Friday, April 23, 2010

Misconceptions are us

I am currently reading a biography of Gertrude Bell. She is absolutely wonderful and a real daughter of the desert. It is through her work as much as Lawerence's that the Arab middle east evolved. She was particularly instrumental in setting up Iraq. She is a new heroine for me as I never really knew that much about her. She was just someone who spent a great deal of time in the desert and was an Edwardian lady traveller. Shows how wrong you can be.
Her early life adds a lot to my knowledge about the North East. Basically her grandfather, Lowthian Bell, was the Bill Gates of his day and the family transportation royalty rather than aristocracy. It is also great to read about when places like Washington and Redcar oozed money.
What surprised me and shocked me was her stepmother Florence Bell. As far I know no proper biography has been done of this lady. She was the daughter of a physician, brought up in France, highly musical, a playwright as well as writing various things on the education of children. She moved in artistic and industrial circles. Counted Charles Dickens as a friend. She was an early pioneer in social work, doing a lot of the hard graft of interviewing people and publishing the raw data. ALong with her husband, she was an early suppoertor of the trade unions (surprisingly they both felt that the owners of businesses were dependant on the workers and that workers therefore needed to be treated well) And as I was reading this , I thought no wonder, Gertrude was such a strong character and got the first first in Modern History that Oxford ever bestowed on woman. Her stepmother must have been one of the first suffragettes. Had to be.
Umm, no. Lady Florence Bell was vehemently anti-suffragette. She wrote essays on why the movement was wrong. Gertrude could not even discuss it with her. Her education philosophy was that women should be educated at home where ever possible. No exceptions. The aim being not to create a great academic but someone who would shine in society. Accomplishments were it. A woman's place was by her husband's side. Apparently her own daughters were renown as great conversationalists -- The Hugh Bells.
However, Gertrude was the exception. Realising that she needed stretching, Florence sent her first to Queens College and then to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. The way women were treated in Oxford was surely scandalous -- being forced to sit with their backs to the lectures or on the podium with the lecturer. Luckily Gertrude did not stand for any nonsense and made several remarks about the lecturers not adding anything to the books she had read. After which, she decided that Gertrude needed domestication before she came out as a debutante! And Gertrudealso learned to operate within society. Although Gertrude never married (there were several scandalous affairs with men!), she always was a part of the establishment. It enable her to accomplish things.
Anyway, it shocked me that a woman like Lady Florence Bell could be so enlightened in many ways and yet not grasp the fundamental principle that women deserved the vote.

Anyway, it is a lesson to me not just to assume and to place my 21st century interpretations on things.
Busy writing away.

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