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Florence Fenwick Miller (1854 – l935)

Florence Fenwick Miller was a British woman of modest origins who became a prominent leader in the trans-century struggle for women’s suffrage and the general emancipation of women, through her roles as a medical pioneer, lecturer, journalist, editor, and activist, in both England and the United States.

The daughter of a thoughtful but frequently absent merchant marine ship captain and an excitable, frustrated mother, Florence early felt the need to make something significant of her life. In 1871, at age 17, she persuaded her parents to allow her to join the Sophia Jex-Blake group of women seeking medical degrees at Edinburgh University. When that program was cancelled, amidst much controversy, she returned to London and graduated with honours from the new Ladies School of Medicine; she practiced briefly out of her parents’ home.

At this time, a friend introduced her to the London Dialectical Society, a mixed group of both men and women comprising some the most radical thinkers in London, where she was exposed to debates on birth control, cremation, land reform, and other largely taboo subjects. As she gained confidence, she lectured frequently to the group on physiology and medical matters, then largely unknown subjects for women. In 1874, she was invited to lecture before the Sunday Lecture Society, devoted to bringing education to the lower classes on a day when they could attend; here she became so popular she was invited back repeatedly over the next ten years. At the same time she also embarked on a successful lecture tour taking her to many parts of England, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow and northern Scotland.

At the Dialectical Society, she met Frederick Alfred Ford, a stockbroker’s clerk, whom she married in 1877, while keeping her own name, thus becoming Mrs. Fenwick Miller. For this unconventional act she was severely criticized by traditionalists. In order to support the marriage she turned to journalism and paid public lecturing on physiology, public health, and the rights of women, contributing to such journals as Fraser’s Magazine, Lett’s Illustrated Household Magazine, Belgravia, and the Governess.

Her increasing fame led to her first campaign, in 1876, for a seat on the newly formed London School Board where she mingled with men of power, wealth, and importance much older than herself; here she served successfully for three consecutive three-year terms. Her early advocacy for birth control during her first term, brought about by her support of the Bradlaugh/Besant controversy, led to anguished and controversial calls for her resignation, which were ultimately unsuccessful.

An invitation in 1886 to write a weekly column, ‘Ladies Notes,’ for the Illustrated London News marked the beginning of the second half of her public career. For over 33 years she wrote in this influential periodical on women’s accomplishments and women’s affairs, sometimes using the pen name ‘Filomena.’ She ’profiled‘ prominent women, wrote freely on education, suffrage, public affairs, legal issues, and fashion, always with the view of supporting the suffrage of married women and their emancipation from male dominance. In l889, she was one of the founders of the Women’s Franchise League.

In 1895, because of her prominence, Lady Henry Somerset ceded ownership of the Woman’s Signal—then a radical but failing venture, largely devoted to temperance issues—to Fenwick Miller. For three and a half years Fenwick Miller increased its circulation and converted it to one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s suffrage, although ultimately it failed financially.

In 1893, Fenwick Miller traveled to America to cover the Chicago World’s Fair, the ‘Columbian Exposition,’ for her British paper, the Echo, where she, in turn, was lionized for her advocacy of women. She lectured frequently and successfully to sold out audiences of American women, eager to hear about suffragists in other lands. Here she also met and became intimately acquainted with American suffrage leaders, among them Susan B. Anthony, who became a friend, and such stalwarts as Rachel Foster Avery, May Wright Sewall, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Anna Howard Shaw. In 1902, she came again to the United States as a founding member of the International Council of Women, for which she also served as treasurer, thus becoming influential in the international suffrage movement.

In the new century Fenwick Miller’s column reflected changing times: she rode a bicycle, wrote her column on a typewriter, used an electric vacuum, and wrote about automobiles and ’aeroplanes.’ During World War I she urged women’s participation in the military and advocated home gardening to augment scarce wartime foods.

In 1918, her Illustrated London News column came to an abrupt end, with no editorial notice of its long and distinguished service. Fenwick Miller retired essentially from public life, emerging only occasionally to write on controversial women’s issues. She died 24 April, l935 at age 80 and, true to her principles, was cremated and her ashes returned to earth.   

