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Volume 5
ISSN: 2454-6100
(UGC Approved)

Journal of


Saswati Halder (Coordinator)

Sutanuka Ghosh (Joint Coordinator)
Madhumita Biswas
Pramantha Mohun Tagore

Introduction................................................................................................. 1

Abstracts...................................................................................................... 5

‘Soldiers in Petticoats’: The Fight for Gender Equality in Britain

Shanta Dutta............................................................................................. 11

The Suffragette and Its Discontents: Imaging the Woman

Arka Chakraborty and Gourab Goswami................................................... 27

Pain and Politics in the Colonial Nursery: Reading the Colonial Encounter
between Memsahibs and Ayahs in India (1860-1915)

Deepti Myriam Joseph………………………………………………………. 43

The Suffragette Movement and Marie Corelli

Prodosh Bhattacharya………………………………………………………. 65

Anna Maria Hussey and Marianne North: Understanding Victorian Gender

Norms Though the Lives and Works of Two Botanical Artists

Proiti Seal Acharya…………..................................................................... 79

Reclaiming Agency and Exploring Freedom through Participation in Séances:

A Study of the Victorian Women’s Interest in Spiritualism

Shaona Barik............................................................................................. 86
“Hark! Hark! The trumpet’s calling”: Reading the Image of the Suffragist

Shromona Das........................................................................................... 99

Notes on the Authors................................................................................ 109


We are proud to present the fifth volume of The Confidential Clerk, an online journal published

annually by the Centre for Victorian Studies, Jadavpur University. Interdisciplinary, international

and innovative, the journal is broadly concerned with scholarship, new research and a keen

understanding of nineteenth century literary history and theory. The current issue is a special

collection of original and unpublished research papers presented at the one-day symposium

titled: "A gauntlet with a gift in't": Female Suffrage and the Woman Question in Nineteenth-

Century Britain, which was organised jointly by the Centre of Advanced Study, Department of

English and the Centre for Victorian Studies, Jadavpur University on 23rd March 2018.

Suffrage was finally granted to British women over the age of thirty in February 1918, more than

fifty years after John Stuart Mill brought a petition before Parliament for the reform of franchise

laws and more than 85 years after the first petition for women's voting rights was placed before

Parliament on behalf of Mary Smith from Stanmore, Yorkshire. However, Victorian feminism and

the long struggle for suffrage had its origin in the early reform movements which were

foundational for later activism and the emergence of the New Woman.

Victorian attitudes towards women's power and place in society were complex: the Ruskinian

ideology of 'separate spheres' ("Of Queens' Gardens") and the subsequent critique of the ideology

by John Stuart Mill (The Subjection of Women) outlines discursive tensions regarding gendering

and gender roles. Having had to relinquish the public sphere of striving and ambition to men,

Victorian women were entrusted a 'transformative' moral role within the 'regenerative' space of the

home. Victorian women's activism and the feminist movement were located and emerged within
these restrictive roles and the spaces that they afforded. Women in nineteenth-century Britain

entered the public sphere through their work for social change. The mid-Victorian period saw

greater roles for women outside the home, but an ideal of ameliorative womanhood still governed

these roles. Reformative initiatives operated within this framework, questioning the ways women

enacted their roles in society while maintaining the values underlying those roles. However, the

increasingly passionate demand for franchise fractured the structure of 'separate spheres' as the

idea of the woman as citizen participating in the working and building of the nation took hold. The

concluding decades of the nineteenth century brought about major gains for women like the

founding of Girton and Newnham Colleges (1873 and 1876), the Contagious Diseases Act (1883)

and the Married Woman's Property Acts (1882 and 1891) and the battle for suffrage situated itself

firmly both in the public sphere as well as the home, making incursions into literary and cultural


During the concluding decades of the century, the issue of women's subjectivity and their

representations became a dominant concern and influenced the construction of the 'New Woman',

first used by Sarah Grand in an article in 1894. The New Woman "expanded the nineteenth-century

imagination" (Teresa Magnum) and enabled a transition from the Victorian ideals of

"womanliness" to modern(ist) ideas of womanhood.

Shanta Dutta’s paper, ‘Soldiers in petticoats’: the fight for gender equality in Britain, is an

overview of the emergence of women’s social and political reform movements in Britain towards

the middle of the nineteenth century. Focusing on gender discrimination and injustice prevalent in

the region around London and its suburbs, the paper draws critical attention to the appearance of

moderate and militant suffragette activities amidst the backdrop of an equal rights movement.

Arka Chakraborty and Gourab Goswami’s paper, ‘The Suffragette and Its Discontents: Imaging

the Woman’, studies the figure of the Victorian woman at the intersection between the art of

photography, criminality and death. The paper focuses on the way photographs have contributed

to the shift in perspectives towards the female subject with regards to the Suffragette movement

and examines the politics behind such representations.

Deepti Myriam Joseph’s paper, ‘Pain and Politics in the Colonial Nursery: Reading the

Colonial Encounter Between Memsahibs and Ayahs in India (1860-1915)’, focuses on the idea

of the ‘colonial nursery’, a contested site where the colonial memsahib’s authority was undermined

by the ayah in a daily power struggle over emotional authority over the white children. The paper

also reveals that occasionally there were unlikely bonds and supportive alliances being formed by

the memsahib and the Indian caregivers of her children.

Prodosh Bhattacharyya’s paper, ‘The Suffragette Movement and Marie Corelli’ focuses on the

contradictory stands taken on the issue of women’s suffrage by the novelist, Marie Corelli.

Through an intensive examination of Corelli’s fiction, the paper relates the inherent contradictions

in Corelli’s work by placing her portrayal of women in tandem with her views on the suffragette


Proiti Seal Acharya’s paper, ‘Anna Maria Hussey and Marianne North: Understanding

Victorian Gender Norms Though the Lives and Works of Two Botanical Artists’, examines

the lives and works of two artists, Anna Maria Hussey and Marianne North, tracing the distinct

ways in which they subverted as well as conformed to Victorian norms of femininity. The paper

also focuses on their lives in the context of the work produced by other female Botanical artists in

the Victorian era, such as Henrietta Maria Moriarty, Sarah Matilda Parry, Dorothea Eliza Smith,

Elizabeth and Margaret Wharton, to understand how these women negotiated the boundary

between science and art.

Shaona Barik’s paper, ‘Reclaiming Agency and Exploring Freedom through Participation in

Séances: A Study of the Victorian Women’s Interest in Spiritualism’, studies Victorian

women’s interest in possession, séances, and the supernatural. It also makes a case for how during

séances the trope of the ‘ectoplasm’ was deployed by women to reclaim agency which usually the

forces of patriarchy had deprived them from experiencing.

The volume closes with Shromona Das’ paper, “Hark! Hark! The trumpet’s calling”: Reading

the Image of the Suffragist Angel, which studies the political activities of early Victorian feminist

groups such as the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union’ through the lens of the graphic fiction

such as Sally Heathcote (2014) and other visual media. Charting an early history of women’s

political rights in the UK, the paper studies images and photographs associated with describing

early women’s political movements while also revealing the intricate mechanisms surrounding

Victorian patriarchal formations and the social struggle to destabilize them.


The Suffragette and Its Discontents: Imaging the Woman

- Arka Chakraborty and Gourab Goswami

Our paper will attempt to locate the figure of the Victorian woman at the critical intersection

between the art of photography, criminality and death. Although, it will not entail a profuse

engagement with the ontological structures of the feminine presence of the nineteenth century, this

paper will try to investigate the specific ways in which the photographic imagination of the

Victorian culture negotiated the irreversible facticity of death through the metaphor of the feminine

figure. At this theoretical crossroad what we have to engage with are some pertinent philosophical

issues that have been left largely unattended. Did the act of photographing the dead emanate

naturally from a culture obsessed with grimness of life? Did the photographs of the fossilised

remains of the ancient animals somehow refer back to a cultural trace, to some profound anxiety

regarding the ephemeralness of the human presence, of his memories of the culture itself? And in

all these, how the figure of the woman, in her black dresses, with pale cheeks (and in one

particularly eerie example, with the head covered in black robe), converge to endow a photographic

experience its association with the forgotten, the lost and the dead? The photographic presence of

the Victorian woman was also open to another form of association – association with criminality.

This connection was not unfamiliar, since photography in its earliest days, was used to identify

criminals. The unprecedented eruption of the women into the visible, public sphere through the

Suffragette movement spelt a disruption, an advent of rupture in the patriarchal institutions of

society. Our paper will argue that these two ways of photographing women were affiliated to a

singular, overarching ideological architecture – that they were mutually responsive to each other.

The criminalized women of the Suffragette movement were, in fact, distant sisters of those almost

invisible, dwindling figures of women in earlier Victorian visual culture.

Pain and Politics in the Colonial Nursery: Reading the Colonial Encounter

between Memsahibs and Ayahs in India (1860-1915)

- Deepti Myriam Joseph

My paper looks at the colonial encounter that took place between British women also known as

‘memsahibs’ who were mostly ‘ordinary middle- class’ women who travelled to India in most cases

to be wives to well settled colonial administrators and the Indian domestic help, the ayah that they

hired to help them take care of the imperial infant in 19th and 20th century India. It aims at restoring

British women to the history of colonialism while also locating Indian women and reading their

subjectivities in the history of colonial India. It tries to uncover the agency of the Indian women

through the recovery of their voices by employing different strategies: by uncovering their voices

in the writings of western men and women and by striving to interpret their voices through their

silence as well as their silencing.

This paper examines whether the memsahib was merely a pawn in the big game of Empire, or did

she collude in the imperialistic enterprise of her male counterparts? Was the ayah a mere appendage

to the colonial nursery or did she play a more critical role? Did the imperial child enable

identification between the mother and the foster mother or was the nursery solely a site of mutual

antagonism and unequal power relations? This paper reveals that the colonial nursery emerges as a

contested site where the memsahib’s authority was undermined by the ayah in a daily power

struggle over emotional authority over the white children. It also reveals that occasionally there

were unlikely bonds and supportive alliances being formed by the memsahib and the Indian

caregivers of her children. My paper, therefore, views this encounter more as a ‘contact’ or

‘negotiation’ that took place between both sets of women and shows how they insinuated

themselves into the narratives of colonial history.

The Suffragette Movement and Marie Corelli

- Prodosh Bhattacharya

The paper seeks to explore the contradictory stands taken on the issue of women’s suffrage by the

phenomenally popular – and influential – late-Victorian and early-twentieth century woman

novelist-cum-essayist Marie Corelli (1855-1924). While her early non-fictional writings

vigorously oppose the right to vote being granted to women on grounds of gender-impropriety, her

experience of the service rendered by women during World War I, caused a total volte face, and

she urged for the granting of suffrage to women. However, soon after, she would do another turn-

around, expressing relief at the fact that no women had been elected to Parliament.

The paper will seek to relate such bemusing contradictions to Corelli’s portrayal of women in her

fiction, as well as to stands taken on the question of women’s suffrage by contemporary men and

women of eminence. The aim is to arrive at a view of the co-existence of progressiveness and

regression with regard to the extension of rights to all sections of the population in all countries

and in most ages.

Anna Maria Hussey and Marianne North: Understanding Victorian Gender Norms Though

the Lives and Works of Two Botanical Artists

- Proiti Seal Acharya

Botanical artists Anna Maria Hussey and Marianne North were born in 1805 and 1830

respectively. While Hussey, mother of six, was a mycologist who depended on her work to earn a

living for her family, North came from an affluent background and was not bound by any familial

obligations. As critics have observed, in the commentary accompanying her drawings in

‘Illustrations of British Mycology’ (1847-55), Hussey is sensitive to her own as well as her readers’

location within the domestic sphere. In her writings, she refers to objects in her home as well to

the challenges incurred as a result of her role as a mother to young children. She also suggests to

her readers (whom she presumes to be upper class women) to use common household tools should

they wish to venture out into their own gardens and collect fungi themselves. In contrast, North

travelled across the globe to countries such as Switzerland, Syria, Canada, Brazil, the United

States, Jamaica, Borneo, Java, Ceylon and India, documenting local flora with clinical precision,

aiming to reach and educate a wide audience. This paper seeks to examine the lives and works of

these two artists, tracing the distinct ways in which they subverted as well as conformed to

Victorian norms of femininity. In order to do so, it will look at their choice of subject; the varied

modes of publication adopted by the two artists; their intended audience; as well as critical

responses to their work. This paper will also examine their works in the context of the work

produced by other female Botanical artists in the Victorian era, such as Henrietta Maria Moriarty,

Sarah Matilda Parry, Dorothea Eliza Smith, Elizabeth and Margaret Wharton etc. in an attempt to

understand how these women negotiated the boundary between science and art during an era in

which these issues were vigorously debated.

Reclaiming Agency and Exploring Freedom through Participation in Séances: A Study of

the Victorian Women’s Interest in Spiritualism

- Shaona Barik

Planchette, table rapping, automatic writing gradually started gaining acceptance and popularity

in England during the late nineteenth century. While considering the difference in the ratio of men

and women who attended séances or participated as mediums, it is observed that women

outnumbered men in such matters. Participation in seances often granted women the freedom to

break free from the shackles of a restrictive society. Seances enabled them to experiment with

multiple forms of sexual pleasure, bodily desires which otherwise the norms of patriarchy had

strictly debarred them from experiencing. Possessed bodies during séances were radical bodies.

Multiple personas adopted by women in course of séances signals at the ways in which women

through play acting could transgress the norms of expected behavioral pattern sanctioned by

Victorian ideologies to them. Women’s bodies during séances attained a status of fluidity and

displayed the signs of being operated by their choice. In the course of séances through

performances women could then experience liberty and were able to contravene the threshold of

passivity imposed upon their bodies. Seances also helped them to heal their psychological

problems. Same sex desire and the sexual pleasure associated with it were often explored and

experienced by women during séances. Women torn asunder by personal tragedies often sought

for diversion in spiritual phenomenon, which they could easily claim as their domain because

conventional views about women’s impulsiveness, nervous disposition (that were in circulation

during that time) were thought to have made them suitable for their indulgences in occult practices.

In this paper I would like to discuss the abovementioned issues in detail. I would also depict how

during séances the trope of the ectoplasm (which once again was associated with bodily excesses)

was deployed by women to reclaim agency which usually the forces of patriarchy had deprived

them from experiencing.

‘Soldiers in Petticoats’: The Fight for Gender Equality in Britain

- Shanta Dutta

‘No taxation without representation.’ We are all familiar with this catchy slogan which

became the battlecry inspiring the American War of Independence (1765-1783). The logic behind

this was fairly simple: if we do not have a say in the making of laws, then those same laws cannot

be imposed on us. This idea, with a significant twist, also motivated the fight for female suffrage

in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Britain. Inverting the causal sequence of parliamentary

representation first, followed by tax legislation thereafter, the suffragists stressed the fact that they

were dutiful, tax-paying citizens who could no longer be put off by vague promises of participation

in the legislative process in some distant future. As one of the many suffrage poems circulating in

this period bluntly put it: ‘We’ve paid our taxes, and demand / Our vote.’ (These are the last lines

of a poem by Winifred Auld. Also, see picture 1 where one of the posters unequivocally declares

that ‘Legislation without representation is tyranny’.) The question naturally arises: why were the

women of Britain so desperate for a voice in Parliament? The answer lies in the unjust existing

laws which discriminated against women in almost every sphere of life that affected them.

Marriage – that most hallowed Victorian institution – was a mixed blessing for most

women. Once married, a woman lost ownership of all the property that she possessed either by

way of dowry, by inheritance, or in past wages. Not only did these become automatically the

property of her husband but he could also lay claim to any remuneration that she earned after

marriage through any form of creative work. For instance, Eliza Lynn Linton (1822-1898), the

first professional female journalist in Britain who received a handsome salary and became a

household name with her ‘Girl of the Period’ essays in The Saturday Review (1866-1877), found

herself without any legal redress when her estranged husband (they had separated in 1867) laid

claim to her considerable journalistic earnings. It is not surprising, therefore, that although she

took an anti-suffrage stand, she enthusiastically supported the Married Women’s Property Act of

1870 which granted women legal ownership of their personal property, both in terms of their

inherited wealth and their individual wages. In a neo-Victorian novel like Wide Sargasso Sea,

published in 1966 but set in the 1830s, Antoinette, the white Creole heiress, laments that post-

marriage ‘I have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him’ because ‘[t]hat is

English law’. Her entire fortune of thirty thousand pounds, a considerable amount in those times,

was handed over to the unnamed Rochester figure in the novel who emerges as a calculative

fortune hunter. Not inheriting any family wealth as the younger son (which was another peculiarity

of the English law), he had sailed to Jamaica with the express intention of securing his future by

marrying a lady of fortune. The unjustness of the situation prompts even Christophine, the

uneducated black surrogate mother figure, to protest on Antoinette's behalf: ‘It's shameful. You

are handing over everything the child owns to a perfect stranger. . .. She should be protected,

legally.’ This is exactly the sort of protection that was offered by the 1870 Married Women’s

Property Act, which was the first of a series of such Acts. However, the major flaw of the 1870

Act was that it was not retrospective in effect and women who had married before 1870 were still

not in a sound financial position to support themselves and their children if they separated from

their husbands.

Picture 1

The issue of the custody of minor children was another sore point for women whose marriages had

irretrievably broken down. Caroline Norton (1808-1877) fought hard to secure the custody of her

three children but she was denied both divorce and access to her children. To add insult to injury,

her separated husband even laid claim to her earnings as a fairly successful author! Her passionate

campaign to secure custody rights for unfortunate mothers like herself (notably through political

pamphlets like a A Plain Letter) led Parliament to pass the Infant Custody Act of 1839 which

granted mothers the right to custody of their children who were under seven years of age. However,

the 1839 Act had an important and humiliating proviso: custody of minor children would be

granted provided the Lord Chancellor was convinced that the woman was of good moral character!

For all practical purposes, this meant that most divorced women could be denied custody rights

because the divorce, in all probability, had been pronounced on the basis of adultery charges –

whether genuine or concocted – pressed by the husband.

The blatant gender discrimination and injustice in the matter of divorce led many women

to question the sanctity and validity of the institution of marriage. It encouraged the social

experimentation with what was termed as a ‘free union’, in both real life and certainly in the ‘New

Woman’ fiction of the 1880s and 1890s, because a ‘free union’ offered greater flexibility, dignity,

and equality of the sexes. A legalized marriage could only be dissolved by a divorce obtained

through a prohibitively expensive private Act of Parliament. By contrast, in a ‘free union’, both

the partners had equal rights to dissolve the union, amicably separate, and form future alliances.

Some redress to partners trapped in a failed marriage was offered by the passing of the Matrimonial

Causes Act in 1857 which allowed divorce through secular courts, thus making it cheaper and

more accessible. However, the gender inequality still very much persisted, as a husband could

divorce his wife on the proven charge of adultery alone. A wife, on the other hand, even if she

were married to the most openly philandering of husbands, had to prove that in addition to adultery,

he was guilty of either incest, bigamy, sodomy, desertion or cruelty. This is what Grace Melbury,

the female protagonist in Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), painfully discovers after her hopes for

a divorce from her serially unfaithful husband are cruelly dashed. She had pinned her dreams of a

release from an unhappy marriage on the ‘new law’ of which she has heard exaggerated and

misleading rumours in her remote village home. However, the 1857 Act proves a mirage and she

learns that, in the eyes of the British law, her husband has not been ‘cruel enough’!

