Who Controls a Woman’s Life? Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Her Children

Today in several American cities demonstrators are marching to protest the expected Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Women fear that they will lose the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. This seems an appropriate week to celebrate the work of one woman who fought to enlarge and protect the rights of women at a time when most women had no choice at all about bearing or raising children. In fact, by law in England once a woman was married, all her rights were given to her husband. But one woman started a battle which continues to this day.

Caroline Sheridan was born in 1808 in London. Her grandfather was the famous playwright, Richard Sheridan, and her father was an actor as well as a diplomat. Caroline was one of three daughters in the family, all of whom were admired for their beauty and lively wit. Unfortunately, when their father died suddenly, the family was left without any regular income and were almost penniless. His daughters had to rely upon their beauty and charm to build satisfactory lives for themselves. And because marriage was the only acceptable career for a woman, that meant they each had to find a reliable husband.

Caroline Sheridan Norton

Caroline, the middle daughter, was beautiful and had a quick wit which attracted many men, although some people considered her too sharp-tonged and outspoken. In 1827, she married George Norton, a barrister with political ambitions.  He was well-educated and capable, but like his wife, he was dependent on earning enough money to support his family. The marriage quickly became a difficult one. Norton was a harsh and strict husband. He encouraged Caroline to support his career by making friends who could help him to get a government appointment, but he was a heavy drinker and became abusive if he thought his wife was too friendly with other men.

Despite their troubles, the couple remained together and had three sons who became the center of Caroline’s life. As the family unhappiness continued, Caroline threw herself into writing. Her first book The Sorrows of Rosalie was published in 1829. It was a success and she wrote several other novels as well as pamphlets on current affairs. As a married woman, all of the money she earned belonged to her husband. According to English law, married women were not recognized as individuals, but only as dependents of their husband. Furious at the way her husband took all her earnings, Caroline began to spend more and more of the money earned by her writing. Her debts, like her earnings, became the responsibility of her husband, but his anger and resentment about this only led to more abuse. The couple finally separated in 1836 when Caroline left Norton and moved into one of her sister’s houses.

After their separation, Caroline continued her busy social life. One of her closest friends was Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. They saw each other frequently and wrote many letters about what was happening in government circles. But then George Norton committed what Caroline saw as an unforgiveable sin—he kidnapped their three sons and moved them to Scotland to live with his sister and her husband. Caroline was not allowed to visit the boys or to make any decisions about their education. She protested to her family and friends, some of whom supported efforts and tried to persuade Norton to let her see her sons more often.

In the midst of this battle over custody, Norton decided to ruin Caroline’s chances by accusing her of sexual misconduct with Melbourne. He brought charges against Melbourne and the case went to trial. Personal letters between Caroline and Melbourne were read aloud in court and servants who had been discharged from the household were called upon to testify that they had seen inappropriate behavior between the two. In the end, the jury ruled that adultery had not been proven. Norton was not able to sue for divorce, but Caroline’s reputation would never recover from the scandal.  

Caroline’s life was not destroyed by the Melbourne trial, but it was set on a path which led her into more and more political activity. She continued to write novels as well as articles and political pamphlets. Her work along with that of other women helped lead to laws such as the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. 

George and Carolyn’s lives remained stormy although they never divorced. Caroline won the right to see her sons and eventually her grandchildren, but their relationships had been damaged by the years of separation. George Norton died in 1875 and Caroline in 1877

Antonia Fraser has written a thoughtful biography of Caroline Norton called The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice (2021). This biography paints a vivid picture of what married life was like during the 1800s and helps us to understand some of the difficult battles that have been fought to enable women to control their own lives. Now it appears that the battle is not over yet.

Viewing Stars and Finding a New World—Sophia Brahe

Although wives are often remembered as the helpmates of their husbands, sisters are less likely to be given that spotlight. Most male scientists have probably had sisters, but astronomers seem to be the only ones who made their sisters part of their team. Caroline Herschel, for example, helped her brother William Herschel with his observations for many years and was known and honored as a discoverer of planets.

