Female Trouble


How can one gaze at Harriet Shelley’s suicide note, smudged with 200-year-old tears, and not feel a chill? (She drowned herself while pregnant, after which husband Percy eloped with Mary Godwin, who would later publish Frankenstein.) You can sense the presence of tortured spirits haunting the library throughout this exhibit, which showcases rule-breaking British women of two centuries ago—from poets and novelists to courtesans and cross-dressers—and is empowering and almost impossibly affecting. There’s a tattered 1787 request from Margaret Nicholson, who attacked George III with a dessert knife, beseeching him to release her from a harrowing Bethlen insane asylum. (He never would, and she died there in 1828.) Equally harrowing is the announcement detailing the hanging of young cook Eliza Fenning for attempted murder. (Her weapon was yeast dumplings laced with arsenic.) Some of the most spellbinding displays are at the very end, past the Wollstonecrafts and Austens and Radcliffes. Situated near a simplistic arithmetic textbook for women, explaining how to add grocery bills, are works by top female scientists of the time—like astronomer Caroline Herschel and mathematician Ada Byron. But best of all are the cyanotypes by botanist Anna Atkins. Her images, delicate and ghostly, have a strange power to them—much like the women who fill the exhibit’s walls.