Conference Review: Feminize Your Archives! Women in the Archives

September 25 2018, National Library of Scotland
Anna Girling, University of Edinburgh

Pictured above: Jenni Calder, Imaobong Umoren, A. N. Devers, and Donna Campbell

Women in the Archives was an afternoon of talks held at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in Edinburgh, on 25th September. I was very fortunate to have the chance to be involved in organising this event on behalf of Transatlantic Literary Women (TLW), with financial support from the British Association of American Studies and in collaboration with two curators from the NLS – Kirsty McHugh (John Murray Archive) and Dora Petherbridge (US and Commonwealth Collections).

I had first started thinking about an event along these lines a few years ago, after a series of lucky hunches led to me finding some letters of Edith Wharton’s in the John Murray Archive at the NLS. I had not had much of a chance to work with archival material prior to that, and never really thought that archival research was an option for me. As such, the time I spent in the Murray Archive in order to be able to write about the letters was a very steep learning curve. This led me to start thinking about organising a symposium on publishers’ archives with an associated training element for postgraduate students – an introduction to working with archives – and Kirsty McHugh and I began to think about how this might work.

Along the way, however, I developed one of those parallel academic passions that are the enemy of PhD progress and became mildly obsessed with the writer, muse, and political activist Nancy Cunard. I tried to read pretty much everything by and about her, and in doing so I became increasingly interested in the extent to which structural inequalities and cultural prejudices are often replicated in the ways in which archives are constituted and arranged – and in the question of whose personal archives survive and whose do not. In her introduction to a recent collection of Nancy Cunard’s poems, Sandeep Parmar writes of the ways in which ‘the relative instability’ of Cunard’s later years – her ill health, alcoholism, and itinerancy – is reflected by the ‘state of [her] later work in her archive’ [1]. Unstable and precarious lives do not make for good archives, and the precarious lives of those who leave behind them no obvious gatekeeper to police their papers (along with their reputation) are particularly vulnerable.

The Eliot estate is perhaps the most extreme example of an archive – and a reputation – being posthumously policed, and a poem of Cunard’s serves to highlight the contrasts between the two literary estates. T.S. Eliot and Cunard died within a few months of each other in 1965. While they had not moved in similar spheres for decades, they had briefly crossed paths in London during the First World War. Upon Eliot’s death in 1965 Cunard still felt fondly enough about Eliot to write to John Hayward (his friend and editor) with a commemorative poem. In lines that are not her best, ‘Letter’ recounts what Eliot’s poetry had meant to her (‘It changed […] my life in its own time, | As it has changed the lives of poets in many lands’), as well as a gin-soaked evening spent together at the Eiffel Tower restaurant (‘So entranced was I by you I suggested ‘a tryst’ | For the next night. You certainly came to it’) [2]. As Parmar relates, Cunard seems to have hoped that Hayward would use her poem as part of a public tribute to Eliot; instead, having noted the ‘curiously appealing and human touch in its top right-hand corner – the cigarette burn, which made you seem near and real’, he suggested that Cunard share her poem with only a few ‘choice friends’, adding, ‘You know how awful people can be – how prone to hint at ‘revelations!’’ [3]. The posthumous policing of Eliot’s reputation had begun.

By contrast, the reputation of Cunard – who died single with no children and no nominated literary executor – has remained up for grabs. Cunard has tended to be dismissed as promiscuous – sexually and intellectually (one recent critic going so far as to claim that ‘her poems are generally pale imitations of the work of whomever she was sleeping with at any given moment’) – and that in her life she had allied herself with left-wing, anti-racist, and anti-colonial causes did not help her standing in the Cold War decades following her death [4]. Jane Marcus has written compellingly about the ways in which misogyny, racism, prudishness, and anti-Communist paranoia have aligned to exclude Cunard from the records of various fields in which she was active.

All this, and more, was in my head as I considered what an event called ‘Women in the Archives’ might look like – and, in many ways, Marcus was its guiding spirit. I kept thinking of her injunction to her students to ‘go to the archive’, but also of her career-long work to ‘recover’ the work of various women writers, bringing them out of the shadows. Laura Rattray (who founded TLW), Kirsty McHugh, Dora Petherbridge and I began to brainstorm ideas for who might be involved in such an event and very quickly we had assembled our dream team of speakers.

