Historical scholarship faced several significant changes during the second half of the nineteenth century and history gradually grew into a profession and discipline of its own. Although in Britain history studies prepared men to public service rather than to academia, a university degree symbolized a formal qualification for conducting intellectual work. Moreover, it provided one with crucial social capital and networks. Women were unable to obtain an academic degree, yet they did not abstain from writing history. Quite the contrary, women participated in numerous ways to historical pursuits. These decades, I discovered while writing a paper for the forthcoming “The Persona of the Historian: Repertoires and Performances, 1800–2000”– conference in Leiden, saw women beginning to redefine their role as a historian. For example, in the close circles of Edward Freeman, the Oxford professor and eminent scholar of early English history, it is possible to identify at least five different types of women historians. Indeed, there was not just one dominant model women emulated, but a multitude of roles and corresponding personae they could choose from. Freeman loftily counted some of these women as part of “us,” part of the privileged group of professional historians. In reality, however, women were not granted a full membership in this club and even Freeman’s own actions reveal the prejudices women faced when they ventured to write “serious” history. For him, a fundamental difference in the persona men and women were to cultivate derived from the level of independence that was expected from a historian. Women still served history best as assistants, not as the active producers of new knowledge. The five types of women in Freeman’s world indeed indicate that this was very much a transitional period between Agnes Strickland, the queen of feminine biographies, and Eileen Power, the economic historian and professor. Whereas the historiography’s hall of fame continued to be firmly occupied by men such as Freeman who believed in the gendered social and cultural order of things, women took careful steps in a direction of serious scholarship.
For Freeman the lowest echelon of history belonged to the full amateurs, the vulgar popularizers of history. Charlotte Yonge, (1823–1901), perhaps better known as an author of historical novels than of histories, was the embodiment of an amateur historian who lacked the skills and qualities that writing history required. She nevertheless produced a respectable number of historical titles. She for example wrote a short history of France to the series Historical Course for Schools Freeman edited to Macmillan. Freeman was constantly frustrated with her who, according to him, was unable to distinguish between significant and insignificant, or to understand complicated political and historical events. She, thus, was short of the skills and qualities a historian should have possessed. Freeman was, however, astonished how Yonge accepted his criticism with admirable forbearance and obediently followed his orders to revise her text time and again. Yet, Yonge’s inability to grasp the deeper meaning of Freeman’s instructions proved again how she was not fit for writing history. She was a textbook example of why it was pivotal that history was written only by those who possessed an appropriate persona for successfully carrying out the task.
Second, and far above Yonge, were Freeman’s daughters Florence and Margaret who fulfilled the role of an assistant. He once even called them as his “librarian” and “sub-librarian.” Of course it is well-known that during the nineteenth century writing history was a family business. Wives, daughters, sisters, cousins – they all participated in research one way or another. They took care of the tedious routines and tasks that did not demand independent initiative. The Freeman family made no exception in this. The daughters dutifully copied notes, proofed sheets, organized papers, and indexed Freeman’s studies. Freeman expected them to be available for him, to carry out the tasks in prompt and diligent manner, and when they met his expectations, he “(in figure) pat…on her little wee, wee, wee, bit headikie for doing what I have set her so well and so quickly.” The daughters cultivated a set of virtues and qualities that rendered them perfect assistants: they were reliable, careful, precise, patient, and punctual. They were of irreplaceable help for their father, but of course their help was a public secret. Margaret, who proved to have the patience and detailed eye that indexing required, was responsible for composing – among others – the separate index of her father’s multi-volume History of the Norman Conquest. The title page, though, indicated Edward A. Freeman as the author and only the brief preface signed by “M.E.” revealed that the real author was his daughter Margaret Evans.
Then there was Edith Thompson (1848–1929), the ideal type of a woman historian for Freeman. Thompson, a friend of the Freeman-family, wrote the history of England to the series Historical Course for Schools. Unlike Charlotte Yonge, Thompson was fit for the job. She was aware of the expectations and developments of historical scholarship and strove to apply the principles in the popular history she wrote. She was even familiar with a large number of historical records and manuscripts. What was crucial for Freeman was that Thompson was willing to listen to his instructions and advice. She also accepted his historical views. Such submissiveness was vital for Freeman: he was able to dictate the content of the history Thompson wrote in a way that he could not have done with a male author. Men, he emphasized, had a right to their own opinion, but a similar privilege of independent thinking was not granted to women. Women served history best by transmitting the knowledge men produced into concise narratives for popular audiences. Freeman had no scruples to declare it loud and clear that it was the independence and strive for original research that set men and women historians apart. Thompson fit well into this model; she was an accurate, industrious worker, and accommodating to Freeman’s ideas. Even when she did not agree with the revisions he suggested, she complied and followed his instructions just as she was expected to do. In reality, though, accepting Freeman’s orders was not always easy for her, but she was able to follow her own instincts only after Freeman’s death. Although she always retained high respect to her mentor, she then used the opportunity to break free from some of Freeman’s notions that she had either never accepted or had begun to doubt on a later age. But as long as Freeman was alive, she was the loyal Edith who adopted his views and fluently conversed with him about anything from old-English manuscripts to the follies of their fellow historians.