Two centuries before Caroline Herschel made her mark, another younger sister became an important assistant to her astronomer brother. Born in 1556 (or perhaps 1559) Sophia Brahe was the youngest child in a large brood of children born to a noble family in Denmark. Her brother, Tycho Brahe, the oldest child in the family, was ten years older than Sophia. As she grew up, Tycho realized that his youngest sister was unusually curious and loved to learn, so he provided books to help her learn about chemistry and horticulture. He believed that a woman would be unable to become an astronomer so he did not suggest that she learn about heavenly bodies even though that was his major interest. But Sophia was a determined girl. She read astronomy books in German and had Latin books translated so she could study them. Eventually Tycho recognized his sister’s talents and began to make her one of his assistants.

Sophia Brahe

Sophia frequently visited Tycho’s observatory, Uranienborg. Tycho Brahe was the first astronomer to recognize the importance of careful, precise observations of the stars and planets. Sophia Brahe helped him to prepare his observations for his publication De nova stella, or On the New Star. She assisted with a set of observations that led to the discovery of the supernova now called SN 1572, as well as observations of the December 8, 1573 lunar eclipse. She, along with other assistants, made observations that helped Tycho develop his theory of orbits. This work was essential in establishing modern methods to predict the positions of planet.

Today, as we look back on the work of Brahe and his associates, it is hard to believe they could learn so much about the behavior of astronomical bodies without the help of modern instruments like the telescope. It was not until thirty years after Brahe’s observations that a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, applied for the first patent for a telescope.

Astronomy was only one part of Sophia’s life. In 1579, she married Otto Thott. The couple had one son before Otto died leaving Sophia to raise the son and maintain Thott’s estate until the child came of age. She continued to visit her brother at Urainienborg, but also used her horticultural expertise to design magnificent gardens and develop her son’s estate.

Like most astronomers of the time, both Tycho and Sophia were interested in astrology. Most people believed that accurate predictions about people’s lives could be based on the movements of planets. The desire for astrological predictions was one of the most important reasons why many rulers supported astronomers in their courts. Tycho was more interested in learning about astronomy, but Sophia Brahe devoted much of her time to investigating genealogy and astrology.

In 1602, Sophia Brahe married Erik Lange, an alchemist who devoted much of his fortune into trying to change base metals into gold. Her family, except for Tycho, strongly disapproved of the marriage of Lange and Sophia, so the couple lived in poverty for many years. But her work continued. Besides her studies in astronomy and astrology, Sophia Brahe completed a detailed genealogy of the Danish Royal Family

According to an article in Wikipedia, the poet Johan L. Heiberg proclaimed that “Denmark must never forget the noble woman who, in spirit much more than flesh and blood, was Tycho Brahe’s sister; the shining star in our Danish heaven is indeed a double one.”  

Dancing through the Pain—Tanaquil LeClercq

Spring has arrived, bringing a feeling of hope and rebirth as flowers bloom and trees put out new leaves. It is a good time to think about people who have also managed to find a rebirth and hope after serious illness or loss. One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently is about a dancer who overcame the assault of an illness that would have destroyed the lives of many others—Tanaquil LeClercq.

Born in Paris in 1929, the daughter of an American mother and a French father who was a poet and writer, Tanaquil was named after an Etruscan queen. When she was three years old, the family moved to New York. As a child, Tanaquil attended the French Lycée and began to study ballet. She won a scholarship competition at the School of American Ballet where she attracted the attention of its founder, George Balanchine.

Tanaquil LeClercq

By the time she was fifteen years old, Tanaquil began to appear in early Balanchine pieces at the Ballet Society, which later became the City Ballet. It was the beginning of a spectacular career during a time when ballet was becoming an important part of the American cultural world.  Balanchine, who had been born in Russia, and had experience in both classical ballet and in theatrical revues in London, developed a new style of ballet combining elements of traditional and modern dancing. He created a number of ballets for Tanaquil whose skills exemplified those needed in his new ballets. In 1952, he and Tanaquil were married. Both of their careers flourished.

Tanaquil LeClercq

Besides dancing in many of Balanchine’s most famous works, including “Symphony in C”, “Western Symphony” and “La Valse”, LeClercq also danced in many of the ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins who also became a close friend. One of his most spectacular pieces was “Afternoon of a Faun” in which LeClercq dominated the stage with her long, graceful body and startling dancing.

