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MONTHLY BLOG 130, MEANINGS OF BEING PENELOPE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 A swatch of weaving,
illustrating the metaphor for History as ‘Penelope’s Web’
being constantly woven and unwoven by Penelope in Greek myth.

It’s a great name, Penelope. English. Greek. And very international. Recognised everywhere. Can be used in long majestic form. Or abbreviated into Penny, Pen, or P. It’s not too commonly used. Yet it’s very far from unknown, either.

In Greek myth, the foundational Penelope is the wife of the travelling Odysseus (Ulysses). She remains at home, weaving and waiting. And rejecting the many suitors for her hand. So the name has connotations of a woman of sexy desirability, who has great patience and perseverance while sticking at her own work, allied to a good knowledge of her own mind, and a degree of cunning in eventually getting what she wants. For me, a most attractive mix.

Perhaps British wives, waiting at home for their husbands to return from the Second World War, had visions of themselves as Penelope? Certainly a considerable number of baby daughters were then given that name. For instance, in 1940 the celebrated actor Penelope Keith was born in Sutton, to the wife of a serving army officer; and in 1946 her fellow actor, the admirable Penelope Wilton, was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Whereas the name has become comparatively less common since then. The much-lauded Spanish film actor Penelope Cruz (b.1974) is a notable exception. And, of course, there are others, especially in Greece. Nonetheless, when I meet fellow Penelopes these days, there is a strong chance that we will all be post-WW2 baby boomers.

Interestingly, in Britain after the First World War, numerous baby girls were named ‘Irene’ – meaning peace. My mother (b.1919) was one of them. So it obviously seemed natural to her, after yet another grinding war, to reach for an expressive Greek name. During the fighting, she worked on the home front, deciphering captured letters for Military Intelligence, and dodging incendiary bombs on London. But her memories were chiefly of the anxiety of waiting for my father to return from active service in North Africa and Italy. So Penelope!

As a youngster, I was invariably known as Penny – and was happy enough to be teased about turning up like a ‘bad penny’; or, when I was naughty, being called ‘penny dreadful’. Such usages are broadly affectionate. And, with a long name in reserve, I never felt purely defined by the diminutive form.

Moreover, as I began to teach and then to publish, I realised the great advantage of having a public persona, which I can use alongside my private identity. These days I use Penelope daily – and some people address me only by that name. I positively enjoy it, though I would not have done when younger.

Furthermore, there is one metaphorical usage, which I do especially relish. The term ‘Penelope’s web’ refers originally to the shroud that the mythic Penelope weaves daily and unpicks secretly by night – thereby delaying a decision as to which of her suitors to choose. (They were not very bright and failed to see through her ruse, which she sustained for years). Penelope’s web can therefore simply refer to a major work which is always in progress and never done. (Ouch! Too many authors know that syndrome). Yet it is also used metaphorically for global history. That is a colossal work, which is always in progress, always being unpicked by critical historians, and then rewoven by others. As one of that tribe, I am proud to contribute to Penelope’s web.

By the way, I don’t feel any proprietorial interest over any other aspects of the mythology, though I admire both the academic deliberations1 and the contemporary retellings.2 Did Penelope secretly have sex with all 108 of the faithful suitors, giving birth to an illegitimate son Pan? (as some versions suggest). I don’t know and don’t mind one way or the other. Did Penelope look on with blood-thirsty glee when Odysseus/Ulysses returned and slaughtered all the importunate suitors and her twelve loyal handmaids as well?3 I never knew about such details as a child, so had no idea that there were moral complexities in the story (as in global history, of course). To me, Penelope was/is simply a name of serenity and potency.

But I did discover, with time, one complexity of my own. From childhood, I was trained to write my short name as ‘Pene’: literally one half of Penelope. I view ‘Penny’ as a close variant, but not actually referring to me. However, then I met some Spaniards. They were highly excited to meet a woman named ‘Penis’. For a while, I simply laughed. After all, plenty of men manage with the penile nick-names: ‘Dick’, ‘John Thomas, or ‘Johnson’, without exciting wild mirth. However, in my case the cross-gender dimension seemed to be too much. Soon I got bored with the kerfuffle, especially as my range of international contacts grew. Now I try to keep ‘Pene’ strictly for use between very old friends and family. I sign emails with the initial: P. And to the wider world, I’m very happily known as Penelope – a lovely Greek name with hidden depths.