The two remaining types of women stand out from the crowd because of their initiative to carry out independent historical work. This was one reason why Freeman struggled to get along with them. The fourth type, then, was Alice Stopford Green (1847– 1929). She was a widow of the famous historian John Richard Green who had encouraged women to do original research. Alice Stopford Green conducted historical research but also assumed an active political role using the past for advancing ideological causes. During the 1890s she was an active member of the London society, but turned slowly into an ardent Irish nationalist. She embraced the Gaelic interpretation of history of Ireland. It was through the study of history, Stopford Green stressed in 1908, that the Irish could find their “just pride restored, and their courage assured.” She, thus, trespassed two traditionally masculine spheres – politics and history. Freeman’s relationship with Stopford Green had been uneasy ever since Green had introduced his fiancé to him. In disparaging-manner he talked about the “widow woman” who lived comfortably on Green’s royalties. She was a strong personality, independent, outspoken, and pretty much everything that Freeman could not tolerate in women. She engaged with public life and assumed a role of an active historian, a role that challenged the traditional social order.
The fifth and last type was Kate Norgate (1853–1929), a diligent historian who made a praised contribution to the pool of historical knowledge and who was acknowledged for her scholarly competence. She was also a disciple of Green and close friend with Alice Stopford Green, though these two women could not have been more different. After Green’s death Norgate occasionally consulted Freeman about history. He praised her first book, England under the Angevin Kings (1887) in the English Historical Review as a sound piece of historical work. “The addition of a new member to the company of those who are reading and writing history in the right way is indeed a thing to be glad at,” Freeman wrote and continued how “the gladness is certainly not lessened when we find of whom Miss Norgate is the intellectual daughter, still less by the fact that she is the daughter and not the son.” Freeman, however, was troubled by Norgate. He acknowledged her skills and knowledge that made her as perfect a historian as one could be. The problem was that her quiet dedication to intellectual work was not becoming for a woman. Freeman had instructed young Edith Thompson in discipline and commitment to arduous work, but there were limits on how far women should adhere to the strenuous work ethic and serious habitus of a scholar.
According to Freeman, Norgate was extremely serious, shy, and socially restrained. This awkwardness irritated him exceedingly. She was an opposite of the chatty and social Thompson whose company he enjoyed excessively. Although he expected women to adhere to the principles of scientific history and to cultivate many virtues common with their male counterparts, the unwavering dedication was a masculine quality. He had been unpleasantly surprised when he had found Thompson to take steps to this direction when she was writing the History of England. He had met her briefly in London and had expected to spend a couple of hours in good company by lightly chatting about this and that. Instead of this, he had met Thompson with her manuscript and a list of questions concerning history and of writing the book. Luckily, this did not happen again. This sort of serious “Woman of Business” was far from the ideal Freeman had for a woman historian whom he expected to be sociable and available for light but witty conversation.
Although Freeman counted Edith Thompson to be one of “us” and complemented her knowledge on history and historical practices, he never encouraged her to conduct independent research. The gender was still a decisive factor in the division of tasks in historical activities. The five types of women historians in Freeman’s circles indicate how the late-Victorian women hovered between the amateurs and scientifically oriented historians. They occupied what could be called a muddled middle ground between the two extremes. Women were considered the most suitable for assisting men in their research or for transmitting the knowledge men produced into a concise popular format. This role had a direct bearing on the demands placed on their persona. In addition to the fundamental virtues such as accuracy and honesty, their persona was submissive to the guidelines, interpretations, and instructions dictated by men. Independence of mind, ambition, extreme dedication, or desire for original research were vices that women should have avoided.
Letters from Edward Freeman to Edith Thompson, Hull History Centre.
Letters from Edith Thompson to Macmillan, The Macmillan Papers, British Library.
Freeman, Edward A., “Kate Norgate, England under the Angevin Kings”, English Historical Review, 2:8 (October 1887): 774-780.
Stephens, W. R. W. (ed.), The life and letters of Edward A. Freeman D.C.L., LL.D. (London: Macmillan, 1895).
Stopford Green, Alice, The Making of Ireland and its Undoing, 1200-1600 (London: Macmillan, 1908).
McDowell, R.B., Alice Stopford Green: A Passionate Historian (Dublin: Allen Figgis and Co. 1967).