Unfaithful husbands contributed to the scourge of prostitution that afflicted late nineteenth

century London and other metropolitan cities. Some of the prostitutes who thronged the streets of

industrial cities were as young as twelve or thirteen years of age. Moved by the plight of these

miserable young girls, William Thomas Stead (1849-1912), the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette,

published a series of articles in 1885 highlighting this social evil of child prostitution. To prove

his point to the doubting Thomases of his day, he actually 'purchased' a thirteen-year-old girl, Eliza

Armstrong (the daughter of a chimney sweep), in order to demonstrate that female flesh trade did

flourish covertly in the first city of the Empire. Although Stead was convicted for ‘abduction’ and

handed a three-month prison sentence, his efforts at awakening the social conscience of his age

met with some measure of success when Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act of

1885 which raised the legal ‘age of consent’ from thirteen years to sixteen years. This meant, at

least theoretically, that girls younger than sixteen years could hope for legal safeguards and redress

against forcible sexual exploitation. (It is interesting that Thomas Hardy’s Tess is just sixteen years

old, which helps to keep the ‘rape / seduction’ debate wide open – both among critics and casual


To regulate the activities of the prostitutes and to keep a check on their sexual health, so

that they do not pass on venereal diseases to their clients, the government passed a series of (rather

euphemistically titled) Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864, 1867 and 1869. Collectively known as

the ‘CD Acts’, these laws gave sweeping powers to the police to detain and subject to forcible

medical examination any woman in a garrison town or naval port that they thought was a prostitute.

If the woman so apprehended refused to submit to the mandatory medical examination – which

was invasive, painful and humiliating – she could be imprisoned and even sentenced to hard labour.

In a culture where even admitting to a knowledge of the existence of sexually transmitted diseases

was considered shockingly unladylike, Josephine Butler (1828-1906) openly and passionately

campaigned for the repeal of the draconian CD Acts in public meetings at street corners. She

herself had to face police harassment but her efforts finally bore fruit when, after almost two

decades of untiring campaigns, Parliament ultimately repealed the infamous ‘CD Acts’ in 1886.

This was a victory for Josephine Butler and for the other distinguished women like Florence

Nightingale (1820-1910) and Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) who had supported her

campaign very publicly. However, it is interesting to note that the older sister of 'Mrs Henry

Fawcett’ (as Millicent Garrett was known in public, after her marriage in 1867), Elizabeth Garrett

Anderson (1836-1917) – the first female physician and qualified surgeon in Britain – had actually

supported the CD Acts as she felt they were the only effective way of protecting unsuspecting

wives from the possibility of contracting venereal diseases from their adulterous husbands.i While

Mrs Anderson (she had married in 1871) spoke as a female medical person, from a position of

genuine concern for the health and safety of vulnerable and hapless wives, the overwhelming male

support for the continuation of the CD Acts was fuelled by an anxiety regarding the future of the

Imperial project. Victorian England, perhaps at the height of its imperial expansionist phase,

needed able-bodied soldiers and administrators who could withstand the rigours of the tropical

climate and its attendant diseases against which they had no in-built natural immunity. Hence, by

passing the series of CD Acts, the government had sought to create a vetted pool of registered

prostitutes – often referred to as ‘Government Women’! – who were ‘clean’ and who posed no

serious threat to the national male health and vigour.

Thus, on important issues that impacted women's lives, like ownership of personal

property, divorce reform, child custody rights, equal pay, child prostitution, sweated labour, access

to higher education and job opportunities, etc. women realized that they needed a voice in the

exclusively male Parliament of the day if they wished to secure even a semblance of gender

equality and dignity. Merely lobbying liberal-minded male MPs from the outside would not bring

about the much desired reforms, especially at the pace at which they were urgently required. This

is succinctly brought out in George Gissing’s The Odd Women in the brief exchange between the

precocious 15-year old Rhoda Nunn and her otherwise genial host, Dr Madden (himself the caring

father of six motherless young daughters). When Rhoda asks Dr Madden during the breakfast-

table conversation ‘Do you think women ought to sit in Parliament?’, his flippant reply is: ‘Why,

no, ... if they are there at all they ought to stand.’ This linguistic sleight of hand is symptomatic of

the average Victorian male’s refusal to even consider the question of female suffrage as fit for

serious discussion. Incidentally, while most of the ‘New Woman’ novels of the 1880s and 1890s

do focus on the issues of marriage, divorce, property rights, and the lack of educational and job

opportunities for women, Gissing’s The Odd Women is perhaps one of the very few mainstream

novels that touches on the contemporary issue of female suffrage, however tangentially.

Unlike in the fictional world, in the final decades of Queen Victoria’s reign many homes

were invaded by the clamour of the rising demand for women’s right to vote. The first women’s

suffrage committee had been set up as early as 1866. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), with the

support of 80 MPs, had tried to persuade Parliament to extend the provisions of the 1867 Second

Reform Act (which granted the franchise to the urban male working class) to include women’s

suffrage – but to no avail. In the 1870s, as many as six Women’s Suffrage Bills were introduced

in the House of Commons but they all fell through because they failed to secure the majority

support. The death of John Stuart Mill in 1873 was undoubtedly a major blow in the struggle to

secure voting rights for women through the constitutional method of parliamentary reform. Later,

during the debate on the proposal for the Third Reform Act of 1884 (which would extend the

franchise to the rural male working class), again an attempt was made to attach a women’s suffrage

amendment but this time too it failed to garner the necessary support in Parliament. Meanwhile,

several suffrage societies had mushroomed throughout the length and breadth of the country and

in 1897 they were all brought together under the umbrella organization, the ‘National Union of

Women’s Suffrage Societies’, under the Presidentship of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The NUWSS

was committed to obtaining the female vote by non-violent constitutional means. (See picture 2 of

Millicent Fawcett addressing a crowd at Hyde Park in 1913. The self-description in the banner

clearly reads: ‘Law-abiding Suffragists’.) However, their peaceful methods of public meetings and

personal persuasion led a restive faction to break away and form the 'Women's Social and Political

Union' in 1903 under the leadership of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and


Picture 2

Unlike the NUWSS which was democratically run, the WSPU was somewhat despotically

controlled by one family and internal dissent was frowned upon. While the NUWSS was open to

admitting liberal minded men who supported the cause, the membership of the WSPU was strictly

restricted to women. The NUWSS ‘suffragists’ were seen as being more reasonable and ladylike,

often fashionably turned out. By contrast, the ‘suffragettes’ were viewed as being more masculine

in their deportment and attire, often portrayed in the popular press as sexually repressed or

embittered spinsters who had failed to achieve that highest goal of Victorian womanhood i.e.

wedded bliss. Historically speaking, the term 'suffragette' was first used to refer to the WSPU

members, as a derogatory term, by The Daily Mail in 1906, although Christabel Pankhurst later

defiantly embraced the moniker when she launched the newspaper The Suffragette in 1912. The

motto of the WSPU was ‘Deeds, not Words’ and, as their tactics grew increasingly militant and

violent, several moderate members including Sylvia Pankhurst and her younger sister Adela left

the WSPU in 1913 because they did not approve of arson as a means to secure the desired goal of

female enfranchisement. In fact, Adela was forced to emigrate to Australia and the family breach

was never healed.

Picture 3

The WSPU members, however, continued their tradition of disruptive activities: heckling

at political meetings, smashing windows of shops and government offices, burning letter-boxes,

etc. The arrest of their activists was often followed by stubborn hunger strikes in prison and, faced

with the unwelcome prospect of deaths in custody and consequent loss of public support, the

government of the day was forced to promulgate the ‘Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill

Health) Act’ in 1913. By the provisions of this Act, female prisoners – whose health had alarmingly

deteriorated due to sustained hunger strikes – were temporarily discharged, allowed to return home

to recuperate, re-arrested after their health improved, and sent to prison again to complete the

remainder of their original prison sentences. In many cases, this cycle of arrest, release, and re-

arrest was repeated several times and therefore the Act came to be popularly referred to by the

vivid description of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Also, in order to blunt the very effective weapon of

hunger strikes used by the suffragettes, the prison officials took recourse to the forcible feeding of

female prisoners which was a very painful and humiliating process. (See picture 3 which is a

graphic WSPU poster highlighting the violence involved in force-feeding.) In records left behind

by imprisoned suffragettes – i.e. through letters, diaries, recorded testimonies, autobiographical

accounts etc. – these victims speak not merely of the excruciating physical pain and discomfort,

the demoralizing loss of personal dignity, but also about the ideological anxiety regarding

repressive State usurpation of control over their inviolate bodies, often using brutal and inhumane

methods. In fact, there are even spine-chilling first-hand accounts by victims of being force-fed in

prison by inserting tubes into their rectum or vagina – akin to rape.ii

Picture 4

Picture 5

Against the backdrop of such tyrannical government oppression and physical abuse, the

demand for women’s vote was becoming increasingly strident in the first decade of the twentieth

century, uniting women across all social classes, and this is reflected in a popular Hollywood film

like Mary Poppins which is set in the London of 1910 when King Edward was the reigning

monarch. Although meant to be enjoyed as a musical fantasy for children, an adult viewer would

have to be very obtuse to miss the misogynistic sub-text – that Mrs Banks is sadly neglecting her

home and children in the euphoria of joining the suffrage meetings – which is the rationale for

hiring a nanny.iii The women of the Banks household, including the domestic staff, sport sashes

proudly demanding ‘Votes for Women’ (see picture 4) and the catchy song ‘Sister Suffragette’

contains the topical allusion: ‘Take heart! For Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!’iv

During those turbulent years, Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), a suffragette who had been

force-fed nearly 50 times, became the first martyr to the cause in Britain, being knocked down

lifeless by King George V’s horse in the Epsom Derby. There is a lack of consensus among

historians regarding what prompted her suicidal action: perhaps she wanted spectacular publicity

for the suffrage cause, perhaps she was attempting to attach a ‘Votes for Women’ sash or a

suffragette tricolour flag (violet, white and green) to the bridle of the King’s horse. Her death

galvanized popular support for the suffrage cause and hundreds of people, including a substantial

number of men, thronged the route when her funeral procession passed through the streets (see

picture 5, where the suffragettes are dressed in white). However, with the outbreak of the First

World War, all hostilities were called off and even the radical WSPU decided to support the

government in its war effort. The mouthpiece of the WSPU, i.e. the journal called The Suffragette,

was patriotically renamed Britannia in 1915. The government too reciprocated and, gratefully

acknowledging women’s contribution to the war effort, in 1918 it passed the ‘Representation of

People Act’ or the Fourth Reform Act which extended the franchise to all males above 21 years of

age and to females above 30 years of age (with certain property qualifications). This was probably

done to ensure that the total number of female voters did not exceed the total number of male

voters in the post-war scenario because Britain had suffered huge casualties in the four-year

conflict. A full decade later, the ‘Representation of People Act’ of 1928 or the Fifth Reform Act

extended the franchise to all women over 21 years of age, as on 2nd July 1928. Universal adult

suffrage, with no gender discrimination, had been finally achieved in Britain. (This had been a

long-standing demand. See picture 6 where the words ‘Votes for women on the same terms as

men’ are clearly visible in one of the placards.)

Picture 6

This paper began with a reference to the early link established between ‘taxation’ and

‘representation’ and I would like to conclude by returning to this argument. In June 1889, Mrs

Humphry Ward, a well-known novelist in those days, had published ‘An Appeal Against Female

Suffrage’ in the magazine Nineteenth Century, which was signed by 104 prominent women of the

day – including the wives of luminaries like Leslie Stephen (i.e. the mother of Virginia Woolf), T.

H. Huxley, Matthew Arnold, etc. There was also an anti-suffrage protest form attached, which

female readers were invited to fill out and sign. However, when the names of the 1,500 female

signatories were revealed, the tactic boomeranged because it was obvious to everyone that these

women were all well-heeled, living in comfortable homes, and cushioned from any adverse effects

of gender injustice and exploitation. In Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s spirited rejoinder, titled ‘The

Appeal Against Female Suffrage: A Reply’, published the very next month in the same magazine,

she astutely highlighted this class bias:

A further consideration of the Nineteenth Century list of names shows that it contains a

very large preponderance of ladies to whom the lines of life have fallen in pleasant places.

There are very few among them of the women who have had to face the battle of life alone,

to earn their living by daily hard work. Women of this class generally feel the injustice of

their want of representation. The weight of taxation falls upon them just as if they were

men, and they do not see why representation should not go with taxation in their case,

simply because their physical strength is less than that of men. No one proposes to relieve

them of fiscal burdens because of ‘the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women’.

. . . [My italics] v

Thus, even without the catalyst of the Great War, perhaps this irrefutable economic logic would

have gained for women the right to elect their own representatives in Parliament, i.e. those who

could debate on, and press for reforms on, common issues which impacted their daily lives as



i. This issue is sensitively handled by George Egerton (pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne) in her short
story ‘Virgin Soil’ (Discords, 1894) where a young married daughter painfully accuses her mother of not
having prepared her for the physical aspect of marriage. Disillusioned by her experience of being married
to an adulterous husband who insists on his ‘conjugal rights’, Flo bitterly laments that ‘marriage becomes
for many women a legal prostitution, a nightly degradation, a hateful yoke under which they age, mere
bearers of children conceived in a sense of duty, not love’.

ii. These harrowing accounts are now available in the public domain on Internet; see, e.g., the BBC website
‘Historyextra’. Much research on this subject has been done by the gender historian June Purvis; see her
article ‘The prison experiences of the Suffragettes’, Women’s History Review (1995).

iii. Here the satire directed against the wife and mother, who abdicates her domestic responsibilities to serve
a wider cause, is more subtle and not so strident as in the narrator’s description of Mrs Jellyby in Dickens’s
Bleak House (1853). Dickens coined the term ‘telescopic philanthropy’ to caricature a woman whose
‘handsome eyes’ could ‘see nothing nearer than Africa’. Mrs Jellyby is preoccupied with altruistic projects
to improve the lives of African natives of Borrioboola-Gha, while her own biological children are left to
fend for themselves in a dirty and unkempt home.

iv. This song contains the phrase ‘soldiers in petticoats’. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested seven times
before a limited version of women’s suffrage was granted. During her 1908 trial proceedings, she famously
told the court: ‘We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-
makers.’ See Paula Bartley, Emmeline Pankhurst (London: Routledge, 2002), p.100

v. Quoted in A New Woman Reader ed. Carolyn Christensen Nelson (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001),

Works Cited

Bartley, Paula. Emmeline Pankhurst. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin Books, 1971. Print.

Egerton, George. Discords. London: John Lane, 1894. Print.

Gardiner, Juliet, and Victoria Glendinning (eds). The New Woman. London: Collins & Brown Ltd.,

1993. Print.

Gissing, George. The Odd Women. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. The Woodlanders. London: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

Mary Poppins. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Walt Disney, 1964.Film.

Nelson, Carolyn Christensen (ed). A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, and Drama of the

1890s. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

Purvis, June. ‘The prison experiences of the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain’. Women’s History

Review, Vol. 4: 1, 1995.Web. 20 Dec 2006.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books, 1968. Print.

The Suffragette and Its Discontents: Imaging the Woman

-Arka Chakraborty and Gourab Goswami

The attribution of criminality to the women involved in suffragette movement and the

construction of the image of these women, as a criminalized section of the society, has much to do

with the representation of the violence perpetrated by the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political

Union) before World War I by themselves, the media as well as the state apparatus. A large part

of it has to do with the photographs of events as well as individuals related to this movement. The

prime roadblock one faces in undertaking a comparative analysis of these representations is the

lack of documentation of how the WSPU sought to represent themselves through pamphlets and

photographs. The documents that are available to us are mostly those covered in popular

newspapers and official documents/ photographs made available for public viewing by the

National Archives.

In our paper we would like to focus on the way photographs have contributed to the shift

in perspectives towards the female subject with regards to the Suffragette movement. The

Suffragettes challenged the gendered social roles attributed to the woman. This, in many cases,

resulted in the representation of the women attached to this movement as stripped of inherent

femininity and as portraying more of the masculine gender roles. Rather than attempting an

exhaustive study of all types of photographic representations, we will try to focus in the latter part

of the essay on the politics behind such representations while examining them through a

philosophical lens — a reading in which we trace how the patriarchal structure of the Victorian

era was haunted by the image of Davison’s death and this reading is influenced by Kristeva’s

conception of the abject. But to begin with, we will first look at the ways in which the visual

elements of a photograph can itself be seen through a gendered lens. This will lead us on to an

understanding of how this trope was used extensively in the case of the Suffragettes.

Virginia Woolf makes a critical intervention on the relations between memory and

visuality and, how visuality is essentially gendered in her “Portraits” (Humm 647). Maggie Humm

focuses on this trait of Woolf in her essay, ‘Visual Modernism: Virginia Woolf’s “Portraits” and

Photography’ (Humm 648). She states this mostly with relation to the dichotomy between personal

memory and historian’s history. (Humm 654) Although her focus remains on the photographic

representations of the War and the visual representation of modernisation, this can be seen as

largely being true for visual, textual, material and all other kinds of documentation of almost any

historical event. But the Suffragettes attempted to shy away from this sort of gendered


The adept use of photography and picture politics by the Suffragettes must be focused on

in this context. Jill Liddington, in her essay, “Era of Commemoration: Celebrating the Suffrage

Centenary”, talks about various exhibitions and events organized to commemorate the 100 years

of the formation of WSPU. She talks about the exhibition ‘Art for Vote’s Stake’ and focuses on

how the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) tries to take the high ground

with their beautifully embroidered pamphlets and banners designed by Mary Lowndes, ‘the queen

of banner-making’(Liddington 196). But the WSPU focuses more on the poster-parades. This

strategy taken by the WSPU seems to be a well-calculated one if the picture-politics of the WSPU

is taken into account. The politics can be seen as being rooted in efforts of representing themselves

as barrier-breakers. The representative politics behind this is to shock and disturb the viewer out

of one’s comfort zone. This becomes more apparent when these self-representations are studied in

relation to the strategies undertaken by the police and other authorities to make the photographs of

the Suffragettes less ‘unsettling’, the conscious attempts of the WSPU become clearer.

Liddington points out how in order to make the photographs less unsettling the police

would resort to using technology in editing them before storing them as documentative proofs to

identify these women who were labeled as criminals by the authorities. Along with the hunger-

strikes, the political prisoners of the Suffrage movement would refuse to look up into the lens of

the camera while they were being photographed in prison. At times their head would be forcefully

kept straight by putting an arm around the neck while editing the arm out later. The police

department had to summon new types of cameras in order to photograph these women while in

prison and without their knowledge. But they could not find any suitable alternative ways to obtain

their fingerprints.

One example would be the pictures of Evelyn Manesta (Liddington 206), where the

technique above can be clearly observed. We see how she is forced to stand straight and smile at

the camera by putting an armed around her neck. In the published photograph, we see that hand is

being cropped out. In another collage (Liddington 208) we encounter how the Suffragettes were

photographed without them being aware of it within the prison. While the reality of the situation

that these women were being photographed without any consent and without any respect for their

restraint is somewhat unsettling, the politics behind this is not hard to understand. While the WSPU

in particular tried to posit themselves as a threat, the intentions of the authorities was to posit them

as not being a serious threat to maintaining legal equilibrium in the society. This form of settling

representation by the police must be seen in proper perspective. While the Suffragettes were indeed

being posited by the administration as women who were in a way outside the societal

understanding of domesticity and as a threat to the idea of ‘family’, it was extremely important to

posit them as frivolous and not serious revolutionaries on the other hand. In this context, the 19th

century Public/Private divide, as well as, the construct of the ‘Angel in the house’ versus the

public/fallen woman is crucial.

Keeping this in mind, we will move on to the strategy of militancy adopted by the

suffragettes, the WSPU in particular especially in the years of 1913-1914. C.J Bearman, in his

essay, “An Examination of Suffragette Violence” (2005) attempts to catalogue and assess the

impacts of Suffragette violence. He states that the biggest problem that he faces has to do with

ascribing events of violence to the WSPU. Considering the acknowledgements made in The

Suffragette (1907-1918), the number of events stand at 337 in these two years. But Bearman

contends that the actual figure was much greater. Bearman arrives at the conclusion that the path

of violence undertaken by the Suffragettes, in reality, acted as counter-productive for the

movement. (Bearman 395) And it could have delayed the accession of voting rights for women by

a decade or so had it not been saved by the beginning of the War in 1914. But one cannot deny the

fact that these acts of violence and the subsequent arrests were used by the Suffragettes to gain

popularity and to educate the mass about their demands.