Our four wonderful speakers were: the Scottish writer and biographer Jenni Calder, speaking about the 1930s Scottish explorer and poet Isobel Wylie Hutchison; Professor Donna Campbell from Washington State University, speaking about Edith Wharton and film; Dr. Imaobong Umoren from London School of Economics, speaking about the Jamaican poet and broadcaster Una Marson; and the writer, critic, and rare book dealer A. N. Devers, speaking about the underrepresentation of women in the rare book trade. Detailed information about each of the talks and speakers can be found on the Transatlantic Literary Women site here. We wanted the event as a whole to consider the relationship between archives and literary reputations and some of the key questions we had in mind were: how has the presence (or absence) of women writers from official archives contributed to their relative scarcity in the literary canon? What is the place of libraries (and other archives) in the recovery of ‘forgotten women writers’? What is the relationship between a writer’s archive and their literary status?

Isobel Wylie Hutchinson

The event sold out several times over, demonstrating a demand for events of this type and scope, with attendees both academic and not (which had always been our aim). The afternoon opened with Calder talking about Isobel Wylie Hutchison’s solo travels to study plants in Alaska and Arctic Canada in 1933, and the influence that this had on her poetry. Hutchison is still little known even in Scotland, despite recording her travels both in writing and on film, and this talk highlighted just how many remarkable women still languish uncelebrated (in contrast to the many male explorers whose feats are the stuff of legend). Calder also pointed out that there remains much work to be done on the literary links forged by Wylie between various Arctic circle countries in both Europe and North America.

Edith Wharton

Donna Campbell then introduced us to a little-known aspect of Edith Wharton’s wider oeuvre – the many films which were made from her novels and short stories. Challenging Wharton’s popular reputation as a ‘safe choice’, these films were often based on the more risqué of her works, and covered subjects such as divorce, single parenthood, and drug addiction. Campbell presented a huge amount of material from Wharton’s own archives – diaries, letters, and manuscripts – and used this to show how Wharton responded to the film adaptations of her works, and demonstrating the extent to which they call into question her reputation as socially conservative.

Una Marson

Imaobong Umoren then spoke to us about Una Marson, giving an overview of her life and work for those who may not have heard of her. Umoren discussed the challenges she had faced in conducting research on Marson, given that many of her papers have been lost and that there is no complete (or near complete) collection of her work. Marson lived and worked in both Jamaica and the UK; she started her own magazine (The Cosmopolitan), was the first black woman broadcaster at the BBC, and wrote poetry and plays as well as journalism. Umoren pointed out that black women’s archives are often incomplete due to a lack of institutional interest in collecting and preserving their work, and that this is compounded in the case of women such as Marson who lived and worked in various countries and continents, meaning that their work is more likely to already be scattered. Umoren also highlighted that what she called the ‘masculinist narrative of decolonisation’ has placed an emphasis on curating and celebrating the legacies of black men, and that this again means that black women’s archives have tended to be ignored. Her own new book, Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles, aims to address these gaps.

‘Dearest Book Collector’, from the first issue of The Second Shelf

Finally, A. N. Devers took to the stage to tell us why (and how) we should be feminising our bookshelves. She explained why she had decided to start her business, The Second Shelf (a rare book shop and quarterly magazine focusing on works by and about women writers). After working in the rare book trade for a time, Devers realised that rare book dealers were almost entirely male, and that works by women were marginalised and tended to sell for far less than works by men. She very forcefully pointed out the impact of this on wider intellectual life, and on academia in particular: it is often these ‘bookmen’ who influence what is bought by libraries and universities – and more often than not this material is by white men. Devers then introduced us to the brand new Second Shelf Quarterly – which acts as both magazine and catalogue – with its Guerrilla Girls-inspired injunction ‘Dearest Book Collector’ and a number of feature-length articles, and interview, and poetry. All and any modernist bibliophiles should get hold of the catalogue, which includes works by Gertrude Stein, Katherine Mansfield, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mary Butts, among others.

The afternoon then concluded with questions and discussion, which proved to be lively and far-ranging. In addition to specific questions to each of the speakers, a number of broader questions were also posed about the future of women in the archives. One audience member asked us to consider digital archives, and how we can make sure that digitisation strategies are feminist from the beginning and do not simply replicate the problems and gendered practices of existing archives. Food for thought indeed. For more of this, and a further taste of the day, see #tlwarchives on Twitter.



[1] Sandeep Parmar, Introduction, in Selected Poems of Nancy Cunard, ed. by Sandeep Parmar (Manchester: Carcanet, 2016), xxi.

[2] Nancy Cunard, “Letter”, in Selected Poems of Nancy Cunard, ed. by Sandeep Parmar (Manchester: Carcanet, 2016), 226-229.

[3] Parmar, xv; Lois Gordon, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 37.

[4] Elisabeth Landeson, “By Fate Misbred”, review of Lois Gordon, Nancy Cunard (2007), Modernism Modernity 15 (2008), 382.

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