We Are Feminists: Canonical Forces

Thank you to Adam James Smith, Teaching Associate and regular School of English blogger, for this ‘We Are Feminists’ post. Taking his cue from recent controversies surrounding the reporting of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph, Adam considers the fraught relationship between ‘value’, history and the literary canon. He challenges us to be mindful — to consider who is ‘in’, who is ‘out’, and why…

–Amber Regis


What do four Wimbledon champions and the early eighteenth-century Hanoverian periodical writing of Joseph Addison have in common?



A few weeks ago Andy Murray won Wimbledon. It was a great victory and a wonderful moment that newspapers and tabloids were rightly keen to celebrate. What was a little surprising was their choice of headlines. The Telegraph screamed triumphantly: ‘After 77 years, the wait is over’, The Times boasted: ‘Murray ends 77-year wait for British win’, and even the Daily Mail went with ‘Andy Murray ends 77 years of waiting for a British Champion.’ Bravo. Well done Andy Murray. The only problem with these headlines is that there have actually been four British champions of Wimbledon since Fred Perry’s victory in 1936 (a point that the trusty Guardian makes beautifully here). Wimbledon was won by Dorothy Round Little in 1937, Angela Mortimer in 1961, Ann Hayden-Jones in 1969 and Virginia Wade in 1977. You can see where I’m going with this…

To quote Chloe Angyal (who made this comment on Twitter only to see it immediately get re-tweeted 9425 times):

Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people.

Virginia Wade with her trophy after winning the Wimbledon women's singles championshipThis is a significant point, and again, one made exceptionally well in The Guardian‘s response. Having at the time only recently recorded my contribution for the School of English’s very own ‘We are Feminists’ project it occurred to me that like the authors I discussed in that video these women had been subjected to canonical forces. They had be written out of the canon of Wimbledon.

If you’ve not watched the video yet, I recommend having a quick look, not only as a shameless plug for myself but also become it means I’ll have fractionally less ground to cover here. It’s very short, it has some gags in it, an interactive element and I’m wearing an aggressively floral shirt – what more could you want?

So, if you didn’t have one already you should now have a very vague idea of what I mean when I talk about the literary canon. A brief glance at the word’s etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that it has ecclesiastic origins, meaning a ‘law, rule or degree of the church.’ It also refers to the books of the Bible ‘officially recognised by the church.’ Used generally ‘canonical’ comes to be defined as being: Of the nature of a canon or rule; of admitted authority, excellence, or supremacy; authoritative; orthodox, accepted; standard.’ So, in literature, the canon is an authoritative reading list of texts which are accepted to be of an excellent standard. As I said in my video (with the aid of some really big air quote marks), they’re the texts which are considered to be ‘worth reading.’

That exact phrase, ‘worth reading’, came to mind after a real-life conversation I’d been having the weekend before I recorded the video. I’d had dinner with a couple of my oldest and dearest friends, neither of whom studied English Literature at University. Conversation turned to what we were all reading and one of my friends (who’d studied Russian, Business and Management at University and had never once talked to me about reading or literature) revealed that he’d just finished The Turn of the Screw. He went on to reel off all the books he’d read recently, which included Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy. He went on to explain that he didn’t put much stock in bestsellers or contemporary fiction, explaining: ‘If I’m going to spend a lot of time reading something I want to make sure it’s worth reading.’ He was reading his way through the literary canon, but when I told him this he had no idea what I was talking about. He hadn’t studied literature at University or A-Level, and he said that he didn’t go out of his way to find out which texts were ‘worth reading’- so how did he know? When I asked, he shrugged and said he just knew which were the good ones. So how did the canon get to him?

The canon isn’t a conspiracy. It’s the product of many different groups and processes doing many different things over an ever-increasing period of time, which all contribute to us – as the public – coming to form some idea of what is ‘worth reading’ and what isn’t. For many this might start at school: the texts that are taught are the ones that people remember, and entrepreneurial publishers and television producers are likely to adapt these titles because they know people are familiar with them. Texts that are taught, texts that are reprinted, sold and consumed continuously, texts that are made available. The canon is bankable, and assured a long life yet.

At University things are perhaps a little more nuanced, but it is still the texts we traditionally studied and continue to study that perpetuate the canon. Who would sign up to an English degree that didn’t promise Shakespeare and Dickens?

If students are introduced to the likes of Ben Jonson, John Dryden and John Milton — but not Ameila Lanyer and Eliza Heywood — it makes sense that Jonson, Dryden and Milton will continue to garner the most critical attention. (I must state, however, the case is more complex here at Sheffield. It is a privilege to study and work in a School that is constantly expanding and problematising the literary canon. LIT234 students should remember this next time they complain about William Baldwin’s Beware of the Cat.) You also have the added dimension of text books and academic writings, which can similarly influence canon formation. For instance, Ian Watt’s pioneering landmark text of 1957, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, galvanised the accepted narrative of how the novel form evolved throughout the eighteenth century and remained largely unchallenged until the late 1980s. But he forgot women, which brings me to the topic of how powerful the canon can be, both as a positive and a negative force.

