Heidi L. Pennington

Heidi L. Pennington is an assistant professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia. Her primary fields of teaching and research include nineteenth-century British fiction, narrative theory, theories of authorship and identity, and genre studies (mainly the novel and autobiography). Her love of mystery and detective fiction (especially cozies), as well as mid-twentieth century magic realist fiction by Latin American writers, also regularly finds expression in her teaching. Her first book, Creating Identity in the Victorian Fictional Autobiography, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2018. Her current project is a scholarly biography of literary typist Ethel Kate Dickens, which seeks to recover a fascinating life story while reconsidering what it means to make literature, and to have literary and individual value, in the modern world. The biography is tentatively titled, “Miss Dickens’s Type-Writing Office: Life on the Literary Margins.” She is the 2023 NCSA Article prize winner for her article, “Interpreting the Labor and Legacy of the Independent Literary Typist; or, the Typing of Ethel Kate Dickens,” featured in Victorian Literature and Culture in Summer of 2022.

What is the most moving, heartbreaking, or joyful archival discovery you have made, and why?

My current project examining the life and career of Ethel Kate Dickens (1864-1936) is really the first that has required extensive archival work. Ethel was an independent literary typist, playwright, and granddaughter of the “Inimitable” Charles Dickens; I recently published an analysis of her typewriting career. She also built a private home-life with her companion of over thirty years, Bertha Fanny Bradley (1854-1929). These Victorian “home-mates” (as Laurence Alma-Tadema put it) shared a bonded domestic relationship for most of their lives, but that connection is now almost entirely undocumented. One of the most moving archival discoveries I encountered was the front of the 1911 census form completed by Bertha Fanny Bradley, in which she represents her household with Ethel Dickens. This is one of the only self-presentations I have, by either partner, of their domestic dyad. Even granted the rigid formality of the medium (a government form!), and the limited options for self-representation, I was nonetheless stunned—and joyfully so—to see how Bertha had filled it out.

The page announces itself as the “Census of England and Wales, 1911,” and then offers a large rectangular space “to be filled up by the Enumerator.” Below that, still within the census-taker’s formal territory, are lines asking for the “Name of the Head of Family or Separate Occupier,” complete with a printed curved bracket pointing to a single line ( } ——- ), indicating that this label can only apply to a single individual within the household. And yet, Bertha’s handwriting, not the census-taker’s, appears in this space. In dark ink, she has written in “Miss B. Bradley,” and directly below this she has also written, “Miss E. K. Dickens,” permitting both of their names to appear as “Head of Family.” Bertha included her own holograph mark to reverse the unidirectionality of the printed curved bracket. In a large shape approximating a cursive capital-E, Bertha links both names together, curving the line’s upper and lower edges around them. The indentation of the inked-in E-shaped bracket points to the space between their names where hangs a single—clear and unflinching—plus sign (+), adding Miss B. Bradley and Miss E. K. Dickens together. Bertha’s bold marks suggest that these names—these lives—are linked in as equal a manner as an intrinsically hierarchical language and an intrinsically patriarchal census form will allow. Miss B. Bradley and Miss E. K. Dickens are equal and united “Heads” of the family they have created together.

From your vantage point as a teacher, what is the most transformative moment a student has experienced in a nineteenth-century course you have taught?

One particularly striking moment happened in a British literature survey that I teach for the General Education program at JMU. Among our Victorian offerings we always cover John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of the University” (1852). Newman openly challenges a baldly instrumentalist approach to higher education, arguing that a truly liberal course of education teaches individuals how to think, how to adapt, and how to learn. He argues that a liberal arts education encourages individuals to create adaptable and dynamic habits of mind that will be valuable professionally and personally, in their careers and in their civic life. It surprises students to find this argument being made so forcefully in the middle of the nineteenth century. One student was so moved by Newman’s argument that—after thanking me and my colleague (the amazing Julie Sorge Way)—he left the final exam quoting Newman’s essay. He emphasized how this course would help him to “accommodate himself to others… to throw himself into their state of mind,” to “master any subject with facility,” and to “gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.” The student departed the final exam wearing an enormous smile and raising his arms in enthusiastic triumph, cheering for what Newman calls “Philosophical knowledge!” This student had sat quietly in the third row of the large lecture hall all semester: I had had no idea how moved he was by the course content and by Newman’s words. I am grateful that he chose to share his intellectual transformation with us: it continues to energize me each time I teach this essay and remind students of how truly awesome lifelong liberal arts learning can be!

Which holiday or celebration would you most like to experience in the nineteenth century, and why?

I would have to choose Christmas, the season of ghost stories! I am in the process of creating a new course, “Haunted Victorians,” so I am intrigued by the sentimental, the philosophical, and the narrative possibilities of the holiday. Between the Christmas numbers of periodicals, the narration of spooky tales around the evening hearth, and the spectacle of Christmas pantomimes, even I might get my fill of haunted (and hilarious) stories during a nineteenth-century Christmas in London. I would also feel compelled to taste a “Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” having found that phrase so curious for so many years, though I have my doubts about the punch’s actual gustatory appeal.

If I could choose to travel back to a specific year, I would select the Christmas season of 1886 through mid-February of 1887. I would go to the Novelty Theatre to see Ethel Kate Dickens, her brother Charles Walter, her sisters Sydney and Dorothy, and her future home-mate, Bertha Fanny Bradley, perform Albert Smith’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Christmas tale The Cricket on the Hearth—stage-managed by Ethel’s father, Charley Dickens, of course. Having the chance to see Ethel (as Dot) and Bertha (as Mrs. Fielding), as well as their siblings, acting in one of their many public performances together would be especially meaningful. Plus, I could also visit Ethel’s first typewriting office, newly opened in the winter of 1887!

If you were living in the nineteenth century, what sport would you like to engage in?

Both “sports” that pique my interest revolve around nineteenth-century technical innovations. My first thought would be to attempt to ride a penny farthing bicycle, though I suspect I would not be a terribly effective rider until the “safety” bicycles of the later part of the century. My second selection would be to participate in one of the typing contests of 1880s London. Participants were rated by speed and accuracy. While I doubt I would have the manual strength or dexterity needed to triumph while using an early model typewriter, it would certainly be an excellent (and literally) hands-on way to more fully appreciate the labors of Ethel Dickens and the many essential typists working in the late Victorian period.

Leave a Reply