ENDNOTES:

1 See e.g. M.A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton, NJ, 1991); M. Janda, Odysseus und Penelope: Mythos und Namen (Innsbruck, 2015).

2 See esp. M. Atwood, The Penelopiad (2007).

3 Christopher Rush’s novel Penelope’s Web (Edinburgh, 2015) confronts the dramas and moral dilemmas both of her husband’s twenty-year absence and of his homecoming.

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MONTHLY BLOG 44, QUOTATIONS AND IRONY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Quotations should never be mangled and should always be cited honestly, with due attention to context. Yes – absolutely yes.  It’s axiomatic for all scholarship – but also for proper communications. It does happen that words are taken out of context and twisted into another meaning. But it’s never right.

To take an example: if a theatre critic sees a controversial play and writes: ‘The very last thing that I’d say is that this production is brilliant’, then the theatre’s publicity team could put the critic’s name in lights alongside the quotation: ‘This production is brilliant’. Factually, those attributed words are correct. The critic did write them. Yet the truncated quotation gives the reverse meaning to that intended. Both the critic and any members of the audience, who were deceived into attending on the strength of the critic’s recommendation, have grounds for complaint.

Another potential for misunderstanding comes when heavy irony is taken at face value. In one of Shakespeare’s famous oratorical set-pieces, Mark Antony mourns the assassination of Caesar by Brutus and his allies with the repeated phrase: ‘And Brutus is an honourable man’ … [They are all] ‘honourable men’. The stress upon the repeated phrase, like a refrain, urges the Roman crowd to understand that the words mean the reverse of what they apparently say.

By the end, the citizens turn against the assassins: ‘They were traitors: honourable men!1  On the face of it, Mark Antony has given Brutus a favourable character reference. In context, however, he stands condemned, not just as an assassin but as one who has basely betrayed his closest friend and colleague. ‘This was the unkindest cut of all’.

Nonetheless, there is a problem for anyone who uses irony. If the listeners or readers fail to get the implied message, then they will come to an erroneous conclusion. A Roman citizen who left the forum after the opening phrases of Antony’s speech (or who wasn’t listening carefully) could depart thinking: ‘I was sorry to hear of  Caesar’s death but it must be acceptable as Brutus, a man of honour, explained why he had to do it, and Antony confirms that Brutus is an honourable man’.

Irony, then, is powerful but risky. It depends upon an attentive community between speaker/writer and audience/readers which allows the words to be decoded successfully.

For historians, quoting from sources whose authors have long gone, there is always a challenge to understand meanings in their full context. When does a word or phrase in use mean its opposite? And did people in the past always get the hidden message?

When Jonathan Swift published his Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729), he provided an exercise in sustained irony that revealed itself through the moral enormity of the proposed solution. ‘A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.’ Poor parents would solve their financial problems by selling their children, who would provide good food for the rich. Infanticide? Cannibalism? Class callousness? Swift does not advocate these. Instead, his irony conveys outrage at the poverty of the poor and the indifference of the rich.

Jonathan Swift’s famous use of sustained irony in his Modest Proposal (1729)Why am I writing about this now? Because I am currently thinking about the use of evidence and the dangers of inadvertent misinterpretation. The question really arises when using a lot of sources in a historical collage.

I have just done that in an essay, published in Social History, on eighteenth-century Britain as an ‘Age of Infidelity’.2  It cites at least 75 contemporary verdicts on the state of religion and irreligion. Many are book titles, some are declarations within books, some are printed texts reporting upon speeches and sermons.