By Rosemary T. VanArsdel

Dr. Rosemary T. VanArsdel, Distinguished Professor of English, Emerita, has published widely on Victorian periodical literature, including the only biography of Florence Fenwick Miller (2001).

See also:

Rosemary T. Van Arsdel, Entry on Florence Fenwick Miller, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Dr. VanArsdel’s biography of Fenwick Miller, Florence Fenwick Miller. Feminist, Journalist and Educator (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).

Victoria Cross (1868-1952)

‘If one could only marry Thomas Hardy to Victoria Cross he might have gained some inkling of real passion with which to animate his little keepsake pictures of starched ladies,’ claimed Oscar Wilde (Harris 477). Certainly, passionate encounters—spiritual and physical connections—were repeatedly dealt with in Cross’s fiction. Annie Sophie Cory was a prolific author who wrote under the pseudonyms Victoria Cross(e), Vivian Cory Griffin and V.C. Griffin. ‘Victoria Cross,’ her most common pseudonym, was chosen as a complicated joke, according to Shoshana Milgram Knapp. She believed she deserved the Victoria Cross for her valour and ‘she hoped to make (Queen) Victoria cross through her candor‘ (Knapp 78).

Not much is known of her personal life. She was born in Rawalpindi, India, the third daughter of Colonel Arthur Cory and Fanny Elizabeth Griffin. She was educated primarily in England, but she spent most of her early life in India with her parents and sisters. Her sister, Adela Florence Cory Nicolson (‘Violet‘), was also a successful writer who wrote three volumes of poetry under the pseudonym Laurence Hope. Like much of Cross’s fiction, her poetry explored female desire and sexuality within the colonial context. Cross lived largely in isolation, she never married, and developed a close relationship with her uncle Heneage Griffin with whom she travelled extensively. After her uncle’s death, she appears to have fallen in love with an American consul in Marseilles, Leonard Bradford, and transferred large sums of money to him. In a final act of eccentricity, Cross left her entire estate to Paolo Tosi, a Milanese diamond dealer.

Her writing career ‘spanned some forty years, and produced twenty-three novels and three volumes of short stories‘ (Cunningham vii). Her novels were well read and were translated into several languages. Anna Lombard (1901), for example, ‘sold six million copies, ran through more than thirty editions and remained in print until the 1930s‘ (Cunningham vii). Reviewers were sometimes critical of her work. The New York Times claimed that Anna Lombard was a novel that ‘no man should read immediately before dinner unless he wishes to lose his appetite’ (Alden). One brief review of Paula: A Sketch from Life (1896) in The Academy simply states, ‘This is not a good novel.’ Yet others, for example W.T. Stead, praised and admired her work. Whether praised or reviled, Cross’s fiction certainly remained popular throughout much of her career.

She began her career in 1895 with the publication of “Theodora: A Fragment” in The Yellow Book and gained recognition later that year with her novel The Woman Who Didn’t—a response to Grant Allen’s novel The Woman Who Did (1895). She continued her success with Paula in 1896 and A Girl of the Klondike in 1899. She explored passionate love in wide-ranging settings—Alaska, India, Burma, Arizona, Egypt, Yellowstone Park, and (in her only futuristic novel) thirtieth-century England—and no topic was off-limits. She tackled interracial relationships in Anna Lombard and Life of My Heart (1905), both novels in which English women marry Indian men. She championed animal rights in her collection of short stories The Beating Heart (1924) and supported the antivivisection movement. In Hilda Against the World (1914), the heroine fosters the intellectual and sexual awakening of Clive Talbot, a resident of an insane asylum. Her heroines rarely embraced traditionally feminine roles like motherhood and often abandoned (or, in the extreme case of Anna Lombard, even murdered) their children. In 1915, her novel, Five Nights (1908), was made into a film by Bert Haldane and, although it was passed by the British Board of Film Censors, it was ‘judged indecent by some local authorities, and was banned in several major cities including London and Brighton‘ (Cunningham viii). Paula was also made into a film in 1915, directed by Cecil Birch, and The Night of Temptation in 1919, directed by G. Serra (Mitchell 50). In the 1920s, her popularity began to decline as her writing began to be seen as old-fashioned, but she continued to write and published her final novel, Jim, in 1937.

