The Struggles With Lesbian History

LGBT history as a whole is difficult to study, with both its legal and societal condemnation historically and today. The first attempts to study the history of homosexuality were not started until the 19th century and these were largely hampered by source scarcity and societal opinion. It was not until the mid 20th century that as a study it became more popular, and until the 1970s that all identities under the LGBT umbrella were included. The last several decades have seen a massive increase in scholarship, especially in gay male history; however other identities have struggled much more. Trans historiography has been hampered by how to define trans historical figures, particularly so in the issue of whether people were trans or if they were passing as another gender for other reasons, such as avoiding being drafted into military service. Bisexual history has languished similarly due to the issue of how to consider historical figures who appeared to be bisexual – were they bisexual or were they gay and their opposite sex relationships a requirement of the society they lived in, or were such relationships genuine? This, of course, has implications for same-sex history: are historical figures being labelled as attracted only to the same sex or could they have been bisexual? While the lack of definitively knowing hampers any study of history, LGBT history particularly struggles.  

Lesbian history has always struggled – even the term ‘lesbian’ to describe history has been considered by some to be a difficult descriptor. Some feel that lesbian refers to an identity that historically women would have not considered themselves to be. Sometimes the phrase ‘women who loved women’ has been used. Scholars such as Cook and Rich argued for the use of the term ‘lesbian’ to describe women who had relationships with other women. However other scholars prefer to avoid the term, arguing that lesbian as a concept did not exist, or that the term does not fit the historical reality of the women they are studying. Others have also argued that this term is too Western-centric. However, others have pointed out that terms such as queer are too broad and erase the specific experience of women. This issue on phrasing symbolises the difficulty that lesbian history has faced. 

While there has been little debate about male homosexual history, lesbian history has been much more problematic. The existence of lesbian history has always been harder to find, just because as the history of women in general has been difficult to source because of the domination of men in the historical written word, lesbians have often been written out of history – even more so than heterosexual women who generally have been only featured when, relevant to men. Lesbian behaviour was less likely to be prosecuted than gay male behaviour (not that lesbians were not prosecuted but they were caught less often or in some cases the sheer idea of lesbianism was so alien that legislation did not exist) which also reduces the amount of source material available, although what does exist is important. Prior to the 19th century lesbian history is fragmented, although some lesbian historians, like Emma Donoghue, have criticised historians for failing to notice mentions of lesbians due their own heterocentrisim. Debates over whether female historical figures had romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other or whether they simply had close platonic friendships plague lesbian history. Many lesbian historians have pointed out that they themselves, and those that came before them who clearly were, and often identified, as lesbian have been described as ‘platonic’ yet that there are often signs of such romantic and/or sexual relationships. Anne Lister’s diaries are an example of this; when her diaries were originally deciphered some declared them a hoax because of their explicitness’ and her frank understanding of her sexuality.  

Most sources we do have on lesbian history focus predominantly on upper class women as they were the most able to record their own experiences. This can be frustrating for two reasons: women in the lower classes made up higher proportions of the general population and therefore are more likely to make up a significant proportion of lesbian women; and also that working class women traditionally had more opportunity to socialise with other women and without as much scrutiny. Upper class women were far more likely to have limited social circles and limited opportunity to be able to conduct affairs privately. Not only does this limit the amount of available knowledge it also means we miss out on knowing about working class lesbian subcultures and communities prior to the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Oral history has been an important part of lesbian history and has provided a significant amount of source material, although this is mostly restricted to post 1920s, as lesbian oral history was not recorded until the 1970s and beyond.  Along with sources such as zines and photography, archive groups in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to construct archives focused on the lesbian experience, such as the Lesbian Archive – now housed at the Glasgow Women’s Library, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. Other regional archives exist as does archives holding either LGBT history as whole or feminist/women’s history. 

So why is lesbian history so important to discover? Other than the general desire to uncover the past as much as possible, many lesbians find it important to connect to their forebearers and to demonstrate that their identity is legitimate and has existed for millennia. Lesbian erasure, historically and currently, is a major issue not just in society in general but also in the LGBT and feminist communities that claim to include and represent them. Erasure and ignorance of lesbian history helps exacerbate lesbian erasure. Many lesbians have been outspoken about society’s attempts to erase ‘lesbian’ as an identity, from claiming that ‘lesbian’ is exclusive or to that it doesn’t even exist – the tendency for some historians to deny lesbian history prior to the 19th century does just this.  

LGBT history often focuses on gay men while feminist history often focuses on heterosexual women. The fact that lesbians have often been both at the forefront of social movements is often ignored, even within these movements, and despite their presence they have been later ostracised or written out of these histories. Therefore their lesbian identity has been paramount to them. This importance also highlights the need for lesbian history to be inclusive of all lesbians. Recent scholarship has aimed to not only focus on white middle-class women in western societies but to expand our knowledge of lesbian history and how the diversity of these women are how we can broaden our overall knowledge.  

