Saturday 30 January 2010

"Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves..."

Caroline Mogg, 'Reconstructing the Unmarried Woman in Nineteenth Century England'

Beginning as a geographer led Caroline to an interest in social history, especially women's history. While there have been studies of the women of the labouring classes, the case of the middle class women has been rather theorised in the confines of hearth and home, and related to a man's world. The single middle class woman was, and often still is, considered in many ways socially impoverished or even a threat. By adopting this 'spinster discourse', history has excluded the idea that these unmarried women may actually have seen themselves, and been seen in practical terms, as a valuable, powerful and autonomous members of society.

What are the different conceptual approaches which can be used to understand the women and to challenge the traditional construction of the unmarried women? This is the question which Caroline aims to address. Approaches to the subject have not really considered the self representation of the women in terms of their commercial correspondence, concentrating rather upon the homlier texts of diaries and letters. By doing so, we deny these women their position and identity as people of independent means.

It is also the method in which you read letters and texts that is open to debate. Reading just the texts, rather than the lines between, and the other tangible and intangible traces of the author's emotional and social world, leaves us with dry bleak history. Personally, I maintain that the use of documentary evidence is often very poor and limited. By attempting to elevate them to the status of documents of ultimate truth, we actually deny them their fullest and richest existence as subjective items. If we read them as objects, as art, as literature, in other words as other than factual, we can open doors onto whole new levels of speculation and storytelling. And in the end, isn't that what we historians do - tell stories?