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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

A 'maimed and blighted life': ghosting the past

UCL Press has published Life Writing in the History of Archaeology: Critical Perspectives edited by Gabriel Moshenska and Claire Lewis. It is full of many insightful chapters and an erudite introduction that deftly introduces and places the volume within the context of academic life writing. I have a chapter in it on a 19thC female artist called 'The Ghosts of Ann Mary Severn Newton: Grief, an imagined life and (auto)biography’. This is the last of three blogs I have shared to accompany this publication thar concentrate more on my personal story and how it intertwined in my head with Mary Severn’s. The last section talks about the death of my eldest daughter, who was born prematurely, so please take notice of trigger warnings around baby loss and grief.

After Mary Severn Newton died, her childlessness overshadowed the account of her death in the most extensive biography that there is.[1] She did not live to enjoy the greater opportunities afforded to female artists in the later nineteenth century, such as the opening of the Slade School of Art in 1871. Years after Mary's death, her husband Charles Thomas Newton gave lectures for the ladies’ classes at King’s College London and supported the early careers of classical archaeologists Jane Harrison and Eugene Sellars by giving them work at the British Museum.[2] In the chapter I ask whether he did this because he recognised in them his wife’s thwarted ambitions?

Apastel of an older woman in a cap from the 1880s.
Crayon drawing of Anna Swanwick by Lowes Cato Dickinson, reproduced in Anna Swanwick:a memoir and recollections by Mary Louisa Bruce (1903)

We’ll never know, though a recent acquisition by the British Museum of a testimonial to Newton that listed the people who contributed to a bust of him on his retirement, includes the signature of Anna Swanwick. Along with translating the Greek plays of Aeschylus for publication, Swanwick was involved in pushing for women’s access to higher education, including in the founding of colleges for women at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Her inclusion and that of many other women, including Mary's old travelling companion Gertrude Jekyll, helps add some evidence for my speculation. I only saw this testimony earlier this year as it is a recent acquisition by The British Museum. I'm grateful to Thomas Kiely for showing it to me, as well as to the museum staff for making it a centrepiece of our exploration of the archives in the Greek and Roman department at our recent Newton Study day. I can't wait to hear more about the research being carried out on the signatories too.

For me, my infertility had made me think again about how women are defined biologically. As a student in the 1990s, I’d embraced post-modern critical theory and avidly espoused the fluidity of gender identity and the social construction of masculine and feminine identity. I’d not really considered constructions of gender in all the time I spent my legs in stirrups having my sexual and reproductive anatomy inspected by medical professionals. Or rather I pushed such ideas away from me. The inspections meant that I became well acquainted with, or at least

A photo of stirrups used in gynaecological examinations
Stirrups used in gynaecological examinations

heard a lot about, my faulty female anatomy. For years, my status as female was reduced to the biological ability to bear children. Much had changed in fertility treatment since 1993 when the sociologist Ann Oakley wrote about the growth of reproductive technologies and its impact, which was a renewed societal focus on the biological capacity of women. Her point was that motherhood became defined by (again) pregnancy and childbirth, rather than actually looking after a child.[3]

It wasn’t that my biological knowledge of my faulty body (as I then saw it) made me denounce my former ideas around gender construction, but it made me more aware of the complexities of female identity. If hormones, reproductive organs and the ability to produce a baby define a biological woman, then what was I? My failure to conceive made me feel like I’d failed at being a woman, that I was a broken woman, a half-woman, or more like a man. But I came to realise the problem wasn’t with me but in that definition of womanhood. Despite my years of reading cultural theory, for the first time it dawned on me that gender was as much a scientific and medical construction as it was a social one. Reading Angela Saini’s book Inferior a few years later, I saw more clearly the sexism inherent in the formation of many scientific disciplines, particularly biology.[4] For example, Saini argues that in the process of becoming infertile during menopause (which I am now going through) a woman becomes, in traditional ‘scientific’ thinking, ‘something else’ because fertility is deemed to define womanhood. This traditional definition of womanhood clearly has long roots, of which the equation of infertility with intellectual work (as referred to in the chapter and my last blog) is just one.

This reflection on my own biology and gender identity was a first step towards thinking about how else I could be a mother, as well as how motherhood could (and should) be defined differently. My husband and I had already talked about adoption as a possibility, but we’d been told to leave it at least six months before even contacting the relevant agencies. In the meantime, we could try and recover from our ordeal. My work offered six sessions with an occupational counselling service and I wanted to concentrate on getting ready for adoption, I was trying to look forward at what was to come, not back at what I’d been through. The counsellor patiently steered me right and these sessions made me realise that I was grieving and that it was natural to grieve for the loss of a biological child. Infertility has been referred to by therapists as ‘disenfranchised grief’ because it is unrecognised and unseen, even invalidated, by others within society.[5]

Eventually we did adopt a little boy. Yet in 2014 I was unexpectedly pregnant when I accepted the invitation to give a lecture on Mary Severn Newton’s contribution to the visual history of archaeology in nineteenth-century Britain. When the symposium was moved to late January 2015, I expected to have a very young baby. Tragically, my baby Emily Maud was born prematurely at 32 weeks in late November 2014 and died eight days after she was born. Around six weeks after her birth / death, I turned to this paper on Mary, which was half finished when I went into hospital while pregnant with Emily. Wanting to think and distract myself, I asked my colleague and friend Amara Thornton to give the paper for me. (She had already given a lecture on photography and archaeology on my behalf at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace while I was in hospital having Emily.) She understood my need for distraction. I contacted Gabriel, the symposium organiser, explained my situation, finished the paper and sent it to Amara to deliver.