Victims of Antisemitism: The Anne Frank Huis and Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel around Europe stopping in a number of countries. Today I will be looking at two museums I visited, the first in Amsterdam and the second in Berlin. Both museums despite being 409 miles apart due to the horrors of the Holocaust bear a similar story. The first of these museums is the Anne Frank Huis, the site of the annexe that a teenage Anne Frank hid with her family and four others hoping to avoid being sent to concentration camps, which sadly as I’m sure everyone knows failed when they were discovered by the Gestapo. The second museum is far less known, Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. The museum is based where the German Otto Weidt had his workshop which specialised in hiring blind workers. Weidt himself was blind, and during the years that the Nazis ruled Germany Weidt hired and hid disabled Jews in an attempt to rescue them from deportation. Sadly the story ended similarly to those who hid in the annexe, with few surviving the war.

Other than the above similarities I decided to write about the two of these together for one simple reason: the story of Anne Frank is known across the world, especially in the West even by those who know little about history while Otto Weidt is not. This was true for me too. My first exposure to Anne Frank was via Anne Frank: The Whole Story, a 2001 TV adaptation, sometime around this time as I can’t find the British premiere date. I would’ve been about seven years old and despite being quite traumatized due to the depiction of the reality of the camps, I quickly became fascinated by Anne and her story. I attempted to read the diary at this age but unsurprisingly struggled and reattempted when I was about ten. I decided that one day I would visit the Anne Frank Museum, but this would not be possible until 2016. My decision to visit the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind however does not have the same lengthy history. Throughout both my education and own research I learnt of the millions of others like Anne Frank who suffered. During my GCSEs I was given the opportunity to visit Auchwitz concentration camp, Oskar Schnindler’s factory and the Krakow Ghetto with my school. I’ve spent many hours reading about the people who tried to escape the Holocaust and those who risked their lives to help them. Otto Weidt, however, I did not find out about in any of those ways; my sister found the museum as she trawled Trip Advisor reviews when she was looking for things to do in Berlin. Therefore prior to my visit my own knowledge was what I had been told by her, a far cry from what I knew about Anne Frank.

For such a famous museum it is surprising to learn that the Anne Frank Huis only has around a million visitors a year; however once you’ve been inside it isn’t so surprising simply because how small the annexe is. Since its opening to the public in 1960 the museum has been expanded into the neighboring building and extensive works have taken place to allow footfall, but the annexe has been carefully preserved to give visitors a full appreciation of the cramped conditions the eight lived in. I’ve read the diary, I’ve seen numerous adaptations of the story and I’ve read extensively about the annexe but there is nothing quite like being in there to realise how small it was. Anne’s frustration becomes so understandable.

Otto Frank insisted that there be no furniture in the annexe and therefore each room contains a photo of each room reconstructed as how it was alongside the plaques and videos. I felt this was enough to gain an understanding of what it would have been like, although I understand some may disagree. Otto Frank’s reasoning for the lack of furniture was he wished it to symbolize ‘the void left behind by the millions of people who were deported and never returned’.  Personally I felt this did exactly as he intended, especially so in the room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer which retains the original wallpaper with Anne’s postcards and pictures. For me this was one of the most moving aspects of the visit; I think possibly more than any other moment the fact that Anne was a teenager strikes you. She has been elevated to almost a mythical figure that sometimes it is very easy to forget that she was a normal teenage girl, living in horrendous circumstances. There were millions of girls just like her, whose lives were taken and destroyed, but the reason we remember her is her diary and that it was saved.  She was a young girl who never got to live.

The Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind is almost as hidden as its story. Hidden down an alley in central Berlin, the museum is easy to miss even if you’re trying to find it. Like the Anne Frank Huis, it is a minimalist museum tells the story of the relatively unknown Otto Weidt. His story has only become somewhat known because of the efforts of students to open the workshop as a museum in 1999, and the help of Inge Deutschkron, a Jewish woman who was helped by Weidt. He has sometimes been referred to as the ‘German Oskar Schindler’; however I would dispute this as unlike Schindler, Weidt never supported the Nazis or worked for them. Weidt had gradually gone blind and learned brush making and broom binding to provide for himself. He opened the workshop in 1936 and began to hire disabled Jews to protect them from deportation. By this time Jews who remained in Berlin found it easier to stave off deportation if they were in work. Weidt’s workers however were not invulnerable, and Weidt spent a great deal of money bribing the Gestapo to stop them from taking his workers. In one case, despite his protests, the Gestapo came and rounded up his disabled workers to be taken for deportation. Weidt followed and via bribes and arguing he could not produce the items required by the war effort, he managed to rescue his workers. However by the end of February 1943, with the exception of those in hiding and Jewish workers married to non-Jews, his workers were deported. Weidt did not just hire disabled Jews and financially protect them from deportation. Along with a circle of helpers he helped many Jews find hiding and provided false documents to help them avoid detection. Within the workshop itself Weidt hid a family whose daughter Alice he was in love with, and employed. When the family was discovered and deported, Alice managed to contact Weidt to let him know she had been sent to Auschwitz by throwing a postcard from the window of the train she was taken in. By sheer luck the postcard reached Weidt who immediately went in search of her, organising with a local Pole who had access to her to provide a hiding place for her when she could escape. Alice managed to escape and survived the war. Weidt survived the war but died of heart failure in 1947. In his final years he helped fund a home for orphans and elderly survivors of the Holocaust.

