“What has a Woman to do with Learning?”* That was a question that Elizabeth Elstob had to deal with in her lifetime (1683-1756), as her study of languages and of Old English in particular existed in precarious circumstances relying, it seems, on the support and encouragement of her brother William and a few friends. Even so, she proved to be a formidable Anglo-Saxonist, with publications appearing between 1708 and 1715, including one of AElfric’s homilies, a spirited defense of the study of “northern antiquities”, and an Old English grammar, the first such grammar to be written in Modern English.
It seemed appropriate to invoke her spirit on the first day of my Old English course. Wouldn’t she have been pleased by the sight of us! — half a dozen women sitting in a seminar room as registered students in a university, with a female professor. Of course, as a woman Elstob could not have become a university student in her day, let alone a member of the faculty. Nevertheless, she admired and encouraged women’s learning, and wrote of the pleasure and satisfaction that she received from the study of Old English. In fact, she wrote her grammar so that she could “invite the Ladies to be acquainted with the Language of their Predecessors” (vii). Well, last week I was inviting the Ladies in front of me to do just that in an eight-month course on Old English. And while Elizabeth Elstob looked to the Anglo-Saxon past to connect to a tradition of admirable women, for us Elstob herself serves as a foremother and a reminder that the rights so many of us take for granted were denied to so many before us. In fact, I teach in an institution that began as a women’s university, which became in 1925 the only independent women’s college in the British Commonwealth, the only women’s university established in Canada, and an institution that still maintains “an enduring commitment to the advancement of women.”
If only Elstob could have experienced such opportunities. After her brother William died, she was left with serious financial troubles, and she gradually disappeared from view, to be discovered many years later working as an impoverished schoolteacher. Her friends managed to get her a place as a governess in her final years, but she never had an opportunity to return to her Old English scholarship.
In honour of Elizabeth Elstob, then, I ask my students to find their own motivations for studying Old English and to remember always the hard-won right to university education for women that they enjoy and others have had and still have denied to them. I hope that some of Elizabeth’s pleasure and satisfaction in studying the language will be passed on to the women (and men) who study Old English with me.
For a good overview of Elstob’s career, see: Shaun F.D. Hughes. “Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756) and the Limits of Women’s Agency in Early-Eighteenth-Century England.” Women Medievalists and the Academy. Ed. Jane Change. U of Wisconsin Press, 2005. 3-24.