By Melissa Purdue.

Melissa Purdue is an Assistant Professor of English at Minnesota State University-Mankato. She is the co-editor of New Woman Writers, Authority and the Body (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009) and is a founding editor of the journal Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies.

Works Cited

Alden, William L. ‘London Literary Letter.’ New York Times (1 June 1901): BR 15, 395.
Cunningham, Gail. ‘Introduction.’ Anna Lombard. Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham Press, 2003.
Harris, Frank. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions. Vol. 2. New York: Harris, 1916.
Knapp, Shoshanna Milgram. ‘Victoria Cross (Annie Sophie Cory).’ Late Victorian and Edwardian Novelists, Second Series. Ed. George M. Johnson. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. 75-84.
Mitchell, Charlotte. Victoria Cross: A Bibliography. Victorian Research Guide 30. Queensland: University of Queensland, 2002.
‘Review of Paula: A Sketch from Life.’ The Academy 50 (5 Dec. 1896): 490.

Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866-22 December 1943)

The first child of Rupert Potter and Helen Leech, Helen Beatrix Potter became one of the world’s best loved children’s writers, famous for more than twenty illustrated books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906), The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908).

Beatrix Potter had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing in Bolton Gardens. Both the maternal and paternal sides of her family made their wealth from cotton in Lancashire (Taylor 11). Beatrix Potter was a delicate child. Her parents and her nurse, Miss McKenzie, encouraged her to read, draw, and paint. When Beatrix was six years old, her brother Bertram was born. The children kept many animals as pets and loved to study and draw them. They thought of themselves as budding naturalists, collecting specimens of caterpillars, frogs, beetles, lizards, snake skins—whatever they could find on their excursions. Beatrix and Bertram even made little books, which they filled with their drawings of wildlife and plants (Lane 33). Beatrix went with her father to museums and art galleries, even visiting John Millais at his studio (Taylor, Potter: Artist 13). Her family took holidays to Scotland, inviting Millais, William Gaskell, and John Bright along with them. It was in Scotland and the Lakes where Beatrix’s love of country life grew. She was fascinated by rabbits, roe deer and birds.

Beatrix had a thirst for something to do; boredom was intolerable. She used her pets as models for her illustrations and as inspirations for her children’s books. In her twenties, she had a pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, who went everywhere with her. Then, in 1893, she paid four sixpence for a Belgian rabbit from London. She named him Peter Piper and taught him to do tricks for visiting children (Taylor, Potter: Artist 60-61). On 4 September 1893 Beatrix Potter sent a letter to her friend’s young son. Later she admitted that she did not know what to write to the young Noel Moore, so she just made up a story about a rabbit family. In this letter she included the early text and pen illustrations of what would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Her biographer, Margaret Lane, points out that Potter’s illustrated letters were by ‘no means the serious naturalist at work, but the imagination which could picture the sandy recesses of a rabbit hole as furnished with little chairs and table, and maintain that dried lavender was really rabbit tobacco’ (Lane 61). Her writings were as much for children as for the entertainment of adults. Seven years later, encouraged by her friend Canon Rawnsley, Beatrix Potter self-published Peter Rabbit, gave the copies as gifts to friends and family, and sold the remaining copies. After revising the text and adding colour to the sketches, Frederick Warne agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit on 2 October 1902. By the end of 1903, The Tale of Peter Rabbit had sold an impressive 50,000 copies (Taylor, Potter: Artist 60-61, 90).

Beatrix Potter’s parents did not entirely encourage her very public profession of writing. Since she was unmarried, they ordered that a chaperone accompany her on all of her excursions to her publisher’s office. And, to add to her parent’s disapproval, Norman Warne, her publisher, proposed marriage to her in 1905. Her parents thought Norman Warne was below Beatrix’s station since he was a man of trade. She accepted his proposal but kept it a secret from the public (ibid. 99). Norman Warne died before they could be married. After Warne’s death, Beatrix Potter continued to write and illustrate children’s books.