The two museums in their set up are similarities. Like the Anne Frank Huis, the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind lacks furniture focusing instead on information plaques and interactive materials. However as I mentioned previously I was struck by how similar their stories were. They show how far the Nazis reach was and how many lives were destroyed, in these cases specifically those of Jews. How despite their best efforts these attempts failed to protect most of those in hiding, leaving few survivors. The sheer despair and destruction is horrendously apparent. The only comfort that both these museums provide is they show, despite when the very worst of humanity gains power, that there were many who stood up to such hatred by risking their lives to help those who were targeted.

Suffragette: Some Thoughts

It is somewhat staggering that it has taken just over a hundred years since the end of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) campaign for a film based on the British fight for women’s suffrage to be made. This is made even more staggering that on television the only production on women’s suffrage was the BBC drama Shoulder to Shoulder in 1974, which my mother recalls watching as a teenager. Therefore it is unsurprising that Suffragette has been under a lot of pressure to satisfy many, with varying different views, as the only available screen representation (Shoulder to Shoulder has yet to been released on DVD, nor does it seem to ever have been released on VHS) of such a significant movement in Britain.

I was one of the many, having been fascinated with the women’s suffrage movement since I was a child. Would the film address the differences within the movement itself, principally between the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)? Would the film focus on leaders of the movement such as the Pankhursts’ or Millicent Fawcett or Emily Wilding Davison? Would the film mention or examine the class and race issues that were present within the movement?

I recall being surprised when the first details of the film were released that it would focus on a working class suffragette. The movement as a whole, and especially the WSPU, has been considered to be dominated by the middle classes. The hierarchy for certain was dominated by middle class women, with Annie Kenney the only working class woman involved in the WSPU leadership. Working class women had far more to lose than their middle class counterparts; after a prison sentence a middle class woman was generally more likely to have a home to return too, working class women less so.

However the choice to make the film’s protagonist working class was a brilliant decision, not just from a story perspective but also from a historic perspective. Rather than a film focusing on the politics or focusing on events and dates, the film focuses on the circumstances of Maud’s life (played by Carey Mulligan), that cause her to become involved in the WSPU; a victim of sexual abuse, an orphan, forced into a job that not only pays her poorly because she was a woman, but also one that would kill her young. As Maud explains when asked what the vote would mean to her, it could give her control over her life. Her fellow suffragettes similarly show the circumstances that allow inequality in a world without the vote. Maud’s colleague Violet, played by the outstanding Anne Marie Duff, like Maud had worked in poorly paid jobs since her teens and is married to a violent drunk, who despairs of her daughter facing the same future as her. The organiser of their activities Edith, played by Helena Bonham Carter, was denied the opportunity for a university education by her father and never got to realise her dreams. The framing of the reasons these women fought, and in such desperate and violent measures, highlights the struggle that women at this point in history had to deal with. It could have been easy to focus instead on just the battles, the politics and the prison sentences but as a film Suffragette gives us the motivations behind these women’s actions.

Nor does the film shy away from the consequences these women faced. The brutality of prisons sentences is shown several times throughout the film. I was pleased to see that a scene was included where Edith insists that as political prisoners they should be entitled to wear their own clothes while they are manhandled into prison uniforms. While not explained at length in the film, political prisoners were classed as first division prisoners, enjoying privileges such as wearing their own clothes among others. The authorities refused to acknowledge suffragettes as such, which was the reason for Marion Wallace Dunlop to go on hunger strike, which would soon become WSPU policy. While it would have been nice to seen such a scene explained in further detail, it is understandable because to keep the majority of the audience interested, the writer of the film, Abi Morgan, was treading a careful line throughout to avoid it becoming a history lesson.

Morgan also managed to avoid falling into the trap of making the male characters of the film one-dimensional. While certain men will try to claim that the film is anti-men (i.e. it actually illustrates the brutality and misogyny against women, especially when the film is set), a much more realistic portrayal exists in the film. The male characters with the exception of Edith’s husband are against women’s suffrage, just as most men and many women were at the time (which is also acknowledged on several occasions) but they are not portrayed as one-dimensional villains. Maud’s employer is shown realistically as a sex pest and cruel, something definitely not unrealistic for the period nor even now therefore I would argue not entirely one-dimensional. Maud’s husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, despite his actions as the film continues becoming more deplorable, we see what many men from this period were like. While we may not like or find perhaps much sympathy for him, we can understand his feelings and actions which are shaped by the society he lives in. Similarly Brendon Gleeson’s Detective Steed, while we naturally root against him, he represents a man who believes in the law and the natural order of things, but he is not evil or a monster, he too is shaped by a patriarchal society.

