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Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo | 1759 | William Hogarth

Ladies, why did ye all in vain
Seek death to end your misery?
Why did ye not forget your pain
In new loves and new ecstasy?
Ophelia racked with phantasy,
And Sigismunda, sick with rue —
Ladies, why did ye choose to die
When all the world was made for you? 

These are the opening lines of the “Ballade of Ladies who Died for Love.” When I first encountered this poem, in a hushed library reading room, I was mainly struck by its familiarity. Its clever critique of the tired literary trope of romanticized feminine suicide wouldn’t be out of place on a feminist Tumblr or comment section in 2015. It belongs, self-evidently, to the tradition charted so movingly by B.N. Harrison on this site in her essay on The Unified Theory of Ophelia. But it’s actually nearly a century old. I found it in Oxford Poetry 1918, a yearbook of the best poetry written by Oxford students and recent graduates; its authors were Doreen Wallace and Eleanore Geach. Written in the same year that British women over the age of 30 finally got the right to vote in national elections, it’s a kind of time capsule from first-wave feminists. And Wallace’s life, in particular, turns out to be a reminder both of liberation and limitation.

By the time Geach and Wallace were at Oxford, they were already benefiting several decades’ worth of dedicated effort to open the university to women. In 1918, the young women who lived at one of the women’s colleges (Somerville, in Wallace’s case) or in Oxford as a home student (like Geach) were able to participate in most aspects of normal university life. Unlike their pioneering foremothers, they could attend nearly all university lectures and sit for examinations. But they weren’t officially members of the university, and they couldn’t actually receive degrees—although the Principal of Somerville wisely insisted that all her students follow prescribed degree courses.

I imagine Geach and Wallace in the lecture halls, in the libraries – the famous Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian, maybe, not so different from the room where I read their work. They’re greedily soaking up Western literature. They’re searching for themselves, but they keep finding the same stupid story: a woman experiences a sliver of life, then kills herself because of a man.

How is learning a liberation, when the texts all tell you that you may only flicker and then die?

The Ballade’s three main stanzas repeat the pattern set by the first, traversing the Western canon’s appalling female body count. Having taken to task Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Sigismunda of the Decameron, heroine of the Decameron who killed herself when her father murdered her lover, the poets turn to classical suicides: Oenone, Phaedra, Dido. They ransack legend and literature, from “lily-white Elaine” who died of love for Lancelot to Juliet and Isolde, dying by their lovers’ sides. How is learning a liberation, when the texts all tell you that you may only flicker and then die?

Doreen Wallace arrived at Somerville having found her greatest refuge in academic settings. She was the only child of a rather flighty upper-middle-class couple. Her father had introduced her to the pleasures of poetry, but he also drank heavily and sometimes fought with his wife. Bewildered by his bookish, awkward offspring, he promised to give her a good education since she might not manage to get married and would therefore need to earn a living. And so Doreen graduated from cliquish local boarding schools to the more academically serious Malvern Girls’ College, where she revelled in literature, debate, tennis, and the ability to wear a uniform rather than struggle to keep up with fashionable clothing. When her parents separated, she found herself at one vacation break not knowing where she was supposed to go, or even where her mother and father were each living: by then, school had become her true home. In 1916, she went to Oxford.

The thing that most stays with me about the Ballade is not the list of dead women, but the repeated refrain: “Ladies, why did ye choose to die / When all the world was made for you?” In spite of the restrictions and the weight of literary tradition, Wallace found, in war-time Oxford, a world made for her. To some extent, this was a direct effect of World War I, which broke out in 1914 and transformed the ancient university. Most of the male undergraduates, and many of the dons, were away on war service. Somerville College’s premises had been turned into a temporary military hospital, and its students were lodged partly in one of Oriel College’s buildings and partly in several private houses scattered around the city.

Wallace chose the latter option: accustomed to considerable independence, she didn’t like the idea of living under close supervision and strict rules in a dormitory. And in fact she socialized with older and more worldly types than the typical first-year undergraduate. Eleanore Geach, her writing partner, was married and thus able to serve as a chaperone to mixed social engagements, though not much older than Wallace herself. Wallace was also friends with Dorothy L. Sayers, who had finished her studies but was then working in Oxford for the publisher Basil Blackwell—Blackwell’s published Oxford Poetry, in fact, and Sayers was one of the co-editors of the 1918 edition. In addition to poetry, Sayers and Wallace shared a crush on Capt. Eric Whelpton, who returned to Oxford in 1918 to take his war degree.

