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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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Chapter 5 - Success 121


Chapter 5 Success The Tide Turns Helen’s The Wandering Scholars was published on 28 April 1927; within three days it had reached the best-seller list along with books which had been out for weeks and already well reviewed:1 I’m still in the mood when I can’t believe it’s me … Blackwell[’s] has been sold out again and again … A review … that winds up ‘possibly the greatest, and certainly the most delightful book that has been written on the Middle Ages.’ … I’m clean drunk myself. I expected so little, and I’m gasping like when you first go into the sea.2 It went into a second edition in August and a third in December – an extraordinary success for an academic book.3 Reviewers appreciated the verve with which Helen tackled an obscure topic, leavened by the wit of her writing style: ‘Miss Waddell’s gaze[,] bent for years on crabbed medieval manuscripts, puzzling out deletion and palimpsest, has never frozen into the scholar’s stare. It has always kept human, kept its sense of beauty, its sense of fun, its sense of tragedy.’4 Eileen Power identified The Wandering 1 The Observer (1 May 1927); HW to MM [5 or 12 May 1927], WP, box 11. Two weeks later it shared the best-seller list with Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse (The Observer [15 May 1927]). 2 HW to MM [17 May 1927], WP, box 11; see Frank A. Clement, review of WS, The Outlook (28 May 1927). 3 David J. Hall, ‘Helen Waddell: Some...

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