This is certainly one of the strengths of the film, we are forced to acknowledge that this is our history, these are our ancestors, not heroes or villains from a fairy tale. Combined with the film’s questioning of the morality of suffragette techniques that could be branded as terrorism, the film poses moral questions and debates that historians have had for many years. There is no clear moral right and wrong, only shades of grey. Without debate women should have had the vote far earlier than they did, without debate the way the authorities dealt with women’s suffrage supporters both suffragettes and suffragists was wrong but were the suffragettes right to act in the way they did? The film does not give an answer for this question, instead it gives us the viewpoints and leaves us to decide. It is that which makes this film so brilliant. Whether as a viewer we agree with it or not, Maud gives us perhaps the most powerful answer a suffragette would give, and one we should certainly think upon:

We break windows… We burn things; cos war is the only language men listen to… cos you’ve beaten us and betrayed us… and there’s nothin’ else left.

Limoncello

For Food history week I am going to write about a very famous liquor I came across on my travels this summer called Limoncello. Although Limoncello is a drink it is relevant for the food theme as it is a product made from lemons. The drink originates from the Campania region of Southern Italy, primarily associated with Sorrento, the island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

In terms of when the drink was invented, this is currently unknown as there have been many theories circulating about who actually made the drink first. Many of the theories stem from the Middle Ages and contain elements of myth and legend, making the exact origins of the drink near impossible. However there does appear to be a general consensus with these theories in question. Some say fisherman used to drink Limoncello as a way of warding of the cold at a time when there was a Saracen invasion from the Middle East. Another popular theory states monks made Limoncello as a treat for themselves between their daily prayers. Again these theories perhaps should not be taken literally as there have been no documented evidence to support this and these stories have been heavily reliant on word of mouth. The only documented evidence of Limoncello making we have is from the early twentieth century and that it was not consumed on such a large-scale amongst Italians until the late 1980s.

This June in 2015 I was lucky enough to visit a Limoncello factory on the Sorrentine Peninsula and the process of making Limoncello was explained. Firstly the lemons are grown on large plantations across the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi coast and sometimes on the island of Capri. They are then harvested by hand between February and October when they are above 3 metres in height. The lemons are then put into warm water and the zest of the lemon is removed as the lemon zest is the main ingredient for the flavour. Then two litres of pure alcohol is added to the zest of the lemons and is stored in a cool dark place at room temperature until the mixture turns yellow. The alcohol content is expected to be approximately 28 to 32%. After a month of putting the mixture into storage syrup and sugar is added with boiling water. After allowing the sugar to dissolve and allowing the syrup to cool, when this is done it is added to the zest of lemons and alcohol. Once again when this process is done they leave the mixture in a cool dark place for forty days. When the forty days have finished the mixture is then bottled ready to be dispatched and sold. After purchasing the Limoncello it is customary to store it in a freezer.

Sometimes the Limoncello is added with Pistachios, Walnuts, Berries and Fennel in order to make different flavours and I as the typical student I am could not help but down a few shots of Limoncello!

The primary industry focuses on agriculture and the growing of lemons aids the local economy. The lemons in this area of Italy have also been used to make other products like cosmetics, soaps, olive oil and biscuits and has done for many years maybe due to the popularity of Limoncello in recent years.

Tudor Confectionery

Human’s attachment to sugar began several thousand years ago, exact date unknown, with the growth of the sugar cane plant, and with steady cultivation across Asia meant it was one of the most valued and rich export from the Asian world to Europe. Sugar itself was incredibly expensive up until the year 1500 when sugar was grown extensively across the tropical climates of the South Americas and earned the name ‘fine spice’ which was reserved for the wealthy. Sugar under the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) developed an economic status, you were rich if you were able to provide sugary treats for dessert and most specifically have a cook capable of creating sugar sculptures of monumental sizes. But it also played a part in court life in romance since sugar items were used as a way of a gentleman sweetening the woman he was courting.

From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I it was well-known that the monarch adored rich, sweet and fruity tastes for their meals. Everything could be laced with honey or drenched in a thick sauce or spiced wine that would eventually turn your teeth black. Due to the rise of cookery books in the late sixteenth century, experimentation with food created new puddings and dishes; the most popular of all was confectionary. This expanded once exploration of the supposed new worlds expanded the food available to the Tudor society. ‘Sweetmeats’ was a delicacy of crystallised fruit or a piece of candy that was popular in banquets and feasts, this included home-grown strawberries and pears to the more exotic pomegranates and oranges. These are still popular today but due to mass marketing in the nineteenth century they lost their ‘only for the wealthy’ status. But in Tudor times this was reserved for royalty and the top echelons of society. The term ‘sweetmeats’ also refers to the course that came after the meat course during dinner. The prime example of this would be ‘marchpane’, marzipan to today’s confectionery world. Powdered almonds would be combined with what would be considered as icing sugar and then moulded into sculptures. This became popular under the late Plantagenet dynasty but is better remembered as a delicacy of the Tudor age. One Tudor feast was known to have displayed transformations of Ovid in marchpane, another would be a scaled model of a bear and other legendary or mythological scenes. The sculpturing of marchpane eventually gave way to being known as ‘subtleties’ and was usually covered in gold leaf. The Tudor court would eat the entirety including the gold and usually the biggest or most prominent piece would be given to the monarch. Slices would get smaller the further down the table of the Tudor hierarchy you were. Since the Tudors were the epitome to pageantry and obvious conspicuous consumption, it was natural that the properties of sugar was used to full effect when putting on a show since it was so expensive. The sweetmeats course would occur at dinner, around 3-4pm, every day but on special occasions or important diplomatic feasts, sugar would be used to create the finest confectionary. Occasionally there would be a whole extra banqueting tent put up in the royal gardens to house the subtleties, especially if it was portraying a scene from a play, or a scale size version of a palace/castle.

