Becoming part of History: Retrieving the Lives of Emily Davies and Victorian Feminists
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Becoming Part of History: Retrieving the Lives of Emily Davies and Victorian Feminists Ann B. Murphy Isn't the modern function of biography to carve a path through brambly contexts? To become a part of history? Without comprehending Huxley, the Times said, no one could estimate the century's intellectual and social transformations. And isn't that our ultimate aim, to understand the making of our world? (Desmond 617) The biographer's craft is analogous to that of the mosaicist, who creates a picture out of tiny fragments of coloured enamel. In this story the letters to and from and about Barbara Bodichon are the most brilliantly coloured fragments. Census material, documents from public record offices and legal documents . . . are the pieces with less lustre, though still necessary . . . Sometimes fragments are missing altogether; if so, I have tried not to replace them with pasteboard, but simply to allow the cement ground of the narrative to remain exposed in an undecorated state (Hirsch ?) In conceptualizing the issues I address, I have found myself torn between focusing on individuals as if they were the agents of change and dispensing altogether with individual life stories in order to create the impression that individuals are merely points at which competing cultural forces intersect (Poovey 20). These comments, selected at random from three historians and 36volume 27 number 1 Becoming Part of History biographers writing recent texts about nineteenth-century subjects, suggest some of the issues and questions which complicate the cultural work of biography for contemporary writers. For Desmond, the postmodern recognition "that there is no such thing as value-free history" suggests that his goal in writing a biography of Thomas Huxley is to embed his subject more clearly in his historical and cultural context, "to relate [him] to the alienated Dissenters, to the rising industrialists and to the retrenching gentry who sought safety in Church. . . . [and] to understand his origins and audience" (618). Desmond takes for granted both the wealth of materials by and about his subject, which place Huxley securely within a knowable historical context, and the sanction of "history," as articulated by the Times itself - the comfortable conviction that even from a post-modern perspective Huxley unambiguously expresses his social world, and thus that a biography of Huxley is synonymous with, indeed essential to, a comprehension of the nineteenth-century. For Hirsch, by contrast, writing a biography of nineteenth-century artist, writer, and feminist Barbara Bodichon is of its very nature problematic, in part because of the shortage of biographical information, even on this most prominent and well-documented public figure, and in part because of the ambiguity about what, precisely, her story reveals about the century and its transformations, a least in terms of conventionally defined "history." For Huxley's biographer the absence of "value-free" history still appears to leave his subject at the center of a known social world. For the biographer of Bodichon, however, the task is both to depict a woman's life and to explore its troubled relationship to nineteenthcentury society and to our own. Not surprisingly, then, Desmond defines the task of biography as "carving" a path through brambles, while for Hirsch (and for many other biographers of nineteenthcentury women) the work of biography more closely resembles piecing together a mosaic. It is as much a creation of the imagination as a conquest of natural obstacles, a task complicated both by the uncertain relationship between subject and history, and by the fact Victorian Review37 A. Murphy that many pieces of the puzzle - essential personal and public documents - are almost inevitably missing. Further obscuring the mosaic - or blocking the brambly path is the growing recognition on the part of many contemporary scholars and biographers that "the ego-centered subject is a historical construct" (Poovey 20), and thus that focusing on biography as the narrative of individuals who are "agents of change" risks eliding the degree to which even the most ostensibly authoritative and influential individuals are, in fact, simply "points at which competing cultural forces intersect." For biographers whose subjects are eminent male Victorians, this recognition often translates, as Desmond explains, into embedding their subjects more explicidy in a fully defined milieu and defining...


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