In 1875, The Clarendon Press (today better known as Oxford University Press) released an English translation of Leopold von Ranke’s History of England principally in the seventeenth century (6 vols.). According to the Translators’ Preface, the publication had been “facilitated by a division of labour”. Each volume had been assigned to “a separate hand” and altogether eight gentlemen had toiled with Ranke’s text. These were, the preface informed, “Messrs. C. W. Boase, Exeter College; W. W. Jackson, Exeter College; H. B. George, New College; F. F. Pelham, Exeter College; M. Creighton, Merton College; A. Watson, Brasenose College; G. W. Kitchin, Christ Church; A. Plummer, Trinity College.” Thanks to the effort of these eight young Oxford tutors, English readers were now able to peruse Ranke’s great history in their own language. However, the Translators’ preface was not accurate: in reality there had been nine translators. The omitted one was Louise Creighton.
In her Memoir Louis Creighton writes how she became involved in studying and writing history after marrying the young Oxford historian Mandell Creighton. Under his guidance she learned the historian’s craft, and one of the first projects she took was the translation of Ranke. Initially, Mandell had undertaken the job, but soon he decided to hand it over to Louise. She was indeed a perfect candidate for translating Ranke: growing up in a family with a German father, her German skills were far superior to those of her husband. She also had strong intellectual ambitions. She had been one of the first women to pass the University of London’s Special Examination for Women and now in Oxford she devoted to reading history until, so typically for a Victorian middle class family, her maternal duties pushed aside her scholarly inclinations.
Louise worked hard at the translation, “getting, of course, advice & supervision” from her husband (Memoir, p. 53), and once she had completed the translation, they revised it together. The work was not a great pleasure, because, as Louise complained, Ranke had wished the translation to be literal. The translators were therefore obliged to follow his text as closely as possible and to maintain the German order of sentences and words. The result was not a brilliant English narrative, but an awkward rendition of German into English. More than the mechanical translation, Louise enjoyed the other tasks that fell on her as one of the translators. In the Memoir she recalls the trouble she took to verify the notes and the joy of “hunting up the references at the Bodleian” (Memoir, p. 54). Overall, the work was rewarding for her – intellectually that is – financially it did not bring wealth to the translators. According to Louise, she received £5 for the work and “bought with it our silver tea pot” (Memoir, pp. 54-5).
Louise briefly remarks that her name was not among the translators noting that the preface attributed the translation to Mandell “who had really undertaken it” (Memoir, p. 54). This is all she gives to her readers. Carefully she eschews all explanations for the omission and refrains from revealing how she felt when her hard work was publicly disregarded, and, instead, her husband was credited for it. Without any further clues it can be only guessed why Louise’s name was not mentioned in the preface. It is likely that the editors, C. W. Boase and G. W. Kitchin, feared that a young unknown woman as a translator might weaken the authority and credibility of the work, and hence hurt its dissemination and acceptance in the scholarly circles. It was evident to them that Oxford dons conferred more authority to a scholarly work than a wife of a don did. Furthermore, it might be that the editors were not convinced that Louise had worked independently enough to earn a place in a preface. Wasn’t it likely that the responsibility of the translation after all laid mostly on her husband? This idea of Mandell as an intellectually superior husband and Louise as his assistant was confirmed in her obituary in The Times. The writer of Louise’s obituary concludes it as a fact that Mandel was, “no doubt the larger mind and the more capacious interest; but she was a helpmeet worthy of him in all respects” (The Times, 16 April 1936).
The mystery remained unveiled when James Covert published in 2000 a biography of Mandell and Louise Creighton; he only repeated what Louise said about the translation and preface in the Memoir. Perhaps we will never know more about the motives that spurred the editors to wipe off Louise Creighton from the list of translators. Even without any further details, the inaccurate preface is not without importance. It serves as a healthy reminder of how female agency has been easily overlooked, or even silenced first by contemporaries, and later on, by historians.
Indeed, writing history meant for long time largely the same as accounting the deeds of great men until the women’s rights movement in the 1960s questioned this male dominated view of history. As a response to the criticism, women began to write histories that underlined the female agency. Historiographers had similarly focused on acclaimed male historians, but in the wake of the feminist movement, they slowly began to broaden the scope of their studies. As a result, articles, monographs and anthologies appeared highlighting women’s active engagement in transmitting and storing historical traditions as well as in writing and constructing historical accounts. These studies focused attention on the diversity of tasks women had performed and the variety of histories they had written. The traditional framework of historiography seemed too narrow for these new approaches: its focus on history writing as a scholarly and professional pursuit neglected many such historical practices that did not meet the strict criteria of scholarship, but which had had profound cultural influence outside the universities and learned societies. Since then, a gradual shift and a redefinition of the field have introduced new topics and methodologies from women’s history to oral history into historiography. In terms of women’s history, the next challenge in historiography would be to bridge the gap that has emerged between two parallel narratives: the one of the women and the other of the men. The risk is that as long as we continue to write separate histories of female and male historians, we see only part of the picture.
Breaking this pattern will not be easy. Because women were for so long excluded from the academic institutions, mixing different genders means also mixing different genres of history, and surely, the common criticism goes, we cannot treat scholarly and popular history as equals. It has been easier to draw gender and genre boundaries, than it will be to break these same boundaries. Unless the boundaries are challenged, the risk is that we continue to strengthen the tradition of parallel historiographies instead of reaping the benefits of truly multidimensional historiography. Until then, the risk is that the handbooks of historiography and the companions to wester historical thought continue to be accounts of men who have written history in male dominated institutions. Is this the first impression historiographers want to give in 2015 about their field to students who are the target audience of these guide books?
Covet James, A Victorian Marriage: Mandell and Louise Creighton (London: Hambledon & London, 2000)
Creighton Louise, Memoir of a Victorian Woman, ed. James Thayne Covert (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994).
Obituary of Louise Creighton, The Times, 16 April 1936 (via Wikisource, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Times/1936/Obituary/Louise_Creighton)
Ranke Leopold von, A History of England principally in the seventeenth century, vol. I (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1875).