the mercy, both literally and metaphorically, of men and the laws made by men.


Further Reading:

Samantha Ellis. Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life. Penguin Random House, London. 2017

The Tate Gallery page for Nameless and Friendless 

23 June 2021

Olive Schreiner: Feminism from the Cape Colony

By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer for Modern Manuscripts, 1601 – 1950. The British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores the history of women’s rights activism and is open now.

Olive Schreiner first visited Britain from the Cape Colony in 1881 with a manuscript of her first novel, Story of an African Farm, tucked in her suitcase. Her novel would mark her out as one of the leading literary feminists of her time. Her tempestuous relationship with writing would mean that she would struggle to produce another finished novel, but she did manage to capture her passionate views on the rights of women in a non-fiction work called, Woman and Labour. The theories and thoughts laid out in both her fiction and non-fiction texts outline both a pioneering and contradictory vision of women’s place in the world.


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Portrait of Olive Schreiner Schreiner, Olive, The Story of an African Farm ... New edition, etc, ([London; Nimeguen [printed]: Hutchinson & Co, 1896), British Library: 012621.g.39.

Olive Schreiner had travelled to Edinburgh with the aim of training as a doctor, before then swapping to train as a nurse at the Royal Infirmary. The Royal Infirmary had been the site of a recent infamous battle for access to medical education by seven pioneering female reformists. Schreiner, at the age of twenty-six, had already abandoned an engagement and a job as a governess in search of greater independence. In seeking a medical career, Schreiner was already engaging with one of the prominent feminist battles of the time: the provision of higher education to women. However, her health would restrict her from her chosen career and instead she would chose writing as the means by which she would seek to critique the position of women in the world.

The Story of an African Farm was published in England in 1883 under her pseudonym, Ralph Irons. Through the publication, Schreiner became an instant literary success. She would come to be acquainted with many of England’s famous cultural figures including Oscar Wilde, Havelock Ellis, Eleanor Marx and Edward Carpenter. She would also join various groups such as the Progressive Organisation and the Men and Women’s Club where she engaged in debates on issues such as gender relations, free love, marriage and sexuality.


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Olive Schreiner’s entry in Constance Wilde’s Guestbook, Add MS 81755, f.17.

The Story of an African Farm was based on the lives of three children growing up on a farm in the Karoo desert of the Cape Colony. It explored themes of love, marriage, race, empire and the role of women. Schreiner’s character Lyndall, is commonly considered as a pre-emptive example of the archetypal ‘new woman’ – a free-thinking, independent woman who challenged the traditional role of women in relations and in society. In fact, Lyndall’s refusal to marry the father of her child was pointed out by her publisher, Chapman & Hall, as perhaps a step too far and they suggested that she edit the storyline out (which of course, she didn’t).

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Title Page of 1896 edition. Schreiner, Olive, The Story of an African Farm ... New edition, etc, ([London; Nimeguen [printed]: Hutchinson & Co, 1896), British Library: 012621.g.39.

African Farm, with its contrasting progressive and conservative protagonists, its multiple narrative modes, as well as its conflict between the local setting of the rural homestead against the globalist, imperialist empire that overhangs the narrative, mirrors the contradictions of the era - one in which the protagonists are only present because of the whims and desires of empire. The bubble-like remoteness of the farm cannot escape the encroachment of world politics. Here, the role of women is explored through the contrasting characters of Em and Lyndall; Em encapsulating the traditional Victorian ideal of womanhood, whilst Lyndall represents an alternative as a feminist heroine. he Karoo, seemingly quiet and static is actually a site of imperialist contention. There is passing reference to the Boer War, which rages beyond the Colony. The characters also farm ostriches reflecting their part in a growing colonial market. This is because the British had recently enshrined in law that the birds couldn’t be hunted, thereby denying the local people of their centuries long tradition of hunting ostrich for food (Ostrich feathers were one the colony’s biggest exports, providing British Victorian women with hat decoration and Victorian funerals with black feathered horses). As well as this, the book hints at those excluded entirely, those who were resident on the African long farm before the white setters took over: peoples denied voice and referenced only in the traces they left behind on the landscape. The apparent localised focus of the plot is actually the means by which Schreiner explores wider issues; here in the Karoo the personal is political.

