by Corinne Bird
When the opportunity arose to create an exhibition in the Jerwood Centre in honour of International Women’s Day on Wednesday 8 March, I was thrilled. As a Women’s Studies minor, I love learning about, and helping others learn about, women whom history has forgotten. In my Women’s Studies classes, we learn that history often chooses to ignore the contributions that many women have made to society. Recent efforts to recognise these women are extremely important in helping modern women gain the respect they deserve for their intellects, talents, and contributions to society.
As my co-curators (Poppy and Katherine, Collections Trainees) and I searched the Wordsworth Trust archives for women to highlight, we came across a book entitled Women of Worth: A Book for Girls. Published anonymously in 1863, it contains a series of biographies of a wide range of exemplary women. The book seemed perfect, with an empowering message in big, bold letters on its front cover. Yet, upon further inspection, we discovered that many of the women were featured for their meek attitude and willingness to help their husband succeed. Therefore, we decided to use this book as the centrepiece of our display, but, instead, highlight relatively unknown women for their contributions to the world of literature and art, seeking to recognise the women whom history has forgotten.
There were many contenders in the Trust’s collection —poets, writers, artists, playwrights, reformers, sculptors, photographers across time. It was tough to choose from among all these incredible women! It was also difficult to select artefacts for display that would tell their story, and help people connect to them. After much deliberation, we decided on women whose lives and related objects tell the story of talented women who defied societal expectations. To find out more about these ‘women of worth’, please read on…
Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) was a respected literary figure during her day. However, she eventually lost her status among her peers because her poem, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), criticised the Napoleonic War.
Society felt that a woman did not have a right to criticise the actions of her country. Barbauld’s outspokenness was an uncommon characteristic of a woman, so society shunned her, and she disappeared from literary history. Lucy Aikin, Barbauld’s niece, published a collection of Barbauld’s poems and, in the memoir, called her a “conscientious patriot” in an attempt to stop the critics. In the late twentieth century, feminist critics rediscovered Barbauld, and she is slowly regaining the recognition that she deserves as a leading Romantic writer.
Lady Beresford and Emily Genevieve
Lady Beresford and Emily Genevieve are two talented artists who, like many others, have sadly become lost in history. We felt compelled to feature these two women; their paintings of the local landscape reminded us of the beauty outside our front door in Grasmere.
Records reveal that Lady Beresford, born Harriet Schutz (1788-1860), was married to prominent soldier and politician, Lord George Beresford; however, she fled from the unhappy marriage and devoted herself to painting. She studied under esteemed English watercolour painters William Payne and John Varley yet she is rarely studied in her own right.
There does not appear to be any biographical information for Emily Genevieve. The drawings on display suggest that these two artists had a strong connection to the landscape of the Lake District. Genevieve’s drawing highlights the power and rhythm of the natural world, whilst Lady Beresford’s watercolour depicts the rich colours and serenity of the local environment. The works of Lady Beresford and Emily Genevieve offer us glimpses of the talented women behind them, but we know of their personal lives.
Although she is perhaps more well-known than the other women, Sara Coleridge is often only recognised for being the daughter of the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, Sara was an extremely talented scholar, writer, and translator who deserves to be celebrated in her own right.
In 1837, Sara published Phantasmion, a fairy tale and early example of fantasy literature that is said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien. Furthermore, Sara was proficient in six languages: she published translations of Dobrizhoffer, which earned her £113—an impressive sum for any profession at that time. When discussing his sister, Hartley Coleridge stated, “. . . she inherited more of her father, than either of [her brothers]; and that not only in the amount but in the quality of her powers.”
We chose to feature Sara because we are always looking for new ways to shine a light upon the inner lives of the women of the Wordsworth circle—a circle that is very much preoccupied with the achievements and the legacy of men, while the women, like Sara Coleridge, stand silently brilliant in the background.
International Women’s Day is a great occasion that helps us celebrate the contributions of women, but this should not take place once a year. We should constantly search for women who have gone unnoticed and give them the recognition that they deserve. Working on this project has helped me gain a better appreciation for the women who defied societal expectation, and I have come to the realisation that celebrating past women’s accomplishments makes modern accomplishments possible.
If you are interested in learning more about more ‘women of worth’, follow @WordsworthTrust on Twitter to learn more about the women in the Wordsworth Trust collection. You can also use our online collections search to read transcriptions of a vast selection of womens’ letters from our archive (http://collections.wordsworth.org.uk/wtweb/home.asp?page=Letters%20search%20home).
Corinne Bird is an Intern from Brigham Young University (Utah), who is living and working in Grasmere for three months. Currently, she is majoring in history with minors in political science and women’s studies.