While all these photographs were made accessible for public viewing much later, the

representation of these women in contemporary media presents us the way the symbolicfunction

of the feminine was being challenged by the Suffragettes. From this standpoint we to look into

the event of Emily Davison’s death and the way that death was represented in contemporary media

as compared to photographs of other deaths in this era. Emily Wilding Davison was, in the least,

quite an unusual woman in her life. She achieved her first-class honours in English from St. Hugh’s

College, Oxford which was exceptional for the women of her times. Although she had not been a

founding member of Women’s Social and Political Union which is more popularly known as

WSPU, which was established by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903, she joined the group just after

three years of its establishment, in 1906. In her activist life, she was arrested for seven times, and

it was forty-nine times that she had been force-fed by the jail authority. Her life, then, was nothing

short of being exceptional. But, paradoxically enough, it was only through her death, which was

photographed and the wide circulation of which ensured a vast amount of speculations and

assumptions, that she spelt a stirring in the media. The ‘spectacular’ event (and, surely, we will

return to discuss this nature of this ‘spectacle’ shortly) of her death, was recorded by three news

cameras. We are all aware of how death came for her.


On 4 June 1913 Davison obtained two flags on which were printed the suffragette colours

of violet, white and green from the WSPU offices; she then travelled by train to Epsom, Surrey, to

attend the Derby. She positioned herself at Tattenham Corner, which was the final bend. At this

point in the race, with some of the horses having passed her, she ducked under the guard rail and

ran unto the racecourse. It is possible that she did hold in her hands one of the suffragette flags.

She reached up to the reins of Anmer—King George V's horse, ridden by Herbert Jones—and was

hit by the horse, which would have been travelling at around 35 miles (56 km) per hour, four

seconds after stepping onto the course. Anmer fell in the collision and partly rolled over his jockey,

who had his foot momentarily caught in the stirrup. Davison was knocked to the ground; some

reports say she was kicked in the head by Anmer, but the surgeon who operated on Davison refused

to believe this and denied the existence of any such mark that could hint towards any such injury.

She never regained her consciousness, and four days later, on the eighth day of June, she died from

a fracture at the base of her skull. The general response to this horrible accident was largely

unsympathetic. In its verdict on her death, the court did not fail to suggest an implicit sense of

responsibility on Davison herself in her death. It bluntly enumerated “misadventure” as the sole

reason for her death (“Emily’s Timeline”). According to an unnamed writer in The Daily Mirror

of 5th June 1913, “It was quite evident that her condition was serious; otherwise many of the crowd

would have fulfilled their evident desire to lynch her”. Queen Mary herself was present at the

event, and she later recalled Davison in her journal as a “horrid woman”, while The Daily Express

described her on 5th June 1913 as one familiar ‘malignant’ suffragette (Tanner 281). What we are

more interested in here is the photographic record of the moment and how the subsequent

representation transformed her very humane essence into something immensely glorified. Our

intention is not to deny the significance of the record as a form of documented proof, but what we

would like to do is to read into this mimetic textuality (that is, the usual and fairly general insistence

on the mimetic nature of the photograph, on its seemingly inevitable ties to the facticity of an event

and its reality, on its essential and inherent truthfulness) a secondary or implicit referentiality, a

meaning that emanated from cultural discourses of the time, although imbued into it not with

volition - to read into the fine grains of an accidental image layers of another textuality of political

and ideological forces. A central element of this argument would involve two representations

sympathetic to the suffragette causes. In one from Daily Sketch we see she is represented as not

any martyr, but the “First Martyr”, a deliberate Christian image (Fig. 1.). But more interesting and

vivid is the image that appeared in The Suffragette on the 13th June 1913 (Fig. 2.). In this strangely

formatted image, an angel is standing in the racecourse, looking upwards. In her halo is inscribed

“Love that overcometh”. There are shadowy fractions of a crowd that is, at best, nonchalant of this

divine intervention.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

It is possible to simply write off its mode of signification as a usual Victorian phenomenon

that commemorates with an added modicum of glorification. But this

religious rhetoric refuses to be codified singularly in these easy terms. It rather entails a deep

communication with the Victorian fascination with the anatomy of death. Death, as a Christian act,
elicited various responses from the Victorian men and women. One of the strangest, amongst them

was what they called the ‘memento mori photographs’ — that is; photographing the dead bodies

of the loved ones or the relatives in a posture that suggested they were merely sleeping. The logical

scepticism that is to be eventuated from this comparative analysis is that about the causality of it -

why are we comparing here the last photographs of a suffragette activist with ‘memento mori

photographs’, insinuating a surreptitious link of them to the Victorian images of mother? What is

really at stake here? And more importantly, what are we hoping to achieve? Our aim in this paper

is, to answer the latest one, to locate the radical nature if any can be and is present, of Davison’s

death — precisely that aspect which had turned the event into a ‘spectacle’. In order to do that, we

have historicised the cultural artefact amidst a spectrum of images that resonates closely with the

images of our central concern. And from this comparative analysis our purpose is to glean a

rationality of this ‘spectacle’ of death. With a very high mortality rate of women and children, the

‘memento mori’ pictures often remembered the last moments of them and also made an attempt to

capture the irreversible facticity of mortality itself. Often, the dead persons’ eyes were left open to

give the impression of or rather the illusion of life, as if the dead body was still essentially tied to

the world of the living, as if in the sociological and

familial frameworks of life these bodies still elicited the warm comfort of meaning.

These photographs, at least from a rather benevolent perspective, were not that different

from the photographs that various scientific treatises resorted to when trying to validate their own

argument — that is images of dead animals or flowers. But in its manipulations to trick the

spectator, the ‘memento mori’ photograph differed ontologically from those realistic and therefore,

presumably, ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ photos. In their essence, the ‘memento mori’ photographs

eschewed any claim to truthfulness, although the mimetic nature of the human form was

underlined. Instead, an aporia emerged. The photographs represented ‘dead’ bodies that were

‘alive’. The easy distinction between those two stages was denied of any substance and this

reduction engaged itself in, what we can call, the hauntological paradigm — a zone or concept that

is posited at the threshold disrupting the easy categorisation between life and death, a zone in

which death is haunted by life and as consequence, life is etched with death. We see, therefore,

photograph of a convenient family - the father and the mother and their daughter between them,

only the daughter was already dead (Fig. 3). We see a Victorian gentleman sitting in a respectable

posture and, surely, he was dead (Fig. 4). Thus, the photographs frame a strange and difficult

figure, a figure that is both dead and alive: a figure whose death reverberates with traces of life.

This indefinite body, this abject, which according to Julie Kristeva is what destabilises the

boundaries between the subject and object, haunted the dominant patriarchal imagination of the

Victorian culture and continued to appear in the public sphere. For Kristeva it is not uncleanliness

or an absence of health that defines abjection, but the abjection is caused by that “what disturbs

identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4). The abjection, therefore, always invariably contains the

quality of the sinister. It rehearses uncanny resistance to the systems of order. The conventional,

the traditional, the usual - these are the things against which the abject stands:

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper,

is cesspool, and death: it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as

fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell

of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death — a flat

encephalograph, for instance — I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true

theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently

thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life

withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border

of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that

border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains

in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit — cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies

the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the

corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything

(Kristeva 3)

Fig. 4

We can note here that the abject is repeatedly juxtaposed with the bodily fluids, the excretory

modalities and the decomposition - the abject is analogous to death and decay, death not as in

a rational often critiqued about experience, but that death which defeats the very purpose of any

form of discourse. One of the most unsettling form it took was the Victorian photographs of

mothers. Again and again, they were photographed as still figure shrouded by clothes. Their faces

remained unseen and even contours of their physical form were often obscured by the

overwhelming covers. In the visual narrative of those photographs, the figure of the mother enacted

nothing more than a misc-en-scene, the repressible and therefore the repressed logos of a backdrop

accentuating only that which the (male) gaze cares to see (Fig. 5). The photographs of the Victorian

mothers, thus, enunciates unequal cartography on the one side of which lies the overwhelming

presence of the male desire and on the other side resides the absence, the silence of the feminine.

It is precisely at this crossroad of presence and absence, at this very juncture of materialising gaze

and dematerialised form that the ‘spectacle’ of Davison’s death is located.

Fig. 5

The curious case of the vanishing mother transferred the mother, the feminine presence,

from a zone of presence to an immutable absence, to a world of secret existence, a world of

whispers and of lack, a world where living body is translated into a lifeless thing. This translation

was not merely a procedure to receive technical advantages; it was a political act geared towards

the elimination of the feminine, by silencing it, by stopping it from seducing, by precluding it from

making any form of resistance. But this manner of handling it does not eliminate the danger. The

photograph itself presupposes a form of transference, and yet a trace is retained somehow. The

black-robed figure, neither living nor non-living, ruptures the epistemological certainty of the

patriarchal discourse, of the process through which structures of meaning are constructed. The

uncanniness of this figure does not emanate from an absent face into which we ascribe meanings,

expressions, but from a dislocation of the very ontology of meaning — a threshold where occurs

the death of language, a zone of impenetrable silence beyond the referentiality of naming. It is to

this context of unsettling photographs that Davison’s documented death and its after locations in

the media can be traced. Davison’s death refuses to be squared into a coherent, codified structure.

It still continues to pour theoretical debates about intentionality and the non-intentionality of the

incident. It refuses to be articulated into a comprehensive and meaningful structure. It was only to

negotiate with this ambiguity that contemporary media polarised their accounts, both positive and

negative, of the event. She was either a “horrid woman” or an angel (Tanner 281). The unnatural

imbalance of these two figures reiterates the desperation with which the patriarchy wanted to

negotiate these difficult existences. These figures were employed to curve out meaning, in any

way possible or imaginable, from the apparent chaos and the immense lack of specificity. The

stoicism of the crowd in the image from The Suffragette, to which we have already referred, is not

caused by any condensation of nonchalance, rather it emerges from a steady refusal of accepting

what was problematic here — the abject of death that continuously slurps about the ardour of life.

Absolute refusal — that is how the machinations of patriarchy deal with these uncomfortable

islands of incomprehensibility. From this unwavering resolution of denying is brought forth the

bluntly advertised nonchalance. Therefore, the male presence in Cixous’ novel of a disembodied

feminine voice Tomb(e) is also recognised by its impassivity: “Him! Who else but Him!

Impassive” (Cixous 31).

The elusive moment of the death, however, could only be reached through the

photographic activity — it remained inscrutable to the formation of words, to the syntaxes of

power. The moment was anti-narrative. The figurations were merely an attempt to codify it into

language, into patriarchal discourses. In its anti-narrativity, the singular moment is innately

spectacular. It is this non-verbal quality that led to various interpretations of the event. It is this

quality of being anti-narrative that makes the death and the image of it an abject — a seductive

architecture that defies all forms of order and every attempt at containment. It ‘vulgarly’ exposes

itself, reversing the act of the male gaze that essentially effected an absence of the Victorian

mothers. It boldly, bluntly reveals itself unto the male gaze and herein lie its true radical capacity,

its absolute ‘spectacularity’. Its inherent spectacularity not only destabilises any attempt to form a

discourse centring it, but it also undoes the codified narrative of the ‘last moments’ as peaceful

and private. Being a public event, this death intervenes into the traditional structures of patriarchal

rhetoric of culture. It was a radical death. Both the photographs of the Victorian mothers and the

images of Davison’s death belong to the same hauntological paradigm, installing the unheimlisch

within themselves to disrupt the patriarchal potential of government and language. It is, in

conclusion, important to note that this event marked a turning point for the suffragette movement,

creating a conciliatory and neutralised atmosphere between the dissenting forces.

Works Cited

Anonymous, “Memento Mori—Victorian Era Postmortem Photography.” Ostrobogulous

Cackleberries. Web. 21 Feb. 2013, < memento-mori-

B., Misty. “Memento Mori - Victorian Era Postmortem Photography.” Flickr, Yahoo!, Web. 19
Mar 2019.

Bearman, C.J. ‘An Examination of Suffragette Violence’. The English Historical Review, Vol. 120
No. 486. OUP. Web. 19 Mar 2019.

Cixous, Héléne. Tomb(e). Translated by Laurent Milesi, Seagull Books, 2014. Print.

Cockcroft, Irene, et al. “Emily’s Timeline”. Emily Davison Memorial Project,, Web. 19 Mar 2019.

Humm, Maggie. ‘Virginia Woolf’s “Portraits” and Photographs’. Woolf Studies Annual, Vol 8
(2002). Pace University Press. Web. 19 Mar 2019.

Kristeva, Julie. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez,

Columbia University Press, 1982.Print.

Liddington, J. ‘Era of Commemoration: Celebrating the Suffrage Centenary’. History Workshop

Journal, No. 59 Spring, 2005. OUP. Web. 19 Mar 2019.

Tanner, Michael. The Suffragette Derby. The Robson Press, 2013. Print.

Pain and Politics in the Colonial Nursery: Reading the Colonial Encounter

between Memsahibs and Ayahs in India (1860-1915)

- Deepti Myriam Joseph

“The history of nations is determined not on the battlefield but in the nursery, and the battalions

which give lasting victory are the battalions of babies. The politics of the future will be domestics.”i

This quotation by Caleb Saleeby, an English physician and eugenics supporter in the early

20th century succinctly reveals the importance of domesticity in the British imperial enterprise.

Indrani Sen mentions that from the 1860s, which also saw the beginning of eugenic ideas in Britain,

British women were” being deployed in the cause of empire as potential mothers and progenitors

of future generations of empire-builders” (Woman and Empire 3). This paper looks at the colonial

experiences of these British women also known as ‘memsahibs’ or madam sahibs who were mostly

‘ordinary middle- class’ (Macmillan 3) women who travelled to India in most cases to be wives to

well settled colonial administrators (Macmillan 8). However, the word ‘memsahib’ carries with it

‘connotations of colonial power, privilege and status’ (Woman and Empire 10) which was

transferred to the wife of the sahib or the British administrators in the higher echelons of the

colonial government.

Using the lens of feminist and postcolonial theories, I wish to look into the memsahib’s life

in India and her encounters with Indian women, namely the ayah. These encounters were set in the

domestic domain and centred around the colonial nursery. This paper examines whether the

memsahib was merely a pawn in the big game of Empire or did she collude in the imperialistic

enterprise of her male counterparts? Was she a mere subaltern in this enterprise and content to

follow the prescriptions or did she rebel against it? Was the ayah a mere appendage in the colonial

nursery or was she able to make her presence felt? The common factor binding these two sets of

women was the British child in India and the shared duty of motherhood. Was the British child

able to unite the mother and the foster mother or was the nursery a site of mutual antagonism and

unequal power relations?

While the memsahib might have wielded an enormous amount of power in the imperial

domestic sphere, it was a power that was not absolute and was tinged with anxieties and

insecurities, mainly because of her interactions with the female Indian domestics who helped her

in the colonial nursery. A great body of feminist and postcolonial scholarly work has been done

on the memsahibs, on colonial domesticity and the power wielded by the memsahibs in the

domestic space. However, not much has been written on the ambivalent relationship shared by the

memsahib and the Indian wet-nurse and ayah who worked for her except for Nupur Chaudhuri’s

article entitled Memsahibs and Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century Colonial India and Indrani

Sen’s article titled ‘Colonial Domesticities, Contentious Interactions: Ayahs, Wet-Nurses and

Memsahibs in Colonial India’, which shed considerable light on this neglected area. My argument

is that although the memsahib seemed powerful in the imperial domestic sphere, it was in the

colonial nursery that her power was thwarted. Therefore, the colonial nursery was not just a simple

innocuous area in the colonial household but one that would have far-reaching consequences on

the trio it concerned, namely the memsahib, her children and the ayah. It was, in fact, an intimate

sphere fraught with tensions- love, dependence, obedience, loyalty as well as a desire for control.

In this paper with the help of colonial sources such as diaries, letters, memoirs,

housekeeping manuals and short stories written by European women in India as well as medical

handbooks written by male and female colonial physicians, I intend to explore the memsahib’s

colonial encounter with the ayah which revolved around her ‘little imperial assets.’ The memsahib-

ayah interaction was not a simple binary relationship of power versus powerlessness. As Indrani

Sen rightly says this interaction, being “rooted in domestic power structures and race/class

hierarchies, was indeed a complex and contradictory one” (I. Sen, “Colonial Domesticities” 305).

What is also significant in this relationship is a mutual dependence, both material and emotional,

shown by both sets of women. This paper, therefore, aims at drawing out the nuances of this

complex relationship.

It is further complicated by the fact that the ayah, largely being illiterate is a subaltern in

this relationship and her side of the encounter reaches us only through the sources mentioned above

which only tell the memsahib’s version of the story. As Swapna M. Banerjee pertinently argues,

“Undeniably, it holds true for any country that the service class as subordinate actors in a

hierarchically-structured relationship rarely spoke freely or captured their feelings and

imaginations in writing. Most of what we know about them is expressed in the discourse of their

employers” (22) and as Bruce Robbins says, “We are aware of how society was structured in past

times, of who wrote and read and who didn’t, of the cultural consequences of unequal power.

Knowing all this, we are likely to assume that the dominators have monopolized the power to

represent, while the dominated have no option but to endure passively through centuries of abusive

synecdoche” (qtd. in Swapna Banerjee 125).

In the case of the memsahib, it is interesting to note that in the larger picture of empire she

too was a subaltern vis-a-vis the sahib or the British colonial male. It is through her power over

the indigenous domestics she interacted with, her criticism about them, often seeing them as

“superstitious, unintelligent, dirty, lazy and dishonest” (Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and their

Servants” 556) and her expertise in household management in the empire that the meek subaltern

‘angel in the house’ manages to elevate herself to the position of the memsahib. The writings of

the memsahib on her experiences with indigenous domestics were always one-sided and can be

read as a hegemonic enterprise. This paper will, therefore, be looking at this encounter as the real

and projected anxiety that the memsahib revealed vis-a-vis the ayah and the wet-nurse. In this

context, it is interesting to look at Antonio Gramsci’s definition of hegemony and Bruce Robbin's

explanation of it. According to Gramsci, hegemony is accomplished by, “the gradual but

continuous absorption…of the active elements produced by allied groups-and even of those which

came from antagonistic groups and seem irreconcilably hostile” (qtd. in Swapna Banerjee 127).

Bruce Robbins explains: “The need to obtain consent requires a hegemonic class or group to

concede something to those it governs-not to meet them halfway, but to recognise, include, respond

to the oppositional and alternative tendencies that threaten it. Thus, hegemony is not absolute

domination but a continually fluctuating, continually, negotiated give-and-take, a dialogue that is

unequal, but not quite monologue” (qtd. in Swapna Banerjee 127). This comment by Bruce

Robbins is very relevant to the colonial interaction between the memsahib and the ayah. Through

the course of this paper we shall see that though this interaction was based on inequality it was

never ‘quite monologue’ or as one-sided, as it seemed to be.

The memsahib’s encounter with the ayah in the colonial nursery was of a longer duration

than that with the wet nurse, and this was what caused her much anxiety and insecurity. In this

paper, I will be looking into the reason for the memsahib’s inquietude as well as the dynamics of

the memsahib-ayah encounter.

In 19th century India the ayah in British households of Bengal would earn a monthly salary

of about Rupees 5-12 (Banerjee 50). However, one of the first problems the memsahib encountered

with respect to the ayah was finding one who would be willing to work for her. As Indrani Sen

mentions, “The ayah’s caste was, in fact, one of the problematic areas for the memsahib. White

people were considered ‘outcastes’ and generally only women belonging to the sweeper caste were

willing to work for them as ayahs- a fact that imperial mistresses found mortifying” (“Colonial

Domesticities” 303). Inspite of this there were many British households that employed low-caste

women as ayahs, an example being Mary Martha Sherwood, whose son’s favourite ayah was a

‘matranee [sweeper]’ by caste. However, many others, like Emma Roberts were unhappy that,

“none but a low Hindoo would take the office” of an ayah, because of the ‘polluting’ status of

white people (qtd. in “Colonial Domesticities” 303).

