As I write, if I turn to my left, ignoring the cat staring out of the window, I can look straight onto ye olde Englishe village green. There’s an elderly gentleman creaking by on a bike that obviously hasn’t seen the light of day for years. Two children and their mother are walking towards me; the woman tight-lipped and tired; the children dressed as Batman and Snow White. There are a couple of Aylesbury ducks chasing each-other around the pond in the distance. But apart from that: nothing. I can usually see and hear trains and planes as well as cars. Nothing.
Except – and here’s where I open my CORVID-19 diary – jackdaws, crows and red kites. I know red kites aren’t corvids, but I can’t leave them out. Their cry is incongruously weak and whiny; I can’t usually hear it above the sound of every-day traffic. But on warm days especially, when they wheel around in thermals (not long-johns, the other kind), they fill the air with sound.
The jackdaws are nesting in a disused chimney a few feet away from where I’m sitting now. They would be useless at self-isolation: they never stop chattering and bickering together, and constantly seek the company of others. And the crows are in a new-build rookery – hang on, crowery? – in some lime trees across the road. I love the sound of their cawing: it’s somehow timeless and comforting.
Learning to listen is a skill I’m developing fast. I can hear the sound of tea-leaves hitting a warmed-up teapot in the kitchen downstairs in defiance of a closed door and Captain Oates’s purring. I can hear the approaching footsteps of our brilliant postman as strides along, still jaunty, in his shivery shorts. I can hear the anxiety in the brittle-bright voice of a friend or family member online. And I can hear the voices of the women I write about every day.
I specialise in social history through women’s eyes. I like to acknowledge the people who have been working away behind the scenes of history to make life better. Women who campaigned long and hard – and peacefully – for a political voice; for access to higher education; for equal opportunities in the professional workplace; to be respected, dignified, and to be heard.
One thing all these campaigners shared was a sense of sisterhood. Solidarity. The heady knowledge that when you all reach a hand to others (metaphorically speaking), you are strong. When suffragists were being attacked by mobs with firebombs and rocks; would-be students were being told their brains were too small for serious thinking; the first doctors were assured that there would never be any need of them; their silver lining was the mutual support they discovered in adversity.
That is a message worth listening to.
Everyone round our way (by which I mean in the WhatsApp groups I belong to) seems preoccupied with food at the moment. Our excellent local Indian takeaway is doing its best to keep going, and keep us going, so on Friday night we ordered a meal – only slightly marred by a thick haze of sanitiser – and ate like kings. Unlike our previous cat, Captain Oates is not that keen on curry, as you can see, but he wouldn’t have got some anyway. We must have cut down on food waste in our house by about 50%. We don’t squander a single crumb, and leftovers make repeat appearances in increasingly unconvincing guises until they have gone.
That’s one good thing.
It reminds me of something I came across while researching Bluestockings, in Pauline Adams’s wonderful history of Somerville College, Oxford. She quotes a ‘Bursar’s Song’ written in 1933, all about making the most out of what you’ve got – however unpromising.
I produce from my larder (and what could be harder?)
New dishes in endless variety.
It provides an incentive to genuine inventive,
I claim it without impropriety.
If at breakfast there’s fish and you don’t like the dish
And in fact you refuse to partake of it,
Next day I may choose to produce it in stews,
Or rissoles or Scotch eggs I may make of it.
I never despair tho’ you turn from jugged hare;
It can soon undergo metamorphosis,
It’s not recognised when it’s subtly disguised,
And as curry with rice quite amorphous is.
If you sneer at rice kernels they change their externals;
As soup they’re an absolute winner:
If it comes to the worst they may well be dispersed,
As savoury scallops at dinner.
Another good thing: since last week I’ve learned chiff-chaff, chaffinch and curlew. I’m hoping they’ll come in useful soon.
