The Crystal Stair: Lorraine Hansberry’s Gifts

In spite of her privileged background, Lorraine Hansberry’s all too brief life was devoted to fighting prejudice and the injustices suffered by many on account of their gender, sexuality, or the colour of their skin. Born in Chicago on 19th May 1930, Hansberry came from a prominent African American family; her father Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a prosperous real-estate broker and her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a highly respected academic at Howard University. In 1938, the Hansberrys moved to an area of Chicago where there was a restrictive covenant on African American property owners, and in 1940, Carl Augustus Hansberry went before the U.S. Supreme Court to contest the discrimination in a case known as Hansberry v. Lee. The family were also subjected to shocking and bigoted attacks from some of their neighbours, with bricks being frequently thrown through their windows.

Her father’s experience was to have a lasting impact upon Hansberry and following his death in 1946, she became more politically-minded and socially aware, involving herself with campus concerns after starting a course in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she joined the Young Progressives of America as well as the Labor Youth League. Spending the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying at the University of Guadalajara, Hanberry decided to quit her formal education and dropped out of university in 1950, leaving for New York with dreams of becoming a writer.

In New York, Hansberry enrolled at The New School for Social Research and worked as the associate editor for Freedom, a radical newspaper founded by the singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, who had been a friend of her father’s.  Whilst participating in a protest against racial inequality, Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, and the two were married in 1953. Only a few years after her marriage, Hansberry began to question her sexuality and in 1957, wrote several letters which were published in The Ladder, a national magazine with a predominantly lesbian readership. However, Hansberry remained cautious about revealing her identity and signed the letters using only her initials. Continue reading

God Of The Witches: The Cult Of Margaret Murray

Denounced in 1938 by the witch hunting and trials expert, C. L’Estrange Ewen, as nothing more than ‘vapid balderdash,’ the work of the Egyptologist and anthropologist, Professor Margaret Murray, has been subjected to even fiercer criticism since her death in 1963. Propagating the theory that in early Christian Europe until the Renaissance, there existed an organised and widespread Pagan cult, which grew around the worship of what she termed The Horned God,’ Murray became known as a leading authority on the subject of European witchcraft, with her controversial books earning her a substantial readership and many of her ideas capturing the public’s imagination. There were even ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims that Murray herself practised the dark arts about which she wrote, and would cast spells to sabotage academic appointments she disapproved. In reality, she was by all accounts a pragmatic and rational thinker, who had little time for superstition in her own life.

Born in Calcutta in 1863, Murray studied linguistics and anthropology at University College London, where her interest in Egyptology brought her to the attention of the renowned Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, whom she accompanied on several excavations and who appointed her as a Junior Lecturer in 1898. As a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Murray fought to improve the status of women and for greater recognition of their academic achievements, and in 1908, made history by becoming the first woman to unwrap a mummy in public during a series of lectures she gave at the Manchester Museum. Continue reading

Hungerheart: The Loves Of Christopher St. John

Christopher St. John, or Christabel Marshall as she was known until her conversion to Catholicism in 1912, should be more widely recognised that she in fact is. Although best remembered for her association with the renowned stage actress Dame Ellen Terry (after Terry’s death in 1928, she edited Terry’s correspondence with George Bernard-Shaw in 1931, and her Memoirs in 1933), St. John was much more besides. Not only a writer of some talent, she also openly embraced her sexuality, and refused to succumb to external pressures to lead a more orthodox life as many other lesbian women did at that time. By all accounts, St. John revelled in her love for her own sex and believed it should be celebrated.

Above: A sound recording of Ellen Terry in Romeo and Juliet (1911)

The daughter of the prolific children’s author, Emma Marshall, St. John was born in Exeter in 1871. Academically gifted from an early age, St. John read History at Somerville College, Oxford, before taking up a position as Secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and less frequently, to her son Winston.  It was through her keen interest in drama that she made her association with Ellen Terry, also becoming her sometime secretary. In addition, St. John’s involvement with Terry was to lead to the most significant meeting of her life. In 1896, she met Edith Craig, Terry’s illegitimate daughter by the architect Edward William Godwin. For St. John the attraction was instant and overwhelming. Craig, who apparently considered herself bisexual, readily reciprocated; and the two made no attempt to hide the true nature of their relationship. By 1899 they had already been living together in Smith Square in Westminster, before a decision, presumably based on Craig’s closeness to her actress mother and her own career as a theatre director and producer with the Lyceum Theatre Company prompted a move to the more convenient Covent Garden.

In 1903, the relationship between the two women was severely shaken. Craig, who still claimed to also be interested in men, had accepted a marriage proposal from the composer Martin Shaw. Craig had met Shaw through her brother, the theatre director and actor Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Shaw had co-founded the Purcell Operatic Society. Upon learning of Craig’s acceptance of the proposal, St. John was devastated. No union ever took place though, after Ellen Terry, who was supportive of Craig and St. John’s relationship, managed to persuade her daughter against the marriage.  St. John would later fictionalise the incident with Shaw, in her novel, Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul. The novel’s main protagonist is Joanna Montolivet, an androgynous girl known within the story as John-Baptist, who falls in love with a character called Sally; their relationship being of a kind in which it was hard to determine, ‘which was the husband and which was the wife in the ménage!!’ John-Baptist is shattered when Sally later embarks upon a relationship with a man, describing the pain of Sally’s betrayal as a, ‘bomb hurtling through the serene air of my Paradise.’ Continue reading

That Detestable Place: Virginia Woolf And Cambridge

‘That detestable place,’ as she referred to Cambridge, remained a lifelong source of resentment for Virginia Woolf. Despite telling the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, ‘I hate Cambridge, and bitterly though I’ve suffered from it, I still respect it,’ she was never able to reconcile herself to her own exclusion from the University and, as she saw it, the continuing injustices it insisted upon committing against its female students. Yet her resentment was not without foundation.

During the 19th Century, two women’s colleges had been established, Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1871, but women were not admitted as full members of the University. Furthermore, although they had been granted the right to sit Tripos exams in 1881, and were offered University certificates on passing, they were unable to accept the titles of degrees. In fact, many female students even felt that their presence was not welcomed by the University and at times, both faculty and male undergraduates could be openly hostile to it. One Newnham student even claimed that, when women walked, male students sometimes followed them and mockingly ‘clumped and stamped in time with each of their steps.’ 

In her memoirs, Frances Partridge (née Marshall), who went up to Newnham in 1918 (and would eventually become affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group through her marriage to Ralph Partridge) remembered the enforcement of rules which she considered outmoded and traditionalist. Partridge recalled how she had cunningly bypassed the strict college rules requiring Newnham students to have chaperones, ‘by inventing an imaginary duenna called Mrs Kenyon, whose services I called on quite often.’ However, Patridge noted that, ‘there was gunpowder in the air, and it finally exploded at a meeting between students and dons, convened to consider the question of chaperonage, when a brave girl stood up and asked why it was that an exception was made for those girls rich enough to have a sitting-room as well as a bedroom. In a dead silence she enquired: “Is this because it is thought that the sight of the beds in our bed-sitting-rooms would be too much of a temptation?” This occasion, if not this actual remark, sounded the death knell of chaperones. After this we met the men freely, played tennis with them went punting and on picnics, and above all danced with them.’ Continue reading