Just what political outlook Schreiner was hoping to convey was lost on some of her Victorian readership. Lyndall’s fate was ultimately a tragic one, and her death outside of the farm and out of wedlock was easily confused with the popular moralistic tales that populated the Victorian literary scene at the time. In fact, Prime Minister, William Gladstone seems to have picked out some quotes he found favourable at the time, isolating stirring passages and not quite realising that Olive’s sympathies lay with the born-again atheist, Waldo, and the doomed, but free-thinking, feminist, Lyndall.

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Gladstone Papers, Add MS 44767, f.140.

Schreiner’s focus on her homeland drove most of her creative output. The South African colonies in the late 19th century were subject to on-going campaigns by the British, who sought to consolidate their control of territories to secure the local gold and diamond reserves. These efforts to expand the British territories were the background of Schreiner’s life in South Africa. Schreiner, who was born in the British Cape Colony to German and English parents would have been considered a British colonial subject, but her works explore the complications of identity in the Cape, among a population of disparate cultures, communities and ethnicities.

Schreiner had been hopeful that Cecil Rhodes would be a good Prime Minister to unite the people of the Cape. She wrote to Lady Emilia Dilke - a woman who shared her concern for women’s rights in the labour market – articulating her admiration.


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Letter from Olive Schreiner to Emilia Dilke, 1891. Dilke Papers, Add MS 43908, f.190.

However, it wasn’t long before she changed her mind on Rhodes and became horrified with his actions. She would satirise the actions and crimes of Rhodes and his British South African Company in her novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). It was through a mutual objection to Rhodes that she met her future husband, Samuel Cronwright. He would take her surname in a gesture that reflected their shared feminist concerns.

During the 2nd Boer War, she befriended Emily Hobhouse, executive of the Women’s Industrial Council. Hobhouse had objected to the British actions in the war. Schreiner would correspond with Hobhouse and take part in humanitarian relief efforts. Schreiner would go on to explore the questions of South African identity through a non-fiction title called, Thoughts on South Africa. In this text, she examines the wide-ranging political conflicts present in the South African colonies. Schreiner sympathised with the Boer cause and deplored the behaviour of the British during the war. She had sympathy for the Afrikaans women who became refugees due to the British ‘slash and burn’ military tactics.

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The Karoo, the setting of Schreiner’s novel was a site of important imperial interest in the 1880s, the discovery of diamond fields drove colonial expansion and resulted in conflicts between the British and the Afrikaner and indigenous populations. Photo Jessica Gregory.

Though fervently anti-imperialistic, her opinions to the rights of black women were more contradictory. Schreiner’s writing often cited the unfair treatment of the black communities of the colonies in Southern Africa. She writes in Woman and Labour (1911) that no account of gender oppression could avoid being a critical account of race and racial oppression, whilst also recognising the pattern of white women silencing black women. Indeed, she was concerned enough about such inequalities that she resigned her presidency of the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League on its racially exclusive focus. When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, she recognised it has the total and long-term disenfranchisement of the black communities. However, as much as Schreiner sympathises with these communities, her black characters read very much as caricatures. In her vision of South African society she included the black communities as members of society who would have the right to citizenship and land, but this vision still supposed that society would be directed by the newly unified Boer and English South African peoples. Her thoughts on race and equality rarely espouse true autonomy and are not yet free from the enduring Social Darwinist ideas prevalent at the time. As conflicting as these thoughts may be, Schreiner stood out in her ability to recognise the limits of her own perception. In a letter to Edward Carpenter, she mentions reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Schreiner points out that she and others had projected their own thoughts and feelings onto black people in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her own, Trooper Peter Halket, but it was different to read the realities described by someone who lived day to day with persistent racial oppression and humiliation.

Schreiner’s wide-ranging concerns, from the fate of the Boer women refugees, the suffrage of black South Africans and the right of women’s autonomy in work and marriage, marked her out as a first wave feminist whose ideology reached beyond the boundaries of the feminist thought of her age. As a colonial subject who witnessed the struggles over the land, resources, culture and identity that raged in her birthplace, she recognised that self-realisation was inhibited by multiple forces. Her attempts to criticise the forces of imperialism, capitalism and racism are essential to her understanding of feminism and women’s rights. Schreiner’s work turns Victorian idealism back on itself; centering the Victorian novel on colonial subjects, the recently re-coloured parts of the world map and the sites of contention that were hidden from the everyday lives of women in the ‘motherland’. Olive Schreiner would expand the remit of first wave feminism by countering the quest for women’s inclusion into the system with a critique of the system itself. 