The disgruntlement of memsahibs with their indigenous domestics is well brought out

through Emily Short Wonnacott’s letter to her mother in August 1869: “No one must expect to

find it an easy matter to manage a number of native servants, who will have different castes, not

one of whom have anything in common with their employers; whose ideas of honesty, cleanliness

and truthfulness are not merely vague, but do not exist” (qtd. in Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and their

Servants” 557). In another letter to her mother on 27 July 1870, she is very critical about her ayah:

“The native women are as a rule very immoral, but then religion encourages them in that, for I

have read that the Hindoo religion is nothing else but obscenity from first to last.” As a result of

this and also because of their monotheistic religious background, many households preferred to

employ ‘Moossulman’ ayahs (Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and their Servants” 552). However,

memsahibs were strongly criticized by Steel and Gardiner for holding such views as they felt that

low-caste ayahs were “very often cleaner… than Mahomedans” (qtd. in I. Sen, “Colonial

Domesticities” 304). They also complained that “Mahomedan” ayahs were “apt to be a nuisance”

and would not “condescend” to sweep the house, because like all Indians they viewed the “act of

cleansing” as “inferior and degrading” (304). Steel and Gardiner therefore ridiculed the

memsahibs’ ‘foolish’ preference for Muslim ayahs and attributed their “dislike to a sweeper or

low-caste women” to the memsahibs’ hidden caste prejudices (304). Sen makes a valid point, when

she argues, “What comes across clearly here and needs to be underlined is the apparent

internalisation of caste prejudices not only by Indians, (including non-Hindus) but by colonial

memsahibs as well. The white mistresses’ reluctance to employ sweeper-caste ayahs suggest that

these white women had themselves absorbed-even if unconsciously- ‘native’ social mores and

prejudices” (“Colonial Domesticities” 304).

To avoid dealing with low caste Hindu and Muslim servants, many memsahibs preferred

recruiting Indian Christian domestics. Sen refers to Kate Platt mentioning that the ayah was “more

often” an “Indian Christian” or the wife of one of the Mahommedan servants- and only very

“occasionally” was she a Hindu (qtd. in (“Colonial Domesticities” 304). However, Christian ayahs

also came with their share of problems. For instance, A Lady Resident advised memsahibs, “As

much as possible, secure for your servants a set of unmitigated heathens. Converts are usually

arrant humbugs” (54-55). Chaudhuri writes that Mrs Guthrie too shared a similar opinion that

Christian servants were a most unprincipled set of people, for they were hypocrites who professed

any religion to serve a purpose” (qtd. in “Memsahibs and their Servants” 552). As Chaudhuri

mentions memsahibs may have also disliked Indian Christian domestics as they feared that the

common ground of religion might set the masters and servants on similar footing instead of

emphasizing the class and social difference (“Memsahibs and their Servants” 552; Sen, “Colonial

Domesticities” 304-305). In fact, A Lady Resident wrote, “I have resolved never to engage another

knowing him to be ‘master’s caste” (54-55).

The memsahibs’ racial prejudices were visible especially in the 1860s and 1870s when for

the first time they began to refer to Indians as ‘monkeys’ reflecting the influence of Social

Darwinism into their discourse (Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and their Servants” 558). According to

Mrs Guthrie, her ayah was, “very small, and very black, and as she sat in her low chair, or on the

ground, with her skinny arms round the fair child, she looked exactly like a monkey wrapped up

in white muslin.”(244)

However, in spite of the memsahibs’ racial prejudices against the ayah, there were many

among them who valued the services she rendered especially while living in an alien land with no

easy recourse to their own mothers or any other female relatives (Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and

Motherhood” 525-26). For instance, A Lady Resident notes that: “A good ayah is a very pleasant

and valuable servant; where there is a young family she superintends the under ayah, and always

takes the entire charge and responsibility of the infant, often being far more capable of looking

after its health and comfort and proper food than its young and inexperienced mother. She is almost

always able to take a baby from the moment of its birth, as well as attend to the mother; and the

extreme lightness and delicacy of touch which characterizes the native makes the ayah often a very

great comfort on these occasions” (53). We here see the subtle suggestion of intimacy not only

between the child and the ayah but also the memsahib and the ayah. Though the comfort spoken

about is physical, it is also likely to be an emotional comfort for the young woman in an alien land.

However, this is something that cannot be emphasized because it would be seen as transgressive

of the codes that governed the relationship between the British and the Indians.

Kate Platt echoes this view, “[The] India ayah has many good points; she surrounds her

charges with an atmosphere of love and devotion and has infinite patience. They make a charming

picture-the fair-haired English child and the swarthy-faced ayah with her voluminous white

draperies, tinkling silver bangles, and gay scarlet coat, as she sits soothing him with magnetic

touch, crooning an old-world lullaby. Taking into consideration her home surroundings, her entire

lack of training in European customs and the great difference of her outlook on life, it is wonderful

that she is as satisfactory as she is found to be, but too much should not be expected of her” (qtd.

in I. Sen “Colonial Domesticities” 309). This image of the ayah with the British child is reminiscent

of a fairytale.

Mary Martha Sherwood also writes approvingly of the ayah, “It is touching to see the

European babe hanging on the breast of the black woman, and testifying towards her all the

tenderness which is due to its own mother. It is not uncommon to see the delicate, fair hand stroking

the swarthy face of the foster-parent, and even to observe that foster-mother smiling upon the child,

really, I believe, usually feeling for it unfeigned and inextinguishable love” (qtd. in I. Sen,

Memsahibs’ Writings 73). There is an element of poignancy when the white woman observes the

child bestowing on the Indian nurse 'all the tenderness' that should fall to the share of the birth

mother. We also detect a brief hesitation in the ‘I believe’ but then there is the acknowledgement

that the foster mother actually becomes the mother, while the birth-giving mother is displaced from

the child's affections and intimacy. So, the earliest relationship and the most fundamental

attachment of the British child are with the Indian nurse. Therefore, India becomes the nursery for

the child in more ways than one.

Mrs Sherwood recollects how she depended on the advice of an old ayah while bringing

up her children in India. She writes, “I… had a long conversation with the old ayah, and the advice

she gave me was so important that I ever afterwards acted upon it whilst in India. She looked at

my little fair Lucy, who had not then a sign of a tooth, and, though in good health, was delicately

fair and without a shade of colour. ‘When you reach your home,’ said the old ayah, ‘you must get

a daye [wet nurse] for the little beebee, and keep that daye with her till she has cut every tooth.’ I

made up my mind to follow the advice she gave me at once” (Sherwood, The Life and Times 365).

Though memsahibs held more charitable thoughts about their Indian ayahs as opposed to

the wet nurses, the memsahib-ayah relationship was still fraught with anxieties and suspicions.

While the wet nurse was feared for the physical contamination that she could pass on to the

imperial child the ayah’s ‘cultural contamination’ and hold on the soul of the imperial infant was

seen to be far more pernicious and insidious.

The attachment between ayahs and their charges was a well-known fact in imperial India

and one that caused great anxiety to their parents and the colonial establishment. Edmund Hull

wrote that “it is not unheard of to find [children] preferring the society of their native attendants to

that of their own parents” (140). He added that it was the “pliant, obliging nature of these servants”

which “naturally attaches the children to them” (140).

R. S. Mair, the Madras based physician, cautioned parents that, “The child becomes

strongly attached to these servants…indeed it is no uncommon thing to find children in India,

preferring the society of their native servants to that of their parents. Here lies a danger which must

be guarded against by every possible means” (“Supplement” 341). This ‘danger’ was surmounted

by the ‘little imperial assets’ being sent off ‘Home’ to Britain before the age of seven (Macmillan

139; Sen, “Colonial Domesticities” 312). However, this could only be done in the case of colonial

parents who could afford to pay for their children’s education in Britain. Children of the lower

levels of British society in India were sent to the Hill schools (Macmillan 139). The Pioneer

mentioned in the 1880s that the children would “carry in their hearts the ayah’s laughter and

tears…after all else Indian has passed out of their lives” (qtd. in Sen, “Colonial Domesticities”

310). Kate Platt writes how Indian domestics “almost always love European children and are

extremely indulgent to them. Children are as a rule happy with their ayahs and bearers, who are

wonderfully good at amusing and interesting them” (K. Platt 142).

We get to see that one of the great colonial fears that British parents experienced was that

of their children becoming too spoilt through the great devotion their ayahs and other domestics

displayed towards them. For instance, Julia Maitland, a memsahib who lived in Madras in the

1830s, complained that her ayah was too indulgent towards her daughter and if she cried “long

enough and loud enough”, she was “sure to get her own way” (114). Steel and Gardiner too warned

British mothers that children brought up in India were “proverbially captious, disobedient and

easily thrown out of gear” (qtd. in Sen, “Colonial Domesticities” 311). They mention how it was

not an “unusual thing to see an English child eating his dinner off the floor, his hand full of toys,

while a posse of devoted attendants distract his attention, and the ayah feeds him spoonfuls of pish-

pash” (311). They added, “where, save in India, do we find sturdy little tots of four and five still

taking their bottles and refusing to go to sleep without a lullaby? ...we can only assure every young

mother that there is no climatic reason whatever why discipline should be set aside in an Indian

nursery and that it is possible to insist on cleanliness, decency, and order there as in an Indian

pantry or Indian cook-room” (311).

Indrani Sen points out how Maud Diver too expressed concern in 1909 that the adoring

servants “propensity to worship at the shrine of the Baba-log” made them unable to impose the

requisite discipline on “the small gods and goddesses they serve” (“Colonial Domesticities” 311;

Diver 36).

Apart from the imperial child’s instinctive attachment to the Indian ayah, colonial parents

were extremely worried about the fact that their children were far more at ease and fluent in

‘Hindostanee’ than in English. As a result, very often British parents and their children in India

were unable to understand each other and ironically it was the ayah who became the translator for

the two. Emma Roberts, a British lady in India in the 1830s, refers to this problem and is scathing

in her criticism of native women. She writes,

The art in which, unhappily, quick and clever urchins attain the highest degree of

proficiency, is that of scolding. The Hindostanee vocabulary is peculiarly rich in terms of abuse;

native women, it is said, excel the females of every other country in volubility of utterance, and in

the strength and number of the opprobrious epithets which they shower down upon those who raise

their ire […] In British India, children and parents are placed in a very singular position with regard

to each other; the former do not speak their mother-tongue; they are certain of acquiring

Hindostanee, but are very seldom taught a word of English until they are five or six years old, and

not always at that age. In numerous instances, they cannot make themselves intelligible to their

parents, it being no uncommon case to find the latter almost totally ignorant of the native dialect,

while their children cannot converse in any other. Some ladies improve themselves by the prattles

of their infants, having perhaps known nothing of Hindostanee until they have got a young family

about them, an inversion of the usual order of things; the children, though they may understand

English, are shy of speaking it, and do not, while they remain in India, acquire the same fluency

which distinguishes their utterance of the native language (qtd. in I.Sen, Memsahibs’ Writings 76).

Julia Thomas Maitland, wife of James Thomas, a district judge at Rajahmundry, Madras

reveals her anxiety about bringing up her daughter in India. She writes, “Baba is very well and

intelligent. Every now and then she learns to pronounce some new word, which she thinks is very

clever; but I intend, as much as possible, to prevent her learning the native languages: though it is

rather difficult-most English children do learn them, and all sorts of mischief with them, and grow

like little Hindoos. If my child were to stay long in the country, it would be worthwhile to send for

an English nurse; but, as it is, I hope to bring her home before it becomes of any consequence, and

meanwhile I keep her as much as possible with me” (qtd. in I. Sen, Memsahibs’ Writings 76).

Henry Beveridge’s letter refers to Mrs Halliday, another memsahib who was similarly

anxious about her son’s contact with Indian domestics: “She says that she is going home on account

of her boy. She says that he is learning bad words from the natives and so she must remove them

from him. Poor child, he is only 2 ½” (qtd. in Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and Motherhood” 531).

Major General Richard Strachey, the father of the well- known British writer and critic, Lytton

Strachey, wrote his wife in March 1862 about a friend’s son who “jabbers away in Hindostani

which is not to me half so nice as English,” adding, “I hope that our kittens will be kept well to

their mother tongue” (qtd. in Chaudhuri, “Memsahibs and Motherhood” 531).

Another interesting fact is that though memsahibs were critical of ayahs they were often

taken back to Britain to help the family during the long and tedious sea voyage. Rozina Visram

points out that, “As travelling nannies they formed the most valuable adjunct to the whole life style

of the Raj between Britain and India. …Once on board, the ayah took complete charge of the

children, the baggage and the memsahib. Good ayahs were not only meant to be clean, honest and

trustworthy with children, but capable as nurses and excellent sailors too” (29). However, ayahs

were often exploited, as in most cases there was no contract of employment and no provision for

return passage. As a result, they were left to fend for themselves by either looking for employment

in Britain or by being taken on by some family going back to India. By the late 19th century a

sophisticated network was formed whereby ayahs in London could take shelter in an Ayahs’


We see through the comments of the memsahibs that a common colonial angst they

experienced was the cultural ‘contamination’ of their children by the ayahs. Hunt and Kenny, the

authors of the 1880’s manual, Tropical Trials: A Handbook for Women in the Tropics, specify the

same fear that by learning the vernacular a child’s “little mind will soon become contaminated

with ideas and expressions that would utterly horrify a mother did she herself understand the

language of the country” (Hunt and Kenny 403). A Lady Resident, therefore, counselled that, “As

far as possible children should be prevented from acquiring native dialects, as with the language

they are almost certain to imbibe ideas and knowledge most prejudicial to them in every way”


It is interesting to look at how British children reacted to this cultural ‘contamination’. In

fact, Rudyard Kipling in his autobiography remembers how during their childhood in India, he and

his sister, having spent the whole day with their much-loved ayah and bearer, listening to stories

and Indian nursery songs, would be sent into the dining room to meet their parents with the caution,

“Speak English now to Papa and Mamma” (Kipling 2). So they would then speak “haltingly” in

English, which they “translated out of the vernacular idiom” that they both “thought and dreamt

in” (2). Like Kipling, many British children who grew up in India during the colonial rule fondly

remember learning Indian rhymes from their ayahs. Charles Allen in his Plain Tales from the Raj

mentions these reminiscences.

‘One of the most charming things I’ve ever seen,’ declares Reginald Savory, born in 1892,

a lieutenant general in the Indian army ‘was the ayah squatting down on her haunches on the

verandah with a little child, saying their rhymes together. Most of them they had translated into a

kind of curious Anglo-Indian patois. There was “Pussy-cat, pussy-cat where have you been? I’ve

come out from under the Ranee’s chair”. Another one was “Humpti-tumpti gir giya phat”. Then

there was “Mafti-mai”: Muffety mother was eating her curds and whey on the grass…’ There were

also the Urdu songs and rhymes that ayahs sang to put their charges to sleep and which many never

forgot: ‘Roti, makan, chini, chota baba nini’ (Bread, butter, sugar, little baby sleep) and: Talli, talli

badja baba, Ucha roti schat banaya. Tora mummy kido. Tora daddy kido. Jo or baki hai. Burya

ayah kido. This could be translated as Clap, clap hands baby, they make good bread in the market.

Give some to your mummy. Give some to your daddy. What is left over. Give to your old ayah

(Allen 5). Allen adds that there were also stories that began “Ecco burra bili da…” (There was a

large cat then) and, for older children, tales that took a more sinister turn.

John Rivett-Carnac, a lieutenant colonel, who was born in East Bengal in 1888 remembers

a story about a leg-eater which lived under one’s bed, and if a small boy got out of bed the leg-

eater snapped off his leg. He recounts, “We were terrified of getting out of bed and once we’d

been put to bed we stayed there. The other story was about an old man of the wood, black and

hairy, who used to come from the jungle into small children’s bedrooms and tickle them to death.

This proved even more frightening than the leg-eaters and one evening we got so terrified that we

leapt from our beds-jumping as far as possible away from the bed so as not to lose our legs- and

dashed into the dining room where my parents were having a big dinner party. We took a great

deal of persuading to go back to bed” (qtd. in Allen 5-6).

These examples of British children in India learning Indian rhymes and stories from their

ayah, or like Kipling and his sister who “haltingly” spoke in English to their parents reveal a case

of reverse colonization and an almost dysfunctional idea of the mother-child bond. Traditionally,

in all societies, it is the mother who is seen as the repository of culture and the transmitter of

cultural values to the child. Ironically in the colonial nursery, it is the ayah as subaltern who usurps

this position of teacher and role model to the imperial infant while the British mother is left

helpless, unable to comprehend and therefore mould her children in the ‘superior’ British culture

of the ruling race. We see the estrangement of imperial children from their mothers as the umbilical

cord of their mother tongue is jeopardized. The imperial mother and child suddenly have no

common language to share their intimate bond and the memsahib’s greatest fear is that India would

snatch her children’s soul away and that they would “grow like little Hindoos”.

Therefore, what we see in the colonial nursery is a subtle but potent cultural battle between

the memsahib and the ayah for the soul of the imperial child. In this battle language is the primary

weapon and Ann Laura Stoler rightly points out that it is “seen to provide the idioms and cultural

referents in which children’s ‘character formation’ and internal disposition would be shaped” (“A

Sentimental Education” 81). The irony of this battle in the colonial nursery is made more striking

when we recall Thomas Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Indian Education in which he expounds on

the prowess of the English language. He states, “We have to educate a people who cannot at present

be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The

claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among

the languages of the west … Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast

intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course

of ninety generations. It may safely be said, that the literature now extant in that language is of far

greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages

of the world together (Macaulay 428).

Therefore, English is seen as the language of sophistication, culture and superiority that

should be taught to the colonized in order to civilize them and teach them the benefits of a higher

culture. Yet in the colonial nursery where ‘little imperial assets’ are supposed to get the best

foundation to rule the great empire, they are unable to speak their own tongue or as Vikram Seth

has beautifully put it though in the reverse context in his poem Diwali, the imperial child by being

fluent only in the vernacular, learns to speak against himself. The language that he loves so

intimately and “thought and dreamt in” actually belongs to another- sometimes hostile and abusive

–‘tongue’. The imperial child has to, therefore, concede, as Seth does toward the end of his poem,

that his “tongue is warped” (qtd. in Gandhi 13).

The actual fear is that the empire itself might come apart if the younger generation starts

speaking against themselves, thus against the empire itself. Also, the Indian languages become

part of their personal, private language, the language of their emotions that mediates their

relationship with not only the ayah but also India at large, while English becomes the formal public

language to be spoken when interacting with their parents, other British people and England itself.

‘Hindostanee’ becomes the secret language of the self, a key to a lost paradise of their childhood,

the potentially subversive core of their identity, that is subsequently ‘made’ British. This suggests

that cultural identity is ‘constructed’ and ‘acquired’. It is not inevitably imbibed through one’s

racial lineage or identity. Therefore, we see the deep fear of the British in India is that the imperial

child would acquire a cultural identity that would be at odds with its racial identity resulting in a

fundamentally damaging estrangement from its 'imperial' self.

The memsahib in India was well aware of the bond that existed between the colonial infant

and the ayah. The ayah in many cases was a surrogate mother to the colonial child. As Nancy

Chodorow observes, “Being a mother, then, is not only bearing a child-it is being a person who

socializes and nurtures. It is being a primary parent or caretaker” (11).

