Writing Women at Westminster Abbey: the Case of Poets' Corner

I visited Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey this week. Poets’ Corner is the name traditionally given to a section of the South Transept of the Abbey because of the number of poets, playwrights and writers who are buried and commemorated there: from Geoffrey Chaucer to William Shakespeare, from Thomas Hardy to Philip Larkin. 

Firstly, it is an extraordinary place to visit, full of fascinating treasures and beautiful to behold. I entered before the tourists poured in, and it was extraordinary to be in that space alone, save for the odd hum of a Hoover. Amongst the busts and statues, a tapestry of floor stones decorates the space outside St Faith’s Chapel. I stopped at the stone of Robert Browning, the poet, and studied the inscription at the bottom. It commemorates Browning’s wife, a writer in her own right: Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, whose works include Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), and such famous lines 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 at the lives of great men?

I thought about this question a lot after my visit. Enough for me to contact the 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. Intrigued, I decided to find out more. 

In the 18th century, a hugely successful actress, Hannah Pritchard, 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 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. Did I mention Garrick 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, read and enjoyed by Princess Victoria. Her name is inscribed on the east face of the Reformers' Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery. And that's all she wrote. Except, of course, it wasn't. 

Historically there have been many more famous and successful male writers - and 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, however, 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 many important works, including Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1851). The man she married, however, did. Percy Bysshe Shelley's tablet sits above the statue of Shakespeare. 

Despite considerable constraints, many other 18th-century women writers besides Wollstonecraft were successful.  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. Diarists and letter-writers were even more prevalent, as 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; 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 Enid Blyton, 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. 

Why does this iniquity matter? For the same reason that it matters women are represented on banknotes, and included in language as part of “human”kind. It matters for the same reason that Confederate Memorials in the 21st century matter. Commemoration is a political act that tells the world what we value, and who. It’s not ‘political correctness’, a ridiculously misused term to explain everything from the shape of EU-approved bananas to why Katie Hopkins shouldn’t call migrants cockroaches.

The accurate representation of women in the past, and the acknowledgement of social, political, economic bias, is crucial to the wellbeing of society as a whole. That’s why campaigns like https://putheronthemap.com/ exist: to reclaim women as part of public space. A tiny proportion of statues and commemorations are of women, and most are royal figures (especially Queen Victoria) or allegorical myths. Can you imagine a world in which statues of men, and and all the roadsigns and buildings that take men's names, were based on Zeus, Merlin and King Harold?

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. I am quite sure that they will make room for J.K. Rowling (in many years and books from now, one hopes), but why not make more space now for writing women of the past? Most crucially, the Abbey could do what Donald Trump has failed to do, and 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 can quite literally walk through several centuries of history in a few short steps. It is also positioned next to the Chapel of St Faith, which is humble, yet awe-inspiring in its own way.

It is the significance of the setting however, within such a nationally, politically and spiritually important building, that makes the gender 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. 

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