Desire, delight, regret: discovering Elizabeth Gibson

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Qualitative Research, Vol. 8, No. 3, 317-324 (2008) by SAGE Publications Ltd.

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Key Words: auto/biography, family history, feminism, methodology, methodological anarchism, narrative, poetry, sexuality

Key People: Elizabeth Gibson

Notes and References →

Desire, Delight, Regret: Discovering Elizabeth Gibson


‘Who do you think you are?’ asks a popular UK television programme. Guided by experts, its protagonists fill the gaps, lies, and silences in their family histories with new, ‘true’ versions, weep over stories of people they never knew, and are placed by professional historians in relation to existing historical narratives. ‘Who you (really) are’, then, is constructed in relation to a national and familial past. The excitement and emotional investment of the investigation is part of the appeal of the programme.

This paper deals with my research on Elizabeth Gibson, my great-aunt on my mother’s side, and its repercussions for me as a cultural historian and a family member. Who do I think she was? Is it any of my business? Who do I think I am? And where do I start? Madness, illegitimacy, lesbianism, bigamy: family secrets, family scandals. Not that unusual. But who has the right to speak about them, and how?

I could begin (as I just did) as a writer trying to catch the reader’s attention. Everything I mentioned crops up in my own family histories. But is this just an exploitative way to start off? And if so, who is being exploited? Or I could begin as an academic, establishing my intellectual credentials by discussing the theoretical grounding of my research. Starting with theory serves to legitimate what follows. But if I do that, will it not undermine any challenge I am trying to make to those very notions of the ‘academic’, and the ‘legitimate’?

Perhaps I should begin as a feminist researcher, who believes that theory and practice, researcher and researched, are inseparable. So I would start by placing myself somewhere in the picture, and showing how the material has been produced. But has that now become just another academic convention? And is it not another way of asserting control, saying: ‘listen to me, I know what I’m doing’? Or I could begin as a member of an ordinarily dysfunctional family, finding myself placed in a new and difficult relationship to family secrets. My research has — inadvertently — breached the carefully maintained barricade between my academic and my familial self. To write publicly about this feels difficult, exposes some of my own vulnerabilities. Yet it raises wider questions. Whose (hi)story is it anyway? That is: who get to be the subjects of history and who gets to narrate their stories?

‘How do I begin?’ is, among other things, a question about methodology, about the significance of style and structure in the (re)presentation and reception of research. What follows is an attempt to address methodological issues through the interconnected narratives of the research into Elizabeth Gibson, its expansion into family history, and the construction of an academic paper.

Elizabeth Gibson: an academic project?

Elizabeth Gibson (1869-1931) was a poet: a socialist, feminist and freethinker. She died before I was born, and I grew up not knowing she even existed. So when I did discover her, I did not initially think of this as family history — rather that the family connection had turned up someone interesting, who serendipitously connected with my academic research.

Wilfrid Gibson, around 1913, standing outside his house near Dymock.
Wilfrid Gibson, around 1913

The person who did appear in family stories was her younger brother, my mother’s father, Wilfrid Gibson, once well–known as a minor poet. Years ago, researching early twentieth century feminisms, I found him occasionally mentioned. Browsing in an archive one day, I found some of his letters; among them were a few poems and letters from Elizabeth. This was the first I had heard of her. Next, I found an unpublished letter from Elizabeth to a feminist journal. A month earlier her name meant nothing to me — now, in a silent library, I squeaked in surprise and delight as my research suddenly took on a new dimension.

Intrigued, I sampled some of her books. But the poems I read seemed disappointingly pious and sentimental. Not a case of unjust neglect, then. I put my notes aside. But my interest was rekindled later when I discovered another set of letters from Elizabeth. In one, she said: ‘I write … little that is not actual vivid experience … the love poems are written to women’.(1) A letter from Wilfrid revealed that she ended up in a mental hospital. Now I had the makings of what looked like a familiar but compelling story – a poet, a lesbian feminist, maybe driven mad in a hostile society, or perhaps wrongfully incarcerated. I wanted to find out more. I was eligible for research time off, and my proposal for a project on Elizabeth Gibson was accepted. I felt rather uncomfortable about it though, and looking back I can see I was making rather un-thought-out distinctions between an academic and a non-academic self; between personal, ‘family’ and ‘academic’ history — distinctions which the work itself was to challenge.

Each kind of history can be identified by its methods, materials, practitioners, products and purposes. Family history typically draws on family stories, privately held materials such as letters, diaries and photographs, and public records, pieced into a more or less coherent narrative. It is sometimes defined in terms of its difference from what is characterised as academic (or ‘proper’) history. The latter, despite challenges from feminist and other historians, is conventionally about distance — the proper distance and separation of the researcher from the object of research. But it is also distinguished by its distance from non-academic history (a distance which both groups of practitioners may have an interest in maintaining).