All sugar products were handmade in the Tudor era and was a skill highly valued in an upper class house’s kitchen. Many cooks would find themselves occupied in mixing sugar to make ribbons, bows or table decorations as and when needed. Something similar to what we would recognise as red laces coloured with fruit juices would be a popular treat. Children were not given a lesser diet then the adults so they would be introduced to sugar from a young age so naturally sugary products would be used as gifts to children or as part of courtship between an unmarried couple. Romance was attached to the products alongside it being part of daily life. There is one story of Elizabeth I attending Kenilworth Castle, home of the Earl of Leicester, and arriving to confectionery hanging from the trees. The idea was for a gentleman to take the confectionery from the tree and present to the lady he was courting. Once again this was all to do with the parade that was court life, yet sweets and sugar still hold a connection within today’s society with it being one of the most affluent sect in the business of food.

Jane Austen as a Source for Eighteenth-Century and Regency Women

Jane Austen’s famous works have transcended the past two centuries and are as well-known now as they were when they were first published. Her novels on the lives of the Bennett sisters, the Dashwoods, and the famous Emma were popular in their own times and today, with film and TV adaptations especially popular since the mid-1990s. However, Austen’s novels are also a commentary of the time they were so set, and written in. The two novels I’ll be looking at in this post in particular will be Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. These novels take place during the Regency Period of 1811-1820, when the Prince Regent ruled the country. Although none of her novels strike as particularly feminist – an ideology, in fact, that wasn’t really established until nearly a century after the Regency Period – they are about women: their relationships with one another, the situations they face and their place in society. Pride and Prejudice, deemed to be one of the most famous love stories, is itself more about the Bennett sisters and their positions in society. Austen’s books are not just detailed in the lives of her characters, but also in the polite and leisure society of Georgian England. Her books are a commentary and highly descriptive text on the ideals this polite society was supposed to have – how women were supposed to behave, how courtship occurred, and how a woman in society was seen through the way she acted.

Polite Society

Hugh Thomson's illustration of a scene from Sense and Sensibility
Hugh Thomson’s illustration of a scene from Sense and Sensibility

The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth brought with it the advent of polite society. A society where etiquette was of up most importance, a sign of your class and standing. It’s no surprise the idea of polite society was on the rise just as a true class consciousness was building in Britain. During this period, who you knew, how you acted and what you could afford was a sign of your importance, driving huge wedges between those with wealth, and those without. Austen’s works were usually focused on middle classes of no great wealth, and their positions compared to the higher status aristocracy, who took part in the cycles of leisure society. However, although class consciousness was on the rise due to the advent of the middle classes; the furthering poverty of the labouring classes and the events of the French Revolution, Austen’s novels do not generally discuss labouring classes. Her work is mostly focused on middle class women. The rise of a ‘middle class’ in the eighteenth century was due to a booming commercial society, and a rise in real income of professionals who were not elite or landed gentry. Merchants, tradesmen and schoolmasters all became capable of affording luxury products and were therefore able to become a part of the polite and leisured society.

In her work Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity Vivien Jones discusses why this focus on polite society was evident in literature of the time. She claims  women had a large influence on emphasising the private experience in novels, and more particularly, on the subject of ‘sensibility’. The idea of ‘sensibility’, which means appreciating and responding to surrounding influences, dominated fiction in the latter half of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, as well as playing a role in the emergence of Romanticism: themes that are both evident in Austen’s work with sensibility playing a major role in the aptly titled Sense and Sensibility.

