Posted: November 5, 2009
When Carolyn Collette ’67, professor emeritus of English and chair of medieval studies, set off in 2007 to try to track down an ancient natural fountain in Morpeth--the county town of Northumberland--she never expected to instead find Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), an activist for women's suffrage. Collette was familiar with the name; she knew Davison as the woman who walked onto the Derby racetrack at Epsom Downs carrying the colors of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)--the leading organization campaigning for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom--and tried to stop King George V's horse. Davison was mortally wounded in the attempt and died four days later.
“The Derby story is the extent of what I knew about her,” Collette said. “But she was from Morpeth and I was there seeking a particular fountain as part of research on wells associated with Coventina, a Roman water goddess, and with the Virgin Mary. While I was researching, someone encouraged me to learn more about Davison during my time there.”
Collette did, and recalls the moment when--while reading a biography of Davison in the library at Morpeth--she found a reference to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. “Davison so deeply identified with Emelye in `The Knight's Tale' that she signed letters to friends using the Middle English spelling. I almost levitated when I saw that,” Collette said. “I thought, `This is such an unexpected intersection of my interest in women and in the confluence of medievalism and social criticism--I have to pursue this.’ ”
Since then, Collette has been researching Davison, a woman she describes as possessing “a radical intelligence and a passion for social justice. She earned a First Class degree in Modern Languages from St. Hugh's College, Oxford, but it wasn't awarded because she was a woman and women were not granted degrees at that point. She constantly wrote letters to newspapers in which she deftly challenged opinions and corrected misperceptions about the strategies and aims of the women's suffrage movement. None of this, however, figures into the popular narrative. Celebrated as a martyr for the suffrage movement, Davison's educated public voice has been muffled by a selective focus on her actions at the Derby.”
Collette also has been studying the combination of medievalism and socialism that infused the language of the women's suffrage movement in general and Davison's writing in particular. Collette's essay, “Faire Emelye: Medievalism and the Moral Courage of Emily Wilding Davison,” was published in The Chaucer Review in 2008 and excerpts were read at the ceremonies rededicating Davison's grave in Morpeth that same year. Now she has been awarded a Mellon Emeritus Fellowship in support of her work on a critical edition of Davison's selected letters. The letters will be prefaced by a biographical essay focusing on Davison's connections to the Northeast and Scottish suffrage movements, her commitment to social justice issues, and her use of medievalism as a form of social criticism. She's hoping to have her book published in time for the centenary of Davison's death, which will be celebrated throughout England.
Collette--who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1967--says that Mary Lyon has often come to mind as she's researched Davison. “They both had the ability to envision a world that could be better,” she said. “Davison sees women's suffrage as one piece in a larger pattern of social justice issues. If there isn't justice for women, there's not going to be justice for the worker, if there isn't justice in the household, there won't be true justice in the nation. Mary Lyon had a similar outlook; she saw how much in the world needed redoing and how crucial women could be in reforming social institutions and expectations.”
Carolyn Collette Faculty Profile
Medieval Studies at MHC