Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Edith Birkhead

Edith Birkhead (b. Harrowgate, Yorkshire, 28 November 1888; d. Clifton, Bristol, 14 June 1951)

Edith Birkhead was the daughter of Robert Dax Birkhead (1836-1908), a commercial traveler, and his wife Mary Jemima Taylor (1848-1921), who were married in Barnsley, Yorkshire, in the summer of 1869.  She was the youngest of seven children, and had four sisters and two brothers.

She was educated at South Liverpool High School, Liverpool College, Huyton, and entered the University of Liverpool in October 1906 (B.A. 1910, Honours in English Literature; M.A. 1911), with further study of English Literature at Liverpool under the William Noble Fellowship for 1916-17 and 1917-18.*

Birkhead's first and most important book was the result of her research fellowship. The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (London:  Constable, [April] 1921) is one of the first extended works of scholarship covering the beginnings of the gothic romance in the late eighteenth century up to modern times.  (Dorothy Scarborough's The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction had come out in 1917.)  An undated American edition of The Tale of Terror came out from E.P. Dutton around July 1921, made up of sheets imported from England with a cancel title. Birkhead's preface is dated December 1920, which has resulted in bibliographical references erroneously stating that the book was published in 1920.

The review in The Times Literary Supplement, 5 May 1921,  was by Virginia Woolf. The New York Times Book Review gave the book a full-page review by noted critic Brander Matthews in the issue for 25 September 1921. Both reviews are positive about what Birkhead achieved, but both wished that she might have expanded her scope a bit. A few years later, H.P. Lovecraft, when writing his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1927), relied heavily on Birkhead's book, especially with regard to early gothic writers covered in its first five chapters. 

By 1920, Birkhead was Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Bristol. By 1930 her position had been elevated to Lecturer, and later, Senior Lecturer.

Birkhead did not publish much. Her first known work was an essay on "Imagery and Style in Shelley," published in Primitiæ: Essays in English Literature (1912) by students of the University of Liverpool. An essay on "Sentiment and Sensibility in the Eighteenth Century Novel" appeared in Essays and Studies by Member of the English Association (1925), and a second, small book was Christina Rosetti & Her Poetry (1930).

Birkhead never married, and her estate of over six thousand pounds was left to another "spinster," Anne Mackenzie Couper (c. 1888-1966).

One of her older sisters was Alice Birkhead (b. Heaton Moor, Lancashire, 22 June 1880; d. Golders Green, Middlesex, 22 September 1918), who was a teacher of art and painting at a girls' college.  Alice Birkhead also published several books, including two novels The Master Knot (1908) and Shifting Sands (1914), along with popular histories Tales of Irish History (1910), Stories of American History (1912), The Story of the French Revolution (1913), Heroes of Modern Europe (1913), Marie Antoinette (1914), and Peter the Great (1915).

*Information courtesy of the University Archivist, The University of Liverpool.

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