The Cult of Sensibility

Hugh Thomson depicts Marianne crying over Willoughby
Hugh Thomson depicts Marianne crying over Willoughby

Sense and Sensibility was written during a time where feelings were meant to be repressed. Originally, it was to be an epistolary novel, a novel comprised completely of letters, as letters were valuable tools to observe thoughts and feelings that would be frowned upon in public. Austen’s social commentary on public and private life is told through the two Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Marianne, the youngest, is a romantic, and the embodiment of ‘sensibility’. Elinor, therefore, takes the opposite role of ‘sense’. Sense was also a definitive term in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, alongside sensibility, meaning not only common sense, but restraint and social responsibility.  Austen was certainly writing about highly relevant and socially charged subjects of the time, indicating that her work would have been a very topical and provoking read. The ideas of sense and sensibility were discussed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, when he criticised how society corrupted men and women by distorting and holding back their emotions and urges. Writing and publishing for women in this period was not just part of a pastime or way to achieve status, but also an act that went against the moral and social boundaries contemporary women were constrained by. By discussing such a highly topical, philosophical and provoking subject as sense and sensibility, Austen was, as a woman, taking a bold stand on remarking upon the values of Regency society. Vivien Jones emphasises this by demonstrating that women’s writing was defined as a threat to the existing social order, and at its most extreme was seen as a loss of chastity and an act against femininity. For Jane Austen, her writings were often ways of commenting on the values of society.

Women and Marriage

Tinted Line Drawing by H.M. Brock: Lady Catherine de Burgh question Elizabeth about her relationship with Mr. Darcy
Tinted Line Drawing by H.M. Brock: Lady Catherine de Bourgh questions Elizabeth about her relationship with Mr. Darcy

Austen’s works can tell us a lot about women and marriage in this period. In his work on the eighteenth century, Jeremy Black highlights how it was social and economic pressures that drove women towards matrimony. In Austen’s works, Mrs. Bennett wants to marry at least one of her daughters off to someone rich; Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins because, at twenty-seven she’s on the verge of forever being a spinster; Marianne Dashwood cannot marry Willoughby because he does not have enough money and wishes to marry Miss Grey, who has £50,000 a year; Elinor Dashwood is seen as an unsuitable match for Edward Ferrars because of her low funds and status; Jane Bennett is under the same situation with Charles Bingley. The underlying importance that is stressed in all these cases is that these women need to marry in order to achieve some sort of wealth, and the fact that they cannot inherit from their fathers once they die. The Dashwoods’ father dies at the beginning of the novel, and their estate and possessions are left entirely to their half-brother. The Bennett’s father is alive and well, but Mrs. Bennett is all too aware that once he dies their home and belongings will not pass to any of his five daughters, but to his male cousin, Mr. Collins. In this period, women could not inherit from their fathers, and her property, once married, was her husband’s. Through her depictions of marriage in these works, Austen underlines how achieving a marriage was about achieving stability, in wealth more so than for love and companionship. Of course, her major characters marry for love, but the way marriage is treated by many of the surrounding characters and by the narrative assumes that it is a device in which women can find a home and a husband to provide for her once her father can no longer, while also, for the upper classes, a way of creating and maintaining ties with important families. The Bingley sisters oppose of Charles Bingley’s affection for Jane Bennett, because she is of a much lower class and has little standing of her own; Lady Catherine de Bourgh refuses the idea of her nephew, Mr. Darcy, from marrying Elizabeth Bennett because of her family’s reputation; and the same narrative, although in a completely different setting, is apparent in Sense and Sensibility in the case of Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. It would appear that in society, marriage was a case of propelling one’s status or achieving some wealth, and for the upper classes especially, about maintaining high status in society. It should also be noted that, according to values of the eighteenth century, women who remained unmarried were social failures, as Austen highlights in the case of Charlotte Lucas and her marriage to Mr. Collins. By the end of  the century, with declining employment opportunities once available in business and commerce, it was implied the only means to exist was marriage.

Drawing by C.E. Brock, 1895 Macmillan edition of Pride and Prejudice: One of the Bennett sisters, Lydia, shows off her wedding ring
Drawing by C.E. Brock, 1895 Macmillan edition of Pride and Prejudice: One of the Bennett sisters, Lydia, shows off her wedding ring

Desertion and Divorce

Bridget Hill discussed how no divorce was possible unless the marriage was proved invalid, that is: adultery or bigamy had been committed. However, it was practically impossible for a woman to divorce her husband even if she did prove he had committed adultery. Deserting husbands was incredibly difficult because a woman had no claim to property and, worse still, could not claim custody of her children either. Austen discusses this painful reality in her story of Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility. Eliza, forced into a marriage with a man she could not stand, seems to be trapped. A plan to elope with her husband’s brother, whom she truly loves, is thwarted when a servant gives the plan up to her father-in-law. Driven by her unhappy marriage, she sleeps with another man and is divorced by her husband, left with nothing. In the story told, it is referenced that after her divorce ‘there was every reason to fear that she had removed from him [her first seducer] only to sink deeper in a life of sin.’ This is possibly an implication of her prostitution in order to survive. This is heavily implied by the fact that many poor women, with nothing else to turn to, turned to prostitution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the end, she lies dying in a sponging-house (a bath or spa) of tuberculosis, leaving an illegitimate child in the care of her ex-husband’s brother, who tracked her down in her dying days.