Ann Mary Newton by Ann Mary Newton c. 1862. National Portrait Gallery. Bequeathed by the sitter's husband, Sir Charles Thomas Newton, 1895, NPG 977

As I finished my paper on Mary Severn Newton, I wondered if I’d been cursed by her ghost in an M. R. James style plot of academic haunting. As I have outlined, I had stopped researching her during my infertility treatment as her childlessness mirrored mine, or - more likely - the other way around. When I became unexpectedly pregnant, for various reasons I returned to working on her life and early death. Mary died at her home on Gower Street on 2 January 1866 at the age of 34. It seems that she had caught measles from a little boy whose portrait she had been painting. In the aftermath of her death, there was grief – and recrimination – that again mirrored my own experience. Mary’s family held her husband, the archaeologist Charles Newton, partially responsible for her early death because of his constant work and socialising. I felt – wrongly – that I was partially responsible for Emily’s death. My body was not equipped for pregnancy. I was not a ‘normal’ biological woman.

Biographical accounts had speculated on how depressed Mary had become by her inability to have a child. I had too well understood that depression. Now I understood the grief felt by her husband when she died. Charles Newton himself was devastated by Mary’s death and fled from London to Bournemouth. He wrote on thick, black-edged mourning paper to his close friend, the doctor and Oxford academic Henry Acland, that he needed a ‘change’ since his eyes filled Mary’s usual chair ‘with her form’.[6] Mary had been a lively young woman and her death shocked those who had known her. A few years after her own widowhood, Queen Victoria recorded her dismay at news of Mary’s death in her diary and sent a letter of condolence to Newton.

Mary was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery with a grave modelled on an ancient Athenian headstone. It was a link with the ancient past, but Newton carried his loss well into the future. Twelve years after Mary’s death, Newton again wrote to Acland, who had himself just been widowed, and his words are a moving testimony of long-lasting grief:

Too, too well I know what is before you, the vain strivings to take [solace] in a fathomless sea of grief, the breaking up of long deep watered associations; the bleak and dreary experiences which are within the heart till it struggles into a sort of maimed and blighted life like a tree transplanted into an ungenial climate.[7]

Newton died in Margate in 1894, nearly thirty years after Mary, but his body was transported back to London to be buried in the same plot. When I typed up his quotation for the paper I was giving by proxy, I felt every word of it. I thought I needed to write this paper because it would help me to exorcise Mary’s, and perhaps Emily’s, ghost. But you never exorcise your grief. These ghosts hang around you, affecting you in strange and unexpected ways and places forever. This is what Newton captured in his letter to his friend. My heart struggled into a life without my baby daughter.

ANN MARY NEWTON (1832-66) Princess Beatrice drawn 1858 16.6 cm (diameter) | RCIN 913952

Eight months later, I was pregnant again and this time had a baby daughter at full term, who I’ll call Fingers for ‘fingers crossed’. When Fingers was 10 months old, she was by then a smiley chubby baby, like Mary Severn’s drawing of Princess Beatrice at the same age. Recognising this, I realised that if I ever wanted to write up my research into Mary, I would need to approach her in a different way. In this chapter, I have put together an account of Mary’s life for an academic publication, which described her moving through a world that didn't make things easy for a skilled working woman, with all kinds of social codes and conventions to be navigated.[8] That was the historical context. But I hope here I have explained the context from which I saw her, affected by my experience of infertility and the loss of an unexpected baby.[9] Acknowledging that this coloured my perception of Mary, I argue that what I’d been through could illuminate aspects of Mary's life, and that her story could in turn illuminate issues around infertility, childlessness and grief that I and so many women have been through but rarely speak of.

References [1] Birkenhead (1965), 126. [2] Mary Beard (2002), The Invention of Jane Harrison, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 32 & 52-55. [3] Oakley (1993), 172. [4] Angela Saini (2017), Inferior. How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story, London: Fourth Estate [5] Tristan D. McBain and Patricia Reeves (2019), ‘Women’s Experience of Infertility and Disenfranchised Grief’, The Family Journal, 27/2, 156-166. [6] Charles Newton, Bodleian Library Oxford, MS. Acland, 11 January 1866, f. 104-5. [7] Charles Newton, Bodleian Library Oxford, MS. Acland, 29 October 1878, d. 84, ff. 52-53. [8] ‘The Ghosts of Mary Ann Severn Newton: grief, an imagined life and (auto)biography’, Gabriel Moshenska and Claire Lewis (eds), Life Writing in the History of Archaeology: Critical Approaches, London: UCL Press. [9] Stanley, Liz (1992), The auto/biographical I. The theory and practice of feminist auto/biography, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 10.


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