Workwise, I’ve drafted another chapter of my brief biography of Josephine Butler. I’m on a roll with that (mmmm. Bacon roll. On sourdough with English mustard and black pepper, please). I added a narration to the PowerPoint presentation I use(d) for talks on Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders. Now I just have to think of a way to make it into a downloadable video. If I can get it to work, I’ll record a series – called ‘Behind the Scenes of History,’ perhaps – revealing the AMAZING things so-called ‘ordinary’ women have been doing throughout history to change their world and ours. Would anyone be interested?
Meanwhile, we’re doing our best to preserve in ourselves what’s best about living in a global and local community. That includes trying to keep cheerful. We all have different and personal reasons to know how serious a situation this is, but the dark isn’t so frightening if you know there are lights shining somewhere, steady and bright; the more the better. You might not always be able to see them, but they’re there. Keep your little flame burning.
See you next week.
This should have been the busiest time of a busy year, travelling around talking about one book while trying to finish the next and drawing up a proposal for the one after that. I was looking forward to being flat out and boasting (modestly) about how much in demand I was and how well the book was selling.
It is good for the soul to realise (with a bang) that life isn’t all about oneself after all. It’s not even about #MeToo. It’s about us. There used to be a sit-com on TV, years ago, featuring a ridiculously earnest couple who went around the village in matching fair-isle tank-tops and sandals with socks, helping people whether they liked it or not with a steely cheeriness. Was it something to do with a neighbourhood watch group? Or Reggie Perrin? Can’t remember. Anyway, that mortifying fear of interference has never quite left me: people will think I’m a busy-body if I bother them, or somehow hoity-toity.
Now things have changed. I'm really trying to stop looking inwards and start looking out. My husband and I have signed up to a couple of local WhatsApp groups to volunteer practical help and moral support to friends and neighbours who could do with some (virtual) company. I’ve also offered to send regular emails to people who feel lonely or cut off.
Meanwhile, I can’t write - as in work-writing - all the time till summer… Captain Oates is keeping us occupied to a certain extent in his own inimitable way. This morning I came downstairs to find he’d nicked the rather generous supply of dog-treats we keep for walking next door’s Irish setter. When I questioned Captain about this greedy breach of good manners, he glared fatly at me and growled.
I know: we’ll do more gardening. Dig for victory and all that. I might even start knitting (unlikely, though I did make some jam at the weekend which has the consistency of tarmac). Or sewing outfits for Captain like the ones Ruth’s duck Rosa wears in Louise Penny’s wonderful Inspector Gamache books. If you don’t know them, by the way, you’ve a HUGE treat in store.
In fact that’s it: I’ll catch up with the whole series, like a bookish box-set. Then I’ll start at the beginning again with my beloved Commissario Brunetti volumes (hope he and Paula are OK in Venice). Then I’ll learn the names and songs of all the birds in our garden. Formal names, I mean. Obviously I know Blackie the Blackbird, and Bobby the small beige one and Kevin the jackdawy-crow-rook-raven. And then – any other suggestions?
The novelty’s going to wear off soon, especially for those of us with vulnerable or far-off friends and family. But I’m convinced we’re going to learn a lot from this episode, both individually and collectively, that will stand us in good stead when it’s all over. And it will be over.
Enough for now. Good wishes to everyone. Captain Oates says it's time to leave his desk and make lunch, so I'm off. Jam, anyone?
Since I last posted, I've finished writing Ladies Can't Climb Ladders; held my breath for a total of ten days between submitting it to my editor and hearing whether or not she liked it (she loves it); made the changes she suggested; made the changes the copy-editor suggested; tracked down all those illustrations I'd blithely popped into a folder as I went along without writing down full details of the sources - will I never learn? - and written the captions; enthused over the cover design; started to send out advance publication information to individuals and institutions who asked to be kept in touch with plans, and relaxed.
There's nothing more I can do now except wait for the page-proofs; send those back with corrections, and then welcome my newly-completed, shiny and jacketed offspring into the world before it's launched on 23 January 2020. Here's a taster of delicious blurb:
Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders
The Pioneering Adventures of the First Professional Women
To celebrate the centenary of women first entering the traditional professions, this history - by turns shocking and heart-warming - follows the pioneers as they trespassed into a man’s world. What they found there changed their lives, and ours, for ever. They beat the path that thousands of working women today now follow without a backward glance.