So where did this leave me — and where did ‘the family’ fit in? If the two paradigms of family history are family stories and the family tree, there were no family stories (though maybe the story was in the silences). And initially I was only interested in the family tree for what it could tell me about Elizabeth. The question of academic distance versus familial connection could be trickier — but as she had no direct descendants, and died before any surviving relatives were born, I was not expecting emotional or ethical problems to emerge. But they did, and the desire, delight and regret she wrote about in one of her poems were replicated in my responses to her life and work (Gibson, 1904: 32).

Elizabeth Gibson circa 1911
Elizabeth Gibson, around 1911

Elizabeth was a New Woman, engaged with socialism, women’s suffrage and new forms of religion in the early years of the twentieth century. She worked as a day-governess and typist, but defined herself as a poet, encouraging Wilfrid to do the same. Although her reputation was rapidly eclipsed by his, she had some initial recognition, and published forty books. However, my interest is less in reclaiming her as a poet, than in analysing her life and work as part of women’s attempts to find new ways of understanding and speaking about their experiences. Elizabeth’s writing addresses the tensions, intersections and contradictions of love and lust, passion and ‘perversion’ (by which she meant sexual hypocrisy or loveless marriage). But what did — what could — it say about her own sexuality? If, as she said, her early love poems were addressed to women, did ‘love’ include sexual love?

It has been suggested that poetry provides a utopian space where women may find a voice to express desires which may not be spoken elsewhere (Donoghue, 1997; Leighton, 1992). Compared to some of her better-known women contemporaries, Elizabeth’s powerful evocations of female eroticism are more overtly sexual, and she often wrote explicitly as a woman desiring another woman. The evidence I found from other sources suggests that her writing drew on her own experiences of sexual passion. But what this means in terms of her life and her own understanding of it is difficult to pin down. There is no evidence that she went beyond the experience of passionate love for women to develop a sexual identity based on this, and in the course of her life she loved both women and men. Her writing focuses on the nature and consequences of desire as much as on its object, and insofar as it suggests a sexual identity, it is that of a desiring woman. Other aspects of her life were more disturbing: her thwarted desire for motherhood, mental breakdowns, the final spiral into madness. She spent her last years in a mental hospital: forgotten, no longer writing, and, in her brother’s words, reading only ‘goody-goody books … she would have scorned in the old times’.(2)

In the process of discovering all this, I have felt various combinations of excitement and empathy, dismay and dislike, admiration and anger. I have frequently questioned what I am doing with this research, and the answer changes as new details emerge, or I rethink what I already know, to produce a different version of events. At times I have wanted to give up, to forget about her. Conflicted feelings about a biographical subject are not uncommon, but are complicated here by the family connection. ‘You seem to feel implicated by her’, a friend told me, and there is some truth in this. As hardly anyone has heard of her, I feel the responsibility of constructing her persona. And I feel that in telling people about her I am also telling something about myself. When I speak about her, I sometimes catch myself enacting a sort of disavowal: she was not a good poet; she was not a lesbian feminist heroine; she was only a distant relative … Nevertheless, my interest in her began because of that relationship, which has inflected my work in some unexpected ways.

Family histories: feelings and identities

Judy Greenway's library cards and title page of Elizabeth Gibson bookAlthough my research centres on Elizabeth, the main way of getting access to her has been via Wilfrid. If he had not been well-known, and corresponded with people even better known, few if any of Elizabeth’s papers would have survived. And I hoped to find information about Elizabeth in his letters, only a handful of which are in private hands; the rest, dating from the 1900s to the 1950s, are scattered in libraries and archives. Although he was not my focus, I took the opportunity to find out more about my family. So I have constantly been nibbling away at the boundaries between the academic project and a more personal one.

As a child I was firmly taught never to read other people’s letters and diaries. One of the guilty pleasures of archival research is the sense of having legitimate access to something forbidden. And now I was actually reading letters about my own family, just what the childhood taboo was meant to keep from me. At first this was not a problem. In the archives I found a perspective on my mother’s difficult relationship with her parents, which helped make sense of subsequent family dynamics. But I also found letters containing sensitive information about a living relative. They are in a university library: any researcher with academic credentials can look at them. And now I know someone else’s ‘family secret’ — possibly not even known to the person concerned. This is information which that person has no control over, and for me to discuss it even in this abstract way feels problematic. Of course, if my family were more communicative I might have been told such things, and that would feel very different. The question would then be the everyday one of how to apply sometimes conflicting principles to do with confidentiality, tact, honesty, and so on.