All of this conjures up a rather different set of images from that of young women encountering canonical misogyny in the Radcliffe Camera: Wallace, Sayers, and Geach creating hilarious jointly-written poems; Wallace walking the war-darkened streets of Oxford, moving between serious academic work, witty parties, and light flirtations; an Oxford dominated by women, being kept alive by female tutors, students, and administrators who saw that education, too, is a service even to a war-torn society.

The first months after the war saw a flurry of official recognition of women’s rights: the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over 30, while the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowed women to hold public offices and enter the professions. Women were granted the right to degrees at Oxford in 1920 (Cambridge University wouldn’t follow suit until 1947). Sayers took her degree at the first available ceremony, in October 1920.

Wallace didn’t officially accept her degree until 1925. In the meantime she had worked as a teacher and then married a well-off farmer with whom she ultimately had four children. She transformed herself from misfit loner and poet into a wife, mother, prolific novelist, social campaigner, and pillar of her rural community. With her husband, she was an outspoken, sometimes dramatic opponent of tithes, which she regarded as an unfair tax levied against the agricultural sector.

In spite of the restrictions and the weight of literary tradition, Doreen Wallace found, in war-time Oxford, a world made for her.

Sayers and Wallace quarrelled over the tithe issue, and it’s generally believed that the deeply unflattering portrait of Catherine (Freemantle) Bendick in Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) is based on Wallace. Prematurely aged by “slumps and sickness and tithe and taxes and the Milk Board and the Marketing Board, and working one’s fingers to the bone for a bare living and trying to bring up children,” Mrs. Bendick fills her former classmate, Harriet Vane, with distress: “What damned waste! … All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn, and drawn far better.”

Is “Mrs. Bendick” merely an act of literary revenge, or is it also a reflection of Wallace’s own views? In her own novels, Wallace, too, seems dubious about marriage and motherhood. As critic Jane Leonardi puts it, her protagonists are “caught, imprisoned, oppressed by the marriage and motherhood that replaces romantic friendships.” Like others who lived through the extraordinary feminist triumphs of the early twentieth century, Wallace found herself still entangled in structures of oppression that proved more than equal to Parliamentary acts. And here again, her struggles are familiar. We are still working to make sure that marriage and motherhood are not annihilating experiences for women. We are still struggling to make sure that what is legally possible is also socially possible.

But surely the authors of the “Ballade” would urge me not to end with my eyes on the limitations of the past century of feminist advocacy. Wallace was a public figure and an author whose career spanned over forty years. Beyond expectations of matrimony and obedience, beyond the joy and pain of romantic love, she found a wealth of work to do and meaning to make. All the world, indeed, was made for her.

Love’s happiness had passed you by,
But there were other things do.
Ladies, why did ye choose to die,
When all the world was made for you?


Full text: 

Ballade of Ladies who Died for Love
by E.F.A. Geach (Home Student), D.E.A. Wallace (Somerville)

Ladies, why did ye all in vain
Seek death to end your misery?
Why did ye not forget your pain
In new loves and new ecstasy?
Ophelia racked with phantasy,
And Sigismunda, sick with rue —
Ladies, why did ye choose to die
When all the world was made for you?

While Phœdra by thy passion slain,
Œnone, nymph of Thessaly,
Dido and lily-white Elaine,
O Queen who died for Antony,
Sappho and all thy poesy,
Juliet to thy dead love true —
Ladies, why did ye choose to die
When all the world was made for you?

Fair Margaret distraught and fain
Beside thy phantom love to lie,
And Isabella who didst wane
Over thy pot of porphyry,
Aude and Isolde, tell me why,
Your lovers direly stricken thro’,
You chose by those same swords to die,
When all the world was made for you?

ENVOY:
Love’s happiness had passed you by,
But there were other things do.
Ladies, why did ye choose to die,
When all the world was made for you?

(T.W. Earp., E.F.A. Geach, and D.L. Sayers, eds., Oxford Poetry 1918 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1918, p. 19)

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