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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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Introduction 1


Introduction ‘Her best friend is Helen Waddell,’ wrote Professor F. M. Powicke in 1919, while recommending his former student, Maude Clarke, for the post of History Tutor at Somerville College, Oxford.1 It was unusual for an aca- demic reference to prof fer personal information, but Powicke’s letter was unsolicited, addressed to Somerville’s English Tutor, who might have known Helen Waddell’s poems, Lyrics from the Chinese. Helen and Maude were bound not only by the ties of friendship but also by a shared ambition to become scholars. They enrolled at the Queen’s University Belfast in the first decade of the twentieth century when the proportion of women attending university was rapidly increasing but an academic career was still a very long shot for a woman. The obstacles could be personal – Helen was stymied by her stepmother, who prevented her obtaining the research training required for a university post – but they were also professional. Queen’s University’s 1908 Charter might declare that ‘women shall be eligible equally with men … to hold any of fice or enjoy any advantages of the university’ but in practice sexism prevailed.2 There were no sanctions and indeed no pressure to encourage professors accustomed to indulging their ‘half-monastic ways’ to employ women as long as there was an available man.3 Recent publications on the history of women’s university education in the United Kingdom and Ireland have elucidated a fascinating story of personal courage and institutional change. The pages of, among others, Judith Harford’s The Opening of University Education...

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