Literary Criticism

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‘Thinking Against the Current’

Literature and Political Resistance

Sybil Oldfield, Emeritus Reader in English, University of Sussex, is the author of Spinsters of This Parish; Women Against the Iron Fist, 1900–1989; The Collective Biography of Women in Britain 1550–1900; British Women Humanitarians 1900–1950; Afterwords – Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf; and Jeanie, an ‘Army of One’ – Mrs. Nassau Senior 1828–1877, the First Woman in Whitehall. She has also edited This Working-Day World – Women’s Lives and Cultures in Britain 1914–45.

“[Le] verbe ‘résister’ existe depuis que les êtres humains sont capables de réfléchir.”
(French Resistance heroine, Lucie Aubrac, La Résistance expliquée
à mes petits-enfants
, Édition du Seuil, 2000, p. 9)

This collection of literary/historical essays, written 1970–2010, covers political subjects as diverse as 17th Century Quaker persecution history, the social impact of Malthus, the self-emancipation of English women, Eleanor Rathbone on the human rights of girls and German women’s resistance to Hitler. The more literary subjects include the social thinking of the English Romantics, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Simone Weil’s great essays attacking militarism and Virginia Woolf’s opposition to the State – as well as contemporary American women poets on the problem of war. But despite all its diversity, this collection has one unifying theme – the necessity for resistance, for ‘thinking against the current’, as Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air-raid’. The torch of resistance to oppression and militarism is shown to have been continuously handed on through the generations from the seventeenth century to our own day by men and women who had the courage, at whatever personal cost, to ‘fight with the mind’. This book of passionate, lively essays is not merely a treasure trove for biographical researchers; it is also strengthening medicine, introducing us to unfamiliar forebears who can help us in our current struggle for a better world. As Simone Weil said: ‘We can find something better than ourselves in the past.’

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-594-6
Hardback Price: £50.00 / $69.95
Release Date: December 2013
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-689-9
Paperback Price: £22.95 / $34.95
Release Date: October 2014
Page Extent / Format: 224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No




Part One ‘Oh England, / Sick in head and sick in heart’ (Anon, 1675)
1 ‘No Respecter of Persons’: The impact of Quaker persecution history on the radicalism of Tom Paine
2 Blake and Shelley versus Their Society
3 Hazlitt versus Malthus
4 ‘Warmint’ and ‘Gentleman’ in Great Expectations: The ambiguous ‘lowness’ of Abel Magwitch

Part Two Enter the Women
5 ‘Ourstory’ by Carole Satyamurti
6 Introduction to ‘Which Dead Should Awaken?’: From the Collective Biography of Women, 1550–1900
7 A ‘Strong-minded Woman’ – Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–1890): The ‘mother’ of the 19th century British women’s movement
8 Introduction to Jeanie, an ‘Army of One’: Mrs. Nassau Senior (1828–1877), the first woman in Whitehall
9 Introduction to International Woman Suffrage News (Ius Suffragii), 1906–1914
10 Eleanor Rathbone MP (1872–1946) and Indian Girls: Cultural imperialist or friend to women?

Part Three Twentieth-Century Women and the Problem of War
11 England’s Cassandras in World War One
12 Caroline Playne (1858–1940): Cultural historian and and social psychologist
13 Jane Addams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1860–1931): The chance the world missed
14 Simone Weil (1909–1943): The wise fool
15 Virginia Woolf and Antigone: Thinking against the current
16 German Women in the Resistance to Hitler
17 Germany’s Antigone: Sophie Scholl (1921–1943)
18 Compiling the First Dictionary of British Humanitarians: Why? What? Who? How?
19 Vera Brittain (1893–1970): The dogged pacifist
20 American Visionaries: Helen Keller, and the poets Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov and Sharon Olds
21 Righteous Violence – War in the Family, War in the World


Cited and quoted in the Introduction to Objection Overruled: Conscription and Conscience in the First World War by David Boulton (Dales Historical Monographs in association with Friends Historical Society), 320, pp. 2014.

Sybil Oldfield’s collection of twenty one essays is wide-ranging in scope. She discusses the work and activities of such diverse figures as Thomas Paine, Charles Dickens, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf, Sophie Scholl and Helen Keller. What ties these figures together is their concern for emancipation – social, economic and political. In their different ways and times they all acted to liberate human potential from the control of a dominant state or a socially endemic mind-set which inhibited the development of what we might be as people and as a society. Another theme which runs through these essays is the kindness which her subjects demonstrate to others, to those dispossessed from those conditions which promote well-being. The word ‘kindness’ has perhaps rather meek and passive associations, but Oldfield’s subjects often worked in terrifying circumstances, facing terror and a horrendous death whilst they sought to apply such gentle concerns to their dealings with fellow human beings.
Read more of this post by Lincoln Green @

Antigone’s “Defiant Pacifism”
Sybil Oldfield’s recent collection of essays, “Thinking Against the Current”: Literature and Political Resistance (2013), offers stunning insights into the lives and work of a wide range of writers, thinkers, and activists who engaged in resisting all forms of oppression. Divided into three sections and spanning her work from 1970 to 2010, Oldfield’s collection takes as its primary unifying concept a deeply rooted belief in “humanistic feminism – feminism grounded in a humanism that reveres creativity and kindness in both sexes” – while noting the elasticity of the terms “politics” and “literature,” in their broadest senses are necessarily interconnected (1, 2). To find hope for the future, Oldfield concludes in her introduction, she looks both to women and men who thought and wrote “against the current” as an antidote to war and an affirmation of the global human family.
... In this important collection, Oldfield performs what Virginia Woolf has asked us to do; she has given voice and names to women and men whose stories of resistance have languished untold for far too long, and in deploying the visions of women poets, our contemporaries, at the close of her collection, she warns us of a future we must resist. In “The Paths,” the poetic fragment with which Oldfield concludes her volume, Sharon Olds offers a vision of two paths – one human but the path of “the clippers, the iron,” the other also human but the path of “the hand, the milk.” “[A]ll I can do,” Olds writes, “is I point out the two paths, we can go down either.
Reviewed in The South Carolina Review, by Merry M. Pawlowski, California State University Bakersfield

The penultimate chapter contains Oldfield’s reflections on some American Visionaries (reprinted from Women Against the Iron Fist), from Helen Keller to the poet, Sharon Olds. Although Oldfield reflects that the ‘unquenchable optimism’ of Helen Keller, born in 1880, ‘may be unattainable to someone born in 1942’, she acknowledges that Olds, in spite of her sense of endless violence passed down from one generation to the next, ultimately believes that which path we take is still our choice. This is surely the message of this thought-provoking book. Reviewed by Jo Vellacott, The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

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