Further Reading:

Add MS 43908, Dilke Papers

Add MS 70571 - Add MS 70572, Havelock Ellis Papers

 Irons, Ralph (Schreiner, Olive). Story of an African Farm, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1883)

Schreiner, Olive. Woman and Labour, (London: Unwin, 1911)

Olive Schreiner Letters Online: https://www.oliveschreiner.org/

15 June 2021

Charlotte Brontë’s miniature books

By Catherine Angerson, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Manuscripts by Charlotte Brontë can be seen in two exhibitions at the British Library in London this summer: Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights (until 1 August) and Miniature Books in our Treasures exhibition (until 12 September).

In Spring 2020, during the first national lockdowns in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British Library asked children across the UK to make miniature books, inspired by the Library’s tiny treasures. One of these items was an issue of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, measuring only 5.2 by 3.7 centimetres, created by a young Charlotte Brontë and her brother Branwell in 1829. Like our young participants, the Brontë children made and bound their miniature books by hand. A small exhibition of Miniature Books celebrating this outreach project, is now open in our Treasures gallery in London.

Photograph of hand holding miniature book, Blackwood's Young Mens' Magazine

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, December 1829. British Library: Ashley MS 157 © Brontë Parsonage Museum


Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine and Charlotte Brontë’s handwritten tale, The Search After Happiness, are on display alongside other miniature books from the library’s historical collections and books created especially for the project by much-loved children’s authors and illustrators, including Axel Scheffler, Jacqueline Wilson and Joseph Coelho. In addition, the exhibition showcases some of the miniature books submitted by children in response to our lockdown callout, the first time contemporary works by children have been displayed in the Treasures gallery.

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë initially produced their own tiny magazines for the set of toy soldiers given to Branwell as a gift from their father Patrick for his ninth birthday in 1826. Branwell and his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, assigned personalities to the soldiers and this became the foundation of an imaginary world which would provide the settings and characters for the Brontës’ earliest literary creations. The precursor of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, which was largely written by Charlotte, was Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine, edited and written by Branwell from January to June 1829. The young editors added tables of contents and advertisements to each issue in imitation of contemporary magazines, such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.


Scan of folio from Blackwood's Young Men's Magazine showing a hand-drawn flower.

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, December 1829. British Library: Ashley MS 157, f. 10v © Brontë Parsonage Museum


The page on display in Miniature Books is the final page of the 6th issue of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine for December 1829, seen in the image above. The initials 'UT' shown here in the index stand for ‘Us Two’. Only Charlotte wrote her name at the back of the magazine, however, showing that the 13-year-old was the editor and author of most of the poems and stories in this issue.

Scan of frontispiece from 'A Search for Hapiness' by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of ‘The Search After Hapiness’. 1829. Ashley MS 156, f. 2 © Brontë Parsonage Museum

Charlotte Brontë’s tale, The Search After Happiness (1829), written in the same year as Blackwood’s, is set in the imaginary world of Glass Town. It tells the story of a man called Henry O’Donell who leaves his city to seek happiness and contentment in unfamiliar lands. Here Brontë imitates the title page of a printed book and makes a few mistakes while working by hand, including adding the wrong date (‘Twenty-eight’ instead of ‘Twenty nine’) and spelling ‘Hapiness’ with one ‘p’.

The tale is ‘PRINTED BY HERSELF AND SOLD BY NOBODY’, showing that the 13-year-old did not know how successful she would become as the author of Jane Eyre (1847). The manuscript of Brontë’s famous novel, submitted to the publisher Smith, Elder and Co in August 1847 under her pen name ‘Currer Bell’, is also on display this summer in Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights.

You can view digital versions of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine and The Search After Happiness on our Discovering Literature website and find many resources and activities relating to miniature books in Discovering Children’s Books.