The Commonplace Book of Sophia Elers

The commonplace book developed in the hands of sixteenth- through nineteenth-century European women as a form of privatized intellectual engagement. A dearth of formal women’s education and an emphasis, rather, on domestic skills both necessitated the search for academic outlets and provided women with ample time to find them. Women turned to commonplace books to fulfill their intellectual needs by engaging meticulously with contemporary literature, drawing or cutting out illustrations, and filling pages with their reflections and musings.

Sophia Elers was one such woman. Although we do not know much about her as a person besides her likely residence in the Bickenhill Vicarage, and, based upon this residence, her being in an elite, educated family of clergymen,1 we do know that she traveled intellectually in her Victorian-era commonplace book, beginning with her transcription of a lengthy passage from William Edward Parry’s 1824 Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.2 Elers supplemented the passage with her own painstakingly detailed illustrations, which depict the “Snow Village of the Eskimaux”3 and “Eskimaux Man & Woman of Savage Island.”4 In this brief foray into Parry’s writings, Elers established herself as his colleague – adding and eliding words and visual representations – and entered into the literary tradition characterized by and filled with her male peers.

So, too, did Elers venture into France with clippings from a book of French women’s clothing5 and into Asia with an imagined, silhouetted scene cut from thick black paper and a meticulously carved fan.6 These intellectual travels, however, appear not to be associated with any specific text, but rather exist as mere longings for exploration or otherness that was unsupported by the little education Elers likely did receive, which Elers intimates once again by randomly populating the bottom third of a page filled with arithmetic with a cut-out rabbit sitting in the grass:7 even the illustrations seem to be hoping to be removed from the dull arena in which she was situated.

Particularly striking in Elers’ work, though, is the series of questions she posed. Whether they are philosophical ones, riddles, or jokes missing their punchlines is unclear, but these questions do work to express Elers’ unanswered desire to engage intellectually with someone other than herself. She asks,

Why is a large E like London?

Can you look at In till you make it a word of four syllables?

What Island is the lightest colour?

When are eggs like a stolen game?

and many more.8

British women in the mid nineteenth century had few opportunities to receive an advanced education. Although some feminist debate sparked around this period surrounding the fitness of women to enter academic settings and universities, nearly a century remained before these feminist longings were properly addressed and women were incorporated into a coeducational scholarly arena. Elers’ attempt to liberate herself and travel through the work in her book helps, though, to emphasize the important self-educations that took place and paints education during this time as “fundamentally identified with women’s personal, intellectual, emotional and spiritual emancipation.”9 Formal women’s education during this period, however, fell prey to patriarchal structures, enforced largely by the Miltonic and adjacently influential structures of male dominance and “benevolent patriarchs.”10

And so, the book of Sophia Elers can be seen as representative of a woman’s intellectual yearning during the Victorian era. Charlotte Symonds, to whom John Addington Symonds addressed most of his early letters, likely worked similarly in her own commonplace books, which we, unfortunately, do not have, and with the pieces of writing and literary recommendation provided to her by her brother. Instead, we must turn to these snapshots of life that Sophia Elers has provided to imagine how Charlotte Symonds might have filled the time left available after responding to her brother, fulfilling his library requests, and consuming the novels he lauded.

1. Circuit, Carol, The practice of concealment: Developing social history from physical evidence: a detailed exploration of artefacts hidden within a Victorian chaise longue and an interpretation of the significance of the contents (Buckinghamshire New University, Coventry University, 2017).
2. Parry, William Edward, Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Performed in the Years 1821 – 1822 – 1823. in His Majesty’s Ships Fury and Hecla Under the Orders of Captain William Edward Parry, R.N., F.R.S., and Commander of the Expedition (London: Published by authority of the Lord’s Commissioners and Admiralty, 1824).
3. Elers, Sophia, Commonplace Book, 5.
4. Ibid., 11.
5. Ibid., 62.
6. Ibid., 56.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Ibid., 47.
9. Schwartz, Laura, “Feminist thinking on education in Victorian England,” Oxford Review of Education, 37, 5 (2011): 679.
10. Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth, “Milton’s Daughters: The Education of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers,” Feminist Studies 12, 2 (1986): 275.