It would also be different if I were researching someone with whom I had no connection. Though there might still be an ethical problem, the framework would be the responsibilities of the researcher working on recent history or biography, the professional ethics of the historian. And if I decided the information was irrelevant to my work, then there would be no issue. But in my case, there is an issue because of the family connection. It is this which makes me feel as though I am withholding information from someone: information I only had access to because I am an academic, but which is important primarily in terms of personal history. Or to put it another way, it felt as though my academic and personal selves, who normally co-exist fairly well, had suddenly, awkwardly, bumped together.

This anxiety affects my research into Elizabeth as well. She hints repeatedly at some terrible family secret which blighted her life. What this was, I do not know: possibilities include familial sexual abuse, or a heritage of madness. Such speculations feel necessary for understanding her, but also intrusive and voyeuristic — and if true they would affect my family’s stories. My business — or none of my business? As a researcher, I take pleasure in my ability to discover secrets. For scholarly and political reasons, I have felt indignant with those historians and biographers who collude with descendants to conceal aspects of their family past felt to be shameful. Nothing should be hidden. Gossip can be a necessary part of making sense of the social world, and as much part of history as anything else. Yet I have always prided myself on my ability to keep a secret. And I do not really believe that academics have the right to be a sort of highbrow paparazzi.

There are silences of forgetting, as well as of secrecy. One day, I was reading a bound volume of Wilfrid’s manuscript letters. I turned a page, and there was a letter in pink ink and tidy, childish handwriting. It took a moment to grasp that it was from my 9-year-old self. ‘Dear Grandpa … Do you still write poems?’ she asked. ‘I do. I have read quite a few of your poems and plays.’ She tells him her favourites, and which ones she has learned by heart.(3) Wilfrid had forwarded the letter on with a covering note telling the recipient to destroy it. But there it was, in a university library, and there I was, meeting a self I had forgotten about (which is why I have used ‘she’ rather than ‘I’), in this public (yet restricted) place. No squeak of delight this time — the experience was too disorienting.

If my grandfather’s letters were not in the archives, they would probably not have survived at all. And this particular letter is innocuous enough — I could hardly object to anyone else reading it. Yet I had already been feeling discomfort and a kind of indignation, almost, about some of the other items in the collections. Why did I have to come here to find out these things? How had small everyday intimacies between my grandparents found their way into these accessible — yet inaccessible — places? What could they mean to anyone else? I hardly knew whether to feel more perturbed that anyone could read them, or that (since few people are interested in my grandfather now) no one would read them.

I found I wanted to annotate documents. Once, I was legitimately able to do that, when I found the subject of a photograph mis-identified by a cataloguer. But when a letter refers to a baby as a boy, when I know it was a girl, what then? (It is not as though I plan to publish an edition where I could correct this in a footnote). And when I feel outraged that something is not simply false, but unjust — then I know I have got myself into deep waters and it might be more appropriate to discuss the matter with a therapist than with an archivist. I do not want to suggest, though, that this is simply some personal problem. Like the example of the family secret, it is about the private self in public space, the dissolving boundaries between what is public and what is private, what is personal and what is not, what is academic and what is not. It is about the desire for access and transparency, and the desire for control, which is arguably another aspect of the same thing. And anxiety about interpretations, contestable stories, and the possession of the raw materials for these — in the case of my letter, a fragment of myself.

Me, clutching a book, at the opening of a new children's library around the time of writing the letter to my grandfather circa 1956
At the opening of a new children’s library: that’s me, clutching a book. This was around the time of writing the letter to my grandfather

I was writing to a grandfather I barely knew. But I knew he was a capital-p Poet, and had decided that I too wanted to be a poet, or at any rate a writer. I was beginning a lifelong self-definition through reading and writing. ‘Do you still write poetry? I do.’ ‘I do’ — that cautious little assertion, an invitation to him to take an interest. As I recall, he never replied. But it was important to me that there was a poet ‘in the family’. It did become clear to me early on that becoming a woman and becoming a poet might in some inexplicable way be in conflict, and perhaps it is just as well that I knew nothing then of Elizabeth, who could all too easily be represented as having ultimately failed at both. In any case, when I went to university — the first in my immediate family to do so — I decided I was not cut out to be to be a poet after all. And so I became an academic — a life which was, in more ways than one, a closed book to the rest of the family.