It is a myth that the First World War liberated women. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in modern Britain. It should have marked a social revolution, opening the doors of the traditional professions to women who had worked so hard during the War, and welcoming them inside as equals.
But what really happened? Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders focuses on the lives of pioneering women forging careers in the fields of medicine, law, academia, architecture, engineering and the church. In her startling study into the public and private worlds of these unsung heroines, Jane Robinson sheds light on their desires and ambitions, and how family and society responded to this emerging class of working women.
This book is written in their honour. Their shared vision, sacrifice and spirited perseverance began a process we have yet to finish. Their experiences raise live questions about equal opportunity, the gender pay gap, the work/life balance - and whether it was ever possible for women to have it all.
PenguinRandomHouse, 23 January 2020
In many ways this is a sequel to Bluestockings, in that it deals with what happened next, between the wars, to those women who finally won degrees. There's a chapter in that book called 'Breeding White Elephants,' which is what someone said universities were doing by encouraging female undergraduates. What better time to be launching it than on the joint centenaries of the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in December 1919, and the granting of Oxford degrees to women in 1920?
I hope, when you have a chance to read it, you'll appreciate how far we've come since the Establishment first grudgingly opened its lumbering doors to professional women - and how far we still have to travel to achieve equality of opportunity and reward. Most of all, I hope you enjoy meeting the extraordinary people I've written about as much as I have. Oh - and the title? It's the best argument male architects could come up in the 1920s with for keeping women out of their profession.
On 6 February this year we celebrated the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, giving some women - who were now finally classed as 'people' - a voice in Parliament. They were not able to use that voice, however, until election day on 14 December 1918. Here's an extract from Hearts and Minds explaining what happened that chilly Saturday exactly 100 years ago...
Contrary to popular expectation, the turn-out among women was high (although the overall figure for the election was only 57.2%). In many constituencies a woman was the first person to cast her vote in the morning, with some ceremony, and there were more women than men throughout the day. A Daily Mirror journalist estimated that 70% of electors in London were women; it was 75% in Chelmsford and 80% in Leicester. Emily Phipps had the bright idea of running a crèche for those mothers forced to bring their children to the polling station; at one stage in Stourbridge, a supporter of candidate Miss Macarthur who had rashly offered to mind voters’ children ended up with 60 babies in her care. Dozens of women in Hull queued up before the station opened its doors in the morning. In Caernarvonshire the polling clerks (who could now be women) were forced to think laterally and commandeer some oil drums to be used as ballot boxes when the ones provided filled up; when the same problem arose in Dundee, they turned to empty shell cases from a local munitions factory.
Only the most confident of women turned up alone. Many came with their husbands or in groups of friends, giving each other courage. Those who had voted already offered to accompany anyone unsure, to show them what to do. ‘‘Don’t be frightened,’ said a Battersea housewife to an obviously nervous friend she met at the Polling Station. ‘I’ve just voted and it’s the easiest work I’ve done for many a day.’’ When a splendid motor-car drew up outside the station in Rotherhithe, onlookers were astonished to see four venerable old ladies disembark and disappear inside to cast their votes. The youngest of them was 85; the others were 86, 90 and 94. Emily Davies voted, naturally: she was one of the few to do so who had signed John Stuart Mill’s 1866 Petition. So did Annie Ramsay, the ‘old lady’ of the Land’s End Pilgrimage: she was so delighted by the opportunity that she almost skipped to the ballot box. The oldest woman on the electoral register was Mrs ‘Granny’ Lambert of Edmonton, north London, at 105. Come 14 December, however, she claimed to be feeling ‘too tired’ to walk to the Polling Station. She had never heard of Mr Lloyd George, she said; if she had chosen to vote (and it was gratifying to have that choice) she would have gone for anyone who promised to have ‘that beast of a Kaiser shot.’
