Lesa Scholl on editing The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing
In this exclusive blog, Lesa Scholl reflects on the process of co-editing The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women's Writing, a volume which aims to recover the impact of women writers in the Victorian period, not just in literary fields, but in a broad range of scholarly disciplines.
One million words…hundreds of entries…wrangling hundreds of scholars. The prospect of editing the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing was a daunting, but also something that appealed to several of my scholarly passions. I’ve always been committed to recovering women writers who have been marginalized in history, and also, as a Victorianist, recovering the interdisciplinary nature of scholarship that marked the nineteenth century, but was dissipated into silos by the twentieth century’s emphasis on “specialization.” I further relished the opportunity to create a massive network of scholars from different fields, different countries, and all at different stages of their careers, working together toward the one goal of creating a written tapestry of women’s contribution to intellectual history in the Victorian period.
It was important to me that what is meant by “woman writer” was redefined—not just novelists or poets, but women of letters: women who wrote and published, contributing to a broad range of intellectual fields through various scientific, artistic, political, social, and cultural avenues. And so the encyclopedia is not just about literary women; it covers women who were scientists, public intellectuals, activists, and journalists. Furthermore, in the exploration of their writing, it becomes clear how many of them shaped our intellectual heritage. Many writers in the nineteenth century wrote as knowledgeably and forcefully on economics as on poetry and the arts; on botany and agriculture as on women’s suffrage; and these women, some publishing anonymously but others signed, known and respected, had a significant impact on public policy, law, and government.
One of the difficulties, then, has been how to position entries on particular women. The encyclopedia entries range from biographical portraits of individual women, to individual texts, intellectual and social organizations that promoted women’s writing and scholarship, and key developments and movements in cultural and social life, and it has been a challenge to Emily and myself to determine the section in which to place many of the biographical portraits. Should Florence Nightingale be placed under nursing? Or should she be classed under Theology? Or under Science, as a statistician, or under Reform because of the way she revolutionized sanitation? Where on earth should Harriet Martineau go, a public intellectual whose name is cross-referenced in around 80-90% of the entries? What has also been exciting is getting scholars who are not literary scholars or historians to contribute to a project on women’s writing—and so, for example, a mathematician is writing the entry on Nightingale, and medical scientists are writing on significant figures in medical history.
The cross-disciplinary nature of this project permeates every aspect of its production, true to the intellectual engagement of the women and works it profiles. Countering the myth of separate spheres, women worked and were published as economists, geologists, botanists, historians, reformers, theologians, medical doctors, and journalists, as much as they were novelists, poets, travel writers, and artists. The rich diversity of their professional and amateur writings reflects the diversity and interconnectedness of their lived experience; and significantly challenges not just our understanding of women’s work in the Victorian period, but also our assumptions regarding 21st-century scholarship. It’s my hope that through the project, which is still developing with about 150,000 words left to commission, that those exposed to it will not only rethink their understanding of the nineteenth century, but the way in which they consider the role of historical scholarship today. What can we learn from the intellectual engagement of these women, who recognized the interconnectedness of scholarly fields in a way that we seem to have lost? How can we appreciate our own global networks as we see the extent to which these women were connected to each other? Who else’s work has yet to be recovered, perhaps because they were not connected to this already vast network of intellectuals? Can we learn again to appreciate the literary in context, letting go of the fiction/non-fiction divide that has created a false hierarchy of value in writing that didn’t seem to be an issue for the nineteenth century, in which the imaginative and creative were considered as much a part as intellectual development and growth as factual information? The interweaving of poetry and science in the work of Constance Naden, or the philosophy in the novels of George Eliot, perhaps can teach a new generation of emerging students and scholars to reimagine their world, both its past and its present.
Lesa Scholl, PhD, is Head of Kathleen Lumley College, the postgraduate college of the University of Adelaide. She received her PhD in Victorian Literature and Culture from Birkbeck College, University of London, where she researched the role of translation in women’s writing. She has published extensively on women’s writing as well as hunger and poverty in Victorian Britain. Learn more about The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing, edited by Lesa Scholl and Emily Morris.