The Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society, 1800-1980

The Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society, 1800-1980

The Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society, 1800-1980

The Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society, 1800-1980

Synopsis

This book tells the remarkable stories of ten women whose inspirational lives and struggles exemplify the concerns and problems that other women have faced throughout the last two centuries. Each is the subject of a chapter devoted to her particular story and the times in which she lived. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed great changes in women's position in Scotland, and yet little is known about the achievements of the Scottish women who were the main agents of these changes. In presenting the life stories of ten women, William Knox provides evidence of the huge contribution made by women to the shaping of modern Scotland. At the same time he shows how the life histories of individuals can reveal previously dark corners of historical understanding and allow a more nuanced picture of Scottish society as a whole. Subjects include Jane Welsh Carlyle, brilliantly gifted, but married to the wayward and demanding Thomas, Sophia Jex-Blake, Scotland's first female doctor, and Mary Slessor,

Excerpt

Writing biographies presents special challenges and creates both moral and methodological problems for the historian. These might be fairly easy to define theoretically, but in practice much more difficult to resolve. Fundamentally, the biographer must ask: what is the appropriate approach to adopt in trying to understand the actions and motivations of an individual? Do we try and recreate the mindset of an individual by absorbing ourselves in their writings, both public and private, or should we reject this as impossible as other people are unknowable? The celebrated biographer Philip Ziegler has argued that ‘biographers must aim to embrace the totality of the subject’s life’, and urged them to never lose ‘their hunger for the minutiae of their subject’s everyday life’. Following Ziegler, one would want to know about minor details such as his taste in ties, or her perfume, whether they took a bath or a shower, whether they preferred claret to burgundy, and so on. By absorbing ourselves in such trivial and seemingly inconsequential information the subject might somehow reveal their true self, or at least provide insights into themselves and their actions that are unattainable from documentary texts. But if we can add to our knowledge of the subject and become more sensitive to the nuances of their character through interrogating the mundane, how far should we go in empathising with them? The earliest biographies were adventures in hagiography in the sense that they sought to emphasise the specialness of a king or a saint vis-à-vis the rest of society. However, in spite of the greater objectivity of biographical writing, the temptation to write hagiography remains as the more one comes to know an individual the greater the tendency towards empathy and that leads, if overdone, to inevitable distortions and unreasonable justifications of conduct. If the subject is still alive then the possibility of collusion between subject and biographer is, of course, all the greater, even if the latter attempts to hold an objective position. An example of this might be Robert Skidelsky’s much criticised biography of Oswald Mosley. Written in 1975, the book powerfully demonstrated the dangers of charisma in overriding a talented historian’s judgment and training. As a . . .

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