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‘Thinking Against the Current’

Literature and Political Resistance


Sybil Oldfield


Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2013

Hardback. ix +269pp. ISBN 978-1845195946. £50

Paperback. Ix +224pp. ISBN: 978-184519-6899. £22.95


Reviewed by Catherine Bernard

Université Paris Diderot



Sybil Oldfield’s essay is an unusual piece of research in more than one respect and should be welcomed precisely for its daring capacity to unhinge the standard definition of academic research. As the subtitle of the book states explicitly, it intends to map out the vast territory of committed literature. Other scholars—whether it be in the field of cultural studies, post-Marxist studies or ethics—have gone down that path recently in a valuable attempt to move beyond the supposedly Modernist paradigm of literary autonomy. Where Oldfield’s attempt strikes us as particularly original is in her choice of corpus and in the deliberately un-scholarly tone she adopts.

Her stance is a feminist one and that reflects in her corpus of reference. Out of the twenty-one chapters of her book, seventeen focus on women writers and/or activists from the early Renaissance to the present time. However, although the historical and critical emphasis may be a feminist one, the battles described are not limited to the sphere of women’s rights. Feminism is rather perceived as pertaining to a much vaster cause encompassing pacifism and anti-colonialism and thus Oldfield defines herself in the introduction as a humanist: “The unifying perspective behind these essays is humanistic feminism—feminism grounded in a humanism that reveres creativity and kindness in both sexes” [2].

The precision is important and explains why the first four chapters are in fact devoted to masculine examples of the said “humanism”: Thomas Paine, Blake and Shelley, Hazlitt and Charles Dickens. These may seem but a motley crew but they all come to embody the constellation of human qualities on which the rest of Oldfield’s exploration relies: benevolence towards the weak, visionary power that opens potentially new—possibly utopian—perspectives, a capacity to “think against the current” and to reinvent oneself even as one yearns to rethink the power relations informing society. The expression “thinking against the current” is borrowed —quite logically one may be tempted to say—from one of Virginia Woolf’s late essays, “Thoughts of Peace in an Air Raid” of September 1940, in which Woolf speaks out for a post-war world freed from the terror of war and of mental repression.

From Woolf to Paine, Blake or Dickens, and then back to the loose groupings of women who have struggled for human freedom and who feature in the rest of the collection, a form of empirical, non-systemic genealogy is at work here. Oldfield’s genealogy does not purport to trace precise lines of influence and allegiance from one generation to the next or from one writer to another. Her mapping is of a more subjective and even impressionistic kind. She seems even to claim for herself the right to write against the current of scholarly genealogy in order to invent loose constellations and improbable connections. Such anti-systemic method may at times strike the reader as too impressionistic and too intuitive. This is no doubt also due to the fact Oldfield anthologises texts that cover a vast tract of her career, from 1975 (“Blake and Shelley versus Their Society”, chapter 2) to very recent texts (“‘No Respecter of Persons’. The Impact of Quaker persecution history on the radicalism of Tom Paine”, first published in the Thomas Paine Society’s Journal of Radical History, vol. 11/2, 2012, chapter 1) and even unpublished material (“‘Warmint’ and ‘Gentleman’ in Great Expectations : The Ambiguous ‘lowness’ of Abel Magwitch”, chapter 4).

Yet, beyond the apparent eclecticism, one can only be struck by how consistent Oldfield’s vision has remained, from the 1970s to the present day. Whether she turns to the great, canonical figures of English literature or, more frequently, to lesser known figures such as the American social reformer Jane Addams (chapter 13) or the German resistant fighter Sophie Scholl (chapter 17), whether she celebrates icons of feminist history, like Barbara Leigh Bodichon (chapter 7), or intends to adumbrate what a Collective Biography of Women in Britain, 1550-1900 might be (chapter 6), Oldfield remains faithful to the humanist agenda that, according to her, fuels the very experience of writing and reading. Hers is no ethics of writing and one would be at a loss to relate her collection to the recent trend of ethical criticism. Yet, her defence of Simone Weil (chapter 14) or of Vera Brittain (chapter 19) is also fuelled by a political ethics. That ethics departs from the method elaborated by ethical criticism for the way it essentially foregrounds the lived experience of commitment in the lives of writers, thinkers or reformists who wrote as they lived, armed with the pressing belief that life, art, knowledge and politics are all part of the same human fabric.

