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The Hidden Histories Podcast

Series One: The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen.

Welcome to Hidden Histories, the New Statesman’s history podcast, hosted by deputy editor Helen Lewis. Each series explores a subject that the textbooks hid, held-back, or hijacked, starting with “The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen”.

Most eighteenth century novels were written by women. So why are the authors we remember mostly men? Here, you can find out how our episodes will confront this question, explore links to further reading and learn more about the show’s guests.

You can also listen to the trailer using the player below...

... or subscribe in iTunes.

Series Breakdown 

1. Re-writing the rise of the novel: who do conventional accounts of the era overlook?
2. Bluestocking culture: how did women become writers?
3. Sociable spaces: what did it mean to have a magazine by women?
4. Unsex’d females: women writers and radical politics
5. Fight club: who’s the most interesting female writer of the Eighteenth century?
6. The Great Forgetting: why are the authors we remember mostly men?

About our Guests

Dr Sophie Coulombeau is a lecturer at Cardiff University, novelist, and BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker. She blogs at Sophie Coulombeau and tweets @SMCoulombeau . Her favourite female writer of the period is Frances Burney

Dr Elizabeth Edwards is a research fellow on the “Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour” project, at the University of Wales. She specialises in the history of women’s writing, tweets @eliz_edw and flies the flag for Hester Thrale Piozzi.

Dr Jennie Batchelor is a Reader in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Kent and Principal Investigator on "The Lady's Magazine (1770-1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre”. She tweets @jenniebatchelor and her favourite writer of the series is ‘Anonymous’.

 

Series Reading list

Episode 1: Rewriting the Rise of the Novel

Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (Wiley Blackwell, 1986)
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen (Pandora, 1986)
Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Women, writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 (Virago, 1989)

Episode 2: Bluestocking culture

Elizabeth Eger, Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Harriet Guest, Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810 (Chicago University Press, 2000)  
Norma Clarke, The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters (Pimlico, 2004)
Devoney Looser, ‘Catherine Macaulay: The “Female Historian” in Context’Études Épistémè17 (2010) 

Episode 3: Sociable spaces

Jennie Batchelor, Koenraad Claes and Jenny DiPlacidi, 'The Lady's Magazine: Understanding the Emergence of a Genre' 
Alison Adburgham, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women's Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria (Allen and Unwin, 1972)
Mary Thale, 'Women in London Debating Societies in 1780', Gender & History, 7:1 (April 1995), pp. 5-24
 London Debates: 1780

Episode 4: The Unsex'd Females

Anne K. Mellor, Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830 (Indiana University Press, 2002)
Angela Keane, Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Episode 5: Fight Club

Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life In The Works (Rutgers University Press, 1988)
Frances Burney, Evelina (World's Classics, 2008)
William McCarthy, Hester Thrale Piozzi: Portrait of a Literary Woman (University of North Carolina Press, 1985)
John Mullan, Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (Faber, 2008)
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (World's Classics, 2015)

Episode 6: The Great Forgetting

Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) 
William McCarthy, 'The Repression of Hester Lynch Piozzi: or, How we forgot a revolution in authorship', MLA 18:1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 99-111. 

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist