Women are sparsely represented in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner and the record of Britain’s cultural and literary heritage that is inscribed there. Why does this inequity matter? For the same reason that it matters that women are represented on banknotes or that Confederate memorials in the 21st century are removed because the valorise white supremacy and the perpetuation of slavery. The importance of women and their literary work to humankind must be recognised and set down in a language of stone–paying lip service to inclusion is not enough.
Poets’ Corner is a section of the south transept of Westminster Abbey which contains the tombs and monuments of distinguished poets, authors and playwrights. Tomorrow, on 15th October 2019, Westminster Abbey will celebrate the 750th anniversary of the dedication of the current church by holding a service attended by the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall. In the Abbey’s annual report, The Dean of Westminster announces that there are a number of major events planned to celebrate this occasion including a ‘great service for the wider Abbey community’, a National Pilgrimage, a concert and a feast of Dedication. The landmark commemoration has also been marked by the publication of the ‘first substantial history’ of the Abbey published by Yale University Press, edited by Professor Sir David Cannadine and launched in Poets’ Corner last week. On this account, the timing could not be better for an act of historical reconsideration, rededication and rebuilding that places women back into the fabric of Westminster Abbey as a site of international reputation and renown.
Commemoration is a political act that tells the world what and who we value. The accurate representation of women in the past and the acknowledgement of social, political and economic bias, is crucial to the wellbeing of society as a whole. That’s why campaigns like inVISIBLEwomen, put her forward and Mary on the Green exist: to reclaim women as part of public space. A tiny proportion of statues and commemorations are of women, and most represent royal figures (especially Queen Victoria) or allegorical myths. Can you imagine a world in which all the statues of men, road signs and buildings that take men’s names, were based on Zeus, Merlin and King Harold?
The early twenty-first century has seen important campaigns for appropriate representation of women in the commemorative structure of Britain’s national identity. In 2013, British activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Invisible Women, campaigned against the removal of Elizabeth Fry from British banknotes–at that time the only woman visible on Bank of England issue currency aside from the Queen. After a sustained media campaign, Jane Austen was unveiled as the face of the new £10 note. Criado-Perez also successfully campaigned for a statue of Millicent Fawcett, one of the most influential suffragists who fought for the enfranchisement of women. This was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018.
Who and what we commemorate as a nation matters. The most recent reminder of this came in June 2019, when the then Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans for a memorial in Waterloo station to commemorate the arrival in Britain of the Windrush generation. This move was criticised by the Windrush Foundation, partly because of the government’s shoddy treatment of the Windrush generation, but also because members of the Caribbean community living in Britain had not been consulted. There has been similar controversy at the University of Oxford over a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and campaigns in the US over the removal of Confederate memorialisation. Presenting alternatives to a pale and male version of the past is important if we want to create alternative visions of the future. National institutions that do not acknowledge the importance of women or people of colour in their commemorative practices are coming under the spotlight.
So far, Westminster Abbey has escaped criticism. And yet, its iconic status as a symbol of British cultural life makes it worthy of scrutiny. The Abbey’s website announces a mission to ‘retain a tradition of Christian worship and welcome’ which has stood since the church’s founding by Benedictine monks in the tenth century. It is both a national monument, a ‘unique pageant of British history’ and a temple for memorialising ‘the famous and the great.’ It houses the shrine of Edward the confessor, the tombs of monarchs and has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and sixteen royal weddings. The Abbey has a key role in the functioning of civic and royal life, and is an engine of the tourism industry–there were 1,198,733 paying visitors to the site in 2018 alone. Yet there are limitations to the inclusivity of the Abbey, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Poets’ Corner.
When I visited Poets’ Corner I did so alone–and before the tourists poured in–having made arrangements to record a radio interview there. It was extraordinary to stand in that echoic space, silent aside from the odd hum of a vacuum cleaner. Amongst the busts and statues, a tapestry of memorial stones decorates the space outside St Faith’s Chapel. I stopped at the marble memorial for the poet Robert Browning, and studied the inscription at the bottom: ‘His wife ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING is buried in Florence 1806-1861’. It commemorates Browning’s wife, an innovative and formidable poet in her own right, whose works include Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), and popular lines such as: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’
Elizabeth’s family was against her marriage, despite her being 40 years old when the pair eloped. Elizabeth was disinherited and she moved to Italy with her husband. There they had a son and despite Elizabeth’s various illnesses, seem to have been happy. Elizabeth died first. When Robert died, her parents refused permission for her body to be buried with her husband. There is, however, a symbolic irony in the Abbey’s half-hearted act of commemoration to Elizabeth. How often do women feature as the sub-plots or footnotes to the lives of great men?
I thought about this question a lot after my visit and contacted the archivist at Westminster Abbey to find out more. She confirmed that there are no women buried in Poets’ Corner, though the 17th-century writer Aphra Behn came as close as the Cloisters. The prolific writer Margaret Cavendish, made it to the north transept, but she was also a noblewoman.
In the 18th century, Hannah Pritchard, a hugely successful actress who performed in many Shakespearean plays, was memorialised alongside Shakespeare’s statue. But she was subsequently booted out of Poets’ Corner and replaced with a bust of Dr Samuel Johnson: he of the Dictionary fame. This seems painfully apposite, since Johnson was scathing of Pritchard in life. He called her ‘a vulgar idiot’ who had ‘no more thought of the play out of which her part was taken than a shoemaker thinks of the skin out of which the piece of leather out of which he is making a pair of shoes is cut’ (Maybe it’s the way he tells them). Pritchard was widely venerated in her day, and regularly performed alongside David Garrick who was given a lavish state funeral before being laid to rest in Poets’ Corner.
No fewer than 91% of the writers, dramatists and poets remembered in Poets’ Corner are men. There are just six women writers commemorated: the Bronte sisters (3 for 1), Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen. Many significant women are missing from this list of 19th-century greats, including the writer and social reformer, Harriet Martineau. In fact, Martineau doesn’t have a monument to her own writing anywhere in the country, despite the fact that she was a hugely respected social theorist and writer who was read and enjoyed by Princess Victoria. Her name is inscribed on the east face of the Reformers’ Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Historically there have been many more famous and successful male writers–scientists, physicians and philosophers–than women. But no thinking person believes that this is because women lack aptitude, talent or drive. In the 18th century, early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women argued against women’s exclusion from education by virtue of their allegedly weaker minds and bodies. Wollstonecraft is not remembered in Poets’ Corner. Neither is her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1851), which is currently a set text for the English Literature GCSE. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man she married, is commemorated on a tablet that sits above the statue of Shakespeare.
Despite considerable constraints, many other 18th-century women besides Wollstonecraft were successful in their literary careers. Women like Anna Seward, the ‘Swan of Lichfield’ (1742-1809), educated themselves against the wishes of their parents; Seward’s father feared she might become a ‘learned lady’, typically not the kind most desired by suitors. And then there are Mary Astell, Joanna Baillie, Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Hamilton. Diary and letter-writing were ways for women to write ‘between the gaps’ in a culture that often denied them an education and a voice. The writings of Hester Thrale (1741-1821), for instance, are an important source of information about 18th-century life and culture.
We can’t even claim that the historical absence of these women in Poets’ Corner was a symptom of the Age of Enlightenment; that women writers today are more readily recognised. Yes, there are exceptions: the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft was commemorated in Poets’ Corner in 2005. But the other 20th-century additions include: W.H. Auden (1974), Sir John Betjeman (1996), Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888), T.S. Eliot (1967), Adam Fox (1977), Sir David Frost (2014), A.E. Housman (1996), Edward Horton Hubbard (1994), Sir Henry Irving (1905), Henry James (1976), Rudyard Kipling (1936), Philip Larkin (2016), D. H. Lawrence (1985), C.S. Lewis (2013), John Masefield (1967), Gilbert Murray (1956), and the War Poets.
Do you see anything wrong with this picture? What of 20th-century women writers; some of the most obvious being Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath? Hughes, for whom Plath seems forever to be wedded, made the grade and was commemorated in 2011. But not Plath, whose book Ariel has been considered one of the most important poetry collections of the 20th century.
Rather than showcasing so many men on the Poets’ Corner website, it would be great to see Westminster Abbey talking about the women that are there, as well as making plans to commemorate more women in the future. Why not make space available right now for esteemed, brilliant and disregarded women writers of the past as well as the present? Most crucially, the Abbey could do what Donald Trump and Theresa May both failed to do, which is engage with broader debates about the politics of commemoration.
Critics of Poets’ Corner have complained that it is a ‘chaotic rockery’. I rather like its haphazardness, because that makes it possible to stumble across unexpected literary delights. ‘You are surrounded by history at the Abbey’, a quote on the Abbey’s website says: ‘not like a museum where it’s just displayed, but… standing where history has happened’. History is made and remade on a daily basis. Choices about who to remember and who to forget are political. They reflect who we are as a nation as well as who we want to be. And it is the significance of its setting, within such a nationally, politically and spiritually important building, that makes the gender- and colour-blindness of Poets’ Corner problematic. Most visitors will not notice the absence of women, but they may leave believing that literary greatness is both male and marble white.
So who do we want to see included in Poets’ Corner? Perhaps it is time for a collective voice of change to be heard. How should Westminster Abbey take note of the politics of inclusion? I’ve suggested some names above: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Anne Seward, Mary Astell, Joanna Baillie, Hannah Cowley, Elizabeth Hamilton, Hester Thrale, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf, Harriet Martineau, Sylvia Plath. That tends to the gender imbalance. What about women of colour who have similarly helped to contribute to the rich literary culture of Britain and the commonwealth? Like Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born novelist who was based in the UK from 1962 and wrote more than twenty books, including Second Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood? Grace Nichols, the Guyanese poet who moved to Britain in 1977 and whose first collection, I is a Long-Memoried Woman (1983) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize? Or Andrea Levy, whose fourth novel, Small Island (2004) won a host of literary prizes and was adapted for BBC television? You can see a list of who is memorialised and buried at Poets’ Corner on Wikipedia.
Many women have shaped the literary landscape of Britain. And I want to see them get the credit they deserve. Who’s with me?
Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a historian of bodies, emotion and gender and reader in History at the University of York. Her most recent book is A Biography of Loneliness: the History of an Emotion (OUP 2019) and she holds a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship to work on the emotional and cultural history of face transplants. For more information see her website: www.fayboundalberti.com
A version of this article was originally published as ‘Writing Women at Westminster Abbey: The Case of Poets’ Corner’ on 25 October 2017 at Fay Bound Alberti.com.