Posted by: robbedlyric | April 22, 2012

Bindman Talk 14 April 2012: “Women, Learning and Lore”

Last Saturday’s Bindman Talk was in association with the University of Newcastle and featured Professor Gary Kelly speaking about ‘Women, Learning and Lore’.

Prof. Kelly is currently based at the University of Alberta. http://www.efs.ualberta.ca/People/Faculty/GaryKelly.aspx.

The talk also saw the launch of the Wordsworth Trust’s Women’s Letters Database, a searchable resource comprising letters in the Trust’s Collection.

The talk was incredibly interesting and I believe Prof. Kelly is writing a book on the subject. He argues that during the Romantic period knowledge became subject to a more rigid hierarchy, separating into ‘learning’ and ‘lore’. These two separate forms of knowledge then became redistributed according to class, age, race and gender. Professor Kelly focuses on the gendering of these knowledges.

‘Learning’ comprised of science and literature, knowledge of the culture and languages of classical antiquity, maths and the natural sciences, whilst ‘lore’ was a body of traditional and popular knowledge usually passed on orally. There were many types of lore ranging from the domestic through to the national lore which defined a country’s self image.

‘Learning’ was masculinised in this period. Women were increasingly denied the scant opportunities they had previously had to access ‘learning’. The term bluestocking which had once celebrated educated and intelligent women became an insult and most men were ‘in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.’ (Samuel Johnson).

It is important to note that unlearned, i.e. not educated in learning did not mean ignorant. Professor Kelly also notes that it is during this period of modernisation ‘lore’ became subjected to ‘learning’. Increasingly traditional knowledge was collected and studied. For example the collection of folklore and folk tales by educated males.

The most interesting section of the talk was when Professor Kelly described the ways in which women might subvert the hierarchy of knowledge in order to express themselves. He likened their ingenuity to that of authors writing in the Soviet Union. Oppression and tyranny forces people to become ingenious and adapt their work accordingly. He identifies 9 ways in which women in this period could achieve this;

  1. Confrontation, explicitly using masculine discourse.
  2. By using genres and discourse that society permitted to women to express ideas that society didn’t permit them.
  3. Piety (not theology as this was ‘learning’)
  4. Humanitarianism
  5. As Helpers (e.g. as translators of modern languages, cookery books)
  6. Patriotic Feeling.
  7. Social anthropology (writing about ‘childlike’ cultures, e.g. ‘The Wild Irish Girl by Sydney Owenson, 1806)
  8. Downmarket literature, bowdlerising areas usually populated by men.
  9. Novelising.

He then gave some specific examples of women writers working in the period and how they achieved some measure of success. Hester Thrale for example wrote a denunciation of the French Revolution disguised as a book of synonyms, accessing the masculine area of politics via a discussion of language which is organised in a substantially different way to that of Johnson who approached language as a ‘learned male’.

Another example is Elizabeth Hamilton who wrote an epistolary novel ‘Letters of a Hindu Rajah’, in the introduction to her novel she distils a large body of knowledge and effectively defines orientalism.

Professor Kelly’s conclusion was a little rushed and he seemed to trail off however he concluded with the statement that the future of knowledge will be the converging of plebeian knowledge into modern knowledge.

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