Daily Archives: 18/05/2011

Her Dedication

It’s common practice for writers to thank their wives or husbands, parents or children, and occasionally dogs or cats, for the help they have given during the writing.  And it’s common practice for non-fiction writers to add that, while grateful for the help, any mistakes ‘are my own’.  Compared with these formulaic acknowledgements, the following is a doozy:

Who has not read, set forth in prefaces written by historians of the assisted sex, how much cause they have to be grateful.  There is hardly one of them, whether occupant of an endowed chair or graduate student, who does not possess a wife or sister or an aunt – some devoted woman, educated, intelligent, and unpaid – who will do hack work in his behalf.  She copies documents for him amid the frigid temperatures of the Public Record Office, she verifies his references, she compiles his index, she ameliorates his English.  With sincerest envy I regret that I have not the same reason for rendering graceful and grateful tributes.  Much more than is customary, therefore, I am personally guilty of the sins of omission and commission in this book.

This dedication appears opposite the opening chapter of International Rivalry in the Pacific Islands 1800-1875, by Jean Ingram Brookes, an important book about – well – what it says, really.  While most people have heard of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, the ‘Scramble for the Pacific’ is less widely known.  Jean Ingram Brookes’ book, published by University of California Press in 1941, was an important early contribution to the story.  It was cited by many later scholars and republished in 1972.  She died unmarried in 1988, aged 89.

As far as I know, she never published another book or scholarly article. But I just love her dedicatory paragraph.

The role of scholars’ wives has been in the news lately.  A new biography, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (2011), Mark McKenna highlights the role of Clark’s wife, Dymphna.  She was a scholar in her own right, an impressive linguist who went to Germany on a postgraduate scholarship, but gave it away when she married Manning in 1939.  No doubt Hitler was also partly to blame.

Dymphna’s role was very much the one that Jean Brookes describes: research assistant, editor, translator, sounding board, amateur psychologist, supplier of endless cups of tea and sympathy – and 6 children.  In his review of the book in The Monthly, John Hirst describes how ‘When he was travelling [Clark] would send her his usual maudlin letters; meanwhile, his companions would write to Dymphna, reporting that Clark was in excellent spirits.’

In her old age, Dymphna finally started to publish independently: she was 67 when she translated and edited the German writings of Eduard Hernsheim, South sea merchant (1983, with Peter Sack) and 78 when she translated and edited New Holland Journal (1994), by the Frenchman Baron Charles von Hugel.  She died in 2000.

Women’s work has often been subsumed in the work of their men.  Blind John Milton depended on his daughters to write down his words; William Wordsworth used his sister Dorothy as a sounding board.  But when does the role of helpmeet end, and that of independent creator begin?  Caroline Herschel discovered 8 comets – but is usually only seen as her brother William’s helper.  Elizabeth Gould painted most of the birds that were published under her husband John’s name.

Recently in Written by Mrs Bach (2011), Martin Jarvis, a musicologist, has raised the possibility that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote the six cello suites usually attributed to her husband Johann Sebastian.  She certainly worked as his copyist – as so many wives did.  By Jean Ingram Brookes’ day, they typed.

Jean’s complaint was less about the suppression of women’s individual creativity, and more about the unfairness of a system where men could rely on a support network, and women could not.  We all – men or women, gay or straight – could do with a wife like that, though in these more liberated days they are becoming thin on the ground, and a good thing too.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This poem by Lynn Peters sums up the situation brilliantly – while reminding us that daffodils belong to the species Narcissus.

Why Dorothy Wordsworth is not as famous as her Brother

“I wandered lonely as a…
They’re in the top drawer, William,
Under your socks –
I wandered lonely as a –
No not that drawer, the top one.
I wandered by myself –
Well wear the ones you can find.
No, don’t get overwrought my dear, I’m coming.

“I wandered lonely as a –
Lonely as a cloud when –
Soft-boiled egg, yes my dear,
As usual, three minutes –
As a cloud which floats –
Look, I said I’ll cook it,
Just hold on will you –
All right, I’m coming.

“One day I was out for a walk
When I saw this flock –
It can’t be too hard, it had three minutes.
Well put some butter in it. –
This host of golden daffodils
As I was out for a stroll one –
“Oh you fancy a stroll, do you?
Yes all right, William, I’m coming.

It’s on the peg. Under your hat.
I’ll bring my pad, shall I, in case
You want to jot something down?”