The imperial child’s close proximity with the ayah was therefore frowned upon not only

for the menace of cultural ‘contamination’ but for the greatest fear that the colonial establishment

had, that their attachment would threaten to dismantle the “barrier between the colonizers and the

colonized, consequences of which might be an erosion of the foundations of empire” (Chaudhuri,

“Memsahibs and Motherhood” 531). Therefore, as Charles Allen rightly points out, “England

provided both temporary and final solutions; imported nannies or governesses…and exported

children” (6). However, since British nannies and governesses were expensive, they could only be

afforded by higher-ranking officers and even then, these women would get married soon, so the

‘final solution’ was always the preferred one.

In the memsahib-ayah encounter, the memsahibs represented ayahs in an ambiguous

manner, which as James Clifford notes is always the case with the representation of servants. They

are seen as both “devotional and devious, trustworthy and lascivious”, as markers of loyalty and

sacrifice and embodiment of loose morals and corrupt behaviour (qtd. in Swapna Banerjee 146).

The memsahibs’ representation of the ayahs, as Ernesto Laclau would argue, is itself constitutive

of hegemonic relationship. Usually in such accounts servants have no existence apart from the

impression they left upon their employers. We rarely get an insight into their lives, how they

thought and what they felt. They appear as marginal characters to make a case, illustrate an

incident, prove a point, resolve an action, or fulfil a need. While the employers’ acts of

remembering and paying homage allude to the strategies of containing the subordinate classes,

servants figured as ‘tendentially empty signifiers’ that the employers required for their claim of

‘universality’ by transcending difference with particular groups or classes (Swapna Banerjee 162).

However, just as in the case of the wet-nurse, the ayah as subaltern managed to wield

considerable power in the colonial nursery by virtue of her hold over the colonial infant. As already

discussed, it was the ayah’s prolonged proximity to the colonial child that was the memsahib’s

greatest fear and it was because of the ayah that the memsahib had to undergo one of the most

traumatic separations, that of her children being sent ‘home’ to England. The ayah’s agency and

subjectivity can be located in those moments when she acted on her own volition with the

employers’ children and refused to identify with her employers’ cultural practices (Swapna

Banerjee 162). The ayah’s power to strike back is seen in her ability to be responsible for the

dysfunctional colonial mother child bond. Anne McClintock describes how in colonial homes in

Africa, African women demonstrated their resistance to their employers by performing myriad

small acts of refusal: in work slowdowns, in surreptitiously taking or spoiling food, in hiding

objects, in chipping plates, in scolding or punishing children, in revealing domestic secrets, in

countless acts of revenge that their white employers identified as laziness, clumsiness,

incompetence, gossip and theft (272). It is reasonable to suppose, in the absence of any direct

testimony of the wet nurses and ayahs, that they too developed strategies to subvert and resist the

imperial order. Therefore, we see that the power dynamics between the memsahib and the ayah

was fairly complex and was a primary source of angst for the memsahib.

On the other hand, we realize that there are several aspects to this encounter between the

memsahib and ayah. We see that the memsahib is given the burden of administering the rude

colonized woman and undertaking the task of civilizing her as part of the white woman’s burden.

The western woman is also supposed to provide the empire with strong, virile men and women so

that it regenerates and renews itself. Her own civilisational standing is predicated on the

‘uncivilised’ illiterate other, the colonised woman.

The Indian woman’s burden, on the other hand, is that of maintaining her caste, her religion

and her sexual purity. She is also nurturing the empire and ensuring its continuance. Ironically, the

'brown' woman makes possible the ‘career’ of the white woman in the colonies by shouldering her

domestic and maternal responsibilities. While there is the fear of physical and cultural

contamination in the cultural sphere, the Indian ayah also equips the child with cultural tools to

better negotiate the country by teaching the language, telling stories and acquainting the child with

the customs and practices of the country. In some ways, therefore, the child gets to know the

country more closely than the parents.

In this encounter between the British mother and the Indian ‘maternal’ figure, there is a

contestation between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The ‘other’ here is fearful, abhorrent, even

despicable against which the memsahib must define herself. This is reminiscent of the ‘Caliban’

story where the white woman civilizes the 'brown' woman who having been ‘civilized’, can now

turn against her. We, therefore, see the trauma of eternal vigilance of the white woman, not only

for the child so that she does not lose it, but also for herself, so that she is not found short of the

lofty ideals to which the native woman can never reach.

We see that this is a hierarchised relationship due to the racial privilege enjoyed by the

white woman. However, it is also a relationship based on delicate negotiation where the lives of

the children of both women are at stake. The white woman needs the ayah for the survival and

upkeep of her children. The Indian woman needs the employment the white woman offers for the

survival, better health and well-being of her child and to maintain her family. Therefore, we see

that the relationship or encounter between the two sets of women is not a simple binary of that

between the oppressor and the victim. Within the space of the intimate, the dynamics of the

relationship become far more complicated.

This paper, therefore, reveals that the colonial nursery emerges as a contested site where

the memsahib’s authority was undermined by the ayah in a daily power struggle over emotional

authority over the white children, thereby giving proof of the agency of the Indian woman in the

colonial encounter. It also reveals that occasionally there were unlikely bonds and supportive

alliances being formed by the memsahib and the Indian caregivers of her children.


i. Quoted in Anna Davin’s, “Imperialism and Motherhood.” History Workshop 5 (Spring 1978): 29.

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The Suffragette Movement and Marie Corelli

-Prodosh Bhattacharya

The Background

Shortly after his election to Parliament in 1866, John Stuart Mill moved a petition for

female suffrage organized by the Langham Place circle of women which included Barbara Leigh

Bodichon and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy.i In 1867, Mill published On the Subjection of

Women. The municipal franchise was granted to single women in 1869 and extended to married

women in 1894. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 produced more women seeking access to

higher education, and entitled women to vote for and stand in elections for the new School Boards.

Many contributors to, as well as editors and even some proprietors of, the newly-proliferating

journals were women. Among the most influential names in journalism were those of George Eliot,

Mrs Gaskell, Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Lynn Linton, Francis Power Cobbe, Margaret Oliphant,

Charlotte Yonge, and the model for Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, Caroline Norton. With

regard to Marie Corelli, Bertha Vyver records how Charles Jerningham described her as the ‘Life-

Boat of Journalism’ because of her controversial contributions to the periodicals and the responses

they generated.ii

On the other hand, in 1867 Mill was unsuccessful when he moved an amendment to the

Reform Bill substituting ‘person’ for ‘man’ in an attempt to apply the proposed extension of the

franchise to women. Middle-class opinion remained firm in regarding any appearance in the public

sphere by a woman as indecorous.iii Many women journalists were anti-feminist. Opponents of

female emancipation − and many of them were women − utilized social Darwinism to support

their arguments against advances in the social, economic and political position of women. Many

cited the Darwinian proposition that women, like ‘savages’, belonged to inferior races which had

not evolved to the elevated state of white men and therefore were unfit to exert influence on public

affairs. More insidiously, in June 1889, a petition entitled ‘An appeal against female suffrage’ was

published in The Nineteenth Century, which endorsed the achievements of the Victorian women’s

movement in the decade. However, it went on to argue that, given the ‘natural eagerness and

quickness of temper’ that it claimed women possessed, this ‘would probably make them hotter

partisans than men … [And] if this quickness of feeling be immediately and directly translated into

public action, in matters of vast and complicated political import, the risks of politics would be

enormously increased, and what is now a national blessing might easily become a national

calamity.’iv To name only one personality of the time who is more remembered than Marie Corelli,

Mrs Humphry Ward both argued for the admission of women to universities and formed the

‘Women’s Anti-Suffrage League’ in 1905-6. She seems to be of the same frame of mind as the

person(s) who wrote ‘An appeal against female suffrage’.

Marie Corelli

An Internet entry on the word ‘phenomenon’v quotes a Guardian newspaper review of a

biography of Marie Corelli as saying that she ‘was in effect the first of the lady novelist bestsellers,

her books read by everyone from Queen Victoria to shop assistants. In her day, she had been

nothing short of a phenomenon’(emphasis mine). The entry goes on to quote the relevant sense

of the word from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Something very notable or extraordinary; a

highly exceptional or unaccountable fact or occurrence; colloquially a thing, person or animal

remarkable for some unusual quality; a prodigy’, and adds, it seems with deliberate mischief, ‘By

all accounts, Ms Corelli was most of these things.’

Marie Corelli was born Mary Mackay in 1855 and died in 1924. Her parenthood is a riddle

still to be fully resolved. She was brought up and given her English surname by the journalist

Charles Mackay, and she may have been his illegitimate daughter. The identity of her mother is

part of the unresolved mystery surrounding her identity, a mystery she both manufactured and

actively helped to sustain during her lifetime.

Marie Corelli and Women’s Suffrage

In her article ‘Accursëd Eve’,vi Marie Corelli chooses to echo the most sexist of arguments

against women being given the vote that was advanced by women anti-suffragists:

I will not believe that there is any woman so feeble, so stupid, so lost to the power and charm of
her own individuality, as not to be able to charm quite half a dozen men. This being the case, what
does Accursed Eve want with a vote? If she is so unhappy, so ugly, so repulsive, so deformed in
mind and manners as to have no influence at all on any creature, father, nor brother, nor uncle, nor
cousin, nor lover, nor husband, nor friend, – would the opinion of such an [sic] one be of any
consequence, or her vote of any value? I assert nothing, – I only ask the question. (173) vii

As late as 1907, she wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Woman, or – Suffragette? A Question of National

Choice.’viii It argued passionately against women being granted the vote. The reason was,

primarily, the revulsion evoked in her, as among many women by the violent agitations that

accompanied the Suffragette movement:

Women want their ‘rights’! And with sundry screams and yellings, they aver that they have been
‘trampled down’ long enough and that they mean to have what they are screeching for, even if they die
for it!

Yet it sounds much more like ‘stage’ thunder than any real warfare … (12)

Such sentiments would be echoed eight years later by Lady Tonbridge in Mrs Humphry Ward’s

novel Delia Blanchflower, when she would say:

Here am I, with a house and a daughter, a house-parlourmaid, a boot-boy, and rates to pay. Why
shouldn’t I vote as well as you? But the difference between me and the Fury is that she wants the
vote this year − this month − this minute − and I don’t care whether it comes in my time − or Nora’s
time − or my grandchildren’s time. I say we ought to have it − that it is our right − and you men
are dolts not to give it us. But I sit and wait peaceably till you do − till the apple is ripe and drops.
And meanwhile these wild women prevent its ripening at all. So long as they rage, there it hangs −
out of our reach. So that I’m not only ashamed of them as a woman − but out of all patience with
them as a Suffragist!ix

Secondarily, Corelli sided with the insidious male argument against political

enfranchisement of women by arguing that this was not only ‘gender-inappropriate’, to use modern

jargon, but also unnecessary. One woman could use her femininity to influence ten men to vote

the way she wanted. What, then, it was argued, was the need for her to insist on the right to cast a

single vote?

… I am just a woman among women, and yet, – not a “suffragette.” I claim no more rights than are
already mine to the full, – and as for wanting a vote, why should I? As matters stand at present, I
can win for any candidate in whom I may happen to be interested, at least forty or fifty votes, –
perhaps more. Suppose, – after many struggles with the police and frantic buttonholing of worried
Members of Parliament in the Lobby of the House of Commons, I did secure my own one vote,
should I be better off than now, with the certainty of forty or fifty male voters at my beck and call,
ready to do precisely as I bid them? (13; author’s emphasis)

By 1919, the role played by women during World War I influenced Corelli to modify her

views. At first, she seems to commit a volte face, as the following quotation suggests:

By every law of justice they deserved the vote – and I who, as a woman, was once against it, am
bound to support the cause.x

This declaration comes after she explains her earlier opposition to voting rights for women as

having been based on

the chivalric view of man as taken by Sir Walter Scott in his immortal romances, and my idea …
was that as man was always ready to worship woman it seemed invidious on her part to contend
with him in his own sphere. (184)

She then records her realization

that as a matter of fact men denied women such lawful honours as they might win through
intellectual attainment and that in certain forms of legal procedure women were classed with
‘children, criminals and lunatics,’ … (184)

which made her begin to change her opinion. Going on to cite the gross unfairness in Lucy Kemp-

Walsh’s picture ‘Forward the Guns’ being purchased by the Royal Academy ‘“for the nation”’ but

the artist herself not being admitted as an R. A., Corelli hopes

that the granting of votes to women will alter all this, and … the barriers which the men have
carefully erected against the sex of their mothers will be broken down for good. (185-6)

However, she insists that while women may vote, it would be unseemly for them to enter


All the same I shall be sorry to see them in Parliament … straying so far out of their higher and
more influential sphere. The vanishing of modest and refined womanhood will prove a greater loss
to the nation than any other asset of its power and renown. (185)

In a subsequent essay in the same collection, entitled ‘The Women’s Vote’, xi Corelli reverts to her

earlier stance that the ‘“calling and election”’ of women

are superior to those of men – they are the makers of the race and the ordainers of the future, but
their strength is not in the hustings or the polling booth – it is in the silence and sweetness of
‘Home’. (308)
This comes after an assertion with regard to women’s right to vote that ‘when [woman] is given

what she wants, she doesn’t want it.’ (p. 308; emphasis as in Corelli). The essay ends with Corelli

gloating over the fact that the ‘Coupon Election’xii failed to return a woman M.P, which, by itself,

would have been consistent with the stand she took in ‘Is All Well with England?’ However, the

repudiation of the right of women to vote may remind us of the contradictory positions seen in

‘Coward Adam’ and ‘Accursëd Eve’.xiii

What seems to be a pendulum movement from against to for and back to against marks

Corelli’s views on votes for women. She is not alone in being apparently so self-contradictory, in

sounding like a fairly militant feminist at one moment and like a particularly reactionary (fe)male

chauvinist at another.xiv It is the fate of Corelli, ‘a woman whose fame at the turn of the [nineteenth]

century was unsurpassed and yet who by the end of the twentieth century had become only a name

vaguely, and pejoratively, connected with Victorian popular fiction’xv that such self-contradiction

would draw derisive comments from the biographers or critics. Thus, George Bullock says that for

all her fantastic speculation on the future and frequent use of scientific and philosophical jargon,

her opinions reflect the muddled thinking of the English middle classes whose prejudices she

thoroughly shared. Hence, Bullock concludes, she made no contribution to progress.xvi

But did Corelli therefore also remain reactionary or static in her world-view at large,

particularly with regard to women? To answer this, one needs to look at her later fictional output.

The Young Diana xvii

Diana May, when the narrative begins, has ‘passed the turning point of thirty years’ (14)

after which she has become, according to her own father, not only ‘superfluous’ but ‘as though she

had the plague, or was recovering from small-pox. To be a spinster over thirty seems … a kind of

illness.’ (51). Encouraged by her Suffragette friend Sophy Lansing to break away from

her selfish parents, it being ‘Woman’s Day’, and Diana being ‘a woman of exceptional ability’

(36), the latter fakes her own death to escape from a life wasted in looking after such ungrateful

people. Diana eventually fetches up in Geneva in response to a strange advertisement addressed

‘To ANY WOMAN who is alone in the world WITHOUT CLAIMS on HER TIME or HER
‘A SCIENTIST … requires the ASSISTANCE and CO-OPERATION of a Courageous and
Determined Woman of mature years. She must have a fair knowledge of modern science, and
must not shrink from dangerous experiments or be afraid to take risks in the pursuit of
discoveries which may be beneficial to the human race.’ (41; author’s emphases)

What the scientist, Dr Féodor Dimitrius, does to her is an exercise in rejuvenation. The Old

Maid regains her youthfulness, beauty and sexual attraction. . Dimitrius tells Diana:

‘… [Y]ou have been brave, docile, patient, obedient …’ ‘All four things rare qualities in a
woman! – or so men say! You would have made a good wife, only your husband would have
crushed you!’
She smiled.
‘I quite agree. But what crowds of women have been so ‘crushed’ since the world
‘They have been useful as mothers of the race,’ said Dimitrius.
‘The mothers of what race?’ she asked.
‘The human race, of course!’
‘Yes, but which section of it?’ she persisted with a cold little laugh. (273-4)

The experiment successfully over, Diana repudiates the claim of Dr Dimitrius on her

‘time’ and ‘affections’:

‘I am no more yours,’ she said, ‘than are the elements of which your science has composed the
new and youthful vesture of my unchanging Soul! … I have a Self …and it is … independent
of all save its own elements.’(378-9)

The novel ends with Diana living in Paris where

Each day finds her further removed from the temporary joys and sorrows of humanity, and
more enwrapt in a strange world of unknown experience to which she seems to belong. … She

feels neither love nor hate: and Féodor Dimitrius … wanders near her watchfully, but more or
less aimlessly, knowing that his beautiful ‘experiment’ has outmastered him …(380)

Federico notes (124) that in resisting her creator Dimitrius’s will, and developing mentally in

ways he did not expect, she resembles Frankenstein’s monster.

One is reminded of Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) as well when Diana tells

Dimitrius, ‘You have filled me with a strange force which in its process of action is beyond

your knowledge, – and by its means I have risen so far above you that I hardly know you’.

(267) One inevitably thinks of Shaw’s ‘Life Force’ and the helplessness of both man and

woman when under its control. When a nettled – and alarmed – Dimitrius dismisses Diana’s

warning as being an expression of ‘strange ideas … born of feminine hysteria’ (261), he is

taking refuge in the standard male defence against the female Other asserting its independence.

To quote Diana Basham:

Theologically, ‘the Curse of Eve’ had developed little in the way of theoretical sophistication
over the centuries beyond its elision with the medical diagnosis of ‘hysteria’. Woman had been
found guilty under scriptural law and hence excluded from the law’s full recognition, just as
women were denied equal civil rights and civic status with men.xviii

To go back to Federico:

As a spinster, Diana was socially invisible; as a wife, she would have lost her individuality. …
As a young beauty, she is alienated from her own face, her prettiness seems to belong to others,
and her ‘master’ claims her as his property. The only escape to personal autonomy … is the
destruction of the entire construct woman.(125)

Diana asserts her autonomy by using Dimitrius’s own words against him. He had told her, ‘The

magnetism of sex is the thing that ‘pulls’ – but you – you, my subject, have no sex!’ (252;

speaker’s emphasis) In the Epilogue she replies to Dimitrius’s comment that her circumstances

as a woman have hardly changed because she is as alone in the world as when she answered

his advertisement, with the words, ‘But only ‘so far as I am a woman.’ Now – how do you

know I am a woman at all!’(378) She is answering Dimitrius with his own earlier assertion that

he has reconstructed her as an ideal which has no place in the existing biological order:

‘The love which is purely physical – the mating which has for its object the breeding of children,
is not for you any more [sic] than it would be for an angel.’(252)

Hers is a new Self, neither female nor male, and so, independent of the constraints imposed on

both in society.