During the 1950s, LeClercq toured with the City Ballet in America and Europe. It was on a tour in 1956, that polio found her. Although the Salk polio vaccine had become available in 1955 and most of the ballet troupe received the vaccine before leaving the U.S. on their tour, LeClercq delayed her shot saying she would get it after the flight. It was in Denmark that polio struck and LeClercq suddenly found herself placed in an Iron Lung.

The first two years after catching polio are the crucial time for regaining strength and mobility. Balanchine and LeClercq worked tirelessly together to revive the muscles that had been affected by polio. Balanchine devised special movements and exercise to restore Tanequil’s legs. He encouraged her to place her feet on his as he walked or danced, hoping that would allow her muscles to regain their strength. Being a spiritual man, he also prayed. Nothing helped. LeClercq gradually regained strength in her arms and upper body, but she was never again able to use her legs.

Both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, LeClercq’s closest colleagues, worked hard to keep up her spirits. Robbins wrote her a letter every day during the first year of her illness. But recovery from polio is painfully slow and incomplete and as time went on, LeClercq had to struggle on by herself. She and Balanchine divorced in 1969. And gradually she and Robbins drifted further apart.

The two men continued their careers and LeClercq worked hard to develop a new one for herself. She learned how to use her arms and upper body to demonstrate dance steps and she began to coach the dancers at the City Ballet. Her biggest opportunity came when Arthur Mitchell invited her to work with his newly established Dance Theater of Harlem. There she taught classes for more than a decade and during that time she also wrote and published two books.

Although her magnificent career as a dancer was cut cruelly short, Tanaquil LeClercq built a satisfying new life defying the tragedy of polio. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th anniversary season with a tribute to her. LeClercq attended in her wheelchair. She died two years later at the age of 71.

LeClerc’s life has been celebrated in a documentary film “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq” (2013) which includes archival footage of her dancing as well as interviews with several people who knew her. The film can be streamed on Kanopy and other streaming services. Watching this film will allow you to spend an evening with a woman who was an amazing dancer and a gallant spirit.

Writing Poetry during Difficult Times—Anna Akhmatova

Even though it is only the beginning of April, this year of 2022 has already brought us startling news from around the world. Western media is focused on the fighting in Ukraine as Russian troops continue to bombard cities and force thousands of people to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere.

A hundred years ago, in 1922, things were much the same. Western newspapers were carrying stories of fighting, destruction, and hunger in Eastern Europe. The first World War had triggered a revolution in Russia. The Tzarist government fell and the Bolshevik party, under Vladimir Lenin, changed the face of Russia forever. During the early 1920s, as Lenin’s health declined, there was a struggle to take over leadership of the new government. The eventual winner of that struggle was Joseph Stalin whose power would determine the future of Russia and all of Eastern Europe for decades to come.

Russian writers and artists who had grown up during the Tsarist regime were deeply affected by this change in government; perhaps none more so than Anna Akhmatova. She had been hailed as one of Russia’s greatest poets but was to lead a very different and more difficult life under the new regime.

Anna was born near Odessa in 1889. Her father came from a Ukrainian Cossack family and was a stern, harsh man. He did not want poetry published under the family name, so at a very young age Anna chose the pen name Akhmatova, the name by which she was known for the rest of her life. Her father divorced his wife, Anna’s mother, and left the family while Anna was a child, so she grew up mostly in St. Petersburg. Her education was informal, but she soon joined a circle of young poets, artists and writers and began publishing poetry.     

When her second book of poetry,  Rosary, appeared in 1915, it became immensely popular. The poems she wrote were short lyric pieces filled with images of life and love:

Anna Akhmatova

The sun fills my room,

Yellow dust drifts aslant.

I wake up and remember:

This is your saint’s day.

(Translated by D.M. Thomas)

The poems were so popular that by 1916 many young people began playing a game called “Telling Rosary”. Someone would start reciting one of the poems and someone else would finish it. There was no shortage of fans who memorized her works.