The “literature” conjured in the subtitle of the anthology may in that sense be somewhat of a misnomer. Alongside writers like Virginia Woolf, Denise Levertov, one finds social reformers and feminists (“Eleanor Rathbone MP (1872-1946) and Indian Girls : Cultural imperialist or friend to women?”, chapter 10), political figures like Mrs Nassau (“Introduction to Jeanie, an ‘Army of One’ : Mrs Nassau Senior (1828-1877), the first woman in Whitehall”, chapter 8) or humanist activists like Helen Keller (“American Visionaries : Helen Keller, and the poets Muriel Rukeyser, Denis Levertov and Sharon Olds”, chapter 20). Literature becomes thus a very elastic category or, maybe more positively, an ur-category working against the doxa of aesthetic autonomy. It is then no surprise that Oldfield should choose to open part two of her collection—“Enter the Women”—with a poem by British poet Carole Satyamurti: “Ourstory”, which constitutes a chapter of its own and requires no exegesis.

Essentially based on historical facts and data, and fuelled by the somewhat out-fashioned conviction that life and writing are but one, her defence of “feminist humanism” only superficially reads as protracted hagiography. Grounding her reading in personal history and in biography, she is particularly attuned to the discordances that surface in those lives. More specifically even, she remains intent on showing how personal commitment to certain humanist principles might explain why some of those writers or activists fall out of step with history and thus cannot be easily categorised. This is for instance the case of Eleanor Rathbone (chapter 10) who championed the cause of Indian women at a time when the prevalent concern was with decolonisation. Oldfield’s feminist humanism also writes the story of those moments of dissensus when the cause of feminism needed to be heard for itself and yet was untimely.

Historical hindsight gives such untimely fights a sense of belated relevance. Yet anthologies also produce a misleading sense of coherence, dependent as they are on another sense of hindsight produced by the author herself in her attempt to give coherence to her whole intellectual history. The very structure elected by Oldfield, with its four opening chapters focusing on male writers, may give the impression that hers has been a story of intellectual emancipation in which her interest in feminism and the history of women only came in a second stage and somehow built on work previously concentrating on male writers. This is in fact not the case, as the only unpublished material is the Dickens chapter. If anything, Oldfield has in fact turned back to male writers after having done extensive work on a vast array of women activists and writers. This may explain the extremely impressionistic nature of her reading of Dickens which departs from the more scholarly quality of the other chapters, as if she had only lately allowed herself to truly extend the remit of academic research.

Subjective, at times working against the current of academic thinking, Oldfield’s anthology provides constant food for thought and offers a rich mine of data, biographical facts, and insights into the lives and thoughts of writers, reformists or militants who believed in the emancipatory power of reflection, education and writing. More than anything else, the figures Oldfield pays homage to were visionaries. Anyone interested in the vibrant and organic link between private commitment, history in the making and culture will find here material to refresh one’s views on humanism when it is lived out. “Thinking Against the Current” should thus be received both as an intellectual memoir and as an experiment in a form of alternative history. New constellations are at work here which work against the grain of cultural history, yet which invent apparently improbable connections between Blake and Helen Keller or between Woolf and Denise Levertov. Such constellations may seem fanciful to some. But just as feminism has for a long time now displaced the contours of history, Oldfield’s “feminist humanism” functions as a blueprint for a mode of reading more attentive to the fault-lines of history. Far from being out of synchrony with our present, Oldfield’s own take on humanism is an interesting addition to the debate that has developed at the junction of feminism, post-humanism and ethics. Although it does not situate itself in relation to that specific debate, it provides useful material to understand the embodied reality of feminism and humanism when they are no longer merely abstract principles but historical forces.


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