Like Granny Lambert, some people declined their right to vote. One rather snooty lady was overheard telling a neighbour that she would not be going to the Polling Station because she wished to remain respectable. The implication was – as it had ever been – that active participation in politics was unfeminine and vulgar. One assumes that members of the Anti-Suffrage League also abstained. Someone called Margaret Willoughby, writing for the Daily Mirror, explained why. ‘We love to be bossed,’ she confessed coquettishly, ‘but not by our own sex… You’ll never get us women interested in political affairs as a live, red-hot issue. We’re more interested in sleeves and hat-shapes.’ How depressing. The last ever issue of the Anti-Suffrage Review, published in April 1918, was considerably less chirpy. ‘The Cause has been lost. Sentimentality won the day… We have drifted into Women’s Suffrage as we drifted into war, because no-one had the courage to cry ‘Halt!’’ A lady in Gloucester said she had never wanted the vote. ‘I didn’t ask for it and I shall not use it.’ The Suffrage Societies, together with the Mothers’ Union, Women’s Institute and other groups, held meetings before the election to try to combat this mixture of apprehension and apathy, and were largely successful.
The Press could not resist sharing with its readers some of the day’s light-hearted moments. Several virgin electors, on being asked by the polling-clerks to confirm their addresses, loudly announced the name of the person for whom they wished to vote. Some boasted that they were not going to vote for the same person as their husbands. At Bristol, a group of nurses arrived and refused to believe that they were not eligible. They hadn’t realised that they could only vote if their names were entered on the electoral register, and theirs were unlikely to be there as they neither owned their own homes – or furniture – nor, in most cases, were they old enough. Factory workers turned up in their thousands, however, either early in the morning before their shift began, or in the rainy twilight when in parts of Lancashire they voted by candlelight because the gas-workers were on strike.
One lady carefully filled in her ballot form, then folded it up, popped it in her handbag, and left, quite satisfied. Another posted her paper in the ballot box and then asked where she collected her fee for doing so. Others told husbands or clerks their choice of candidate before enquiring doubtfully whether that was the ‘right’ person to have gone for. It tickled journalists that most women appeared to have taken this momentous step in their capable stride, turning up in numbers, casting their votes (parking the children/dog/shopping bags somewhere while they did so) and then leaving to carry on the business of the day ‘smilingly and with a subdued air or triumph.’
Happy birthday, votes for women.
Look carefully. This painting by Charles Willson Peale was hanging outside the room where I gave a talk recently in the National Portrait Gallery. As some of you will know, I have a cat called Captain Oates who looks uncannily like the creature in the picture (except that Captain Oates has a body attached to his head).
More of the unfortunate feline in a moment. The NPG talk was one of many I've been asked to give so far this year. It's been frantic, in a controlled sort of way, and hugely exhilarating. In what other walk of life could I find myself sitting in a green room in Emma Bridgewater's factory in Stoke-on-Trent one moment, sharing a meal with the wonderfully gentle and illuminating Michael Morpurgo and with Prue Leith looking dazzling and extolling the virtues of offal; the next, sneaking peeks at the Royal Wedding on my iPad with Joan Bakewell and David Dimbleby in Vanessa Bell's kitchen at Charleston; drifting around the exquisite buildings and grounds of Dartington Hall in Devon or attempting to look nonchalant as I turn up to speak at Portcullis House or prepare for the Edinburgh Festival?
I'll never grow tired of this life on the road. I love meeting readers and listening to their stories and reactions, whether it's at high-profile Literary Festivals like these, or to a local history group, an enthusiastic U3A meeting or a group of WIs. At one such gathering last week a lady came up to me at the end and presented me with a bunch of 'suffragist roses' - red streaked with white - in honour of the heroines of Hearts and Minds. So moving.
