15.01.21, FitzGerald, Helen Waddell

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Joel T. Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 15.01.21

Fitzgerald, Jennifer. FitzGerald, Jennifer. Helen Waddell and Maude Clarke: Irishwomen, Friends, and Scholars. Helen Waddell Reassessed: New Readings. Bern: Bern: Peter Lang, Peter Lang, 2012. 2014. Pp. xvi, 293. Pp. ix, 342. ISBN: 9783034307123 (paperback).
ISBN: 9783034309783 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Joel T. Rosenthal
SUNY Stony Brook (emeritus)

Helen Waddell (1889-1965) has been a name to conjure with ever since the first edition of The Wandering Scholars appeared in 1927. She achieved great popularity and success with this collection as well as with a number of subsequent volumes, especially her labor-of-love and best-selling novel, Peter Abelard in 1933. Her works have remained in print, still being virtually "must" reading for a medievalist, and her life and many of her lesser-known writings have continued to be a subject of interest. We have a 1973 biography by Monica Blackett and another in 1984 by Dame Felicitas Corrigan. Corrigan also edited a 1993 volume, Between Two Eternities: A Helen Waddell Anthology with quotations from Waddell and from the many figures whose works she paraphrased and adopted in her own collections, while in 2005 David Burleigh edited a volume of some of her very early work, Helen Waddell's Writings from Japan. In the volumes under review here FitzGerald adds a further dimension to these earlier works, the biographical volume weaving together the lives of two long-time and very close friends, Waddell and the highly esteemed fourteenth century historian, Maude V. Clarke (1892-1935); the volume of edited papers brings together thirteen essays on various aspects of Waddell's writings, life and family, and literary and intellectual affinities.

While previous biographers have looked at Waddell in the setting of her family--liberal Presbyterian missionary father with roots in Belfast, early life in Japan, close ties with her sister Meg, the difficulties in the path of a woman seeking to establish herself as a scholar/writer--FitzGerald draws the parallel lines between Waddell and Clarke, close friends from their student days at Queen's University, Belfast. The ties and impositions of family slowed them both down; Clarke with a mother who went insane (albeit with a supportive father), Waddell as the youngest of many siblings and therefore tied for years to the care of a sickly and alcoholic stepmother, only free to heed the call of scholarly and literary ambition in 1920 when she was over thirty. Clarke overcame the predictable obstacles to emerge as an important historian, suffering from but winning through the denigration of her Irish degree, academic misogyny at many levels, and the heavy duties demanded of residential faculty at an Oxford woman's college. But mostly she knew where she wanted to go and eventually she got there. Finally and firmly established at Somerville she worked with and drew the admiration of colleagues: F. M. Powicke (who had taught both women at Belfast), V. H. Galbraith (who wrote her British Academy obituary), and E. F. Jacob. Only her sad death prevented her from accepting the invitation to write the fourteenth-century volume of The Oxford History of England, this being about as high a tribute as British academia could offer. When that volume did appear, in 1959, it was by May McKisack, Clarke's friend and contemporary.

Waddell, by contrast, found the bonds of academia too narrow, and was rejected several times for positions for which she had applied (and was well qualified). But she had the good fortune to gather enough fellowship money for research in Paris, work that led to those medieval volumes that, soon after publication, brought her fame (and probably a fair degree of fortune). She had begun her serious studies with an interest in the role of women in literature and FitzGerald gives us her hitherto unpublished "Women in the Drama before Shakespeare" in an appendix (187-230). But in the course of Waddell's intellectual development she came to aspire to a wider sweep, a larger vision of the role of literature. As she read medieval sources she found a charm in the material that few had discovered, let alone championed. As FitzGerald says, it was this "that would make her famous; she is distinguished among her fellow 'discoverers' of twelfth-century humanism for emphasizing the inclination towards love, friendship, nature, the bonds of humankind" (77). This sort of "ode to joy" was to be the spirit or theme behind her work, including the collections of Latin poetry that argued for a common vein of human experience from late classical-pagan times through the Middle Ages. The high-water mark of this approach is found in Waddell's fictionalized tale of Abelard and Heloise. Here she manages to identify with each or both in their quest for love and spiritual fulfillment; a follow-up novel on Heloise was planned but never written. When her learned but eccentric books began to attract popular acclaim (and sales figures to match), an academic critic accused her of "jazzing" up the Middle Ages. No doubt, she was guilty as charged--to the pleasure of readers for about three-quarters of a century.