A proportion of these works were clearly using overblown rhetoric, uttered in times of crisis. When John Bowlder agonised in 1798 that the British nation’s lack of faith seemed to portend nothing less than ‘the eradicating [of] Christianity in this Quarter of the World’,3  it is hard not to smile. Religion had more staying power than he was ready to admit. On the other hand, Bowdler’s deep anxiety was typical of many committed Christians in the later 1790s, when Britain was struggling in the prolonged war against France. Why such extreme danger? It could only be that God was angry with the nation for its irreligious ways.

Bowdler not only wrote to chastise the people but took practical steps to offer a remedy. He co-founded the Church Building Society, which provided new places of worship in the newly expanding towns. In my Social History essay, I am able to give further information about Bowdler, as he was a particularly notable contributor to the debates. His name on its own attracts interest. Two of his children, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, removed all the saucy bits from Shakespeare, in order to make the bard acceptable for respectable family reading. Their reward was much public ridicule – and the invention of a new verb ‘to bowdlerise’. Such contextual information illuminates the era’s culture wars, in which the Bowdlers were eager partisans.

But, in an essay of approximately 7,000 words, it’s not possible to devote equal attention to the other 74 eighteenth-century contemporaries – laypeople as well as clergymen – who expressed views on the state of religion. It would overrun the restricted length of a scholarly essay – and confuse the unfolding analysis. Naturally, I checked all the sources that I used, for both content and context. And I especially searched for rival tracts, arguing that the eighteenth century was an ‘Age of Faith’ or equivalent.

Is it possible that I missed some exercises in irony? Logically, yes, although I hope not. (Please check my sources, all duly footnoted!) Sustained Swiftian-style irony is comparatively rare. Moreover, people writing on the state of irreligion tended to be heated and passionate rather than coolly playing with double meanings.

What I do claim to have found is not a debate without the potential for irony but instead one which circulated a new eighteenth-century cliché. It stated that the era was ‘an Age of Infidelity’. By this phrase, the commentators did not refer to people’s unfaithfulness to their marriage vows. That constituted ‘conjugal infidelity’, plentiful enough but far from unique to the eighteenth century. Nor did the commentators refer to apostacy: Christians in this period were not turning into Islamic or Jewish or any other religious variety of ‘infidels’.

No, it was the spread of secularisation that was being noted, chiefly in alarm: the advent of a society, officially Christian, where people had the option of not going to church, not following Christian lifestyles, and (even) not sharing Christian beliefs. It is possible that some eighteenth-century references to the ‘Age of Infidelity’ were meant ironically. But, if all that the commentators left were the unvarnished words, then they are liable to be read literally.

Ironists beware. Unless your double meaning is suitably signalled, it will become lost in time.

1  W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (written 1599/1600), Act 3, scene 2.

2  P.J. Corfield, ‘“An Age of Infidelity”: Secularisation in Eighteenth-Century England’, Social History, 39 (2014), pp. 229-47; available via Taylor & Francis publishers online = www.tandfonline.com.

J. Bowdler, Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice! (Dublin, 1798), p. 21.

4  For the CBS, now part of the National Churches Trust, see www.churchplansonline.org.

See Wikipedia, sub Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825): en.wikipedia.org.

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MONTHLY BLOG 42, CHAIRING SEMINARS AND LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

The aim is to get everyone involved in a really good discussion, aiding the speaker and the seminar/lecture participants alike. By ‘good’, I mean critical but supportive. Any criticisms, of course, should be directed at the paper, not at the speaker: as in football, kicking the ball, not the person.

Okay, that sounds pretty easy. How best to promote the desired result? At the start, it’s essential to open the proceedings in an open and genial manner, with a joke, or failing that, at least a humorous tone. Nothing like a murmur of laughter to weld a group together. Then the speaker should be introduced pithily, without notes. None of these lengthy recitations of everything that he or she has ever done, which makes everyone drowsy. And certainly no advance-guessing by the chair of the points that the speaker ought to make – thus stealing (or bodging) the thunder before the show has begun.

