And a lecture

Wells benefited from the openness of the University of London, and so did I. The Institute of Historical Research offers free history lectures to those who are interested. Intrigued by the history of the Bloomsbury set, I attended.

As is often the case in London, I had trouble finding the place, wandered around and then suddenly turned a corner and there it was. Rather hard to miss, actually.

Senate House, University of London

The talk was Well-placed Women: Gender, Space and Identity in Bloomsbury 1872-1932 by Senior Fellows Lecturer Dr. Lynne Walker who, as it turns it, is from the American south.

I confess I struggle with “women’s history”, though I understand the reasons for it. When a group has traditionally been sidelined, left out, or misrepresented in historical narrative, it is necessary to develop the study of that specific group to unearth the evidence that reveals their actually role in the flow of history. This is true not only of women, but of any other “minority” (a funny term since women are usually the majority) that has been treated this way. In my experience, the first step is discovery (look! these people were there!), then crusade (we must shine a spotlight!).

After that, there is usually a division between those who continue to crusade by creating a disciplinary field (“Black History”, “Women’s History”, etc.) and those who want to meld the newly revealed history of the group into the main narrative. My own view is firmly in the latter camp. The time in which such people are sidelined into boxes on a textbook page (“meanwhile, here’s what women were doing”) should be as minimal as possible. This is particularly true when the entire historical narrative must be readjusted, not in the name of inclusion or social justice, but in the desire to create a more accurate representation of the past.

With women, the tendency has been to take prescriptive documentation and assume that’s how people actually lived. For the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the prescriptions are so obvious: women’s sphere is supposed to be the home, and men’s the public arena. But in actuality, despite political and legal restrictions on female autonomy, some women (particularly English-born, middle class women) in both Europe and the U.S. operated with significant influence in all spheres of public life.

I tell my students that historians are always creating an “although” thesis – that’s what we do: although we’ve believed x, a new look at the evidence (or new evidence), should make us believe y instead. So the thesis for this talk was that although women during this era have been seen to be only in charge of the domestic sphere, some women actually used their domestic spaces as places for, and representation of, their active public life, and carried these devices visually into public buildings.

And although Bloomsbury in particular was seen as a space of masculine domain, women like Agnes Garrett, Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Mary Ward, and the Pankhursts had homes which were not only open for political and social reform activity, but were decorated in a way that reflected a consciously feminine aspect for what they were doing. I got the feeling that another assumption had been that such women somehow rejected all feminine motifs and reflections, but that these active women (and by implication others) did not. They remained respectable ladies.

The talk proceeded with the biographical examples named above, and supported the argument about spaces like the local reform hospitals and buildings that were established for women, and which seem to spread out from Bloomsbury, closer and closer to Parliament in a representation of their move toward the political center (to me, this could have been a whole talk in itself).

The images studied for these women usually portray the upset in the home caused by women’s outside activities:

George du Maurier, Success in Life (1867) Punch Magazine

The sharp-faced woman is reading Lancet (this is supposed to be Dr. Anderson) while her husband waits on her and the children play with the “wrong” toys — a hobby-horse for the girl and a doll for the boy.

But by looking at their decor and their influence on architecture for the buildings they created (architecture history is Dr. Walker’s area), you can see that these women did not reject traditional female representations and expectations, but rather used them, which gave their projects more respectability. I was not sure whether Dr Walker was saying that this was deliberate (in order to get more male support), or accidental – I assume the former.

So the architectural expression of this thesis would be not only interior decor (the Garrett cousins pioneered interior design as a profession), but also new public buildings, such as the New Hospital for Women, build in Euston near Bloomsbury.

Apparently the cupolas, the domestic brick corners, and other features were seen as particularly feminine.

Inside, there were flowers in the wards and domestic textiles, to make it more homey for the poor women admitted to the hospital.

Other “reform” buildings, including the Ladies Residential Chambers (1889) to provide respectable housing for single women, and buildings for the several suffrage organizations, were said to follow a similar pattern, but I’m afraid they just look like Victorian or Edwardian buildings to me.

While the lecture continued into the highly public lives of suffragists and suffragettes, the main point was about the juxtaposition of public and private spaces for women at this time. The talk concluded with the summary idea that while architecture could embody social norms and categories, these could be negotiated and support change. All in all a very interesting lecture.

The adjustment of the larger historical narrative, then, would be supported by the idea that these women were not only publicly active, but that they saw their homes as appropriate spaces for meetings about social and political reform. I found this aspect more interesting than those about decor and design. In the peripheral vision of my readings on the subject, I am aware that those who had husbands found them supportive of their activities. I suspect their wealth allowed them to have servants to do all the onerous household chores and a substantial amount of child care. The “Room of Ones Own” Virginia Woolf proposed (she was what drew me to Bloomsbury in the first place) was likely enjoyed by such women, but I can imagine they were still awfully busy as professionals. Reform was not a sideline or hobby for them, and it had never occurred to me that their homes were in any way centers of that reform.