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the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

Book cover: A Woman in History

Author's response


A Woman in History: Eileen Power, 1889-1940

Maxine Berg
Cambridge University Press, 1996 pp.i-xv, 1-292, with Appendix, bibliography and index

Dr. Helen Mellor

University of Nottingham

I am grateful to Helen Mellor for her careful reading and enthusiastic response to my book. She raises questions, which I will try to answer, about the agenda of my book, Eileen Power's contributions to medieval history, and the complic ations of gender in writing the lives of female academics. First she describes my book as charged with emotion, a 'fine anger', and wonders if this is directed at the treatment of Eileen Power by posterity or the conditions in which economic history has been written, taught and staffed in recent times. I admit that I am a little puzzled that she finds this an angry book. I hope that I write with some passion about my subject which, as Dr. Mellor sees, is economic history. I wanted to explore the early framework of my discipline, economic history. In contrast to its present narrow specialisms, hierarchy and male-dominated constituency, I found a discipline made up of large numbers of women, with Eileen Power the most prominent of these, as well as men, and posing its questions in a framework informed by political internationalism, feminism and the social issues of the day.

Helen Mellor also raises the serious question of Power's lack of major monographs in medieval history. Major monographs are not the only measure of achievement and influence, as Postan's career proved. Instead of trying to excuse the lack of these, I have tried in my chapter on Power's medieval history to set out her programme for comparative history and the comparative method. Her joint publications with Tawney, Postan and Clapham, especially the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. 1 were major productions. The Wool Trade in English Medieval History could have been printed in its revised format with footnotes. The completed chapters bar one are there in her papers in Cambridge University Library. What Power did in these works, and in other articles, was to develop the comparative method. My chapter sets out the extent to which she drew on the works of the German historical school and on Henri Pirenne's thesis of the medieval merchant entrepreneur to do so. Together with the modern anthropological and sociological theory she encountered at the L.S.E. these led to a distinctive comparative method. The Cambridge Economic History was focused on large-scale international comparisons; The Wool Trade like many of her articles and shorter works was a work about trade and merchants. We can speculate that these works might have had a greater impact had Power lived longer to present them in a more complete form; or if she had had a disciple similar to Braudel. But the historian closest to her, her husband M.M. Postan changed the agenda of English economic history away from trade to demographic and agrarian history.

Power's early death during the war probably had more to do with the small place accorded her by posterity, than the dissipation of her energies on popular works and the promotion of her subject in schools and among non-academic audiences. Had Eileen Power lived longer, she might well have wielded much more influence. She died at the wrong time, during the war, when the university sector was much contracted, and when many of the best younger academics had been drafted into war work. After the war, when the academic sector was expanding once more, those who had held their posts through the war became, perhaps disproportionately, influential; their younger colleagues returning from the forces and Whitehall had to establish themselves.

Finally Mellor asks about Eileen Power's awkward social position and her attitudes to marriage, as conveyed in her engagement to Reginald Johnston, the tutor to China's last emperor. How Eileen Power saw herself as an academic and a woman intrigued me, and the personal circumstances of her life attracted me to her as a subject for biography. Power was no bluestocking; her background left her with no wealth and the unspoken hint of family disgrace. She had to earn her living, but she did not want the prospect of the poor scholarship girl, destined for school teaching and spinsterhood. She was attractive, and cultivated a taste in fine clothes and friendships among the intellectual aristocracy. Her lifestyle - dancing, travelling and dinner parties - were as important to how she saw herself as her academic achievements. She mixed with a wide range of society as she popularized and spread economic history through the media and schools. She may have built a very satisfactory life in London, but this had its problems for her reputation as a female academic. Power's life as recounted after her death was that of the exemplary female scholar in whom personal qualities and gender took priority over scholarship and vision of a discipline. She became the 'learned lady'. But the myth was not simply perpetrated by male academics. There was a sense in which Power conspired in this myth of the female scholar. She assumed a personal style which would express the aesthetics she admired in a certain type of historical writing. Her glamour and political integrity also made her an attractive role model to a generation of female students and academics, and she used these qualities to further her aims of making economic and social history central, rather than marginal, to the historical disciplines. She paid the price for this, for she was afterwards remembered as the female scholar rather than for the history she wrote and the discipline she helped to found.

Helen Mellor has understood that my book is about the future of our discipline as much as it is the biography of one of its founders. I am glad she enjoyed it, and hope like her that fellow economic and social historians will read it.

October 1996

Original review

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