From the Reading Room

Richard Allestree, The Ladies Calling (Oxford, 1675)

l calling

Clarissa Sutherland has been in the reading room this week reading the above volume amongst others.  I asked her about her research and this book in particular.

‘I’m writing about the first English stage actresses of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries for my Undergraduate History dissertation. Through my research, I’m attempting to discover whether these women had any impact on society’s views on femininity, and the lives of ordinary women. Richard Allestree’s tract The Ladies Calling is essentially a conduct book for young ladies, taking them through the fundamentals of femininity – modesty, chastity, piety – and detailing how they should behave throughout life – as virgins, wives and widows. The source was essential to my research as it has helped outline the ‘ideal femininity’ of the late seventeenth century which, in conjunction with texts from the later eighteenth century, will allow me to ascertain what kind of an impact the first actresses had, if any. It has also suggested that femininity in the period was very much a construction, which has been useful in my discussion of the actresses’ ‘private’ (yet fairly public) lives potentially being just as much of a construction as the roles they played professionally. Although not strictly related to my question, I was interested to discover a certain empathy with women in Allestree’s writing, which is often absent from moralising discourse. For instance, his assertion that women could be just as great as men if only given an education is a view which would not have been shared by all of his contemporaries.’

As well as the many published works in its collections, Senate House Library holds a good deal of material relating to the theatre both in specialist book collections and in the archives.  The Ternan Family Papers and the Longley Collection of books concern the life and times of actress Ellen Lawless Ternan, who is also known for her affair with Charles Dickens.  Malcolm Morley was an actor/manager/stage director and the Malcolm Morley Collection and archive cover a wide time period and are rich in material on a range of theatrical subjects.  The Florence Farr Papers concern this leading 19th-century West End actress who was also a women’s rights activist, novelist and journalist. She advocated universal suffrage, equal protection for women under the law and workplace equality.  A bohemian’s bohemian she collaborated with artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and theatrical producer Annie Horniman.

Readers may like to attend a talk and discussion hosted by Jonathan Harrison (Head of Special Collections) and Professor Michael Slater (leading Dickens Scholar): ‘The Malcolm Morley Collection of Dramatic Literature’ will be held in the Seng Tee Lee Centre, Senate House Library, on Wednesday 13th March at 6.00pm.  Those wishing to attend should contact the library office on shl.officeadmin@london.ac.uk .

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