Akhmatova flourished in the vibrant cultural world of St. Petersburg. She was young, beautiful, and fascinating to both men and women. In 1910 she married her first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, two years later their son Lev was born. During the first few years of their marriage Akhmatova continued to write and publish poetry, even after the Russian Revolution started in 1917 and brought new turmoil to the country. Although many young writers and intellectuals left Russia and moved abroad during the years of revolution, Akhmatova refused to leave. As usual, she expressed her feelings in poetry I am not one of those who left their country/ For wolves to tear it limb from limb. (Translated by D.M. Thomas)

When the revolution ended in 1921 and Lenin became the country’s leader, Akhmatova and her friends hoped that a new, more democratic society would develop. Unfortunately, when Lenin died, his leadership role was taken by Joseph Stalin, who quickly became a harsh, unforgiving dictator. Soon after he came to power, Akhmatova’s poetry was denounced as “no longer relevant.” Akhmatova began to have difficulty finding a publisher and she was unable to continue giving the public readings that had been popular and an important source of income. For more than ten years her voice was almost silenced in Russia.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Akhmatova’s personal life was difficult. She was virtually penniless for many years; her former husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was imprisoned. Their son, Lev, was denied entry into schools. Eventually he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Northern Siberia. Akhmatova depended on the generosity of friends and lovers for her survival. During World War II she survived the 800-day siege of Leningrad, although her health deteriorated badly. Records of these years are difficult to find because she destroyed letters and journals so the authorities could not seize them and use them to justify additional punishment for her son or their friends.

Akhmatova’s health never completely recovered after the deprivations she suffered during World War II, but after the war, her reputation and fame began to return. In 1963, her masterpiece, a series of poems called “Requiem” was published in Germany, although it was not available in Russia until after her death. In 1965, Akhmatova was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and later that year she was allowed to travel to England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University. These tributes must have been precious to her as she neared her end, but by the time they came, she was very ill. She died of a heart attack in 1966.

Since her death, Akhmatova has been recognized as one of Russia’s most important poets. She is also one of the most popular. Her poems have been published around the world in many different languages. The translations that I have included above are by D.M. Thomas and are available in the Everyman Pocket Poets series (Knopf). Various translations of her work can be found in libraries and bookstores everywhere.

Details of Akhmatova’s life are still difficult to find, but a fascinating biography Anna of All the Russians: A Life of Anna Akhmatova (Vintage 2007) is available in libraries and bookstores. Feinstein gives a good picture not only of the poet, but also of Russia and Eastern Europe during the difficult years of the early twentieth century.

The Woman Who Brought Down a King—Katharine O’Shea

March is a month that spotlights the tangled history of Ireland’s struggle against English rule. This year, after a two-year break, St. Patrick’s Day Parades were held again in many American cities including San Francisco and New York. The release of Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated movie Belfast has again called attention to the tumultuous history of this small country.

But none of this activity has aroused the intense interest reached 130 years ago when the private lives of Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O’Shea disrupted the British government and changed the history of Ireland.

Katharine O’Shea

Katharine O’Shea was born Katharine Wood in Essex, England in 1846. Her family were prosperous and politically active supporters of the Liberal party and friends of William Gladstone, its leader. At the age of 21, Katharine married Captain William O’Shea, a Catholic Nationalist MP for County Clare. The marriage was not a happy one and after having two children, the couple separated, although they continued to maintain a façade of a marriage. Because they had residences in England as well as land in Ireland, it was not difficult for them to carry on their lives while seeing very little of one another. Katharine’s wealthy aunt paid the expenses of their household so that Captain O’Shea could pursue his political career and the family could live in comfort.

Meanwhile, Charles Stewart Parnell, born in the same year as Katharine to an Anglo-Irish Protestant family in County Wicklow, was pursuing his own political career. Having grown up in Ireland, he had seen the cruelty that many landlords inflicted on their tenants and he decided Ireland should be governed locally rather than from a faraway Parliament in London. His fiery speeches won him great support from Irish nationalists and their representatives in the British Parliament.

As an ambitious politician, Captain O’Shea soon became a follower of Parnell. He encouraged Katharine to invite Parnell to dinner and to cultivate her relationship with Gladstone. Soon both O’Shea and Parnell were relying on her to carry messages back and forth to Gladstone to smooth the path for political cooperation. Parnell got into the habit of sending mail through the O’Shea and he set up an office in their estate. His increasing intimacy with the family led to an affair between him and Katharine, an affair that Captain O’Shea was aware of and used to further his political ambitions.

