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Helen Kingstone: Women are aliens! Radical feminism and contemporary-history-writing in the work of Alice Stopford Green

2014 December 16

This post accompanies Helen Kingstone’s Journal of Victorian Culture article: ‘Feminism, Nationalism, Separatism? The Case of Alice Stopford Green’. This article can be downloaded here.

For several years now, I’ve been tussling with a troublesome question: how do you write contemporary history? Luckily, perhaps, I haven’t had to do it myself, but instead have been looking at how Victorian writers approached the challenge. Because it is a challenge. How do you write a history (conventionally a generalising, singular, even grand form) about something that’s still so messy, so multifarious, and so present? And this was a particularly discomforting paradox in the second half of the nineteenth century, when historians were beginning to claim professional status. It wouldn’t do much for your credibility, or your academic standing, to start pontificating about the controversial and inconclusive recent past, when, twenty years later, your conclusions might be mocked as obviously misguided.

As a result – as I have explained in a recent article in Clio (issue 43.3) – many Victorian historians avoided writing contemporary history. The most high-status historical form of the age was the national history, generally a History of England, which might take you from the arrival of Julius Caesar, or the Anglo-Saxon settlements, or the Norman Conquest, but would generally cut off a good fifty years, if not a century or more, from the present day. Even quite radical and revisionist historians struggled to break free of this convention. John Richard Green was a proto-social historian, determined to become the historian ‘of the English people’, and might be a good bet as someone who would want to celebrate the people who had made their mark on his lifetime. He even sketched out the different topics he would include in a chapter about the history of the nineteenth century. But when he came to write his national history, A Short History of the English People (1874), he ground to a sudden halt with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The rest of the nineteenth century was reduced to a terse catalogue of political events, which ended with the less than conclusive line: ‘and the return of a Conservative majority of nearly seventy members was necessarily followed by his retirement from office, Mr Disraeli again becoming First Minister of the Crown.’[1] Not exactly a definitive finale to a grand narrative that had begun with the fifth-century Anglo-Saxons…

His wife, Alice Stopford Green, however, emerged after his early death in 1883 as a historian in her own right. She published several works of medieval and Irish history, as well as replacing Green’s awkward final chapter of the Short History with a much fuller version, taking the story right up to her present in 1915, in the midst of the First World War.

Stopford Green was a woman who refused to adhere to convention in more ways than one. Although she wrote several works of medieval as well as contemporary history, Stopford Green deliberately positioned herself outside the academic circles that might have given her a stamp of authority. Rather than adopting the tones of the professionalized historian, she took a consciously separatist position in several ways. As I show in my recent article in Journal of Victorian Culture about Stopford Green’s work, she often defined her writing as the product of a specifically female bent. Her startlingly anguished periodical article in Nineteenth Century, ‘Woman’s Place in the World of Letters’ (1897), prefigures Hélène Cixous in its call for an écriture feminine. It views women as utterly alien to the ‘established order of this world’, ‘a witness, a herald it may be, of another system lying on the ultimate marge and confines of Space and Time’.[2] She acquiesces with the notion of an essential female identity: ‘woman’ comes in the singular. She also, however, undermines it by insisting that woman’s true nature is almost never seen. Fearful both of ‘man [and] Nature’, she is in perpetual camouflage, and ‘sails under any colour but her own’.[3]

Stopford Green was also distinctive, and important, for her investment in the Irish nationalist movement. This was a highly activist investment: not only did she support the cause financially and through her writings, but she was a major player in the Howth gunrunning of 1914, and sheltered nationalist fighters in her house in Dublin. She was nonetheless a mediating figure in some ways, staying on the more ‘conservative’ side of the Irish Civil War by supporting the model of a ‘Free State’, and in 1922, she became one of the first Free State Senators. In her 1915 ‘Epilogue’ to J. R. Green’s Short History, Stopford Green appears to voice jingoistic rhetoric, but employs unobtrusive asides (such as ‘it was said’) to distance herself from these calls to imperialism. Through such surreptitious means, she uses her late-husband’s popular textbook as the conduit of subversive ideas, both voicing and subverting his English nationalism.

Her historiography manifests characteristics often labelled as ‘feminine’: prioritising the particular over the general, and differentiating rather than universalising, she embraces the messy multiplicity of contemporary history, and focuses on the silenced and marginalized voices of women and the Irish. This approach challenges readings of the literary and historiographical field that see women being ‘edged out’ of the mainstream.[4] Stopford Green’s attitude, and self-positioning, is anything but passive.

 


[1] J. R. Green, A Short History of the English People (London:Macmillan, 1878),  p. 820.

[2] Alice Stopford Green, ‘Woman’s Place in the World of Letters’, The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, 41 (1897), 964–74, p. 969.

[3] Stopford Green, ‘Woman’s Place’, p. 965.

[4] Gaye Tuchman and Nina E. Fortin, Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers and Social Change (London: Routledge, 1989). See also Joan Thirsk, ‘The History Women’, in Chattel, Servant or Citizen: Women’s Status in Church, State and Society, ed. by Mary O’Dowd and Sabine Wichert (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1995), pp. 1–11.

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