Helen Waddell Reassessed brings together thirteen papers (eleven authors) from a 2012 conference at which all paid tribute to Waddell's unique blend of "scholarship and imagination" (1). The papers are divided into three groupings, opening with "Medieval Contexts." Under this heading Constant Mews discussed how Waddell came to grips with the multi-faceted history of Abelard and Heloise; lust and sin and, simultaneously, a painful search for salvation and peace. Charles Lock looks at the virtual stranglehold that Germanic philology had on medieval studies (at least in the literary realms) and how Waddell rebelled against this, championing Irish-Celtic, pagan, and late classical elements in medieval culture. Ann Buckley tells of the liturgies for some fairly obscure Irish saints--a background that, again, helps explain Waddell's emphasis on this body of literature and the traditions that lay behind it. FitzGerald covers some of the biographical material of her full volume though now she emphasizes aspects of Waddell's continual growth and tries to recapture some of her views about poetry and the human spirit as they had been enunciated in a now-lost lecture on mime.

"Critical Readings" carries papers by Stephen Kelly, Amanda Tucker, Norman Vance, and FitzGerald, looking at such varied topics as the influence upon Waddell or her convergence with Walter Benjamin and R. G. Collingwood, the legacy of liberal Presbyterianism, her Irish roots and the legacy of national identity, and her development during the "lost decade" that she spent tending her step-mother. "Parallel and Influences" does what it promises, in some cases by illuminating links that seem perfectly obvious after they have been called to our attention: David Burleigh on Waddell and Arthur Waley as they both paraphrased and/or translated Chinese verse, Helen Carr on Waddell and Ezra Pound as they both turned to the charm and inspiration of that same body of writing, Louis Watson on parallels between Waddell and Hope Emily Allen (who brought Margery Kempe to our attention), and Norman Vance on the similarities between Waddell's Protestant commitment and the spiritual quest of some contemporary Roman Catholic, Irish figures. Nini Rogers very lucidly puts much of the biographical material into the context of the large late-Victorian family with its many webs of affection and repression.

In this collection of papers on a variety of Waddell-focused topics we range to what we now think of as theory, as in the references to Benjamin and Collingwood, or to comparative religion--setting Waddell against Catholic theologians--or transnational literature as in her writings that looked to China and Japan. Behind it all, was her view of a universal love of expression, whether in joy or sorrow or quiet contemplation--a belief that the common bonds of humanity overleaped the obvious boundaries of language, nation, and religion. FitzGerald does extra service, beyond that of editor and contributor, by including an admirable and seemingly exhaustive bibliography to the collected volume: Waddell's works, large and small and including her own poems and reviews, reviews of her many books, biographical material, literary criticism, and seven dissertations.

As the third biography and the fifth or sixth book on Waddell in recent decades, we may ask why she is still of such interest, a question that goes beyond the power and charm of her writings. Maude Clarke, we can say, was a very good academic historian and students of medieval England still know her work--or they should. But Waddell brought unique qualities to her work and they continue to give her, as well as those books, considerable currency. Interest in her life goes beyond the obviously biographical, though no doubt we all enjoy a story of how adversity is overcome and diligence and perseverance (and a touch of genius) come to the top. In addition, we note (from the many quotations and notes in both books) that Waddell and Clarke--especially Waddell--are rich subject for biography because they wrote so much: letters, notes to themselves and each other and to friends and siblings and colleagues. They chronicled their lives, both the up sides and the down sides, in great detail and the challenge of reconstructing these lives is an intriguing one. These two books take us to a world of a century ago with exciting frontiers and time-honored rigidities. Waddell saw some of her near and dear die in each World War and her writings reflect touches of sorrow and anxiety, as they do of the soaring spirit. In the best sense Maude Clarke represents exacting scholarship; we still honor her for that. Waddell seems to transcend exacting scholarship--in numerous works on Chinese poetry, as in her more familiar work on the Latin West--and we continue to honor her for that; we look at her life and we read what she wrote. No wonder that her legacy is alive and well.

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Author Biography

Joel T. Rosenthal

SUNY Stony Brook (emeritus)