By the way, from the start the chair should make a point of visibly and fairly slowly looking all round the room, bringing everyone within an encompassing gaze. And do this more than once. I call it giving the lighthouse beam.

june007
During the paper or lecture, whether good or bad, the chair has to look alert and listen. It encourages the speaker and the audience; and it’s necessary, as from time to time the speaker refers to the chair (perhaps to ask how much time is left). Actually, that’s why I like chairing, as it keeps one wide-awake. Ideally, speakers should have been briefed before the meeting about the length of talk required. But chair should always confirm that at the start; and then gently halt speakers who go on for too long. On a formal occasion, a printed card saying TIME! can be passed to the speaker but, informally, a hand signal usually suffices. There’s always some leeway on these things. If the speaker is part of a panel, then strict timekeeping is essential. In other circumstances, it’s the chair’s judgement call. But don’t allow too much over-running, as the audience gets at first restive and then somnolent.

While the speaker is talking, I usually make a mental list of the key questions raised by the paper. A good seminar or lecture audience will usually spot them all; but it’s a useful backup. Immediately after the paper, it’s absolutely essential for the chair to make some suitable response while people gather their thoughts. It’s always bad news when the chair just says abruptly: ‘Any questions?’ And even worse when there’s a great silence and the chair adds dolefully: ‘Well, I can see it’s going to be a difficult session’. Lead balloons all round.

Instead, the chair should briefly thank the speaker (nothing over the top) and note the range of issues raised by the paper (that’s helpful for beginners). Followed by an ‘opening’ question, to get the discussion going. Not too detailed or heavy; but not a patsy either.

While the speaker answers, the chair should look intently round the room to encourage people to signal that they have questions. This is the really crucial bit. If at all possible, the chair should sit up, or semi-stand, leaning against a chair or table, to free the sightlines. Then the lighthouse beam can skim lightly over everyone there. Preferably with a smile. People usually give very imperceptible signals – a nod or lift of the hand. It’s rather like the sly nods and winks at an auction, though fortunately not quite as covert.

Usually, the questions are taken in the order that they come. But, if there’s a long list of respondents, then it’s helpful to call people from different parts of the room. That draws everyone into the discussion.

Very rarely indeed, there are rude or out-of-order questions. The chair should then intervene, extracting the element within the question that can be answered and telling the speaker to ignore the rest. Or, if the question is completely out of order, the chair should simply say so. That is more likely to happen in political meetings than in academic gatherings. And even then, it’s rare. Other problems sometimes occur with poorly phrased or incomprehensible questions. The speaker is entitled to look to the chair for help, so be ready to paraphrase the question into something answerable.

Discreetly, the chair is conducting the discussion; and should have a range of questions up his/her sleeve to throw into the pool, if the questioning flags. Difficult depth-chargescan be used especially against the good and the great, who shouldn’t be let off too easily.

Beginners, however, should not be given too hard a time – enough to test them but not to destroy. It’s good to intervene with some supportive words, if they are seriously floundering, though the debate must be allowed to flow.

In terms of manner, the chair should be genial; but not too ‘in’. It’s best to avoid calling people to speak by their first names or, even worse, by unfamiliar nicknames. Such references make the group seem too cliquey and seriously deter newcomers. When calling people, I refer to them by location: ‘A question at the back’ and ‘Now a question from this side of the room’ and so forth. Not the sartorial references favoured by TV chat-show hosts: ‘the person in the blue jumper’; ‘the woman with glasses’, which are too impersonal.

It should go without saying, in free-flowing academic events, that speakers should not be called in order of academic seniority. The old-style seminars, when the professors speak before everyone else, in rank order, can still be found and even appreciated as a rarity. But that’s what they should remain.

Lastly, the question of tone. The chair must be friendly but not over fulsome. That just sounds sycophantic. At the same time, the chair must be critical but not too sardonic. As an auto-critic, I wince at memories of the times when I’ve tried to be sharp but just come over as waspish. The sardonic remark that isn’t funny really isn’t funny. Luckily these moments (only few, I hope) get lost in the flow. It’s the paper or lecture that gets remembered. Where is the next academic gathering to chair? I’m ready with my lighthouse beam.
june0081 See PJC BLOG no 27, February 2013: ‘Asking Questions’.

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