Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair

sarahmairDame Sarah Mair (1846–1941) is perhaps best known as the founder of St George’s School for girls, which is located to the back of Coltbridge. The Spurtle – the Broughton & Canonmills freesheet – reports that 29, Abercromby Place is soon to receive a blue plaque commemorating her. The Spurtle describes her as a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and an educational campaigner.

Biography

Mair came from a well-off background, based in the New Town, and was a descendant of the much lauded Welsh actress Sarah Siddons. According to the ever reliable Wikipedia (!), “Mair started the Edinburgh Essay Society, soon renamed the Ladies’ Edinburgh Debating Society when she was nineteen” in the year 1865. She was a keen member of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association, which campaigned for female access into universities. She later ran the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women, for which she received an honorary LLD in 1920 from the University of Edinburgh. These are just a few of her achievements – and more detailed information can be read at the links provided.

She was also responsible for the Ladies’ Edinburgh Magazine, aka The Attempt, which she edited into the 1870s.

A Safe Feminist?

This is not the first time this blog has mentioned pioneering feminists – Helen Cruickshank and Rebecca West are both featured in earlier entries. It is probably fair to say that Mair has more in common with the West than Cruickshank, but she appears to be to the right of both of them and eventually accepted a DBE.

There have been a number of lists or booklets about Scottish feminists or women pioneers recently. It is notable that many of the entries are people in higher education (something which most *men* could not afford until a few decades ago), Dames (in the proper sense of the word), pioneers of “the Rural”, daughters of the aristocracy etc. Sarah Mair certainly fits the bill with her pukka roots and polite manners.

Rightly or wrongly (depending on your POV), Mair appears to have rejected violent methods of protest, or at least ones that would create too much of a stir. As an historical figure, Mair’s legacy is a great deal “safer” and less subversive than say, rabble rousers like Ethel Moorhead who had promoted civil disobedience and ended up being the first suffragette to be forcefed. Mair’s safe legacy is probably partly the reason that the City of Literature and Historic Environment are promoting this plaque… and a very conservative place such as the Royal Scots Club is willing to allow them to put one on their wall.

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Rebecca West

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A lot of things come through Facebook – good, bad, and often ugly – but it was interesting to see this quote from Rebecca West (1892-1983), which many will agree with, and some even recoil from. Rebecca West was a highly interesting woman, and  a sometimes contradictory one.

She is also part of the story of literary Corstorphine.

Who she?

Rebecca West was born Cicely Fairfield in County Kerry. She was a noted journalist, author, literary critic, and also the “other half” of the science fiction writer H.G. Wells. Their son, Anthony West was a noted writer in his own right.

Her output was huge, and she contributed articles to major newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. It is difficult to summarise it all here.

Cicely (Rebecca) had a difficult childhood. Her father, Charles Fairfield was an Irish journalist who went bankrupt. He abandoned his family when Cicely was only eight, leaving Isabella, his Scottish wife, to raise them by herself. Isabella took the family to Edinburgh, where Cicely went to George Watson’s Ladies College on a scholarship. Cicely left school when she was sixteen with little or no formal qualifications.

Despite her father’s abandonment, she and her sisters all went on to lead successful middle class lives. One became an early female doctor and barrister.

Cicely herself would attend the Women’s School of Gardening at Kaimes Road in Corstorphine (on the west side of the zoo). This was a pioneering feminist institution – and other graduates included the Borders poet Madge Elder. Both of them would end up being involved in political activism, and the women’s suffrage movement.

She took her pen-name, Rebecca West from a character in one of Ibsen’s plays, a reminder of her career as an actress.

Novelist

West wrote fourteen novels, several of which were published after her death. Return of the Soldier (1918) is about the effects of WWI, while The Judge (1922) deals with the women’s suffrage movement. Many of her other works are romans à clef – i.e. disguised semi-autobiography such as Harriet Hume which is about an accomplished piano player held back by her husband (much as her mother Isabella had been).

Influence

No single form or genre was sufficient to contain her energy, and she lived as hard as she wrote. Rebecca West went everywhere, read everything, knew everyone. As Bonnie Kime Scott says in her editor’s introduction, “To read her letters in an informed way is to receive an education in the culture of the twentieth century.”

  • Hilary Mantel, in “Conservative Rebel”, a review of Selected Letters of Rebecca West, in The New York Review of Books (29 June 2000)

West accepted a DBE in 1959. By this stage, she had swung well away from the left-wing politics of her earlier life, so this was hardly a surprising decision.

She was responsible for covering many of the major events of the twentieth century – the beginnings of formal apartheid in South Africa in 1960, the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, the trial of “Lord Haw Haw” and many others.

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