Because divorce was opposed by both Catholics and Protestants at that time, that option was not available. Parnell and Katharine had three children who were accepted as part of the O’Shea family. Gossips may have speculated about what was going on, but the façade of peaceful family life continued.

Parnell and Gladstone worked together to pass the Home Rule Bill that would allow Ireland to manage its own internal affairs and weaken the power of absentee British landlords. Parnell’s popularity grew and his supporters gave him the title of “uncrowned king of Ireland.” Support for him poured in not only from the Irish, but also from overseas from Irish emigrants to the United States and Australia. During the late 1880s, support for Home Rule grew, the Liberals were in power,  and the movement seemed destined for success. Then disaster struck.

Historians differ on the cause of the events that followed. Katharine’s wealthy aunt died in 1889 but did not leave her money to Captain O’Shea as he had probably hoped. The money was left in trust for a number of cousins. In 1890, O’Shea filed for divorce from Katharine, citing her adultery as the cause. Parnell refused to defend himself in court and the wide publicity of this scandal destroyed the friendly relations between him and Gladstone. He also lost the leadership of his Irish party. Gladstone, well-known as a crusader for virtue, refused to support him and the Home Rule bill died. It would be another generation before Ireland escaped from British rule.

In 1891, after the O’Shea divorce became final, Parnell and Katharine married. By this time, however, Parnell’s health was broken and he died four months later at the age of 45. After his death, Katharine led a very quiet life in England. In 1914, she published a biography called Charles Stewart Parnell, which has been the source of much of the information known about the couple. Katharine Parnell died in 1921 at the age of 75.

1937 film “Parnell”

In the century since her death, the story of Katherine O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell has been told many times in books and other media. In his 1914 book Dubliners, James Joyce pays tribute to Parnell in one of his best-known stories, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” In 1937, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy starred in a Hollywood film called simply, Parnell. Although Gable’s performance was not acclaimed by critics, the film lingers on and is available on DVD in many public libraries. Also available are biographies and novels based on the lives of Katharine and Parnell. Despite the failure of their early dreams, the story of their lives continues to have appeal and to attract the interest of younger generations.

Happy Birthday to a Real Pro—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many people have listened to one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most familiar sonnets which begins: How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways… These words are often recited as a part of wedding celebrations. The sentiment expressed is just as relevant for couples today as it was when the sonnet was written more than a century ago. Barrett’s picture may look old-fashioned, but her ideas live on. All the little-girl curls and flowing skirts mask a very modern woman.

Today is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 216th birthday. She was born on March 6. 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett came from a family that had lived for several generations on the island of Jamaica, which was then a British colony. The family became wealthy by producing sugar on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people. Like many other families who lived in the West Indies, there was considerable mingling and sometimes marriage among the European settlers and their African workers. Elizabeth Barrett, like her siblings, had dark skin and eyes and she always considered herself to be of mixed-race. Although there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other, the fact that she believed it had an important influence on her life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many of Barrett Browning’s poems express feelings and ideas that speak to readers now as clearly as they did when they were first written. But the times during which Elizabeth Barrett lived, meant that she had to struggle to become a poet. She lived in a society where women were supposed to be readers, not writers. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s parents did not entirely agree with this idea and they provided her with a good education and encouraged her writing.

Elizabeth was the oldest of the twelve children and they formed a close-knit family group. Each child had a nickname—Elizabeth was known as “Ba”, a name she used all of her life. Like her siblings, Elizabeth never had to look far for companionship. The girls in the family were educated at home while the boys were sent to schools to be trained for business.  Living on a country estate, the children turned to books and writing for entertainment. Elizabeth started writing poetry at the age of four, and when she was 14, her father had some of her poems privately published for distribution within the family.

Life at the Barrett’s was not without hardship though, especially after Elizabeth fell ill with a spinal disorder during her early teens. From that time on, she was an invalid and led a very restricted life. She took opiates to ease the pain of her spinal injury, but this medication led to further deterioration of her ability to live normally. On the other hand, being an invalid meant she was relieved of the household duties that kept her sisters busy and allowed her to work diligently at becoming a poet.

