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Sunday 28 April 2013

Enjoyable colloquium

This was not part of the 'get out more' project, as I'd been asked to give a keynote at the 'Civilising Bodies: Literature, Rhetoric and Image, 1700-present day' colloquium run under the auspices of the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter. It was a rather full (24 short papers in 8 panels + 2 keynote talks) two days, run as one strand without parallel panels, which was an excellent decision, as so many of the papers had things to say to one another, a resonance which would have been lost in parallel sessions.

Everything ran most admirably to time, and there were ample scheduled coffee, lunch and tea breaks facilitating less formal exchanges, as well as an extremely convivial conference dinner.

The speakers were mostly postgraduates and it was very exciting to hear some of the very fresh work that is being done. I was particularly intrigued to observe that Norbert Elias and his theories on the civilising process appear to be making a comeback - though perhaps this was to be expected given the conference theme.

There was a considerable range of material presented, from eighteenth century masquerades to very recent media phenomena such as makeover shows, emerging from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Particularly resonant with my own interests were an examination of the 1894 Massage Scandals both in the context of professionalisation and the wider concerns of the period, and an analysis of reports of rapes by medical professionals in the mid-C19th when the profession was going through a turbulent era, with increasing regulation. I was also very interested by the paper on 'Western public toilets and private bodies since the C15th', though unfortunately the author of the paper was not present (it was read out by the session chair) and I therefore did not have a chance to ask how issues of gender inflected this story (in the light of Clara Greed's important work on this topic). But a great deal to think about emerged from all the session.

Mark Jackson's keynote on 'An Age of Stress: myth or reality' was a delicious taster for his new book The Age of Stress: Science and the Search for Stability, suggesting that present-day anxieties about the debilitating pace of modern life as a result of developments in technology reiterate similar concerns expressed in very similar terms going back well into the C19th (at least).

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Could this have been Naomi Mitchison?

Glancing through The International Journal of Sexology II/1, 1948, I noticed in the introduction by Norman Haire to a lengthy article by an anonymous young man, the claim that he had expurgated it of at least one Anglo-Saxon monosyllable which would have led to the suppression and prosecution of the journal, and adding:
I remember having to insist on the deletion of that same four-letter word from the text of a paper read, at the International Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform, held in London in 1929, by one of our leading women novelists--no, it was not Ethel Mannin.
Given that, in her discussion of sexual relations in The Home in a Changing World, Naomi Mitchison complained about the conventions that meant she could not speak as directly, clearly and forcefully as she would have liked due to linguistic restrictions, I wonder if she was the 'leading woman novelist' in question (since I can't imagine Vera Brittain, who also presented at the WLSR Congress, ever even thinking of such a thing).

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Overlooked Stella letter

In looking through Edward F Griffith's files relating to his work as UK editor of the Bombay-based journal Marriage Hygiene (Wellcome Library, PP/EFG/A.4-7), for an entirely different reason, I came across a rather stroppy letter from Stella Browne, 14 Jun 1936, about being expected to undertake translation work for the journal for free.

This intersects with correspondence I did see and cite between Max Hodann and Norman Himes (the US editor of Marriage Hygiene) and between Himes and Pillay over the question of paying Stella for translator services (the journal itself being so penurious, payment was not forthcoming).

Stella opens in conciliatory style, thanking Griffith for his services in publicising the ALRA conference, and for the notice he gave Abortion: three essays in Marriage Hygiene, especially given that he did not share her position on the subject. She then moves on to Hodann's request for her to translate an article of his on the White Slave Traffic, which 'quite frankly' she is unable to do gratuitously.

What is particularly interesting about this letter (given that she had complained around the same time to Havelock Ellis about the financially unrewarding nature of work for 'causes', and that the Himes papers include correspondence on the issue) is that she quotes the rates she would charge: 3 guineas (equivalent to £167 in present-day purchasing power) for the long article on white slavery, and £2/12/6d (equivalent to £139) for a shorter one on the Icelandic laws relating to abortion and contraception, and requires cash on the nail on receipt of the article to be translated - 'I have constant expenses & difficulties in this way, & cannot give my work, much as I admire & agree with Marriage Hygiene'. This is the only instance I have come across of what she considered a going rate for translations, though I also wonder whether she was quoting a preferential scale to a cause she approved of.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

For a change, good news about archives

The impending disastrous effects of cuts to Croydon Local Studies and Archives appear to have been avoided, with what sound like actual improvements to services.

And, from the Voluntary Action History Society, the archives of Oxfam are to go to the Bodleian, with cataloguing funding (v important for large complex organisational archives). Though how familiar and resonant to an archivist is the phrase of 'after several years of protracted negotiation'!

Monday 8 April 2013

That's not quite what happened

I've just got my hands on the new biography of Rebecca West. I'm by no means a West scholar but as a besotted fan of Dame Rebecca for getting on for half a century, I have read, I think, pretty much all of her work that has been published and is obtainable (including some things that are quite hard to get hold of) and a substantial amount of the biography and criticism.

I have also had occasion to look at the Dora Marsden files relating to The Freewoman among her papers in the library at Princeton University, which the latest biographer does not appear to have consulted.

The standard narrative for the reason for Cicely Fairfield's switch to the pseudonym of Rebecca West, and the one which features in the Prologue to the new biography, has tended to follow her 1926 essay in Time and Tide and to state or at least imply that she chose to publish under a pseudonym because The Freewoman was considered so scandalous that her family (in some accounts, specifically her mother) refused to have it in the house. It is, of course, possible that this version is substantiated by correspondence I have not personally seen in one of the several collections of West papers.

However, according to an early letter to Dora Marsden about writing for The Freewoman, over the signature of Cicely Fairfield, she wrote:
I should like to reply to Lady Mayer's letter, but I cannot do it over my own signature. She is a power on the L.C.C. [London County Council] and it might conceivably happen that my sister [the doctor Letitia Fairfield, employed in the Public Health Department of the LCC] would be sacked for my heresies. If you will allow me to answer it over a pseudonym I will send something in by Monday morning at latest.
This suggests rather different motivations, and a concern for her sister's career that might not have been anticipated given their fraught relationship and much-recorded fallings-out.

It's possible to wonder if she improved the narrative in later telling - the idea of a young woman writing hard-hitting journalism in a shockingly radical feminist publication barred from the house by her mother makes a much better story - or whether, looking back after a dozen years of significant personal turmoil, she simply misremembered and conflated her mother's disapproval of the journal with her decision to take a nom de plume. It's also possible that the reason given to Marsden could have been a face-saving excuse.

Friday 5 April 2013

STDs in the city

There was an excellent turnout for my Wellcome Library Insights presentation yesterday on 'Sex and the City: The STDs of Old London' and a very good response from the audience. I was particularly gratified that nobody invoked the very problematic 'syphilis/genius' trope, which combines a couple of my pet (faux) history of medicine hates: the dreaded parlour game of retrospective diagnosis (of which there was recently a notable example), and the characterisation of some disease as particularly related to creativity (see also tuberculosis) because, of the millions of people who suffered from diseases which were epidemic in the past, a handful were indeed artists, intellectuals, philosophers, etc. The vast majority were not.

This particular Insights session will be reprised at the Wellcome Library on 13th June.

And also on this theme, a recent post of mine on the Wellcome Library blog on our recent acquisition of the archives of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, incorporating those of its predecessor, the Medical Society for the Study of Venereal Diseases, founded in 1922.