Incidentally, the ‘progressive’ Sophy Lansing, ‘a leading Suffragette and a very clever

writer,’ to quote the description of her by Diana herself (324), may have urged the heroine to

abandon her ungrateful parents to make a life for herself. But, when the young Diana returns,

Sophy not only refuses to believe that she is the same person. She asks Diana to leave, and after

Diana’s departure comes this revealing soliloquy:

‘Even if she were Diana, I could not have her here! – with me! – never – never! She would
make me look so old! So plain – so unattractive!’(329; author’s emphases)

For all her forward-looking opinions, Sophy remains true to Diana’s earlier analysis of the

reaction of the two sexes to her increasingly youthful appearance:

‘… six months ago I danced as well, skated as well, and played the piano as well as I do now –
but no one ever gave me the smallest encouragement! Now everything I do is made the subject
of exaggerated compliment, by the men of course! – not by the women; they always hate a
successful rival of their own sex! Ah, how petty and contemptible it all is!’(248; author’s

One of the two ladies, Lady Elswood and Mrs Gervase, to whom Diana had mentioned her

intention of meeting her Suffragette friend, had said:

‘… I hope she will not make you a Suffragette! Life has much better fortune in store
for you than that!’ (324; speaker’s emphasis)

To this, Diana had responded with an indifferent shrug and the words:

‘… I am not interested in political matters at all. They are always small and
quarrelsome, - like the buzzing of midges on a warm day!’ (325)

Hallim, an otherwise perceptive critic, presumably forgot these words when she wrote:

Sophy serves as the novel’s record of the impact of the Great War, reflecting Corelli’s softened
attitude toward female suffrage as a result of the movement of women out of the home and into
the workforce. She is not a figure of satire; on the contrary, Corelli anticipates Virginia Woolf
by giving Sophy her own flat and an income of two thousand pounds per year.xix


When The Young Diana was attacked for triviality at the time of the Great War, Corelli

gave what reads like a very ironic reply. She claimed that, far from being trivial, the novel dealt

with humanity, whose safety and prosperity are ‘vested in fair Woman, upon whom the

physical existence as well as ‘survival’ of man depends’. The narrative, she claimed, was ‘a

practical and passionate effort to save Woman alive! − beautiful and exquisite Woman! −the

Mother of all Man!’xx The irony becomes evident when we turn to the ending of the novel,

which declares that in the ‘Great Effort’ to ‘master the secret of living’:

neither the love of man nor the love of woman have any part, nor any propagation of an
imperfect race …xxi(320; my emphasis)

The author has progressed to a world-view which shows a total loss of faith in the worthiness

of humanity, and is no less negative than that which she had once identified as the consequence

of modern scientific atheism in novels like The Mighty Atom (1896). In the process, the issue

of voting rights for women becomes so trivial that it retains no importance whatsoever in the

author’s consciousness. It is also evident that, unfortunately for modern, particularly feminist,

sensibilities, she has also reverted to her earlier dislike and contempt for the issue.


i. This organization had come into being in the 1850s to promote further education and employment for

ii. Bertha Vyver, Memoirs of Marie Corelli, (London: Alston Rivers, 1930) 194.

iii. Nina Auerbach, in her Woman and the Demon (Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: Harvard
University Press, 1982) 205, notes how ‘the phrase “public woman” for performer and prostitute alike
was a social liabilty’. She qualifies this observation by adding that the phrase ‘endowed the actress with
the fallen woman’s incendiary glory without dooming her to ostracism and death.’

iv. Patricia Hollis, ed., Women in Public, 1850-1900 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1979) 323, cited by
Diana Basham, The Trial of Woman (New York: New York University Press, 1992) 191-192. See below
about Mrs Humphry Ward’s position regarding university education for women as against her views on
women’s suffrage.

v. Michael Quinion, ‘Topical Words Section, PHENOMENON, ‘World Wide Words (1996-; page
created 6 November, 1999, last updated 13 November, 1999), 14 November, 2002
< words/tw-phe1.htm>.

vi. Marie Corelli, Free Opinions Freely Expressed (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1905), 169-

vii. ‘Mrs Plynlimmon, when condemning suffragettes, had said: “The woman who can’t influence her
husband to vote the way she wants ought to be ashamed of herself.”’ E. M.Forster, Howards End (1910;
Harmondsworth: Penguin 1941, rpt. 1953), 214.

viii. Mrs Humphry Ward, Delia Blanchflower: A Novel, (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1915) 111-12,
author’s emphasis; cited by Hallim on p. 210. Let it be recalled that Mrs Ward was, at least officially,
opposed to votes for women.

ix. Mrs Humphry Ward, Delia Blanchflower: A Novel, (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1915) 111-12,
author’s emphasis; cited by Hallim on p. 210. Let it be recalled that Mrs Ward was, at least officially,
opposed to votes for women.

x. ‘Is All Well with England?’ London: Jarrolds, 1919; rpt. in My “Little Bit” (New York: George H.
Doran Company ©1919) 184-5.

xi. My “Little Bit” (see fn. 10 above) 306-10.

xii. The ‘Coupon Election’ was held on December 14th, 1918. It is so-called as those candidates for the
Liberal Party who had supported the coalition government of David Lloyd George during World War I
were issued with a letter of support signed by both Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the
Conservative Party. This was seen as being a mark of approval for those candidates. Herbert Asquith,
the official leader of the Liberals, referred to the letter as a “coupon” and the title stuck with regards to
the name of the actual election in 1918. 159 Liberal candidates received the ‘coupon’. Where a
‘Coupon’ Liberal stood for election, no Conservative challenged him. Where a Conservative stood, no
‘Coupon’ Liberal challenged him. Therefore, there was no chance of a coalition candidate competing
against another.

The ‘Coupon Election’ was the first election when women over the age of 30 and with property
qualifications could vote. The election also saw the rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland. The party had 72
members elected, including Countess Markievicz, the first female to be elected to Parliament. However,

in line with Sinn Fein policy, the countess did not take her seat in the House of Commons. (C N
Trueman, "The 1918 CouponElection" The History Learning Site, 27 Mar
2015. Accessed:11 March, 2018.)

Sinn Féin English: "Ourselves" or "We Ourselves" is a left-wing Irish republican political party active
in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Sinn Féin organisation was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith. It took its current form in 1970
after a split within the party (with the other side becoming the Workers' Party of Ireland) and has
historically been associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In 1919, Sinn Féin MPs elected to Westminster in 1918 refused to take their seats there and instead
constituted themselves in Dublin as the TDs (Teachtaí Dála) of the first Dáil, which was claimed to be
the legitimate parliament of the Irish Republic. (,
accessed 13 March 2018).

xiii. In ‘The Women’s Vote,’ Corelli, claims that Lloyd George’s generous ‘sweeping aside’ of a male
candidate in the Coupon Election in favour of Mrs Pankhurst amounted, for ‘many thousands of non-
Pankhurst women’, to a humiliation second ‘only to the surrender of the German fleet.’ (My “Little
Bit”, 309). ‘Coward Adam’ may be read in Free Opinions (see n. 6 above), 159-68.

xiv. See comments on Mrs Humphry Ward above, and the quotation from Delia Blanchflower.

xv. Federico, Annette R. Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture.
(Charlottsville: University Press of Virginia: 2000), 2.

xvi. George Bullock, Marie Corelli: the Life and Death of a Bestseller (London: Constable, 1940) 223-
24. Bullock uses as example her 1913 denunciation of war in an article called ‘Savage Glory’ published
in that year in Nash’s Magazine. In 1914-18, however, she switched to a total, and, Bullock suggests,
jingoistic, support for Britain in the War, as is seen in numerous pamphlets, articles and speeches, many
of which were later collected and published in My “Little Bit” (as was ‘Savage Glory’ too!). Bullock
says (224) that in this ‘swing across to the opposite side’ there was no ‘hint of her previous [anti-war]

xvii. Marie Corelli, The Young Diana (New York: George H. Doran Company, © 1918)
f. Accessed 2 February 2019. All page-references are to this online digitization, except for the last
quotation, for reasons explained in the relevant endnote.

xviii. Basham, Diana. The Trial of Woman: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian Literature
and Society (New York University Press, New York, 1992) Preface, viii.

xix. Robyn Hallim, Marie Corelli: Science, Society and the Best Seller [sic], unpublished thesis,
University of Sydney (May 2002) accessed 28 September 2004
< ->

xx. Marie Corelli, ‘Why Did I –?’ in My “Little Bit”, 314, author’s emphasis.

xxi. This quotation, with my emphasis, is from p. 320 of the British edition of the novel, [Marie Corelli,,
The Young Diana (London: Hutchinson, 1918)], because the American edition used so far has the last
page missing in the digitized version.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Corelli, Marie


Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct
(1905; rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1905).
‘Woman, or – Suffragette: A Question of National Choice’ (London: C. Arthur Pearson,
My “Little Bit” (1919; rpt. New York: George H. Doran Company ©1919).


The Mighty Atom (1896; rpt. London: Methuen, 1954).

The Young Diana: An Experiment of the Future [(New York: George H. Doran Company, ©
00coregoog.pdf. Accessed 2 February 2019. British edition, London: Hutchinson, 1918].
Other Primary Texts
Forster, Edward Morgan
Howards End (1910; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1941, rpt. 1953)
Shaw, George Bernard
Man and Superman (1903)

Ward, Mrs Humphry

Delia Blanchflower: a Novel (1915)

Secondary Texts


Auerbach, Nina, Woman and the Demon (Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: Harvard
University Press, 1982)
Basham, Diana. The Trial of Woman: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian
Literature and Society (New York University Press, New York, 1992)
Bullock, George. Marie Corelli: The Life and Death of a Best-Seller. (London: Constable,
Federico, Annette R. Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary
Culture. (Charlottsville: University Press of Virginia: 2000)
Hollis, Patricia ed., Women in Public, 1850-1900 (London : Allen & Unwin, 1979)
Vyver, Bertha. Memoirs of Marie Corelli (London: Alston Rivers, 1930)

Online, accessed 13 March 2018.
Hallim, Robyn, "Marie Corelli: Science, Society and the Bestseller," (unpublished Ph. D.
thesis, Department of English University of Sydney, May 2002, accessed 28 September, 2004
< ->

Quinion, Michael, World Wide Words, Topical Words Section, PHENOMENON, accessed
14 November, 2002 < words/tw-phe1.htm> (1996-;
page created 6 November, 1999, last updated 13 November, 1999).
Trueman, C N, "The 1918 Coupon Election" The History Learning
Site, 27 Mar 2015. Accessed 11 March 2018.

Anna Maria Hussey and Marianne North:
Understanding Victorian Gender norms through the lives and works of two
Botanical Artists

-Proiti Seal Acharya

Anne B. Shteir, in her article, “Gender and ‘Modern’ Botany in Victorian England”,

observes that during the latter half of the eighteenth century, women had “more culturally

sanctioned access to botany than any other science”(29). In the decades between 1830 and

1860, academic botanists, writers, and proto-professionals in England worked to reshape

popular and fashionable plant study into "botanical science" (29). Anna Maria Hussey, whose

book Illustrations in British Mycology was published in 1855, and Marianne North, whose

permanent exhibition at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew was opened in 1882, were both ,

therefore, working at a time when botany had been bifurcated into “polite botany” for women,

and “botanical science” for men by botanists such as John Lindley (Shteir 33). Nevertheless,

both women displayed great dedication to their botanical pursuits, despite belonging to vastly

different backgrounds.

One of the major differences between Hussey and North lay in their financial

conditions. Judith W. Page and Elise L. Smith infer that since Hussey’s work as a “serious

illustrator” (Page, Smith 106 ) began soon after her husband Reverend Thomas Hussey sold

his observatory, it must have been prompted by the need to provide an income for her family.

To support this inference, they refer to Hussey’s letter to famous mycologist Reverend Miles

Berkeley, in which she communicates her concerns about the subscriptions to her book. “I hope

the number will increase and put a trifle in my pocket”, she writes ( qtd. in Page, Smith 106).

In another letter to Berekely, she mentions that her story, titled ‘Matrimony’ and published in

Fraser Magazine, generated much more income than her mycological pursuits (Page and Smith,

107). By contrast, North belonged to an upper class, well-connected family. Her father

Frederick North was elected Member of Parliament for the town of Hastings in 1830. He was

also a Deputy Lieutenant, and Justice of the Peace for Norfolk. After his death in 1869, North

inherited a fortune, which allowed her to travel all over the world. The difference between

Hussey and North’s financial conditions is one of the main factors that explain their distinct

locations within the field of botanical illustration. Page and Smith indicate that Hussey

“domesticates science by giving instructions that situate her readers in the feminized realm of

the home.” These include suggestions to use “plate-baskets” (109) to collect samples, leather

sheaths with a hoop to carry tools, and tea-trays to spread out the specimens at home.

When recommending sturdy tools such as a butcher’s knife and a wrenching chisel, she

calls them “potent engines” ( qtd. in Page, Smith 109), but “softens” the tone of her instructions

by using the phrase “start not, gentle reader!” (qtd. in Page, Smith 109). Referring to scissors

as “feminine implements” (109), she recommends them to make cross-sections of puffballs.

She also states that her directions are suitable for “the more delicately constitutioned botanist”

(109). Her suggestion for those “delicate ladies” (109) for whom it would be too challenging

to collect specimens themselves is to employ poor persons for the task. These specimens could

then be studied by the ladies at home. According to Page and Smith, Hussey “expected that her

audience would consist primarily of upper-class women who could afford the expensive

volumes.” (Page, Smith 109).

Hussey’s awareness of the fact that both she and her readers are situated within the

home is reflected in her commentary on the Agaricuscaulicinalis:

The world is full of beauty that we pass by unheeded. There, opposite, is an ugly

thatched barn, elsewhere perhaps picturesque, but not when blocking the view from the

window; we cannot plant it out, there is a road between—we cannot cover it with ivy,

for it is not ours ; but look with changed ideas, set aside the prejudiced spectacles, and

you will see that every season decks that ragged thatch with beauties of its own […]

(qtd. in Page, Smith 109)

In their analysis of this passage, Page and Smith observe that the view from the window

“frames the woman’s perception of the world, both aesthetically and practically, and Hussey’s

solution, characteristically, is to join science with sentiment”. (109)

On the other hand, Marianne North’s botanical art was characterised by her extensive

travels. Her two-volume autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life consists of fifteen

chapters that may be read as a “series of separate travel narratives”, according to Anka Ryall

in The World According to Marianne North, a Nineteenth-Century Female Linnaean (206).

Between 1871 and 1885, she visited the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife,

Japan, Singapore Borneo, Java, Ceylon, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa,

Seychelles and Chile. She visited some of these places, such as the United States and Borneo

more than once. The singular goal of all these journeys was to paint the local vegetation in situ,

i.e. “on the spot innatural abundant luxuriance” (203) she wrote. In her paintings, the plants

would always be situated within its natural habitat. This approach separated her from

conventional botanical artists, who painted plants against white backdrops. Another choice that

differentiated her from them was her use of oil paint, as opposed to watercolour. During her

travels, she followed only one rule: “not going willingly anywhere where I could not see my

feet” (Ryall 204). Once she reached her desired location, she travelled on foot, on horseback

with or without side-saddle, on ox-carts, in sedan chairs, and canoes. She opted for slow means

of transportation as it would allow her to look around in case a plant caught her eye. Reflecting

on the nature of her travels, Narin Hassan writes,

The very nature of nineteenth-century travel—particularly botanical exploration—was

already deeply embedded within structures of imperial science during this time, and to

“survey” the globe assumed a desire to define and consume it within cultures of

imperial knowledge and expansion. North is implicated within the scientific imperialist

project by her “competitive and ambitious desire to discover rare species, and the fact

that five species of plants were named after her (Hassan 67).

However, in the textual narrative accompanying her paintings, North emphasises the

capacity of nature to overwhelm the human eye. Her paintings represent the potency of plants,

depicting them as “unique and perplexing figures” (67). North refers to her own sense of

connection to the plants multiple times, prioritising them over her interactions with human

beings. Hassan suggests that, North, by “creating her own perceptive and unique relationship

with landscape, acknowledges the inevitable progress of an imperial moment; but she also

suggests that such projects may be challenged, as the natural world may have its own unruly,

unpredictable, and uncontainable systems” (67).

Therefore, in our comparative study of Hussey and North, we may situate the former in

the ‘home’ and the latter in the ‘world’. Both had distinct roles to play, and they represented

two different types of Victorian women. Hussey’s role as a wife and mother often came in the

way of her mycological pursuits. In her commentary on Agaricus Pudence, she mentions that

it was “fortunately discovered near home” (Hussey 347). This phrase is telling because it

captures the stark differences between her circumstances and North’s.

Another major difference between Hussey and North lies in the mediums through which

their works reached the public. The two women exercised varying degrees of control over this.

Hussey, in a letter written during a particularly busy period of work on her book, refers to her

dissatisfaction with the lithographs that were made of her drawings. The “great pains” she has

taken to paint are rendered somewhat futile by the lithographer’s poor reproduction. This

complaint is followed by an apology: “I should not have scribbled all this, but I am sitting here

watching a sick child and so have nothing better to do than gossip.” (qtd. in Page, Smith 112).

In another letter, she states that she dislikes the plates in her work with an “intense disgust”,

criticising the lithographer for making smudges where the plates should mark pores (Page,

Smith 112). Thus we find that Hussey had to face these professional hurdles, simultaneously

performing her role as a mother. She confesses her frustrations privately but ultimately

apologises for them. Her tone reveals her acceptance of the limits of her position. Marianne

North, on the other hand, had the means to display her works on her own terms, to a

considerable degree. She funded the construction of a gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens in

Kew. This gallery was to house a permanent exhibition of her paintings, and it remains even

today as the longest exhibition by a female painter in the world. According to Barbara Gates,

North’s gallery at Kew was an “ingenious act of self-promotion and self-perpetuation” (Gates

100). In her autobiography, she wrote in detail about her ideas for the organisation of the

exhibition. On the ceiling, she wanted a painting of a world map, “coloured according to the

geographical distribution of plants, in different shades of green and brown”(Hassan 75), and

“the sea also shaded as it is in nature” (Hassan 75),. She also intended to paint an index of fruits

on the cornice, and “twelve typical trees between the windows” (Hassan 75). She mentions that

everyone was against her unconventional ideas except her friend Mr. Fergusson, who

recommended artists she might employ to paint the map. Neither of these artists nor the artists

recommended by them was able to produce exactly what she wanted, despite her paying £120

to one of them. She also arranged for a dado to be fashioned from wood brought from all the

places she had visited. Finally she wrote the catalogue for the exhibition on cards and stuck

them under the paintings. Mr. Hemsley edited and added more information, which, according

to North, he did so thoroughly that she requested him to finish the task and assign his own

name to the publication. Hassan observes that while North “aligns herself with the men who

were producing similar kinds of objects of scientific categorization, she also lets her readers

know about her own unique and contrasting approach to botanical display as her

‘unconventional’ ideas are dismissed” (76). North also decides to line the walls of the gallery

from floor to ceiling, creating an immersive and inter-connected experience for the viewer.

According to Hassan, “By placing the images directly next to one another, with hardly any

space in between, North also produces a sense of the plants being linked together in an intimate

way as they would within a natural environment” (63).This mirrors her aversion to painting

plants on a white backdrop like other botanical painters.

Page and Smith observe that Hussey’s Illustrations of British Mycology served an

“aesthetic as well as scientific function” (112). Similarly, Lynne Helen Gladston observes that

the “North gallery can be understood to have played uncertainly across the boundary between

secular-scientific concerns and the giving of artistic-aesthetic pleasure” (22). Here, Gladston

alludes to North’s desire to have refreshments served to visitors at the gallery: a proposition

that was rejected by the authorities. According to Gladston, they believed that the availability

of refreshments would tarnish Kew’s image as a centre for serious scientific study (Gladston

55). North withdrew her request but painted a tea plant and a coffee plant over the two

doorways into the gallery. This act of defiance remains as a testament to North’s will and

determination. Not much is known about the lives of other female botanical artists such as

Henrietta Maria Moriarty, Sarah Matilda Parry, Dorothea Eliza Smith, Elizabeth and Margaret

Whartonetc, as they did not leave behind extensive autobiographical writings like North or

Hussey. A recent online exhibition hosted by Google Arts and Cultural Institute acknowledges

their importance, stating “women have played a significant role in the development of plant

science through botanical art, yet many have not received due recognition for their work as

compared to their male counterparts.” (‘Women Botanical Artists’). Both Hussey and North,

despite negotiating with contemporary gender norms in very different ways, managed to create

a lasting impact on the field.

Works Cited

Gates, Barbara T. Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living
World. University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

Gladston, Lynne Helen. The Hybrid Work of Marianne North in the Context of Nineteenth-
Century Visual Practice(s).University of Nottingham Repository, 2012. Print.

Hassan, Narin, and Dame Gillian Beer. “‘A Perfect World of Wonders’: Marianne North and
the Pleasures and Pursuits of Botany.” Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of
Knowledge in the Victorian Age, ed. Lara Karpenko and Shalyn Claggett, University of
Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, (2017): 62–80. JSTOR, Web. 17 March. 2018

Hussey, Anna Maria. Illustrations of British Mycology.Vols 1 & 2.1847–1855.Reeve & Co,

Page, Judith W and Elise L. Smith. Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape:
England's Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

Ryall, Anyka. The World According to Marianne North, a Nineteenth-Century Female

Linnaean. University of Groningen Press, 2008. Print.

