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Helen Waddell and Maude Clarke

Irishwomen, Friends and Scholars

Jennifer FitzGerald

As women’s university participation expanded rapidly in the first decade of the twentieth century, two close friends at Queen’s University Belfast nursed scholarly ambitions. Helen Waddell, budding feminist literary critic, and Maude Clarke, future Irish historian, were to become famous medievalists. Waddell’s progress was stymied by her stepmother’s insistence on family duty and by academic misogyny; Clarke’s father, in contrast, helped to clear her way. This joint biography intertwines the story of their friendship with their modern education, their shifting research interests and the obstacles and opportunities that faced them as women seeking academic careers. It traces Waddell’s evolution into an independent scholar, creative writer and translator of medieval Latin, and Clarke’s career as an influential Oxford don, training a generation of high-achieving women academics. The book also reproduces the surviving chapters of Helen Waddell’s Woman in the Drama before Shakespeare (1912-1919), an example of early feminist literary criticism, and Maude Clarke’s searching, self-reflective ‘Historiographical Notes’ (c.1930).
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Edited by Jennifer FitzGerald

The Irish writer and critic Helen Waddell burst onto the publishing scene of the 1920s and 1930s as a phenomenon, a scholar whose books became instant bestsellers. Cross-fertilizing academic research with a vivid imagination, her literary history The Wandering Scholars explores the secular joys of the scholares vagantes, an emotional undercurrent traceable throughout the ascetic centuries. Waddell’s translations of Mediaeval Latin Lyrics read as poems in their own right; her novel, Peter Abelard, grounds the tragedy of the famous lovers Heloise and Abelard in the woof and warp of medieval humanism.
At the time, the academy acknowledged her learning but deemed her methods insufficiently objective. Modern scholarship has finally caught up with Waddell, and the essays in this volume reassess her achievement from the perspectives of medieval, English, cultural and Irish studies. They investigate this romantic’s modernist insights and demonstrate how her Irish roots were reinscribed in her cross-cultural, transnational humanism. They examine her scepticism regarding conventional historiography and her cutting-edge engagement with medieval theology. They explore the range of her writings, from adaptations of ancient Chinese lyrics through translations from medieval Latin, interacting allusively with cultural ideologies and literary texts. These new readings show how Waddell’s accessible, imaginative, scholarly works continually challenge academic and literary orthodoxies.