When discussing this topic in seminars I always like to refer to George P Landlow’s comments on The Victorian Web, which I think perfectly surmise the advantages and disadvantages of the literary canon:

Gaining entrance clearly allows a work to be enjoyed; failing to do so thrusts it into the limbo of the unnoticed, unread, unenjoyed, un-existing. Canonization, in other words, permits the member of the canon to be read and hence not only exist, but also be immortalized.

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If a text is permitted to enter the canon it becomes known and respected. It is ‘immortalized’ and goes on to exist in a timeless space where it sits only alongside other ‘great’ texts. However, if a text is not included in the canon, or is written out of the canon, it is forgotten and may never be read. A good analogy might be the planets in our solar system. In 2006 expert scientists changed the definition of what a planet actually was, transforming Pluto from the ninth planet from the Sun to being just another giant rock. Fifty years from now how many of the people (currently being taught an entirely different acrostic for remembering planets) will even remember there was once a planet called Pluto?

To be written out of the canon is practically to be written out of existence, because we don’t even know that it was ever there. Traditionally groups that have been excluded from the Canon have included (but are not restricted to): women, black writers, ethnic minorities, working-class writers, homosexual and transexual writers, and writers with opinions that don’t correspond to normative and established structures current at the time of writing. When these voices are not given canonical space they are forgotten, and this shapes not only the memory of  individual readers, but the memory of cultures that follow and the histories they write.

Now, I said the canon is not a conspiracy. It isn’t, but it can be. A bit.


To return briefly to my period of study (the eighteenth century), there are an abundance of authors who self-consciously attempt (with some success) to construct or subvert ideas of either an English, Scottish or British literary canon. The Tory writers of the early eighteenth century were particularly good at this, with Alexander Pope’s Dunciad ridiculing and satirising the written output of his Whig political rivals to such an extent that they are still either forgotten or laughed at today. For instance, I bet you’ve probably heard of Jonathan Swift, and maybe even John Gay, but I’m fairly confident that you’ve never heard of their Whig rivals: Thomas Tickell or John Dennis. My own PhD thesis focuses on a periodical called The Free-Holder which was written and published in 1715-1716. It was written by Joseph Addison, who also wrote The Spectator and The Tatler, two of the most famous periodicals ever written. The Free-Holder followed on from their success, proving popular on its original release. And yet, today, The Free-Holder is barely remembered at all. Why this might be forms a key question in my research (and for all of the answers you’ll have to wait for my monograph) but a significant reason for this elision is ‘Whiggish’ sympathies. And I think I’ve also identified the exact moment when this happens…

In 1779 the highly regarded and well respected Samuel Johnson (genius, essayist, rambler, dictionary inventor and Tory) released The Lives of English Poets, a biographical list of the ‘most eminent’ English writers. In doing so he overtly creates a canon of literature for the Restoration and eighteenth century. He also writes a largely Tory canon – looking back now, Whig writers are conspicuous by their absence. However, he has a particular problem with Addison. He has to include him, since he is a much loved literary figure, but by the end of his career Addison was also extremely ‘Whiggish’. Johnson’s first impulse is to play up the neutrality of Addison’s early papers, but he can’t do the same with The Free-Holder (which, by the end, was wearing its Whig heart plainly on its sleeve). Johnson’s solution is simply to tell people not to read it:

[The Free-Holder] was undertaken in defence of the established government, sometimes with argument, sometimes with mirth. In argument he had many equals; but his humour was singular and matchless. […] There are however some strokes less elegant, and less decent. [T]hat which might be expected from Milton’s savageness, or [Whig] Oldmixon’s meanness, was not suitable for the delicacy of Addison.

The Free-Holder has subsequently suffered a noticeable lack of popular and critical attention. In fact, it has been omitted entirely from Addison’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. But to not read the Free-Holder is to not read Addison’s entire body of work, which leaves a skewered image of him as a writer, person and politician. Also, he wrote it for a reason and it had an impact on its contemporary readership — surely it’s worth reading, not only because it offers a fuller picture of Addison, but because it offers a better view of the century in which it was printed.

So, the canon has the power to immortalise some while banishing others. It can enhance memories of one author, while erasing those of another (such as the Wimbledon winners, Pluto, and particular groups of writers). The canon is not a conspiracy, but it can certainly be manipulated. And the implications of canon formation raise important questions about value. How do we distinguish good from bad?

The existence of the canon can remind us that ‘worth’ and ‘value’ are created; they are not innate but invented. We don’t know that Dickens is a literary great by accident. The canon is tremendously useful, but you should always be mindful of why it is that you are reading what you read, and always maintain an open mind towards what you are not. As revisionists and literary critics of this generation are constantly proving: all voices deserve to be heard, even if they have previously been silenced by canonical forces.

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