Almost everyone who has read and studied English poetry knows the story of EBB’s adult life. After living in seclusion with her family until she was almost forty years old, she eloped with the poet Robert Browning. Her father disowned her when she married, and the two were never reconciled. For the rest of her life, EBB lived in Italy, although she often visited London and kept in touch with many old friends. Her life centered around her poetry and her family. She and Robert had one son, but family life never kept her from being a dedicated writer. She wrote about current social issues such as child labor, the abolition of slavery, and the right of every woman to have a life of her own. Her reputation as a poet grew steadily after her marriage, culminating with the publication of her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh,  which the critic John Ruskin called it “the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century”. This poem was an immediate best seller and is still read and studied.

In 1861, a year after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55. 

During the late 19th century and down to the present day, EBB has been famous more for her life than for her work. Thousands of people have seen the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street either on stage or in one of several movie versions. But this presentation concentrates on the romantic elopement of Elizabeth and Robert and downplays her long career as a writer. For all of her crinolines and curls, EBB was a serious poet who worked steadily at becoming a great writer. Her husband and child were important in her life, but she never gave up her artistic ambitions.

There have been several biographies of EBB and last year the British scholar Fiona Sampson gave us a new one that sheds a great deal of light on Barrett’s life. Two Way Mirror: the Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Norton 2021) shows us Barrett as a social activist and a thinker. I highly recommend the book and as an introduction you might watch the video webinar that Fiona Sampson made for the National Library of Scotland.  

You may not want to read Aurora Leigh. Few people today have the patience to read a novel in verse, but we all should remember the poet who was perhaps the first woman to be recognized as a professional poet. She was even nominated to be Poet Laureate when that post became empty, although that honor finally went to Tennyson. EBB is often pictured as a frail, semi-invalid, which she certainly was, but she was much more. Rather than being defeated by her physical weakness she used it as a springboard into a successful career as a professional artist.

Books across Borders—Constance Garnett and her Translations

Last Sunday (February 11, 2022), the New York Times featured an article about the growing importance of translated books in the United States. Now that many Americans are becoming used to watching international movies, television, and websites, it’s natural that books from around the world are also becoming more popular. The Author’s Guild and other writers’ associations encourage publishers to acknowledge this importance by including the name of the translator on the front cover of every translated book. We will no doubt see more attention paid to translators in the future, but today I want to pay tribute to a woman whose pioneering work in translation influenced some of the most important English-language writers of the twentieth century, including D. H . Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway.  

Constance Garnett was born in Brighton, England, in 1861. She was educated at Brighton and Hove High School and then studied Greek and Latin at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1883, she moved to London and worked as a governess and later as a librarian. In London she met Edward Garnett, who was a reader for a publishing company. The two married in 1889, and two years later, her husband introduced her to several Russian exiles with whom the couple became friendly. The exiles encouraged Constance to try translating some Russian writers into English to make them available to a wider range of readers. Before long, Constance started studying Russian and plunged into the work.

Constance Garnett with her son David

Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story was Garnett’s first translation to be published, and that was the beginning of a long, industrious career. During her lifetime, Garnett translated works by Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov. Works by these authors had been almost inaccessible to most English-speaking readers until Garnett translated them and they were published in England and then in the United States. By the time her career ended, she had translated and published 71 Russian books. Many of these versions still remain in print, although other translators have produced newer translations.

How did Constance Garnett manage to translate so quickly? She did it mostly by working incessantly. It was her habit to sit in her garden with a pile of Russian manuscripts beside her as she worked. She would translate quickly, seldom stopping to look anything up, and not planning ahead, but somehow she produced readable versions of  books that usually caught the spirit of the original. Her translations have been both praised and criticized by Russian scholars and still remain controversial. A 2005 article in the New Yorker “The Translation Wars” by David Remnick tells the story of some of the arguments and disagreements about her work.