And the family, with its silences, its secrets, its estrangements, was in many ways a closed book to me. ‘It’s none of your business’, as my father said when asked about a painful past. ‘It’s only my business’, as my grandfather and mother must have thought, each of them destroying precious letters and photographs before they died. I could, though, sometimes get my mother to discuss her childhood by giving her books which mentioned Wilfrid. Again, it was through the public version that I was enabled to approach personal history. Later, as I searched for clues in family stories, I got to know relatives I had never met before. And doing all this as an academic project has made it possible to talk about my work, and thus open, within the family, a few pages of that previously closed book of my academic life.


Through the window of the archives I glimpse the past of my family, and see new ways to connect with the present. I started this article by referring in postmodernist fashion to different selves who could begin it in different ways. But another metaphor may be more appropriate — not different selves, but adjoining rooms, and a door now ajar between them.

Is all this just an oddity of my personal history? Of course, the situation I have described is unusual, but perhaps it just exaggerates, makes more visible, the emotional interactions between researchers and their materials, the social relations of the practice of history. Tim Brennan says that the materials of family history ‘combine as a narrative machinery which is used by the family historian to construct a notion of “self”’ (Brennan, 2000:38). But putting it like that reproduces the distinction between different kinds of history. All of us use our work, our relationship to our ‘materials’ to construct a notion of self, it’s just that family or ‘personal’ history pushes this into the foreground. Finding myself in the archives is, after all, something I have been doing all along.


This paper presents three stories, which combine to raise questions about narrative methodologies. Telling the story of Elizabeth Gibson raises familiar issues about the desire to create a coherent biographical narrative out of fragmentary, contradictory, and indirect evidence; about the comparative autobiographical status of letters, diaries, poems; about how she and others understood and represented her life.

The story of my particular experience of researching family members, and the ethical and emotional repercussions, connects to wider questions about how academic identities are constructed. Tristram Hunt (2007) recently attacked the popularity of family history, posited as an amateur and indulgent search for identity compared to the analytic rigour of the professional historian. Such attacks are themselves part of a construction of professional identity. But there are no such neat separations to be made. Academic rigour too easily becomes rigor mortis: feelings and analysis are not mutually exclusive, and any research methodology needs to work creatively with the emotions the material evokes.

The third story is about telling these stories. A well-respected professor once told me there was no point making the effort to write well, because all other academics cared about was footnotes and sources. But (even if it were true) this is a sadly limited understanding of what can be done with academic writing. The way that research is presented is itself a narrative, a form of methodology, and discussing methodology is itself a form of narrative construction. Even before it is written up, all research has one or more implied audiences, with whom the researcher intends to engage. To craft a paper with vigour as well as rigour, which will interact with an audience on more than one level, is to be confronted with a multiplicity of potential narratives, and with the need to consider not just the subjectivity of the self as narrator, but the act and occasion of narrating.

So how do I end this paper? A recurrent theme in it has been the desire for, and impossibilities of, control over the components of a piece of research and the stories which can be produced from it. To construct these, post hoc, into an article, following given rules, introduced with certain questions and concluded with at least a suggestion of development, is yet another attempt at control. Yet any academic or other writer knows how readily audiences misconstrue our intentions, pick out minor points while ignoring the main ones, and generally rewrite our narratives even while reading them. In ‘Against Method’, Feyerabend (1975: 17) called science, ‘an essentially anarchic enterprise’ to which a ‘law-and-order’ approach is inimical. In qualitative research, the creative juxtaposition of narratives — our own, and those of our audience and our subjects — can generate a positive methodological anarchism which relinquishes control, challenges boundaries and hierarchies, and provides a space for new ideas to emerge.

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Notes and References

(1). Elizabeth Gibson to Sidney Cockerell, 22 January 1899, British Library.

(2). Wilfrid Gibson to Sidney Cockerell, 22 October 1926. British Library.

(3). Judy Brookes to Wilfrid Gibson, n.d., filed with Wilfrid Gibson to Dorothy Ratcliffe, 2 January 1956. Leeds University Library.


Thanks to Maggie Humm, Hilda Kean, Helen Lowe, and Liz Stanley.


Brennan, T. (2000) ‘History, Family, History’, in H. Kean., P. Martin, S.J Morgan, Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now. London: Francis Boutle.

Donoghue, E. (1997) What Sappho Would Have Said: Four Centuries of Love Poems Between Women. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against Method. London: NLB. Gibson, E. (1904) ‘A Trinity’ in A Flock of Dreams. London: Elkin Mathews.

Hunt, T. (2007) ‘The Time Bandits’,  Guardian, September 10 [online] (accessed 20 September 2007)

Leighton, A. (1992) Victorian Women Poets. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.