Tag Archives: Bodleian

Female writers from Sappho to today

A couple of weeks ago, after reviewing one of my posts, my editor commented that I was repeating myself because I had already written on the same topic in an earlier post.  I feel that is inevitable in a weekly blog which has an archive of more than three hundred posts – I am just not sufficiently creative to produce something original every week. Besides, maybe that’s not necessary.  Anyhow, today I am returning to a theme that I have written about previously: the Treasury at the Weston Library in Oxford.  It is a small museum with a rotating collection of treasures from the Bodleian Library, which until the end of February 2019 is on the topic of ‘Sappho to Suffrage: women who dared‘.  As you might expect from the title, the oldest treasure in the exhibition are fragments of a copy from the 2nd century AD of one of Sappho’s poems.  Sappho, who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos between 630 and 580 BC, is the first female writer known to Western civilisation.  Her work was almost lost – the fragments of papyrus on display were found on an ancient Eygptian rubbish dump.  Perhaps this is a good representation of men’s attitude to women’s writing because probably since Sappho, female writers have been neglected by publishers and male readers.  As Nilanjana Roy has reported, publishing houses submit more books by male writers for literary prizes and book reviews tend to highlight more books by men than by women.  In books written by women the gender of characters in evenly divided, whereas in those written by men, women only occupy between a quarter and third of the character-space and men tend to read books written by men.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that many men are lacking in understanding and social awareness of half the population.  Encouraged by my wife and daughters, this imbalance in my reading habits is being addressed by reading the books shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction each year during our summer holidays. I can recommend the 2018 winner ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie – it’s very topical, will make you think and pulls you along to its dramatic final page.  However, you should also read ‘When I hit you’ by Meena Kandasamy – it was both enlightening and shocking to me, and I was left wondering about the line between fiction and non-fiction.  I also really enjoyed last year’s winner: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman.

BTW – the thumbnail is a scan of postcard bought in the Weston Library showing a painting by their artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, who captured moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.

Source: Gender and genre: reading the world by Nilanjana Roy in the FT Weekend, Saturday 22 September 2018.

Previous posts featuring the Weston Library Treasury: ‘Pope and Austen‘ on September 9th, 2015, ‘Red Crane‘ on July 26th, 2017 and ‘Ramblings on equality‘ on October 11th, 2017.

Ramblings on equality

By David Samuel, User:Hellodavey1902 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I had some time to spare in Oxford last week and visited the Treasury in the Weston Library again (see my post entitled ‘The Red Crane‘ on July 26th, 2017).  I was amazed to be confronted by an eight-hundred year-old copy of the Magna Carta.  No fuss, no fanfare, just sitting there behind a glass screen as close as you are to your screen as you read this blog.  But the Bodleian Library has four copies of the Magna Carta; so, maybe it’s nothing special to them!  This one is slightly dogged-eared, or to be more precise, rodent-nibbled – there were a couple of small holes where an animal had gnawed it while it was folded up and stored at Osney Abbey from its issue following King John’s death in 1217 until the Abbey’s dissolution in 1539.  The equivalent documents in the USA, the declaration of independence, the constitution and the bill of rights, are housed in the grandiose building on the National Mall, shown in the picture.

After the Weston Library Treasury, I went to the bookshop next door and could not resist buying a couple of books: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World‘ by Yuri Herrara and ‘The Wandering Falcon‘ by Jamil Ahmad.  Hopefully, I will not succumb to tsundoku (see my post on ‘Tsundoku‘ on May 24th, 2017) and will eventually read these novels.  BTW – you can read the Magna Carta here.

It’s October and the start of university term, which also means that once again I am teaching thermodynamics to first-year undergraduate students. I have blogged on thermodynamics frequently; so, I am going to provide links to these posts during the next couple of months.  Primarily for those of my undergraduate students who find their way to this blog, but hopefully these links will also be of interest to regular readers. My opening lecture set thermodynamics in the context of the more familiar sciences as described in my post entitled ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016.  Last week’s lecture started with the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, which I have discussed in two posts entitled ‘All things being equal‘ on December 3rd, 2014 and ‘Lincoln on equality‘ on February 6th, 2013 – now I’ve gone in a full circle, if somewhat shakily!

Pope and Austen

marksofgeniusA few weeks ago we visited the Marks of Genius exhibition in the recently refurbished Weston Library which is part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  It is a remarkable exhibition with an overwhelming collection of riches in terms of manuscripts and rare books.  You might expect to see a copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton.  But one of the items that bowled me over was the original manuscript of ‘An Essay on Criticism’ written in Alexander Pope’s own hand and used by the printer to prepare the first edition in 1711.  It was open at the first page and you could see Pope’s annotations and corrections.  Pope instructed the printer to put the following lines at the top of the second page:

Tis with our judgments as our watches, none

Go just alike, yet each believes his own

I think he would be astonished at our ability today, not only to believe but, to publish our judgments in blogs.  We might have the technology to synchronise our time-keeping devices, whether they are watches or smart phones, but there is still a huge diversity of opinions.

The other item in the exhibition that fascinated me was an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen of a novel called ‘The Watsons‘.  It is tempting to think that the prose written by great authors flows effortlessly onto the page. However, this was clearly not the case for Jane Austen as can be seen from the many crossings out and insertions in this handwritten manuscript.  It should perhaps encourage my students who frequently have reports and manuscripts returned to them containing a similar level of my deletions and additions [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015].

The Bodleian Library has digitised the entire exhibition so you can see exactly what I have written about above by following the links to their website:

Alexander Pope’s manuscript

Jane Austen’s The Watsons manuscript