Therefore, although Austen’s work is heavily focused on the middle classes and polite society, it is also a heavily critical commentary of what this sort of society causes, and what marriage for women could mean. Although Austen’s main characters end up with their happy ending in love-matched marriages with wealthy men, the other side is underlined in many other of the women characters engagements – Eliza’s being one example. Less extreme examples are that of the Bennett sister’s parents, whom the sisters themselves comment as being a loveless marriage, if at least a content one; Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins is one that merely helps her circumstances, though she also claims to be content with the situation; Marianne marries Colonel Brandon and because she ‘could never love by halves’ she became ‘as much devoted to her husband, as [she] had once been to Willoughby.’

Hugh Thomson's Illustration of a scene in Sense and Sensibility
Hugh Thomson’s Illustration of a scene in Sense and Sensibility

What Austen Cannot Tell Us About Women

Essentially, however, Austen’s books focus on the middle and upper classes who played a larger role in polite society and the sort of social values she was making such a commentary on. In both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, servants are mentioned and given small speaking roles, but their lives are not looked into nor are their ideas, thoughts and emotions described. This is most probably due to the fact that Austen was a member of the lower orders of landed gentry, and the society she was commenting on was not that of the labouring classes. The lower classes rarely would have taken part in polite and leisure society. Although poverty is touched upon – the Dashwoods are considered to be poor but their strong connections keep them afloat – Austen’s novels remain concerned with the middle classes and the landed gentry. Labouring women of the eighteenth century, apart from appearances as servants, make up very little of  these two particular novels.

However, Austen’s works give us a very particular insight into the lives of women and their roles in polite society. In a society that was based on hierarchy and where subordination was everywhere, in manners and in speech, Austen’s work was driven by class, and were a social and economic commentary of the period and of the women in that period.

Les Miserables: A Historical Source?


The Paris, Look Down and the Robbery Scene from the musical version of Les Miserables.

Published in 1862, Les Miserables is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic French novels and today is perhaps best known by the general public in its musical form. Victor Hugo’s epic spans from 1815 to 1832, across the lives of a number of characters, principally Jean Valjean who is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread. Contrary to public perception, the novel is not set during the French Revolution but instead in the events following the end of the revolution; the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the French monarchy, detailing the events of the June Rebellion. I will be looking at Les Miserables as a historical source. I believe that it has its worth as more than just a novel, Hugo intended Les Miserables not just as entertainment but as a damning record of the degradation of France’s poor as Hugo sets out in the preface:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Without Les Miserables, the June Rebellion would be likely an unknown event outside of France, due to failure and lack of significant impact. Hugo rescued the rebellion from its future obscurity due to witnessing the rebellion first hand. Caught up in the rebellion, Hugo was forced to shelter from gunfire, unable to return home due to the barricades. A significant portion of the novel focuses on the lead up to the rebellion as well as the rebellion itself. While elements are obviously fictional, such as the Friends of the ABC, the group of students who the novel follows, even the fictional elements on based on fact. The death of General Lamarque was indeed the rallying point for the rebellion, groups of republicans set up barricades in the streets of Paris, and ultimately they were not joined, as they believed they would be, by the people of Paris and slaughtered by National Guard and army. Hugo’s first-hand account of the rebellion, even with its combined fictional elements in the novel, probably makes the portrayal of the June Rebellion as Les Miserables’ greatest strength as a historical source.

One of the most famous aspects of Hugo’s writing is his habit of digressions from the story on other issues. This is apparent clearly in Les Miserables, where around of the quarter of the novel is made up of these, some more relevant than others. One of these digressions is Hugo’s account of the Battle of Waterloo. Hugo had visited the battlefield in 1861, and was inspired to give an account of the battle to help link characters in the novel together. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this part of the novel is Hugo’s thoughts about the battle. Hugo believed that God determined that Napoleon had to be removed to allow the “tide of the nineteenth century” and that Waterloo was the beginning of liberty in Europe. This links the events of Waterloo to the events that follow, whereas in Britain at least, Waterloo is often perceived in isolation solely as a British victory. Les Miserables helps place Waterloo back into history, at least for British readers.

Next I will look briefly at three significant characters of the novel. While all these characters are fictional, Hugo uses them as representations of the degradation of people under poverty and repression. Therefore they are a valuable source, partly due to the limited sources on French poor in the 19th century compared to their richer countrymen, Hugo also presents another perspective, a more sympathetic perspective than many at the time would. Rather than portraying them as immoral and causing their own fates, Hugo argues against this showing the circumstances and injustice that the poor faced, that lead to their horrific circumstances. From a social history perspective, Les Miserables is an invaluable source.

Jean Valjean, the central character of the novel, represents everything that Hugo attempted to do with the novel. Arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family when they were starving, he spends nineteen years in prison for his ‘crime’ and attempting to escape. Bitter and angry for this injustice, and forced to carry a passport identifying him as an ex-convert which limits his ability to pursue legitimate work, when given shelter from a bishop he steals from him but is caught. Instead of sending him back to prison the bishop allows him to keep the stolen goods to start a new life for himself, on the promise that he will lead a moral life. From this point onwards Valjean dedicates his life to God and the pursuit of charity. Not only does Valjean represent Hugo’s belief in forgiveness and redemption, he also represents what Hugo believes people should aspire to be: Kind, charitable, and striving to lift people out of poverty. He is unpolitical, the only reason he goes to the barricades is to save Marius. Having suffered under poverty, and becoming a criminal due to this poverty, he strives to help others in unfortunate circumstances. Valjean is the novel’s moral centre, and Hugo’s ideal.