Shteir, Ann B. “Gender and ‘Modern’ Botany in Victorian England.” Osiris, vol. 12, 1997, pp.
29–38. JSTOR. Web. 17 March 2018.

Reclaiming Agency and Exploring Freedom through Participation in
A Study of the Victorian Women’s Interest in Spiritualism

-Shaona Barik

While considering the difference in the ratio of men and women who attended séances in

the Victorian age or participated as mediums, it is observed that women outnumbered men in

such matters. The prescriptive Victorian moral codes demanded the women stay confined

within the domestic sphere while their husbands were away on duty. Boredom, lack of

meaningful and fulfilling activities probably forced a few of them to take interest in

spiritualism. Housewives engaged in spiritualism out of a desire to renounce the burden of

passivity. As a result of which home séances started gaining popularity in Victorian England

during the latter half of the nineteenth century. “There was nothing financially remunerative

about home séances, but they may have offered something of escapism so abundantly supplied

by soap operas today, but with one important difference: in the spiritualist home circle the

medium was not simply an outside observer; she was the crucial participant in the unfolding

drama.”(Oppenheim 9-10). It is observed that women’s inclination toward spiritualism also

helped them to earn a living for themselves; some chose it as a profession.

Mediumship itself remained very much in the province of women, for it offered one of

the few means by which women of virtually any social or educational background could

earn money, pursue high profile careers, lay claim to otherworldly insight and subvert

male authority all while conforming to normative ideals of feminine passivity and

receptivity. (Wilburn 118)

Spiritualism granted women in the Victorian age uncharted freedom. During séances,

women could readily experiment with various issues associated with their bodies which the

standardized definition of femininity in the nineteenth century had debarred them from

experiencing. Possessed bodies during séances were radical bodies, “the roles that radical body

used included mediumship, clairvoyance, astral travel and transmigration of souls.”(Wilburn

2). Men’s voices adopted by women during séances signals at how women could experiment

with role-playing by transgressing the stereotypical definition of a Victorian woman’s ideal

body type ( which includes the behavioural pattern they were supposed to display as well). It

was even possible for women to switch personas during séances. Blavatsky could speak in a

husky voice (which was often categorized as men’s voice) during such sessions. Adopting

several voices in the name of spirit possession enabled them to display theatrical performances

as well. Such kinds of transgressions from the normative definition of femininity might have

been a liberating experience.

Within séances and in the name of spirit possessions, women openly and flagrantly

transgressed gender norms. Female mediums, with the approval of those present often

assumed a male role and sometimes also a trance persona which was at total odds with

the Victorian idea of respectable womanhood. Whilst male mediums were also known

to have assumed a female spirit voice or personality, their séances did not involve the

dramatic and theatrical representations for which the women were famous. Séance

behavior itself signified a transgression and transposition of normative femininity.

(Owen 11)

Bodies during séances attained multi-faceted identity; it became a fluid entity, and

showed signs of being operated by a woman’s will. The women had complete control over their

bodies during séances and could operate their bodies in accordance with their desires and

choices. It was during séances then that the Victorian society’s repressive measures imposed

upon women’s bodies in order to control them might have got relaxed to a certain extent.

Women’s bodies regained their share of freedom for those brief spells, which is as long as those

séances lasted.

No longer could these Victorian women of the mystical fringe be held accountable to a

fixed definition of identity. A person became a process of exploring different identities

within the one body, as well as becoming a place, a space, where multiple spirits

commune. A woman’s body became uncanny: unfamiliar at the place where it once

seemed at home. (Wilburn 88)

Theatrical performances displayed by women during séances perhaps provided them,

the opportunity to tear off the garb of domesticity and helped them to emerge out of the

suffocating ambience of the private sphere. Through performances they could achieve

acknowledgement and appreciation in the public domain. The theatricality involved in the

participation in séances enabled women to experience freedom within the confines of the

domestic sphere, at the same time it offered some of them the scope to enter the public realm

as professionals. The stereotypical belief supported by pseudo-scientific theories, considered

women as a bundle of nerves. Therefore the theatricality displayed by women during their

participation in séances did not come under much scrutiny. Rather the conventional belief that

women were of a nervous disposition made them suitable subjects for the types of

performances they displayed during séances. For women perhaps such performances would

have been therapeutic, they possibly found a way through which they were able to express their

repressed selves, bring up their pent up desires and bottled up emotions onto the surface. Mrs

Weldon was a professional singer, and the 1860s saw Mrs. Weldon deeply involved in amateur

theatricals. She found spiritualism’s theatricality appealing. Women performed in séances for

multiple reasons: it fetched them money, in due course of time séances offered women the

scope for vocation. They could use the séances as platforms to gain public attention. For the

purpose of indulging in excitement and fun some women took part in séances. Theatrical

performances are liberating; it often offered the scope of relief from repressive agony.

Mesmerism a component of spiritualism offered therapeutic cure for such diseases from

which the women in Victorian England were specifically thought to have suffered from.

Theories about diseases from which women were thought to have suffered from were

scientifically appropriated to demean them.i The aim of such scientific theories was to control

and operate the women’s bodies in accordance with the social dictum of that age. For instance,

Victorian ideas about menstruation furnish a remarkable example of the way in which scientific

knowledge reflects and determines moral biases of an era. Victorian science related to

menstruation supported general beliefs of the age, like women’s inferiority and weakness, well-

attested social facts, invalidism among women, illness from emotional shock etc. Their

plausibility to Victorian-era depended on unspoken understanding that “the monthlies” were to

blame. It was a popular belief during this era that a woman loses her sanity during menstruation.

Mesmerism aided in assuaging menstrual pain. Cure offered by mesmerism, thus, helped in the

portrayal of those diseases as somatic disorders, made the women readily accept such

phenomenon as natural bodily processes and not as something for which their gender was to

be blamed in particular. Harriet Martineau, author and social theorist, though that mesmerism

had cured her of her tumor.

While at ongoing séances women tended to explore the notions of sexual desire and

pleasures associated with their bodies. Female ghosts at times were said to have appeared

almost naked; they kissed, caressed during séances. Women understood and developed their

role as spiritualist medium in terms of the world around them. Rosa Praed, a theosophist and

author of the late nineteenth century, used occult themes in her novels like Nadine: The Study

of a Woman(1882), Affinitites: a Romance of Today(1885), The Brother of the Shadow: A

Mystery of Today( 1886), and The Soul of Countess Adrian: a Romance (1891) to criticize the

repressive social norms of that age. Ambiguity about her own sexuality made her critique the

established norms of heterosexuality as well. “Praed’s occult inspired texts are productive

precisely because they muster a theosophical notion of the relationship between the physical

and the spiritual in order to launch a critique of the norms of heterosexual identity and object

choice.” (McCann 160) As homosexuality was frowned upon and was considered a taboo in

Victorian England, Praed used the trope of spiritualism to sanction its existence. Scholarship

on Praed has tended to be dominated by an elision of her occult fictions and especially her

interest in channelled writing, which emerged out of her relationship with Nancy Harward, a

trance medium with whom she lived for twenty-eight years. This elision has also amounted to

a repression of the same-sex desire, often considered as spiritual intercourse that informs so

many of Praed’s novels. Same-sex desire was often explored by women during séances. In

fact séances provided them the space to assert their choices freely, openly. Moreover they

could flaunt such choices in the public sphere. After all séances were conducted in front of

many other people and their actions did not get questioned as long as the séances lasted. On

one occasion, for example, Miss Showers (the author Florence Marryat’s friend), busy at work

as a medium, asks Marryat

[To] put ( Marryat’s) hands up her skirts and convinced (her)self that she was half

materialized. Marryat does as she is told “and felt that (Miss Showers) had no legs,

although she had been walking around the room a few minutes before. (Marryat) could

feel nothing but the trunk of a body, which was lifted completely off the ground. This

happens to be one of the numerous examples of Showers and Marryat’s physical union

during the act of mediumship. The rapport between the women extended beyond the

séance room. The act performed by these two friends hint at same sex desire and

romantic friendship. (Wilburn 87)

At a time when non-normative sexual practices by women was considered a taboo,

similar actions performed through spirit communication was not condemned as harlotry. Rather

those activities helped the women to reclaim their agency and respect in the Victorian society.

Many young women, adolescent girls got attracted to the phenomenon of séances; their active

participation increased during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Some of them took up

the roles of mediums as well. In Victorian England where women were sexually repressed and

were denied of their natural sexual rights, perhaps séances offered them the opportunity to

derive sexual pleasure during the course of ongoing séances.

There may have also have been a potent element of sensual enjoyment, possibly

subconscious, that enhanced the séances. Without exaggerating the extent of sexual

repression in Victorian society, one can surmise that the holding of hands and the

caressing of spirit forms might have been stimulating not only to the sitters, but also the

young women whose emerging sexuality was denied natural means of expression.

(Oppenheim 21)

Women’s biological ability to reproduce was claimed in various ways by the Victorian

patriarchal forces to formulate rigid ideas about their physical and mental health. The women

heard that the physical process attendant on motherhood was somehow unnatural, abnormal,

diseased. They learned that their nerves were at the mercy of their reproductive organs. Such

ideas mostly aimed at considering women to be inferior to men. Medical science was used as

a tool to authenticate and assert such stereotypes as truths. The biological functioning of their

bodies was blamed for any display of aberrant behaviour by the women. The production of

ectoplasmii during séances is evidence of how women attempted to subvert the charges laid

upon them by Victorian medical science. Through the generation of ectoplasm from various

parts of their bodies like the navel, nose, breasts, it was as if these women were trying to assert

the fact that their reproductive abilities did not make them weaker rather enabled them to have

access to supernatural powers. It was after all a process of reclaiming their agency which

patriarchy had attempted topple through the constructions of certain demeaning stereotypes

about women’s reproductive faculty. For example Eva Carriere, a French medium, stripped

herself naked during séances and could produce milky white ectoplasm from her breasts. She

was labelled as a loose woman as many believed that she used such tricks to lure men into

paying her off a hefty sum of money as token of appreciation for her bold sexual performances.

The production of ectoplasm during séances is evidence of the ways in which women attempted

to subvert the charges laid upon them by Victorian medical science. Through the generation of

ectoplasm from their bodies, it was as if these women were trying to assert the fact that their

reproductive abilities did not make them weaker rather enabled them to have access to

supernatural powers. It was after all a process of reclaiming their agency which patriarchy had

attempted to knock down. Through performances during séances, women could gain a feeling

of liberty; it was a process of crossing the threshold of passivity that had got associated with

their bodies. Also performances granted them the opportunity to play act different roles which

perhaps provided them with relief from the repressive code of conduct which they were

required to follow. Their confined existence within the domestic sphere which had been

conditioned by the invention of phrases like ‘the angel of the house’, morally upright women,

women as purifying forces had further made them desperate to fit into such stereotypical

definition of Victorian womanhood. Theatrical performances gave them a scope to tear off the

garb of domesticity and helped them to emerge out of the suffocating ambience of the private

sphere. Through performances they could achieve acknowledgement and appreciation in the

public domain. Coming out in the public terrain could have added onto a feeling of confidence

as well. Women in Victorian era were mostly debarred from having access to such occupations

which required them to have associations with the public space but performances in séances

enabled them to attain a status of recognition in the same space. During séances thus they could

fulfil such desires with the help of the mode of performance.

Several spiritualists laboured hard to bring about radical changes in society, organized

rebellion against injustice and fought for the cause of the oppressed. Many secret clubs/

societies sprang up all over England which had women members who were active practitioners

of spiritualism. Often their motif was to address the “Woman Question”; for example,

Cambridge University’s Ghost Club, an early version of Society for Psychical Research was

the breeding ground for supporters of women’s education reform. These societies dealt with

issues associated with social taboos; they questioned the preaching of orthodox religious

institutions as well. Many women got their call to bring about social changes while attending

séances. Barbara Leigh Smith emerged from darkened rooms of Spiritualist séance with a clear

sense of her own future direction and immediate goal. Important decisions were taken, and

choices were made, by women in the course of séances. Some of them even discovered their

aim, goal in life while participating in séances. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor,

found her vocation during a mesmeric trance. Some of the suffragettes also had deep

inclination towards spiritualism. Spiritualism supplied them with the zeal to fight for their own

rights as its principles aimed to banish social disparity at various levels.

The affiliation between religion, especially esoteric religion and feminist political

culture were neither accidental nor idiosyncratic. As Philippa Levine has noted, that a

significant minority of the women in Levine’s sample (8%) experienced spiritual

conversion, which she takes as an indication that religion played an important role in

their lives. In Becoming a Feminist, Olive Banks studies a list of prominent feminist

women from nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Of the women in her sample who

were active from 1890s to 1930s, almost 10% -Anne Besant, Ursula Bright, Charlotte

Despard, Flora Drummond, Eva Gore Booth, Annie Kenney, Dona Mantefiore,

Emmeline Pethick Lawrence-actually joined the Theosophical Society at some point in

their careers. Not all these women can be usefully characterized as theosophists, but

their membership in the Theosophical Society, at the very least an interest in “matter

spiritual” and an openness to unorthodox forms of religiosity. (Dixon 6)

Theosophy’s links to the English feminist movement were particularly marked. In June

1911 a contingent of theosophists had marched, under the banner of Universal Co-

Freemasonary and in full Masonic regalia, as part of the Women’s coronation procession. In

the suffrage procession, Charlotte Despard marched as president of the Women’s Freedom

League (WFL). The suffrage procession itself was organized by the theosophist Kate Harvey,

also a member of the WFL and a close associate of Despard. The famous medium, Cora L

Richmond was committed to the causes of abolitionism, temperance, socialism, non-violence.

Victoria Woodhull who was an American suffragist leader joined the spiritualist movement in

the 1870s she advocated the concept of free love, fought for women’s rights and labor reforms.

The suffragists’ interest in spiritualism is remarkable to note, perhaps spiritualism provided an

alternative platform which they used to voice their liberal opinions, to criticize social injustices.

Yet some British women who were engaging in such revolutionary protests against social

repression travelled to the east in search of spiritual fulfillment. The repressive and restrictive

social code which perhaps suffocated them in England seemed to have got much relaxed in the

east. While criticizing the west’s dehumanizing, almost addictive inclination towards scientific

and materialistic progress, spiritualists like Conan Doyle and Marrie Correlli asserted their

faith upon the kind of spirituality that existed in the east. It was as if the east provided them the

space to experiment with occult activities. The east perhaps granted them the opportunity to

rely or have faith upon alternative systems of knowledge like occultism which was generally

subjected to harsher forms of criticism in a western society which ran on the principles of

enlightenment rationality. Some women spiritualists went to India as independent activists;

they were unlikely memsahibs because of their high level of education and public experiences

and unlikely missionaries because of their declining enthusiasm for mainstream Christianity.

It is interesting to note that the women theosophists who were travelling across the world were

mostly single women. Serious controversies surrounded Blavatsky’s marriage; she was said to

have run away from her husband. Besant could never agree with her husband’s orthodox views

(Puritanism) about Christianity which broke her marriage. Victoria Woodhull, the suffragette

campaigner married thrice and claimed to have found solace in spiritualism. Cora L Richmond,

the famous medium had several flings and got married four times. Unhappy personal lives,

dissatisfaction with marriage or family lives probably forced those women to seek happiness

and peace in some sort of spiritual movement (it could have been a diversion and supplied them

with entertainment), also a platform to bond with each other which they could easily claim as

their domain because conventional views about women’s impulsiveness, nervous disposition

was believed to have made them the suitable as practitioners of various forms of spiritualism.

Lady Emily Lutyens stated in her book, Candles in the Wind (1957), that she did not have a

fulfilling married life which apparently compelled her to join the theosophical society. Also

the lack of family responsibilities gave them enough leisure to engage in the serious study of

occult sciences. Some took up occult studies as serious academic inclination. Those women

torn asunder by personal tragedies also took shelter under the comforting canopy of

spiritualism. At times spiritualism provided them solace, often it acted as balm to sooth their

troubled souls, at other times it offered them an opportunity to communicate with their

deceased loved ones, for some it might have been an escape route from agony, pain and helped

them to come to terms with the tragic fate and instilled faith in afterlife. Frances Garnett-Orme,

a British occultist who came out to India in 1911 indulged in activities like séances, table

rapping, crystal ball gazing to help cope with the death of her husband with whose spirit she

aimed to communicate with the help of such processes. In Mysterious Affairs at Style (1920)

Agatha Christie (which happens to be the debut Poirot series) fictionalised the mystery

surrounding Frances Garnett-Orme which took place in reality at Hotel Savoy, Mussorie in

1911. She was suspected to have been murdered by her rival occultist friend Eva

Mountstephen, who had also arrived in India to cultivate occult knowledge.

Alice Trix, Rudyard Kipling’s sister seemed to have taken a deeper interest in psychical

phenomenon. Trix inherited the knack in spiritualism from her mother Alice Kipling.

Trix recounted her psychic experiences under the pseudonym of “ Mrs Holland”. She

generally acted as a mental medium, one who engaged in crystal ball reading and

automatic writing. While during her stay in India she practiced automatic writing

profusely along with her husband, John Fleming. She was quite popular amongst the

members of the Society for Psychical Research in London. Many women occultists

were in fact well-travelled. Wanderlust, combined with the desire to amass occult

knowledge took many women on a globetrotting spree across the various regions of the

world. Interest in occultism enabled women to cherish the taste of the public sphere.

Travelling granted women freedom from unhappy relationships, personal tragedies,

helped them to broaden their horizons. In addition to the gratification of seeing the

world, travel provided mediums, just as it did other Americans in the 19th century, with

an opportunity to walk away from personal problems. Husbands and domestic life

often. Unhappy love affairs occasionally. Routine always. In the act of escape medium

proved something to society. They were tough, albeit gentle. They were resourceful,

albeit mild. And they had a service to offer that was too important to be confined within

narrow geographic boundaries. (Laurence Moore 116)

Some spiritualists considered the subject of occult to be an important branch of science.

Many serious scientists included psychical research in their range of interest, and their works

on subjective states of trance, dream and psychic splitting were a serious contribution to new

psychology. For instance, Lady Kingsford a doctor by profession got eager to study occultism

when a proposal was made to her by a notable expert in 1886. Psychology as a branch of

medical science seemed to have been heavily influenced and enriched by occult, psychical

revelations which people encountered during certain spiritual sessions like séances, states of

hypnotism and so on. Also while delving deep into the study of occultism and considering it as

a subject of serious academic interest some scholars of occultism discovered its close

connection with the branch of psychology or in other words occultism made it easier to

understand how the human mind functioned, especially the stratum of the unconscious. Jung

while discussing spirits stated that they happened to be the projection of our unconscious mind,

“Spirits, therefore, viewed from psychological angle are unconscious autonomous complexes

which appear as projections because they have no direct association with the ego.” (Jung 137).

He claimed that spirits were after all the manifestation of our unconscious psyche and that the

conscious mind was in no way responsible for the production of spirit phenomenon.


i. Scientific theories about women’s diseases had snatched away the freedom of their bodies, through
the cures offered by mesmerism they were perhaps able to accept the natural cycle of their bodies as
something normal. Harriet Martineau, author and social theorist, thought that mesmerism had cured her
of her tumor.

ii. There were several prominent literary, public figures in England then who were curious to continue
with their research on the ectoplasm. Arthur Conan Doyle’s foray into the world of spiritualism is well
known, he even attended séances to collect evidences about the existence of spirits. In the context of
ectoplasm he wrote, “ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes in his article The Absolute Proof: “…the witnesses
averred that certain people, whom they called ‘materializing mediums’, had the strange physical gift
that they could put forth from their bodies a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from
every known form of matter, in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes, and yet could
be reabsorbed, leaving absolutely no trace even upon the clothes which it had traversed in leaving the
body. This substance was actually touched by some enterprising investigators who reported that it was
elastic and appeared to be sensitive, as though it was really an organic extrusion from the medium’s
body. (Reference provided by Swami Prajnanananda, Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Calcutta.)”