The widespread availability of Russian translations had a dramatic impact on English-language literature during the 20th century.  One result, which is unfortunately no longer available to us, was the appearance of a play called “The Idiots Karamazov” at the Yale Repertory Theatre during the early 1970s. Starring in the role of Constance Garnett was a young student named Meryl Streep. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could find that show streaming on our TV screen and watch it before settling down to read Dostoyevsky? 

A Writer from a Different World—Bing Xin

As we celebrate the lunar new year and embark on the Year of the Tiger, it seems an appropriate time to turn attention to China and one of the women who had a large influence on modern Chinese literature.

Bing Xin was born in 1900 and died in 1999. She lived for almost the entire twentieth century, a time when China changed dramatically from a traditional empire to a powerful modern state. During her long, prolific career, Bing Xin wrote poetry, children’s books, and commentary on the life around her. 

Bing Xin as a young woman

Born in Yuhan, China, Bing Xin began writing short stories and poetry as a child and her early work soon attracted attention. After her conversion to Christianity, she read widely and became familiar with many European and American authors. She continued writing as she earned a bachelor’s degree at Yanjing University and then attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts for her master’s degree

The 4th of May movement in 1919 awakened Bing Xin’s  interest in political events. Many young Chinese students and others objected to decisions made in the Treaty of Versailles and became convinced that China must move away from traditional Chinese government and welcome change. Bing Xin’s studies in the United States increased her interest in learning more about the Western world. As a member of the class of 1926 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she served as an informal cultural ambassador, moving easily between the literary worlds of China and the United States.

In 1929, she married Wu Wenzao, an anthropologist who also studied in the United States. The two of them visited countries around the world and met many leading intellectual and cultural leaders. Bing Xin wrote about her travels and published reports of her journeys in China, making many young Chinese students aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. Bing Xin became a national figure and was a prolific writer all during the war with Japan during the 1930s. Her works were very popular, but as a writer for children as well as for the general public, she was not always considered an important intellectual influence.

During the Cultural Revolution, both Bing Xin and her husband were sent to the countryside for re-education, even though both of them were in their 70s at the time. They were allowed to return to the city after one year.

Despite her importance as a writer, Bing Xin’s work is not widely available in English translation. Her poetry was much influenced by modernist poets of Europe and perhaps her most widely available English-language work is A Maze of Stars, a collection of her poetry.    

Why not love,

mankind?

We all are travellers on a far journey,

returning, to the same country.

(Xin, Bing. A Maze of Stars and Spring Water (pp. 15-16). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

Readers who do not understand Chinese have missed learning about the work of Bing Xin and other  important cultural figures. The importance of translations is often underestimated, even by people who love books and reading. Perhaps this year would be a good one to seek out and honor some of the translators who help us to broaden our view of the world. After all, as Bing Xin writes: We are all travellers on a far journey.  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—An Activist in Africa and the World

During the early nineteenth century, many people who worked to abolish slavery in the United States, including several women who have appeared on this blog, believed that freed African Americans should be sent to Africa to live. They were afraid that if they remained in the United States, they might be endangered by their previous owners or other supporters of slavery. Most people at that time seemed unaware of the long history of African Americans in America. Many enslaved families had a longer history of living on this continent than their European American neighbors had. Their African roots had been obscured or forgotten after generations of living in America.

Nonetheless, many sincere abolitionists believed that the newly freed people would settle happily in Africa and build a new life for themselves. Between the 1820s and the Civil War, the American Colonization Society raised money to send more than 15,000 people to an area on Africa’s West Coast that would be named Liberia. This, they hoped, would offer a new start for freed slaves. It would also, of course, relieve former slaveowners from having to accept their former slaves as equal citizens of the United States. And so, money was raised, and thousands of people were sent to Liberia.

The newly enfranchised African Americans, however, were not accepted by the Africans who lived in the area. The Africans did not speak English, and the Americans did not speak the languages of the indigenous people. The resettlement was not a success.  Liberia has been a troubled state from its beginning, but despite the difficulties it has faced, it has produced some of Africa’s most important leaders.  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served as president of Liberia from 2006 until 2018, was the first women ever elected as leader of an African country. Born in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1938, she was educated at the College of West Africa and later attended Madison Business College in the United States, the University of Colorado, and then Harvard College. When she returned to Liberia she worked as an economist in the government of William Tolbert.