That said, after six months I'm ready for a couple of weeks faffing about by the sea doing nothing much at all. I LOVE my job. But there's nothing like a silly season now and again, when there are (temporarily) no deadlines to meet, and nothing needs make sense. That's why my silly summer task is going to be to write a short story about Mr Peale's picture. And I'll dedicate it to Captain Oates.
I'll have to clear Captain Oates off my chair first, but I'd like to write a new post to celebrate the launch of my revamped website. (You can still find past posts on a separate page, by the way.) Given that I'm a historian, maybe I should start by looking back.
I'm often asked how I became a writer. Predictably enough, it all began with a love of books. The tale of the jam-tart bookmark is told elsewhere on this site; that's what turned me into a collector. My parents' weekend hobby was to drive around the North York Moors where I was brought up, visiting local farm sales and auctions. I used to tag along and search out the inevitable boxes of books - job-lots languishing in a corner which I couldn't often afford but thought needed company. I loved to look at them, handle them, wonder who turned the pages before me. Occasionally no-one would bid for them and I was allowed to take the orphans away. All this was while I was still at primary school.
At 'Big School' my friends and I used to catch the number 80 bus from Easingwold to York most Saturday mornings, and while they would peel off to buy loons and platform soles in boutiques, I'd make straight for the many second-hand bookshops in the city; again, just to ogle. I worshipped leather-bound volumes - the feel, scent, design, the innate wisdom and dignity of the things - and soon began to make the odd judicious purchase with hoarded pocket-money.
I left my safe and undemanding rural Comprehensive school for Oxford in 1978. I read English Literature and Language, and loved every moment. I really did. One of the first clubs I joined was the Oxford Bibliophiles; one evening we had John Maggs of the iconic London antiquarian booksellers Maggs Brothers as a guest speaker. I rounded on the poor man after the meeting and asked if I could come and talk to him about a career (I never wanted to do anything else) and he took me under his wing. He brokered my first job after university with Cavendish Rare Books in the Prince's Arcade, between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street.
The shop specialized in travel and exploration, about which I knew nothing. But we carried an eclectic general stock, too, from incunabula to the odd modern first edition. I got to bid at Sotheby's and Christie's (inconveniently paralytic with fear); to visit international bookfairs as buyer and seller; to learn how to catalogue and research books; to handle a dizzying variety of them and to meet extraordinary people, some of whom had just clambered off a Himalayan peak or partially thawed out after an expedition to the Antarctic.
One of our customers was an American gentleman who came in one day with a request. He'd decided to collect books by women travellers - an extremely quirky ambition - and wanted bibliography, a list of titles, so that he could tick them off as he amassed them. Fine, I said; I didn't know of one off-hand, but would do some research and let him know. From my experience in the shop I knew there were quite a few indomitable Victorian globe-trotteresses, a handful of eccentric mountaineers and sailor or two. The list would be short, but surely out there somewhere.
I did my research, and discovered that no-one had thought it worthwhile compiling the recherché bibliography my customer needed. So a helpful friend suggested I do it myself. Great idea. I went to the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society whenever I had the time, and got to work. But with titles like To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair, or On Sledge and Horseback to Ourcast Siberian Lepers, how could I resist reading the books I was only supposed to be listing? I couldn't. And once I started doing that, I was lost. What unexpected women. What incredible adventures. Why did they go? What did their families say? How did they feel about leaving home? How did they cope?
That was that. I decided to write about the women rather than the books. That same friend who had suggested I do the bibliography introduced me to his editor at Oxford University Press; I went along to chat about my idea, wrote a proposal, and Wayward Women was commissioned. As easy as that (couldn't happen now...). I gave up my job to become a freelance cataloguer; got married, and three months before our first son was born, the book was published. The launch party was held at Maggs Brothers, then in Berkeley Square, hosted by 'Mr John.'
They say the thrill of your first book can't be matched. I disagree. I'm working on number 11 now (another son and some 27 years later) and I love my work, and the people I meet through it - both real and long-gone - more than ever.
Historians should look back, of course. It's our job. What's really exciting is the hope that what we learn and can communicate as writers will somehow light the way ahead.