Sometimes when the news seems impossible to bear, as it has these past few weeks with the tragedy in Boston and suffering in Syria, I turn back to the past to escape the dreadful present times. Of course, the past isn’t any better than today, but at least the pain of those days has passed and people survived despite all their troubles. One of my favorite periods of the past is the 18th century, when manners were formal and civility masked much of the cruelty of the times.
One of my favorite people of the 18th century is Fanny Burney, a woman born in 1752, who was considered so dull and backward by her family that she was never educated at all. The Burney children grew up in a busy household because their father was a popular music teacher and had many students from the London’s society world. Her brothers and sisters were given tutors or sent to school, but poor Fanny grew up a silent watcher of what went on in the world around her. When she was eight years old she still could not read and no one noticed how or when she finally caught on to how to do it. But reading led to writing and eventually Fanny was able to use her hours of quiet observation to write a series of novels that expertly caught the social life of the times.
Fanny was eager to publish her book, but unlike today’s authors, she tried to do it secretly. She arranged with a bookseller to print her book and distribute it and watched and waited for it to be discovered. Like most writers even today, she sometimes worried about putting her work before the world. In her diary she wrote:“I have an exceeding odd sensation, when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two; and that a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of threepence.”
Despite her fears, she was thrilled when she was told by friends and relatives that they had discovered a remarkable new book. She was pleased to listen to an aunt read the book to her invalid brother and laughed to think they had decided it must be the work of a man. Soon enough however, her family and others learned who the true author was and Fanny Burney was launched on a new and illustrious career as one of England’s most popular authors. Jane Austen loved her books and was influenced by her success. The quiet girl became a favorite in society; she served as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Charlotte. Then, in a development worthy of her own books, she married happily and had a son. She suffered many of the trials that have become familiar in modern life, including breast cancer, but she survived.
Best of all, her novels and diaries are still readable and available in most libraries as well as incredibly inexpensively online. In fact I’m going to search out my Kindle and read my 99-cent version of Evelina. I’ll write more about Fanny next time.
Golda Meir lived a far more cosmopolitan life than Margaret Thatcher did perhaps that is what gave her such wide sympathies. She was born in Kiev in 1898, and remembered the fear of Russian pogroms that haunted her childhood. But she moved to the United States with her family when she was eight years old. She grew up in poverty and resisted her mother’s wish for her to quit high school and get married. Instead she went to college where she became an ardent Zionist. When she married, she and her husband moved to Palestine. They joined a kibbutz in 1921. There she found more poverty and hard work and eventually she moved the family to Tel Aviv and entered politics.
The Jewish population in Palestine grew during the decades following the first World War, but the arrival of World War II and the Nazi persecution of European Jews demonstrated that something more drastic had to be done. In 1948, Golda Meir was one of the 25 signers of Israel’s independence declaration. Her obituary in the New York Times quotes her as saying on this occasion “When I studied American history as a schoolgirl and I read about those who signed the Declaration of Independence, I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And there I was sitting down and signing a declaration of independence.”
From then on her life was dedicated to preserving the state of Israel. She became a member of the Israeli Parliament and served as Minister of Labor and later Foreign Minister. She became Prime Minister in 1969 and served until 1974. Israel was still fighting for its life. The murder of athletes at the 1972 Olympics occurred during that time and in 1973 the Yom Kippur War started. She was blamed for not being prepared for war and for hesitating too long before doing anything. To a woman who had always sought peace, it was difficult to accept the fact that Israel would continue to be a battleground. She hated having to send troops to war and said “A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader”. That was not a popular stance at the time, and was in sharp contrast to the quick decision by Margaret Thatcher to dispatch armed forces quickly to the brief war in the Falklands.
Two Iron Ladies—two different countries and two different times. Golda Meir is now remembered as a hero of Israel and is almost universally admired. Will Margaret Thatcher’s final fate be the same or not?
When Sarah Losh turned 18 in 1794 in Northern England, one of her uncles described the social scene she faced: “The men gave themselves airs and seemed to consider dancing as too much exertion, while the ladies sat like so many animals waiting for a purchaser.” Sarah decided not to enter the marriage market but to build her own life and do as she wanted. She was lucky not to have to marry for money, because she was a wealthy heiress and she and her sister Katherine inherited their father’s estates in Cumbria.
Sarah and Katherine had been well-educated. Their family were merchants and intellectuals who believed in rationality, science, and manufacturing. They participated in the beginning of the industrial revolution which brought railroads and factories into even the rural village of Wreay where the family had lived for generations. But Sarah and Katherine appreciated the history of their community as well as its future and tried to preserve its buildings and celebrate its past. They traveled to France and Italy and learned about the culture and art of Europe. Sarah decided she wanted to design buildings for her community and became a self-taught architect.
The unusual and lovely church of St. Mary’s in Wreay is her major monument, but it is not the only building she financed and planned. She also built schools and a home for a school teacher. Jenny Uglow has written a fascinating biography of Sarah Losh called The Pinecone, which is now available in libraries and bookstores.
The title comes from one of Sarah’s favorite decorative motifs, the Scots pine, Britain’s only native conifer. Reading the book gives us an appreciation of how a woman, even in those times, could build a satisfying life by pushing beyond the limits society would place on her.
Even today few women become architects, and that seems curious to me because women are so often the people who care most about buildings—houses, schools, churches. They decorate and sustain the buildings, but not too many of them design and build them. One contemporary woman architect has written an account of her life in her chosen profession and how it became intertwined with her family and social activism. That is Wendy Bertrand whose book Enamored with Place is available at her website and well worth reading. So let’s celebrate all the women who have widened the world for girls and women everywhere by pushing the boundaries of women’s work and place in the world.