By 1908 Beatrix Potter’s books were making ‘quite a lot of money’ and merchandise was developed from the books: a Peter Rabbit board game, figurines, dolls, and tea sets (ibid. 113). With the independence and wealth she earned from publishing her children’s books, Beatrix Potter became politically active, fighting against free trade proposals that would take manufacturing jobs away from Britain (ibid. 115). She bought property and homes in the Lake District, eventually marrying William Heelis on 15 October 1913, and farming there with him. She also developed an interest in breeding and showing Herdwick sheep. Her love of animals and the country flowed through all of her works. At her death in 1943, she left 4,000 acres of her Lake District land to the National Trust. She wanted her beloved Hill Top Farm and its surrounding countryside preserved and protected from overdevelopment.

By Precious McKenzie, University of South Florida.

Precious McKenzie Stearns, PhD, teaches British Literature and Professional Writing at the University of South Florida and New College of Florida. Her research interests include colonialism and women's rights. She is the co-editor of Forces of Nature (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009) and the author of eight children's books.

Works Cited:

Lane, Margaret. The Tale of Beatrix Potter: A Biography. London: Frederick Warne, 1968.
Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. London: Penguin, 1996.
Taylor, Judy, Joyce Irene Whalley, Anne Stevenson Hobbs, and Elizabeth M. Battrick. Beatrix Potter, 1866-1943: The Artist and Her World. London: Frederick Warne with the National Trust, 1987.

Edith Somerville (2 May 1858- 8 October 1949)

Edith Somerville captured Irish humour, character, and landscape in her writing, giving voice to the Anglo- Irish Big House set as well as to the rural Irish labourers. She wrote during the tumultuous years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and witnessed many changes to her beloved Ireland.

Edith’s father, Thomas Somerville, was a colonel and returned to Ireland from Corfu when Edith was just a year old. She was the oldest of eight children. The Somerville family lived in Drishane House, County Cork, Ireland. Edith loved the outdoors and animals, especially horses and dogs. She had governesses and studied at Alexandria College, Dublin (Cronin 13). In 1886, Somerville met her cousin, Violet Martin (pen name: Martin Ross), an encounter that shaped the rest of their lives. Somerville and Ross began writing together, first compiling a dictionary of family expressions, then moving on to novel writing, oftentimes mailing ideas and revisions to one another when they could not meet in person (Somerville lived in Paris for a time to study art). By 1889 their first novel, An Irish Cousin, was published. In 1890, Somerville and Ross began a journey through Connemara, which they described in a series of articles in The Lady’s Pictorial and, two years later, in their book Through Connemara in a Governess Cart. Soon after that adventure, they published a novel, The Real Charlotte (1894). Their short stories regularly appeared in Badminton Magazine, Black and White, Longman’s Magazine, The Lady’s Pictorial, The National Review, and the Pall Mall Gazette, with Somerville drawing the illustrations.

When Violet Martin died in 1915, Somerville grieved deeply. From a young age, Somerville believed in ghosts and spirits. She contacted mediums to summon Martin’s spirit and wrote the remainder of her works in the mode of automatic writing, believing that Martin’s spirit was collaborating with her through the bodily form of the psychic medium.

Virginia Beard’s statement on Somerville and Ross’s The Real Charlotte illustrates to modern readers how unconventional Somerville and Ross were in their novels, stating ‘the power of sexual drive, the frank acknowledgement of aristocratic effeteness, its thorough skepticism about the mental and moral well-being of the Anglo-Irish, its implicit trashing of the expectation that fiction written by nice young women be genteel and romantic. They expose social taboos and double standards on both the Irish and the Anglo-Irish part’ (Beards xx). Somerville and Ross reveal the incredible tides of social and political change that were rolling through Ireland, discussing issues that included eviction, estate management, boycotting, and land wars (Stevens 3). Their ‘darkly comic vision’ has been read as ‘dirty Irish realism’ (Stevens 17).