Works Cited

Abhedananda, Swami. Life Beyond Death: Lectures of Swami Abhedananda. Web. n.d.

Dixon, Joy. Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England. Maryland: John Hopkins
University Press, 2001. Print.

Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-
1914.New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Print.

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian
England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

Jung, C.G. Psychology and the Occult. UK: Routledge, 1982. Print

McCann, Andrew. The Differentia of Literature: Networks of Alterity in Late Victorian

Popular Fiction.Diss. Dartmouth College: Department of English, 2010. Print

Moore, Laurence R. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American

Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wilburn, Sarah A. Possessed Victorians: Extra Spheres in Nineteenth Century Mystical

Writings. UK; Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2006. Print.

“Hark! Hark! The trumpet’s calling”:
Reading the Image of the Suffragist Angel

- Shromona Das

Spring 1906, Nelson Street. The dark greyish watercolour panel of Kate Charlesworth's
artwork depicts a drawing-room. An aged woman with a ‘Gibson Girl’ updo is seen to be
reading out newspaper articles along with two younger women. Sally, their bright ginger-haired
domestic help, is gleefully listening to their conversation. “Look at this one Em’s sent from
London”, says the older woman in a frilly-trimmed gown, “Voterettes on the Warpath!” The
younger women break into laughter. Holding up another news article, one of them says, “I like
this Daily Mail one best. It calls us ‘Suffragettes.’!”

The sequence I open my discussion with is a panel from Bryan and Mary Talbot’s
collaboration with Kate Chalseworthy in the graphic-fiction Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
(2014:20). Though written in a fictional account, the well-researched book offers a very
detailed annotation of the events. The visual imageries are direct references to logos,
merchandises, and banners used by the Suffragists. Written from the perspective of Sally, the
ginger-haired maid turned into a militant feminist; the narrative offers a glimpse of the
Suffragette struggles. By introducing the component of fiction, this graphic narrative also
offers a feminist critique of the suffragist methods and brings out the ideological conflicts
between subgroups.

The suffragettes came to be called the ‘suffragettes’ only as late as in the spring of 1906
when the Daily Mail dubbed them so. The name was not given as a compliment by the
newspaper; however, it was owned and appropriated by the ‘Women's Social and Political
Union’ (WSPU). They reclaimed that nickname and started identifying themselves as ‘the

The WSPU started publishing their news bulletin and marketing their merchandises.
The first issue boldly declared

The Suffragette of which this is the first issue, is the Official Organ of the
Women’s Social and Political Union, the militant organisation for obtaining Votes
for Women. The name Suffragette, first applied … by the Newspapers, has, by use

and association, been purified of any … distasteful significance it may have borne
in the past…and women … bear it with pride; The Suffragette has come to stay!
That is why we have called this paper by her name. (1912)

Print media and print-culture thus played a crucial role in the movement. It also became
the most accessible tool for challenging the dominant anti-suffragette movement. By setting up
their own press and building a community of volunteers, the suffragettes created an alternative
media-platform for the circulation of their papers and bulletins. Hand distributed and printed
at the make-shift presses, these bulletins paved the way through which women could create an
alternative platform for propaganda.

The first issue of ‘The Suffragette’, edited by Christabel Pankhurst was published in
1912 whereas the first issue of ‘The Anti-Suffrage Review’ had already been published in 21st
July 1908. The suffragists led by Mrs Pankhurst were now not only fighting against the
members of the parliament, the police and the government, but also a well-organised group of
women united by Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. My paper aims to bring out the
visual battle fought by both the parties over a certain idea of womanhood through caricatures,
cartoons, magazine covers and designs of agitprop merchandise.

‘Mummy is a Suffragette/ And I am no one’s pet/ Oh! Why am I left all alone/ To cry
and suffer yet”- read the poem printed at the back of a popular 1909 poster. Anti-suffragist
posters generally depicted three kinds of scenarios. The first involving the frustrated spinster,
“who had never been kissed.” Some posters visually claimed that the only kind of women who
become suffragettes are monstrous and ugly. Unsuccessful at bagging a man, or physically
“undesirable”, this spinster-image became the stereotypical suffragette in the opponents’
agenda. Witchlike, rude and often with her hair tied in a ‘Gibson Girl’ updo similar to Mrs
Pankhurst, this suffragette-spinster was the epitome of the deviant (Fig.1). Armed with a black
umbrella, she became a recurrent visual reference throughout the years of postcard-battle
between the two parties.

In other cases, when the suffragette character is a married woman, she must “take it out
on the hubby.” The posters even suggested how miserable life could be if you were a man in
love with a suffragette or worse if you are married to one. The famous feminised men, victims
of such households are moulded into the fighter of the “Suffragist Madonna”: a suited man in
a trendy moustache nursing the baby. The posters turn married suffragists into crude, robust
and muscular women while their husbands are robbed of their masculinity. While the old

women are depicted as bitter spinsters and married women as tyrants, the younger suffragists
are portrayed as women with monstrous desire, hysteric libido and rumours of sexual
promiscuities. And if they managed to get married, naturally these women become lousy
mothers. Several posters showed what it means to have a suffragist mother: “What is a
suffragette without a suffering household?”

Fig. 1

The anti-suffragette handbill entitled ‘“Votes for Women”. Never!’ advocates that the
suffragist movement “... is the Subjection of Man to Woman, turning the order of nature upside
down.” When roles are reversed, what you are left with is but the horror; the unimaginable
turning down of the natural order: going against nature, the state, and god, is what these
“rubbish” women were doing. Mrs Frederick Harrison’s article published in the Review
substantiated why these women and their audacity was but “rubbish” (2016:39). The precise
charges brought against the suffragists were deep-rooted in the patriarchal anxiety of women
coming out of the domestic sphere. And what better way to present it but with a charge of
defying the god-given, “natural” role of subjugation. The women defying the natural course of
orders were the flirtatious women with monstrous sexuality, the bad mothers, the bad wives,
and the aged, wicked spinsters: the new ‘fallen woman’. Since they are also incapable of raising
the future generation, hence were corrupting the core of the society. They were the witches, the
hags, and the whores. And there was only one solution to this problem: “If you’ve got a wife
that nags/ Get one of these patient gags.” A plethora of posters contributes solely to providing
a cure to this disease in graphic medical metaphors. Brightly coloured in fabulous reds, greens

and yellows, they offered fictitious models for surgical instruments which can physically
restrain the tongue or keep the mouth shut. Almost like biblical devices of discipline, or details
from Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of Hell, the devices depict gruesome violence albeit in a garb
of humour. The fact that these posters were wildly popular and generously accepted as good
humour is evident in the reprint of the same in the 1908 Christmas greetings card. Some posters
even venture beyond the quasi-medical forms of punishment and depict, explicitly, tongues
being butchered, mouths being hammered or by using a guillotine. When taming through
shaming does not work, the body has to be mutilated: “Peace At Last.” (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2

The charges against the suffragists were therefore doubled: they were social anomalies
turning the natural order upside down and thereby challenging the sanctum sanctorum: the
domestic sphere. In the visual analogy of the Anti-Suffragists, the Suffragists were, therefore,
the ultimate ‘Other’ to ‘the angel in the house.’

The rhetoric of the angel and the ‘angel in the house’ were also crucial to the WSPU.
Their handbills continuously refer to “mothers demanding vote.” It was within this liberal
feminist discourse that new notions of subversions were being created. Diverse in activities
and methods of achieving triumph, the suffragists also depended heavily on religious
iconography. Attacked by charges of blasphemy, vices and sins, the suffragists were taking

recourse to religion. One has to simply look at the issues of ‘Britannia’ with dedicated biblical
citations. Long passages on Saint Guilia of Carthage and “Catherine of Siena, Mystic and
Politician” were published on the WSPU “Votes for Women” magazines (Colette, 2012:170).
The editor of “Votes for Women,” Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence compared the movement to
the Crusade and suffragist Emily Davidson quoted sections from the Bible. It is almost in a
response to the Anti-Suffragist postcards that Sylvia Pankhurst conceived the design of the
logo for the organisation. This logo is a direct visual reference to the Archangel Gabriel and
the biblical blast of the trumpet proclaiming the return of the Lord on earth. Sylvia, who was
single-handedly responsible for the agitprop art of the WSPU created her own mythic order:
there was her Minerva waving the red flag of ‘Reform’, the virgin militant goddess adorned in
her headgear and spear calling women suffragists to unite. There was illustration of the pale
blue Athena, strong and wise, with the Parthenon in the background. The suffragist in the ochre-
golden composition has a divine halo, and the poster for ‘The Women’s Exhibition’ (1909)
introduced suffragist archetype blowing the biblical trumpet. And of course, there was the
patron saint of the movement, the embodied symbol of the holy crusade, Joan of Arc (Fig. 3).

These images fall in line with Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, treasurer, editor and
organiser of WSPU, coming up with names such as “maiden Warrior”, “Child of Destiny” and
“Spirit of the Dawn.” American literary critic Carolyn Colette discusses the religious
inclination of the suffragists at length in her essay ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ (2012). She also
reads the famous suffragist motto “Fight on and God will give the victory” as a reworking of
the phrase used by Joan of Arc: “In the name of God …will fight and God will give the victory”
(2012:171). One of the Anti-Suffragist posters thus took a dig at Sylvia Pankhurst’s goddesses,
depicting the divine classical figure of the maiden holding a banner saying, “No Votes Thank
You,” overshadowing the figure of an Amazonian suffragette running with the hammer and a

Fig. 3

Between the two extremes, the militant biblical angel, the divine Christian martyr
fighting God’s war and the image of the old, witchy spinster of the Anti-Suffragists, a feminist
work like Sally Heathcote: Suffragette (2014) aims to strike a balance. Adhering to their
feminist roots, the famous Talbot duo neither mocks the efforts of these remarkable women
nor do they elevate them in divine order. An interesting incident that occurs on page 62 is
Sally’s encounter with Marjorie Ann Bryce. Delivering the merchandise to the WSPU outlet,
Sally runs into Marjorie Annan Bryce who will be leading the Women’s Coronation Process
on the streets of London, on 17th June 1911. “I’ll be leading the parade on horseback, dressed
as her [Sylvia’s] great hero”, she says. “Who’s that, then?” asks the shop keeper. “Why, Joan
of Arc!” she then discusses her costume at length and how they will recreate the dramatic
staging. It is through such personal encounters that Sally brings in important moments of the
movement. By discussing the staging of Sylvia’s great hero, the narrative also presents a critical
understanding of these public spectacles as a strategic method conceived by the Suffragists to
counter the socio-cultural attack (Fig. 4).

The suffragists were speaking of their war in the allusion to the crusade, and so were
the Anti-Suffragists. The Suffragists found their logo in the Christian iconography of Gabriel;

the Anti-Suffragists found their logo in the holy chamber of the state and patriarchy: home.
They challenged the biblical militant angel by embracing the image of the ‘angel in the house’.
The ‘Women’s National Anti-Suffragette League’ sealed the deal by creating the stamp. It had
a mother at the centre, looking away from the viewer, engaged in nursing the young child while
the little daughter looks up at her as if gazing at her future. The round stamp captures the
woman in the domestic sphere. The blast of the trumpet and the war cry of crusade were to be
countered by the silent-happiness of domestic bliss.

Fig. 4

There were debates amongst the suffragists on the issue of militancy. Many of them did
not identify with the terrorism of the ‘Young Hot Blood’ group. A subgroup within the
followers of Mrs Pankhurst, these young women were responsible for planting bombs to make
their voices heard. It is important to briefly refer to the comics trilogy Sufrajitsu in this regard.
Created by Tony Wolf and Joao Viera, the graphic thriller explores the adventures of the
bodyguard group of the London chapter. Nicknamed “Mrs Pankhurst’s Amazons”, these
women received formal jiu-jitsu training from the first female martial artist of England, Edith
Garrud. However, Wolf and Viera swiftly move to the largely fictitious adventures of the

vigilantes, fighting crimes and solving mysteries. What one ends up with is the notion of the
militant suffragists as a uniform group of white, lower-class women otherwise unemployed,
fighting to protect their leader, the white, upper-class Mrs Pankhurst. Served with a taste of the
steam-punk, this graphic series thus renders the complex currents of the movement invisible.

It is in this regard that the graphic fiction Sally Heathcote becomes a crucial feminist
intervention. Sally’s presence enables the authors to keep on commenting critically on each
character. Unlike Suffrajitsu, loosely adapted into the recent English film The Suffragette, most
of the characters of Sally Heathcote have historical references. This well-researched project of
Mary Talbot was carried over the course of four years. Instead of turning the feminist
movement into the movement of the ‘Amazons’ and the female avengers, they refer to the
epistolary and editorial dialogues between suffragists on the issue of violence and militancy. It
brings out the inner conflict, dichotomies and confusions of militant, radical, Christian, yet
against the Church of England and such other contradictory positions. It also, unlike the graphic
trilogy Suffrajitsu, represents the contribution of men and women alike. Without turning Mrs
Pankhurst’s statue into the altar, the book explores the huge clash of ego between Mrs
Pankhurst, Mrs Fawcett and “Em” Pethick-Lawrence. It traces the growing bitterness among
the divided groups of suffragettes as they come closer to achieving their goal. It also gives
instances of local women’s unions and their manifestos. The narrative thus presents a self-
critical tone by making Sally, the protagonist, a representative of the working class.

A maid at the Pankhurst’s, a beloved volunteer at the Pethick-Lawrence’s and a short

time activist of the Young Hot Blood, Sally narrates the watershed moments of the movement.
However, she never forgets that in the Pankhurst household, she was always the “rescued
orphan maid”. The socialist Suffragist Hannah Mitchell called the maid’s apron the “muslin
badge of servitude”, a phrase which made Sally realise her class-position within the Pankhurst
household. This, therefore, immediately brings in the question of class; although the working
women’s unions were a huge strength to the movement, the leadership was largely constituted
of middle class and upper-class women. By introducing the quasi-personal observations of
Sally Heathcote, a maid turned into a suffragette, Mary Talbot’s script becomes a critical
feminist intervention.

Complimented by Brayn Talbot and Kate Charlesworth’s artwork, the book unfolds
like a personal album of black, white and sepia-toned photographs. It makes the long march of
women a battle fought daily, through sexual and physical assault, through imprisonment and

force-feeding. Unlike Suffrajitsu, the prison and the deaths did not constitute a thrill in this
narrative; rather, they brought out the sustained struggle that these women had to continue for
over a decade. A very well researched and annotated fiction, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
rescues the movement from the elevated rhetoric of the “Maiden Warrior”, the “Amazons” and
the “angel”.

Works Cited

1. Talbot, Mary, Charlesworth, Kate and Talbot, Bryan. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. UK:
Jonathan Cape, 2014

2. Penguin Classic (Little Black Book Series): No 94 The Suffragettes. UK: Penguin UK,

3. Wolf, Tony and Virera, Joao. Suffrajitsu. Jet City Digital Comics, 2015

4. The British Newspaper Archive, British Library,
(Accessed on 21st March 2018, 8:35 a.m.)

5. Colette, Carolyn P. ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Religion and Medievalism in the British
Women’s Suffragette Movement’ The University of Notre Dame: Religion &
Literature, Vol 44, No 3, 2012

Image citation:

Fig. 1. ‘The Wild Rose which Requires Careful Handling’,

Fig. 2. ‘Peace at Last’, Glasgow Women’s Library


Fig. 3. ‘Suffrage poster depicting an issue of the periodical The Suffragette with a
figure of a woman Justice clad in armour bearing a banner labelled WSPU’, British

Fig.4. Image no. 001466, Museum of London,

Notes on the Authors

Arka Chakraborty

Arka Chakraborty has completed his MPhil research from the Department of English, Jadavpur
University in 2019. His research had been an attempt to explore the nature of the biopolitical
mechanism found in the early Church Fathers’ writing and its logic remnant in modern
governmental architecture. His interest lies in political theology, metaphysics, graphic novels
and the philosophical problems of law.

Deepti Myriam Joseph

Deepti Myriam Joseph is Assistant Professor of English at Scottish Church College, Kolkata.
She was awarded her Ph.D degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University in 2018. Her
specialization is Victorian literature. Her area of research is on the colonial encounters that
took place between Western women and Indian women in 19th and 20th century India. Ms.
Joseph has participated and presented papers at Conferences both within India and abroad. Her
papers have been published in reputed journals. She was also a recipient of the Charles Wallace
India Trust grant for short-term research in 2015.

Shanta Dutta

Shanta Dutta is currently Professor in the Dept of English at Presidency University, Kolkata.
She was the Head of the English Dept from 2012 to 2015 and the Dean of the ‘Faculty of
Humanities and Social Sciences’ from 2013 to 2016. Earlier, she taught for 13+ years at
Jadavpur University and for 12+ years at Rabindra Bharati University. She did her Ph.D. from
the University of Leicester, UK, in 1996, on a 3-year Commonwealth Academic Staff
Scholarship, and in 2011 she was a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellow at Yale
University, USA. Her book, Ambivalence in Hardy: A Study of His Attitude to Women, was
published in 2000 by Macmillan (UK) and St Martin’s Press (USA) – now Palgrave. Her
critical edition of Hardy’s The Return of the Native was published by Worldview Press in 2007.
She has contributed numerous articles to the prestigious The Thomas Hardy Journal, the latest
being ‘ “I am one of a long row only”: Contemporary Retellings of Hardy’s Tess of the
D’Urbervilles’ (Autumn 2018).

Gourab Goswami

Gourab Goswami has completed his M.Phil (2017-2019) from the Department of English,
Jadavpur University on object memories relating to the Indian Partition narratives. He has
completed his MA from the same department in 2016. He is presently working as a project
fellow at the JU- RUSA 2.0 project “Narratives of Faith: Devotional Songs and Religious
Poetry in Eastern Region of India” from March 2019. His research interests are politics of
commemoration in both digital and physical spaces, studies of criminality, sports and literature
and visual studies.

Proiti Seal Acharya

Proiti Seal Acharya holds BA and MA degrees from the Department of English, Jadavpur
University. She is currently pursuing an Erasmus Mundus Joint master’s degree in media arts

Prodosh Bhattacharya

Prodosh Bhattacharya is currently Professor in the Department of English, Jadavpur

University. He began by specializing in Old English and Middle English literature, and then
shifted his focus to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century popular fiction, obtaining his
doctorate on the novelist Marie Corelli. He has published extensively in all these areas,
including children’s literature. He began teaching in 1982, and has worked at Syamaprasad
College, Kolkata, Presidency College, Kolkata, and the University of Calcutta, before shifting
to Jadavpur University in 1996. He was Head of the Department of English at Jadavpur from

Shaona Barik

Shaona Barik is an Assistant Professor in the department of English, Visva Bharati,

Santiniketan, West Bengal. At present she is pursuing PhD at Jadavpur University on ‘Uncanny
literature produced by the British in Colonial India.’ Her research interest encompasses
Victorian literature. She has published articles pertaining to her research in various reputed

Shromona Das
Shromona Das is currently pursuing her MPhil from the Centre for Visual Studies, School of
Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. She is working on feminist graphic narratives under the supervision
of Suryanandini Narain. She is a Comics/Graphic Novel aficionado. She was a presenter at the
2017 ‘Doing Graphic Stories’ Conference at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is an artist

herself working with the medium and has recently participated in the Kochi Biennale 2018
Master Practice Studio on Nonfiction Comics facilitated by Orijit Sen. She has presented a
paper at the International Conference on “Graphic Storytelling in India” in September 2018.
Her work on gender and sexuality in Bengali children’s games is to be published by Blue Jackal
and her comic on #metoo movement is to be published by LeftWord Books.


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