After the Liberian military coup of 1980, Sirleaf fled the country and moved to Washington D.C. where she worked for the World Bank. Later she returned to Africa and worked for the United Nations and for several private banks. It was not until 1997 that she was able to return to politics in Liberia. And it was almost ten years later, in 2006, that she was elected president of the country.

During her years in office, Sirleaf succeeded in bringing women into government and into positions of power in other fields. She promised to bring reconciliation to the country, and to stamp out corruption, although these issues still remain problems. Nonetheless, Sirleaf brought Liberia a long period of peace. Newsweek named her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, and the Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had”.   

In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, remains an important figure in Africa and in the world. She is active in causes from women’s rights to healthcare during the Covid pandemic.  In 2018 she started the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which aims “to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women”.

An Anniversary and a New Focus—Savitribai Phule

2022 is the tenth anniversary of this blog. It is hard to believe that I’ve written almost 300 posts—287 to be exact. I hope to hit 300 this year. As I wrote in my first post in February 2012, I started this blog to share my ideas about the connections I have found with the men and women who went before us. From the beginning I have concentrated on women because their lives and ideas have often been neglected.  

As I look back over my posts, I see many familiar names spanning a wide history. I’ve written about Hatshepsut, the Egyptian “female pharaoh” who was born about 1485 BC and about Greta Thunberg who was born in 2003. That’s quite a range of time, but I’ve not ranged as widely in geography. Most of the women in my posts lived either in the United States or Europe. This year I am going to cast a wider net and include more women who lived in Asia, Africa, and other places on our globe. Even though I have travelled widely and visited countries around the world, I know far less than I should about their histories and peoples. This year I’ll try to broaden my vision.

Savitribai Phule is an important figure in the history of India. Born on January 3, 1831, in Maharashtra province, she is remembered now and honored as the country’s first female teacher. Her family belonged to the Mali caste, whose members traditionally grow flowers, spices, and other crops. Although Savitribai’s family was prosperous, they did not consider it appropriate to educate women, so she was illiterate when she married Jyotirao Phule. Her husband was a reformer and a strong believer in education. One of his first projects was to teach his young wife to read.

Phule Savitribai and Jyotirao

Savitribai studied with her husband and soon realized that education was the key for improving the lives of all women, especially those of the lower castes. With her husband’s support, Savitribai attended a teacher-training institute and later the two of them set up a school for girls. Soon they were running four schools for—the first schools for girls in India that were run by Indians. When they started to enroll girls from the lower castes—at that time called untouchables—however, both Savitribai and Jyotirao encountered strong opposition from many Brahmins and other higher caste Indians.

 Opponents to women’s education told Jyotirao that he would die young because he had allowed his wife to be educated. They claimed that educated women might use their skill to write letters to men outside of the family. Some protesters did not stop at making predictions. They also followed Savitribai as she walked back and forth to school and threw rotten fruit and dung at her to frighten her away from teaching. But the young couple was not deterred. They persisted in keeping their schools open and eventually they had 150 or more girls enrolled.

 Savitribai and her husband worked all of their lives to make life better for people born into the lower castes, and especially women. They introduced the name “dalit” instead of “untouchable” and helped people to enjoy the benefits of education and enjoy a more satisfying life. They campaigned against child marriage and called for better treatment for widows.

Even in the midst of her busy life, Savitribai found time to write and publish several volumes of poetry. After Jyotirao’s death, Savitribai continued his work with the help of their adopted son. When the bubonic plague struck India in 1897, she and her son set up a clinic to help victims of the plague. Savitribai died while doing this work.

Today Savitribai’s birthday on January 3, is celebrated as Balika Din in the province of Maharashtra, especially in girls’ schools. In 1998 she was honored by being the first Indian woman to appear on a postage stamp.

English language information about Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule is not widely available in American libraries, but there are a number of videos about this extraordinary couple posted on YouTube. Most of the films are produced in India and narrated in Hindi, but some have English subtitles. One that I enjoyed very much is Episode 45 of Bharat Ek Khoj entitled Savitribai

Savitribai Phule is remembered in India, but her life and work deserve to be known throughout the world.