Hannah Lauren Murray, University of Liverpool
From its launch in August until today, a question I have repeatedly returned to is “Who is the Reclaim Her Name series for?’ “Feminists” is the obvious answer – and I thank the respondents here for interrogating that claim – but, according to the publicity and responses to Bailey’s and The Women’s Prize, the answer is also people who like books and librarians. These two groups are by no means exclusive of one another, but I want to consider each in turn to address the project’s shortcomings and to imagine a more engaged and educational project.
The Reclaim Her Name launch on 12 August prominently featured photographs of the twenty-five “novels” in a boxed set. With bright covers, graphic illustration, and ‘Reclaim Her Name’ spelt along the collected spines, it is a beautiful literary item. On Twitter, responses to the launch confirmed the aesthetic appeal of the collection: “these covers are stunning. Would love them to be printed versions,” “I’d want physical copies I could display on my shelves,” “they’d be top of my Christmas list,” “I’d pay good money for this collection!,” “Pleeeeease do a print run?” These books are to be taken as a group, a bulk feat of “feminist” reclamation, with the act of re-publishing more important than the content of each text. There was no follow-up social media from Baileys or The Women’s Prize covering individual authors, not even a single tweet to spotlight each book. With thousands of potential texts to choose from, why these twenty-five? Why Middlemarch and not The Mill on the Floss? Why the blanket publicity suggesting that male and gender-neutral pseudonyms were chosen out of necessity, rather than for preferred gender expression or convenience? Without scholarly framing for each text and author, a reader of the series may not even know to pose such questions.
In both its launch publicity and on its website today, the Reclaim Her Name project states that hard copy presentation collections will be sent to UK libraries. This is a laudable endeavour but one that feels very superficial. Austerity has devastated library provision in the UK, with 17% of libraries (773) closing between 2010 and 2019, and spending falling by 29%. Hundreds more closures are expected as local councils restrict their budgets to minimum legally required services in the wake of the coronavirus recession. A project such as Reclaim Her Name is intended to get the public to read unknown or lesser-known writers, but will any of these books be read in libraries and, furthermore, how will librarians be supported to utilize this collection? There is no information on how Bailey’s or its PR firm will interact with those libraries, and with no web presence beyond the landing page, there are no digital resources to support librarians. A writer such as George Eliot, whom Bailey’s has featured prominently in this project, is already widely known, but how might a writer such as Frank A. Rollin/Frances Rollin Whipper be introduced to public library users?
Imagine what could have been. Baileys and The Women’s Prize could have involved a contemporary writer or presenter to host a public online launch. Short videos could have been made to provide historical context – for example, on how women navigated the publishing world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rather than removing all texts, as I found when I revisited the Reclaim Her Name site in early October, the project could have served as a launchpad for ongoing reading instead of a summer publicity fling. The re-publication of some of these writers could have been accompanied by new or existing digital resources on their biographies, including local histories for the British writers. For example, there are already walking and driving tour podcasts for George Eliot country in Warwickshire, and an interactive chronology at the George Eliot Archive. Moving outside the Reclaim Her Name list, there are walking maps of Haworth to follow in the footsteps of the Bells/Brontës, and several digital resources for reading Dickinson’s poetry and correspondence. This additional information is what both scholars and readers of high-quality editions expect – a Broadview, Oxford, Norton or Penguin Classics edition will include informative introductions, bibliographies and additional resources. Those editions are not free, but Bailey’s could have financially supported scholars to produce new biographical and historical resources to go alongside Open Access Reclaim Her Name texts by the least known writers. The reading public, scholars, and students would then benefit from accessible materials to support their further reading and independent research.
Imagine if this was the beginning of a project rather than a limited time offer. My overuse of the conditional tense here tells us what is possible if commercial groups such as Baileys and The Women’s Prize choose to collaborate with researchers and encourage long-term engagement with lesser-known texts and writers.