Nostalgic Analysis in the Study of Same-Sex Relationships

John Addington Symonds writes both sexologically and nostalgically in A Problem in Greek Ethics and his Memoirs. He approaches same-sex desire from an analytical angle while also inviting readers to luxuriate with him in an appreciation of antiquity. By way of these seemingly oppositional techniques, he engages with same-sex relationships in a way that both explicates their historical receptions and enjoys their romances. This approach persists in the 21st century, with scholars including Nancy F. Cott and Rachel Hope Cleves favoring Symonds’ techniques in their contemporary explorations of same-sex desire.

Symonds begins this work in A Problem in Greek Ethics, in which he speaks of the acceptability of same-sex desire in Ancient Greece: “the tale of Achilles and Patroclus sanctioned among the Greeks a form of masculine love.”1 He arrives at this point through the analysis of “the paragons of heroic virtue”2 relied upon by Homer and other famous Greeks, and Symonds remarks, too, that

in Greek history boy-love, as a form sensual passion, became a national institution.3

He thus roots his work in formal, sexological scholarship as a necessary basis for his desire for this Greek past.

His Memoirs, then, editorialize his scholarship by providing relevant information about his identity and illustrating a yearning for space in which to express his desires, and he refers back to the concept of masculine love in discussing his sexuality:

I am more masculine than many men I know who adore women. I have no feminine feelings for the males who rouse my desires.4

Although he understands that his desires remain fixed in masculinity, he must confront theories from his contemporaries that founded same-sex relationships in “effeminate desire”5 and “the theory of a female soul.”6 By quickly negating these possibilities in his life with the declaration that these hypotheses are simply not true, he alludes to his study of the acceptance of masculine love and sensual passion between men in Ancient Greece. This brief intimation of a longing for a past time maintains Symonds’ characteristic analytical arc, though, for he is careful to base even claims about his personal life in the strict analysis of memories, letters, and thoughts.

Nancy F. Cott in Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, a seminal text in the Obergefell v. Hodges civil rights case in 2015, historicizes same-sex relationships in the United States in a manner much like Symonds in A Problem in Greek Ethics. She claims in this work that

marital behavior always varies more than the law predicts7

and that this habitual deviance creates space within the institution of marriage for more forms of marriage than only a religious, heterosexual one. The actual work, like A Problem in Greek Ethics, does not largely engage with the present but rather seeks to elucidate the existence of covert or deviant relationships in the past. The work’s use in the Ogerbefell v. Hodges case, then, fills the role of the Memoirs in that it is applied historically and analytically to the permissibility of same-sex relationships.

Likewise, Rachel Hope Cleves resembles Symonds’ Memoirs in Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. The novel is largely structured around analysis of the correspondence between the two women in the early nineteenth century, and it is from this critical work that Cleves begins to dramatize the romantic relationship and illustrate the existence of same-sex marriage even before its legalization. This work, like Cott’s, yearns for the integration of same-sex relationships into legal doctrine and realms of social acceptability – the same social acceptability that Symonds, too, desired.

Sheldon Museum. Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, Middlebury Vermont

The seemingly opposing approaches – analytical and nostalgic – come together to emphasize the intrinsic emotion regarding the study of love. Symonds’ work, though itself directed at a time long before his own, continues to be reflected formally in work surrounding same-sex desire in the 21st century.

1. Ellis, Havelock, and John Addington Symonds. Sexual Inversion. (Wilson and MacMillan, 1897), 168.
2. Ibid., 168.
3. Ibid., 169.
4. John Addington Symonds, and Amber K. Regis, ed., The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 103.
5. Ibid., 103.
6. Ibid., 103.
7. Cott, Nancy F., Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. (Harvard University Press, 2002), 8.