In addition to her active professional writing career and her farming, Somerville took leadership roles in her community. She was the first woman to earn the position of Master of Foxhounds, which she held in the West Carbery organization. She worked for suffrage; in 1913 she was elected President of the Munster Women’s Franchise League (Beards) and worked for the education of women, believing that through education women would be better situated to improve their public rights.

By Precious McKenzie, University of South Florida, Tampa.

Precious McKenzie Stearns, PhD, teaches British Literature and Professional Writing at the University of South Florida and New College of Florida. Her research interests include colonialism and women's rights. She is the co-editor of Forces of Nature (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009) and the author of eight children's books.

Annie Besant (1847-1933)

Throughout her life, Annie Besant defended a great variety of social, political and spiritual causes. A talented journalist, public lecturer and organizer of various militant societies, she advocated political rights for women, neo-Malthusianism, radicalism, and socialism, before she converted to theosophy and involved herself in Home Rule for India. Though she never fully integrated into the feminist or Suffragette movements, she always explained how the reforms she promoted would advance women’s position in society.

Annie Besant (born Wood) came from a respectable middle-class family, but her father, a former doctor who worked in the City of London, died when she was five. Although her mother was reduced to running a boarding house for boys at Harrow School, Annie received a good education. Her religious upbringing left a lasting imprint on her, despite various changes in her convictions. Her education was imbued with Victorian era moral values such as hard work, duty and respectability. At twenty-one, she married the Reverend Frank Besant. As she explains in An Autobiography, she was ‘innocent on all questions of sex’ and unprepared for ‘married existence’ (Besant, An Autobiography 54). She soon gave birth to Digby and Mabel. In 1873, however, due to her crisis of faith and the continuous disputes with her husband, she left the household and settled in London with her daughter.

There, she faced financial hardships and prejudices against her status and convictions. She started writing pamphlets to denounce the abuses and illusions of established religion. Her first public lecture in August 1874 was entitled The Political Status of Women. She advocated ‘the extension of the franchise to women’ (Besant, Political Status 14). That year she also met the radical leader and avowed atheist Charles Bradlaugh. In spite of the prevailing cultural prejudices against atheism, she became his close associate and friend. He offered her the opportunity to contribute to The National Reformer, a weekly paper that she soon edited with him. In the course of their interactions, she became an atheist and a radical herself and continued to defend women’s causes. For example, in 1883 she wrote God’s View on Marriage: as Revealed in the Old Testament (Besant, Marriage 16). Her atheism represented a tool to denounce women’s oppression, but it also antagonized Christian feminists.

In 1877, she decided to plead publicly for birth control. Believing that repeated pregnancies were harmful to women and that large families created one cause of poverty, she wanted to encourage education on these issues. These neo-Malthusian convictions led Besant and Bradlaugh to reprint Charles Knowlton’s banned pamphlet, The Fruits of Philosophy. In consequence, they faced a much-publicized trial. The jury declared that the book was intended to deprave its readers, even though Besant and Bradlaugh’s intentions were not considered malevolent. They received a six-month prison sentence; the verdict was overturned on a technicality, however, so that they did not have to serve their sentence. Annie Besant felt encouraged to continue the fight. The same year, she co-founded the Malthusian League with Charles Drysdale and wrote her own pamphlet, The Law of Population (Taylor 121-122). In publicly advocating birth control and in striving to educate men and women on sex matters, Annie Besant knew that her reputation was at stake. Though she strove all her life to be seen as a respectable woman and, in fact, never took a lover after her separation with Frank Besant, her position was widely rejected. She suffered the consequences. First, she lost the custody of her daughter when her husband, Rev. Besant, used the Knowlton case to argue Annie was unfit to bring up the child. She also estranged other feminists, such as Millicent Fawcett, who did not want to be associated with what they considered disreputable ideas. In addition, her opinions prevented her from obtaining the degree in science that she had started to prepare when the University of London opened its doors to women.

