In 1908, Edith Morley was appointed Professor of English Language at University College Reading – the institution that eventually became the University of Reading. Professor Morley’s autobiographical sketch, ‘Looking Before and After’ was recently published as ‘Before and After: Reminiscences of a Working Life‘ by Reading’s Two Rivers Press, carefully edited by Barbara Morris, with a preface by Mary Beard.
This is, without a doubt, one of the finest books that I have read all year (so far), telling the story of a remarkable person and a remarkable life, giving a highly personal insight in the history of my own employer as well as the struggles it took a female academic at the time to establish herself in an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment (and many a time, while reading this fine piece, I wondered what progress had been made in some areas).
The book resonated with me for a number of reasons, not least because Professor Morley repeatedly comments on her linguistic education (which included a number of modern languages, but excluded Ancient Greek and Latin), letting her down on occasion, not so much for intellectual than for institutional reasons.
If there is any one passage in this book which struck me in particular, it has to be one on the very first couple of pages of the actual memoirs (p. 11-2):
‘But I did hate being a girl and can still remember my indignation at hearing my brother told that only girls cheated at games and the like, or cried when they were hurt. And how I hated and resented wearing gloves. When quite small I suffered from a thick woollen veil, which was supposed to safeguard the complexion, but my very noisy and voluble protests soon relieved me of that infliction – old-fashioned and unusual in those days. I also resented and constantly disobeyed the rule that I must not slide down the banisters or turn head over heels! I had gymnastic lessons, however, and learned how to swim, but I yearned for more of the team games which girls did not yet play and suffered a good deal from insufficient outlets for my physical exuberance.’
The reason as to why this passage struck me in particular is its very initial phrase – Professor Morley’s expression of disdain and hatred of the way in which her sex determined her environment’s gendered expectations and behaviours – dated even by the standards of the Victorian era. It reminded me of the clearest expression of such ‘hatred’ in the ancient world – in an epigram of the late antique poet Ausonius for his aunt Aemilia Hilaria (Parentalia 6, transl. H. G. E. White):
Tuque gradu generis matertera, sed vice matris
adfectu nati commemoranda pio,
Aemilia, in cunis Hilari cognomen adepta,
quod laeta et pueri comis ad effigiem,
reddebas verum non dissimulanter ephebum,
more virum medicis artibus experiens.
feminei sexus odium tibi semper et inde
crevit devotae virginitatis amor.
quae tibi septenos novies est culta per annos
quique aevi finis, ipse pudicitiae.
haec, quia uti mater monitis et amore fovebas,
supremis reddo filius exequiis.
You too who, though in kinship’s degree an aunt, were to me a mother, must now be recalled with a son’s affection, Aemilia, who in the cradle gained the second name of Hilarus (Blithesome), because, bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy, you made without pretence the very picture of a lad busied in the art of healing, like a man. You ever hated your female sex, and so there grew up in you the love of consecrated maidenhood. Through three and sixty years you maintained it, and your life’s end was also a maiden’s end. You cherished me with your precepts and your love as might a mother; and therefore as a son I make you this return at your last rites.
There are numerous interpretations of this poem out there, from lesbianism to gender indeterminacy or misassignment to asexuality (see Martin Nichols’ blog piece on this poem for an overview). Particular problems are caused by the phase devota virginitas (‘consecrated maidenhood’), which may, but need not, have religious connotations of sorts (and need not be understood as a reference to the Christian faith).
To my mind, it makes little sense to speculate, on the basis of this, over Aemilia Hilaria’s sexuality – all one gets to know is that the devotae virginitatis amor, ‘the love of consecrated maidenhood’ grew up in her (note the contrast between hate and love in this passage!), implying that she did not get married rather than that she abhorred sexual encounters more generally (though it is conceivable that she did, if one is to take the reference to her pudicitia, her ‘bashfulness’, towards the end of this poem literally and not just as a topical honorific expression as common in ancient funerary poetry; the rendering, above, as ‘your life’s end was also a maiden’s end’ is somewhat judicious as compared to what the Latin text actually says).
Much rather, it seems reasonable to focus on what is said initially. She was laeta et pueri comis ad effigiem, ‘bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy’ from the earliest stages of her life. She was someone who somehow gave the impression of a verum non dissimulanter ephebum, who ‘made without pretence the very picture of a lad’. She was someone who may have established herself in the male-dominated profession of medicine (though it is ultimately unclear as to what extent she carried out this profession professionally and for financial gain): more virum medicis artibus experiens, ‘busied in the art of healing, like a man’.
I find it very easy to imagine Aemilia Hilaria as a person very much like the one whom Edith Morley described in her autobiographical sketch: someone who developed a feminei sexus odium, a hatred for (her) female sex, due to her society’s overall gender expectations. Aemilia Hilaria, though mocked with a boy’s name as Hilarus by her contemporaries, appears to have found support and love in her family. Professor Morley fought hard for respect and recognition – for a meritocracy in which sex and gender become irrelevant for one’s aspirations, prospects, and opportunities.
It is inspirational to see such success stories from across time and space.
If only they were the rule rather than the exception . . .