A Letter in defence of “Strong-Minded Females” written in 19th-century Sheffield

Meet Aunt Dorothy, a Victorian woman living in Sheffield who advised her nephew against chastising “strong-minded” women.

I am currently undertaking a large scoping exercise at Sheffield Archives on behalf of the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Although the prospect of going through all of the archive’s four miles of mateiral did cause me to wake up in a cold sweat a couple of times before the project began, upon arriving at the Archive I quickly realised that this job is an utter privilege and an absolute pleasure.

Inside Sheffield Archives, a vault containing over four miles of material.

Inside Sheffield Archives, a vault containing over four miles of material.

As my Twitter account can attest, the first few days on the job found me leafing through letters from the likes of Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy (the Victorian, not the actor). However, the discovery to elicit the most extraordinary emotional response wasn’t written by the great and the good of 19th-century Britain, but by the local men and women of Sheffield’s ‘Pen and Pencil Society’, a group which met once a month from 1868-1908.

During this period the Society produced an epic forty volumes of material, all currently dwelling in Sheffield Archives. Writing in the Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society in 1995, Richard Doncaster offers a helpful overview of what these volumes contain:

“The society was to meet once a month, to read and examine the contributions. The contributions could be of a very miscellaneous kind: thoughts, reviews, accounts of travel, or any interesting adventure, either in prose or verse or by illustration. In fact anything which would tend to interest or edify could be submitted; but every essay had to be to some extent original. […] Members were expected to contribute as frequently as possible. Any member failing to produce any contribution whatever during a session was bound by honour to resign. […] All contributions were written on letter paper supplied by the secretaries and would be bound together each year with such illustrations as admitted of it. Contributions could be anonymous and could be sent, in good time, to a reader.” (p. 49)

So, members were bound by honour to make sure that they had something written ahead of each meeting and were free to write about anything they liked, as long as it was substantially original. The result is a thoroughly delightful miscellany of subject matter. It is the original contributions that are bound into these volumes, making for an incredible and barely mediated insight into the ideas, attitudes and quotidian of 19th-century Sheffield.

For instance, the first volume offers such vague essay titles as ‘A few thoughts’, ‘Life thoughts’ and ‘Garden thoughts’, alongside such scholarly titles as ‘What was gained in the first years of Charles I before the sword was drawn?’, opinion pieces like ‘Is it the best thing to give to beggars or not?’ and works of biographical reflection, such as the tantalisingly titled ‘My first three years of marriage, a review.’
An entry that I found particularly beguiling (and now feel compelled to share with you here) is a letter from an ‘Aunt Dorothy’, which her nephew, Harry, has transcribed as his monthly contribution to the society (slightly cheating, I suspect, but I’m so glad he did). The letter, presented to the group in 1870, sees Aunt Dorothy respond to a challenge from her nephew on the subject of ‘strong-minded females.’

The collections of the 'Pen and Pencil Society' can be found at Sheffield Archives.

The collections of the ‘Pen and Pencil Society’ can be found at Sheffield Archives.

Finding this in a collected volume, written in ink, by hand, made it difficult for me to remember that this was a document written over a century ago. Something about the medium – the intimacy of writing by the hand of the author – collapsed the temporal distance between us and I forgot to approach it as I might any other text penned in the 19th century. As I read it I found myself plunged into a swell on contradictory emotions: excited, enraged, endeared, repulsed, relieved, confused.

The opening paragraph is an unmitigated delight, taking issue her nephew’s use of the word ‘female’, advising him that she is a ‘woman’, or at worst ‘a lady’, but never a ‘female’: ‘[this] merely places us on a level with cats, toads or chimpanzees.’ She then apparently attacks her nephew’s notion of ‘strong-minded females’ as being masculine women who have ‘not the least regard for appearance either in dress or manner’ and never accept the offer of ‘an escort home.’

However, it is at this point that the letter reminds us that it is the product of another time, as Aunt Dorothy reveals that rather than undermining this caricature she merely wants to trouble her nephew’s assertion that these ‘poor unfortunate creatures’ of ‘warped and unlovely appearance’ can be considered to be in anyway ‘strong-willed women.’

On the contrary, she explains that for her, a real ‘strong-willed woman’ will ‘[acknowledge] herself to be unequal to men in some things, but knows her place in the world in as important as his, though a quieter one, and sets herself sensibly to be her part in it.’ From here, Aunt Dorothy manages to build to a courageous conclusion, suggesting that women should not be chastised for venturing out of their ‘proper sphere’ and doing their best: ‘many a woman has shrunk from doing things she should have done best because she feared the reproach of being “strong-minded.”’

Listing a number of literary, historical and contemporary examples (even name-checking Florence Nightingale!) Aunt Dorothy alludes to the fact that there is far more to being ‘womanly’ than her nephew realises. There is a satisfying antagonism in her challenge to any who would defy the actions she has listed as not being womanly: ‘Such deeds are seen as womanly by the wise and true, and as for objectors – I warn them in all love to see to it that they are not bereft of wisdom themselves!’ Having discussed at length those instances in which women have been chastised for stepping out of their ‘proper sphere’, Aunt Dorothy concedes that her nephew will surely think the same of her, finding her too ‘savage’ in her later years. That said, with a sign off as good as this I don’t think for a moment that Aunt Dorothy has any doubts as to who retains the upper hand here, remind her nephew to be write back, like ‘a good boy.’


Further Reading
Richard Doncaster, ‘The Pen and Pencil Society, 1868-1908)’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society, vol. 15 (1989), pp. 48-55.

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