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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 81, RESPONDING TO ANONYMOUS ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG follows its matching BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017)
on ‘Writing Anonymous Academic Assessments’

2017-08 No3 handshake diagram

The first arrival of anonymous assessments of one’s own research is almost invariably annoying. There’s something about the format which gives the author-less verdict a quality of Olympian majesty. And, even if the verdict is favourable, there’s a lurking feeling that one is a mere minnow, being condescended to by a remote and all-wise deity. Ouch!

However, after recovering from one’s initial fury, it’s best to rally and to view the whole exercise as a free consultation. Instead of rushing into print, and getting a stinker of a review, the stinker is delivered in the form of an anonymous assessment before publication. The anonymous critic is, in fact, the best friend, lurking in disguise.

As well as writing constant assessments, academics also read one anothers’ work in typescript. But, as researchers say, ‘good criticism is hard to get’. Many friends just respond loyally: ‘Darling, it’s wonderful; but there’s a typo on page 33’. Such a reaction is not much use. In the case of an anonymous assessment, by contrast, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to identify all your faults. And, what’s more, to give you a chance of remedying them before publication.

On balance, I would say that 80% of all the anonymous advice, which I’ve received over the years, has been invaluable. Another 10% is comparatively trivial, meaning either that the assessor has been sleeping on the job or (rarely) that there’s nothing major to criticise or discuss. But 10% of responses are positively unhelpful, either through being too crushing – or simply irrelevant.

One example of off-the-wall and unusable reflections concerned my editorial introduction to a book of essays entitled: Language, History & Class (1991).1 The anonymous assessor said firmly that I was wrong; and offered, at some length, his/her own philosophical alternative historical/linguistic theory as a variant. In one way, it was a very generous piece of writing. But, on the other hand, it was entirely wasted. I couldn’t use the alternative view, because I disagreed with it – and anyway, it wouldn’t be either right or politic to take someone else’s original thesis as my own, whether I agreed or disagreed. Something in my text had apparently rapped the assessor’s intellectual funny-bone, causing him/her to get distracted into inventing a new theory rather than reviewing a book proposal. The alternative approach was so off-the-wall that I never saw it appear anywhere in print. It was an intellectual kite that never flew.

2017-09 No2 kite in trees

Generally, however, after the first moment of silent fury at reading the anonymous assessor, I buckle down and enjoy the chance to revise in the light of a really in-depth analysis. Often, rewriting helps to strengthen my arguments, giving me a chance to rebut criticisms explicitly. And, simultaneously, the rewrite allows scope for clarification, if ideas were poorly or incompletely expressed first time round. Sometimes points have been made out of their logical order and need reshuffling. And finally, I sometimes (not too often!) change my mind, in the light of criticisms; and the process of rewriting allows me to push my argument into new directions.

In reporting subsequently to the publishers or editors, who have commissioned the anonymous assessment, there is one golden rule. The criticisms do not have to be adopted wholesale. But they must be acknowledged, not simply dismissed. I remember one former PhD student, when editing her first essay for a learned journal, miserably wondering whether she had to ditch her entire argument, in the light of a critical assessment. I was horrified at the prospect. Of course, she had to stand by her new interpretation. (She did). The essay would appear under her name and must therefore represent her considered views. An adverse anonymous assessment does not have the status of a royal command. Instead, the hostile cross-fire gives authors a chance, pre-publication, to decide whether to strengthen or to adapt their arguments.

Then it’s up to editors to decide. Usually they appreciate the chance to get new views into print, with the prospect of opening up further debates. But editors do like to be reassured that the revisionist piece has been submitted knowingly, with a full awareness of the potential controversies to follow, and that the study is well argued and substantiated. In comparatively rare cases, when challenging new views are rejected by one journal, there’s a reasonable chance that the ‘new look’ can find a home elsewhere. Since historical research relies upon debate and disagreement, it’s not such a big deal to find one (temporarily) prevalent view coming up for critique and/or complete refutation.

Only in very rare cases are anonymous assessors unduly harsh or vitriolic. I’ve had plenty of negative responses myself but never anything without some constructive aim or intention. One hostile case, however, occurred in response to a former student of mine who had written an excellent essay on the social history of nineteenth-century Sussex. Some element of the argument had apparently infuriated the anonymous assessor. He/she basically argued that the essay should not have been written. There was nothing constructive upon which the author could build. Fortunately in this case, the journal editor had asked for two anonymous assessments. The second was much more positive, enabling my former student to revise the essay into a stylish contribution. However, I advised her to write to the editor, explaining calmly that she had considered the negative assessment carefully before disregarding it. The fact that the angry assessor’s report had mis-named ‘Sussex’ throughout as ‘Suffolk’ suggested that the tirade was not based upon a very close reading. The editor took this strong hint on board; and the revised essay successfully appeared in print.2

These examples indicate the intricacies of peer review and the publication process. They are socially imbedded – and far from purely impartial. But they strive for an interactive collegial process, which seeks to iron out individual rancour or prejudice. Personally, I take anonymous academic assessments of my embryonic work as seriously as I expect my own anonymous academic assessments to be taken by the anonymous recipients. The veil of secrecy strives to make the exchange of ideas a ‘pure’ intellectual exercise, without the formal courtesies and pleasantries. (Actually, if one wants, it’s usually possible to make a stab at identifying the critics, using one’s research-honed powers. But in my experience, that’s an unproductive distraction).

Scholars who are published in peer-reviewed outlets are thus in constant dialogue (or, preferably, ‘plurilogue’),3 not just generally with their peers, and patchily with their precursors in earlier generations but specifically with their specially recruited anonymised critics. Wrestling with obdurate drafts is often exasperating and lonely work, as Hogarth knew – as seen in a detail from his Distrest Poet (c.1736) below. Yet scholarly authors don’t work in isolation. A tribe of anonymous academic critics, friendly readers, and interventionist editors/publishers are looking over their shoulders. So it’s best to bite the bullet; to revise coolly; and then to publish and be damned/whatever.

2017-09 No3 Hogarth's distressed_poet

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Historians and Language’, in P.J. Corfield (ed.), Language, History and Class (Oxford, 1991), pp. 1-29; slightly amended text also transl. into Greek for publication in Histor, 12 (May 2001), pp. 5-43.

2 A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy: A Case Study of Rural Sussex, 1780-1880’, Southern History, 35 (2013), pp. 98-126.

3 For this usage, see P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History ‘Progress’? And does Plurilogue Help?’ BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), in www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

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