In 1883, Annie Besant started her own free-thought magazine, Our Corner. In 1885, she became a member of the Fabian Society. Though her name has almost faded from view, she was at the time the most famous figure of this newly created group. As a socialist, Annie Besant remained interested in women’s issues and argued that socialism, which she described as a society founded on brotherhood, would ameliorate the social and political condition of women. She devoted many articles to women in various socialist papers. In 1888, thanks to The Link, a paper that she had founded with William T. Stead, she publicized the women matchmakers’ strike and contributed to its success. In its aftermath she helped create their union, which represented the first unskilled women union in England. At the end of 1888, she decided to take part in local elections and she was triumphantly elected to the London School Board on a socialist platform.

Though Annie Besant declared herself an atheist, her interest for religious studies and spirituality never disappeared. In 1889, she adopted theosophy. Her rejection of materialism has to be understood in the context of the revival of spiritualist studies. With this new creed, she wanted to devote herself to the creation of a universal brotherhood, which would include people from all races, colours and sexes. As a theosophist, she rejected her neo-Malthusian convictions because she explained that they were incompatible with the idea of reincarnation. In 1893, Annie Besant moved to India, where she focused on the spiritual revival of the nation. She believed that Indian traditional spirituality represented the only means to save the world from the grip of Western materialism. In addition to insisting on education for both young men and women, she also translated sacred Hindu texts in order to make them available for a larger public.

Though Annie Besant lived in India, she often returned to England, where she was still active in defending the notions of brotherhood and equality of the sexes. In 1902, she founded the first mixed lodge in England - Lodge Human Duty No. 6. She became its master, and some of her feminist and theosophist friends became officers. In 1911, she publicly underlined the link between Co-Masonry and the struggle for the rights of women to vote when she put on her Masonic clothes to lead a group of Co-Masonic women in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession in London (Nethercot 165).

Annie Besant was a famous and controversial spiritual leader, but her theosophy did not mean withdrawal from political and social reform campaigns. In India, she strove to ameliorate women’s position. Annie Besant claimed that divine elements could be found in both men and women and that they both had their part to play in human progress. She nevertheless welcomed gender distinctions, which she considered natural. Though she tried to appear moderate, her demands were daring. She asked Indians to abandon early marriage and early motherhood and advocated education for women in order to make them fit for the franchise. In 1917, she created the Women’s India Association, which promoted these ideas. That same year, she contributed to the adoption by the Indian National Congress of a resolution on women’s vote.

On the eve of the First World War, Annie Besant launched a campaign for Home Rule, arguing that India had to become an equal partner in the Commonwealth. Her political activities led to her internment. However, she became even more popular and in 1917 she was elected President of the Congress for a year. After the war, Annie Besant’s position – fighting with constitutional means and rejecting massive law-breaking – became unpopular as Gandhi took leadership of the nationalist movement with his civil disobedience tactics. She continued the fight in trying to persuade the Labour Government to grant Dominion status to India. She also worked on a Commonwealth and India Bill, which was presented to Parliament in 1925 (Kumar 101-115).

She died in Madras in 1933. In India, Annie Besant is still considered a nationalist heroine, and the thirtieth anniversary of her death was commemorated with a postage stamp.

By Marie Terrier

Marie Terrier is a doctorate student in Paris (Université Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle). She is particularly interested in Annie Besant’s social and political thought and currently carries out research on Besant’s socialism and involvement in the Fabian Society. Terrier’s article ‘Annie Besant et les débuts de la Société fabienne’ appeared in La Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques, and Traits-d’Union published her piece ‘L’Activité socialiste fabienne d’Annie Besant ou les mécanismes de l’oubli individuel et collectif.’

Works Cited

Besant, Annie. The Political Status of Women. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1874.
---. The Law of Population: Its Consequences, and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1877.
---. God’s View on Marriage: as Revealed in the Old Testament. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1883.
Knowlton, Charles. The Fruits of Philosophy. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1877 (1832).
Kumar, Raj, Devi, Ramerwari, Pruthi, Romila. Annie Besant, Founder of the Home Rule Movement. Pointer Publisher, Jaipur, 2003.
Nethercot, Arthur. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. London: Rupert-Hart-Davis, 1963.
Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant. A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.