Fantine as a character illustrates Hugo’s purpose in the novel. Cruelly abandoned by the father of her daughter, Cosette, she is forced to place Cosette with the Thernadiers who exploit her for money, under the pretence of caring for Cosette. Fired from her factory job due to her ‘immorality’ of having a secret child, she struggles to provide for herself, and enough to satisfy the demands of the Thernadiers, when ‘respectable’ work runs out she is forced to sell her hair and teeth. Finally she turns to prostitution. For Hugo, Fantine symbolises the treatment of women living in poverty, the father of her child is a wealthy student who values her as nothing other than a game, she is treated with contempt for stepping outside the rigid accepted morality of French society and suffers horrifically due to lack of support and charity. Fantine is a victim of society and dies to sacrifice her life for her daughter. Without Valjean, Cosette probably would have suffered a similar fate.

Eponine is a fascinating character who undergoes perhaps the most change from novel to musical. This in some regards is a shame as in the book she is probably more realistic for her conditions in contrast to the somewhat romanticised version in the musical. In both mediums she retains her role as young woman living in poverty, the daughter and accomplice of the cruel criminal Thernadiers. Hugo describes her in pitiful terms, ravaged by living in poverty, prematurely aged and malnourished. Her voice is described as hoarse, damaged by alcohol abuse. On stage Eponine is generally played by an exceptionally pretty actress with some make up masquerading as dirt with a beautiful voice, unsurprisingly for a musical! Eponine, like Fantine, represents the limited circumstances that poor women in 19th century France found themselves in. Lack of opportunity gave Eponine little chance to escape her circumstances; she would have great difficulty finding respectable employability. Hugo elevates her by her morality within the novel. Many would have seen those living in Eponine’s circumstances as godless and immoral, however Hugo presents her as a woman saved by her love and sacrifice for Marius. Marius is arguably the only person to have shown her kindness after her childhood.

So can Les Miserables be used as a historical source? Certainly, I would argue it is a very important historical source. It echoes the sentiment that is espoused by many in the twenty-first century, making it relevant, and is a useful source for those studying from below. While at its heart it is a story of morality and redemption, it is also an account of the injustice and poverty that ruins a society. Just remember, it is not about the French Revolution.

The Everyday Life of an Icelandic Outlaw in the Sagas

Early Icelandic jurisdiction had very few methods of punishment for its criminals. Not only were there no prisons, but there was also no person with the power to do something like inflict the death penalty. The main options of punishment were either fines or outlawry.

Outlawry was the exclusion of the criminal from society and the protection of its laws. Other people were also forbidden to help the outlaws in any way. There were two kinds of outlawry; ‘lesser outlawry’ which lasted for three years, and ‘full outlawry’, which continued until the outlaw had killed three other outlaws, which does not seem likely. Full outlawry essentially meant banishment from Iceland altogether, or death for the outlaw, seeing as they were not only struggling to survive alone, but also usually being hunted down for revenge in most cases.

It was actually fairly common for an outlaw to still be helped by their family and friends, seeing as it was not easy to prevent them from doing so. Other than family and friends, it was often one of the local chieftains (goðar) who would protect them in return for them essentially becoming a slave, or being used to kill off their enemies.

The type of life an outlaw would have led attracted the attention of later saga writers. Sagas such as Grettis Saga and Gisla Saga, unlike other sagas, focussed on one character, and in this case they were outlaws. They portrayed the outlaw protagonists as somewhat heroic, but also not entirely likeable. However eventually the reader is encouraged to sympathise with them. In these sagas, the majority of the narrative is about the hero’s life as an outlaw, giving us some insight into how their lives could have been. However, it is important to bear in mind that these Sagas have the tendency to exaggerate some dramatic and tragic aspects of outlawry. For example, the fact that an outlaw is highly likely to die sooner rather than later, leads these stories to make this a focus point, and there seems to be a requirement for there to be an avenging party hunting the hero to kill them, creating a dramatic build-up of action and tension. This type of situation may have only really occurred in extreme cases, because an outlaw would probably be more likely to die from causes related to their isolation, rather than killed for revenge, especially considering that they may have been impossible to catch in many cases, if they had travelled far enough, or even to another country.

The overall point that should be taken from looking at outlaws in the sagas, is that, although they may give us insight into how the life of an outlaw could have been, it might not give us a complete picture. It would not have made for a particularly interesting story if the protagonist was a completely unlikable criminal, who perhaps murdered and raped people, was made an outlaw and struggled to survive before freezing or starving to death alone. This would probably have happened to many outlaws, but this does not make the sagas entirely unreliable. They can still be highly valuable sources for information, as long as you know to keep in mind, that they are primarily stories.