Review: Prof Rosie Campbell reviews “Edith Morley Before and After: Reminiscences of a Working Life”

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Edith Morley’s memoir has been carefully and honestly edited by Barbara Morris. Edith’s strength of character permeates the text. Her account of her personal struggles vacillates between self-deprecation and absolute confidence in the rectitude of her actions. It is abundantly clear that she was a very formidable woman. There is a quiet restraint in her description of the barriers she faced individually but she is keen to illustrate her refusal to compromise her commitment to women’s right to participate in intellectual and public life on an equal footing with men. It is not always clear who she imagined the audience of her memoir to be, she defends the suffragettes and suffragists actions in a tone that feels directed to a somewhat less than sympathetic ear. One can imagine that as the first woman professor in Britain she must have become highly skilled at attenuating her arguments to win over her male colleagues and it seems to me that in part the memoir is engaged in a dialogue with them. Professor Morley’s (I cannot bring myself to describe her as either Morley or Edith given her discussion on the new informality in terms of address in the text) description of her Victorian childhood and the constraints of being a girl child in even a very liberal family is especially vivid and engaging. She traces how a girl of ‘her class’ ended up in the very unexpected position of being in full-time academic employment and situates her own progression within an account of how the class structure, gender relations and access to academic life changed beyond recognition throughout her life time. Professor Morley dedicates considerable energy towards describing the extra curricula organisations that she helped to form and participated in attributing to them central importance in the development of university culture. In an environment where colleagues are more often deep in conversation about the REF and now the TEF the idea of participating in regular collective poetry and dramatic evenings seems, sadly, extraordinarily remote and is a timely reminder of the original aims of a university education. The memoir provides brief first-hand accounts of the activities of the Fabian Society, the Suffrage movement, the Workers’ Educational Association , refugee societies, women’s organisation during the wars and of course women’s organisation within academia. I would strongly recommend Edith Morley’s memoir to anyone with an interest in any of these social movements and to the general reader as a fascinating insight into a tenacious woman who helped to make things rather better for the rest of us.

Dr Rosie Campbell, Assistant Dean for Post Graduate Research School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy
Birkbeck, University of London