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The Comedy of Errors

Sheila Rowbotham Talks Rebel Crossings for Nottingham Festival of Literature

15 November 16 words: James Walker

In her latest book, Sheila Rowbotham outlines the interweaving lives of six figures who made Rebel Crossings across the Atlantic in search of new beginnings. This talk was part of Nottingham’s Festival of Literature...

The best part of being a journalist is it enables you to travel the world through the eyes of people. Sheila Rowbotham has seen quite a bit in her time. She helped start the women’s liberation movement in Britain and is known internationally as a historian of feminism and radical social movements. She’s also the author of some pretty weighty book with titles of intent: Women, Resistance And Revolution; Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World; and Hidden From History.

In her talk, held in the comfy confines of the Five Leaves Bookshop, she asked us to travel back in time to the late nineteenth century to explore the interweaving lives of four women and two men. These influential figures were drawn together through an interest in liberalism, feminism, socialism and anarchism, all of which led them to cross the Atlantic in search of new beginnings, hence her latest book is titled: Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, And Radicals.

The book has taken quite a while to write, having first encountered the figures in the British Library during the seventies. Presumably their lives have niggled away at her and she decided to research them in more depth. But it was in 2009 that she gave the project her full attention.  This has required tireless research, made more difficult by the changing of names, and the piecing together of various letters, poems and allegories, as well as the novels of Gertrude Dix, to make sense of these emerging friendships and lives. The result is a fascinating biography of inspirational individuals seeking emancipation and alternative means of living than that offered by a cruel and competitive capitalism.

No more is this desire to find Utopia in the New World better expressed than in the naming of Miriam Daniell and Robert Nicol’s first child as ‘Sunrise’ which felt more like something you’d associate with the hippie movement of the sixties. It was a curt reminder that history is the story of the same struggles and ideas, and that the quest for individual freedom was as valuable then as it is now.    

During her talk, Sheila provided some photographs of the key figures as she gave brief autobiographical sketches on what motivated their need to move. I was surprised to find one photograph that revealed quite a bit of leg, which at the time would have been very controversial. Another showed a father in close proximity to his daughter, worried that her search for self-fulfilment may bring about social shame. Sheila, who joked that her mother has warned her about giving away ‘too much information’ and so as not to ruin our reading, opened up the floor to questions. These led us from the Easter Rising March in April 1916 to Madam Blavatsky!

Although I knew nothing about the six figures before the talk, I was intrigued to hear that so many other people from this period of history sought a new life as a means of escaping capitalism. All of which got me thinking about DH Lawrence and his ‘savage pilgrimage’ in search of Rananim – a kind of Utopian community of like-minded people. Lawrence had very different reasons to escape Britain, not least for the censorship of his work and the way he was treated in Cornwall in 1916 for being married to a German woman during World War I. But, like these six figures, he too wanted a new beginning. Lawrence was a rebel in every sense of the word, particularly through his literature. But tonight was reminder that rebellion for many people is simply the desire to live life on your own terms in a culture that reflects values of respect. Given this talk was performed on the evening that Donald Trump was elected the next President of America, perhaps we will see people crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction…

Sheila Rowbotham talked Rebel Crossings at Five Leaves Bookshop on Tuesday 8 November 2016 as part of the Nottingham Festival of Literature

Festival of Literature website

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