Interview: Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith

Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith’s article, “Writing a Book Together,” featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, documents their experience working on Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870 across the disciplines and across several states. Page and Smith explain that from the beginning, they had two objectives: To bring together the disciplines of art history and English, and to find a topic that would yoke their “mutual love of gardening.” These two goals resulted in their brilliant argument, that “gardens provided women with a new language and authority to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world,” while it simultaneously “offered expanded possibilities that re-centered domesticity outward” (2).

Page and Smith’s friendship is partially rooted in gardening. In fact, one of Page’s first memories of their friendship is planting her first vegetable garden with Smith and her children. “Our children were also friends,” Page says. “They grew up together and thought of her as a second mother, so it made sense for us to want to do a book together.” In this way, Page and Smith’s book is more than a well-researched, fascinating study of women and gardens; it is a carefully constructed document between friends.

INTERVIEWER

How did you initially meet?

PAGE

We met each other as faculty members at a small liberal arts college, Millsaps College, where Elise still teaches. I taught for a long time until I moved to the University of Florida. I loved the kind of collaborations that can occur at a liberal arts college because you really are very connected to people in other departments […] We became good friends and realized that we shared a lot of interests. At first, we actually team taught together. […] We taught a couple classes on images of women in art and literature. We went from very early images through the twentieth century and mostly focused on European art.

SMITH

It was a big change for the two of us because although we already had a lot of teaching experience, at that point, it was always just us in our own classes, me, as an art historian, and her, as a literary historian. […] Thinking about women was the baseline for what brought us together from our various fields. Those courses were such fun to teach. I think it was marvelous for the students to have a way to see alternative perspectives, not just in what they read, but in seeing us with our different viewpoints there in the classroom. That really helped later when we came up with this idea of writing a book together. It was an important foundation for us in terms of thinking collaboratively.

INTERVIEWER

How was this project similar to or different from your other collaborative processes?

PAGE

I would say that the project is different from the collaborative project of teaching together because when you teach a course together, you have to sit down and shape the course and perhaps make changes as you go along. When you’re writing a book together, you really have to read the work, collaborate, change it, revise for each other, and we found that process worked really well. People joked with us and said, “You’re such close friends. Are you still friends after writing a book together?”

INTERVIEWER

How did you come up with your idea?

PAGE

I think it moved from that very early amorphous images of women to something that was much more specifically grounded in the garden and what we might be able to do with that […] I don’t remember what actually sparked the initial idea except our love for the garden and our interest in writing a feminist piece on the garden and our interest in women artists and writers, so it all just came together. […] This was after I had left Millsaps. I’ve been at the University of Florida for 13 years. We both had finished book projects. I had finished my book on Romanticism and Judaism and she had finished a book on the Victorian painter, Evelyn De Morgan, which was her first piece of work in the 19th century.

SMITH

One of the advantages of us not living in the same town anymore is that we’ve got a lot of emails that relate to the project. One dates back to August, 2003. I had written Judy an email at 1:16 in the morning. I started by saying that I had been trying to get to sleep and just wasn’t able to because my mind was full of thoughts about this book that we had begun to think about. Initially, we had been thinking very broadly and loosely about something relating to gardens and landscape issues in the 19th century.

In this middle of the night email that I sent to Judy, I was sort of moaning about this article that I was working on about Gainsborough […] and I said what was really getting me a lot more excited was the thought of working with her on 19th century women gardeners or rather women and gardens, since some of the women might not necessarily be gardeners themselves […] She responded that same night at 2:51 AM, which is kind of bizarre. And she said, “This is so strange because I’m sleepless in Gainesville and decided to get up with hot milk, dry cereal, and a computer check. I love the idea of focusing on women and gardens although we might find that pushing back in the 19th century could be interesting too.”

The time framing of the book—that may have been one of the hardest things for us to figure out, because, of course, there was only a certain amount that we could do. But, any time we got ourselves a tentative beginning and ending date, one of us would kind of stretch an elbow out and say “Oh, but you know, if we just go ten years further or ten years earlier, I could include such and such.” It really was not until late in the writing process that we finally settled on the framing device that we had.  I think it was, in part, some of the frustration that both of us felt at having to leave out some of the later 19th century stuff that got us going on our second project that we’re working on now.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about working between the disciplines? Within “Writing a Book Together,” you touch upon the clash of verb tenses and working together to achieve a seamless writing voice–a “we” rather than an “I”.  What were some of your other struggles or victories? How did you approach them?

PAGE

We found it a very congenial process and almost always took each other’s criticism and felt that it was right. We’re coming from different disciplines. Elise is a trained art historian. I’m trained, of course, in English. […] There really were some funny moments in sharing our work where we would see different conventions that would guide us. For instance, in my previous books that were not collaborations with Elise, I had illustrations, and some of the illustrations were what she might consider to be decorative. In other words, I did not engage the illustration in the text. Elise’s ground rule was if you have an illustration in the book, you have to engage with it in the text. Of all the 75+, or however many it turned out, nothing was just gratuitous. We talked about each one of them. There was a purpose for having them. That is something that I really had not thought about before. When I wrote my book about Wordsworth and women, I had illustrative illustrations […] and I didn’t necessarily engage them. […] Some of the pictures of the home places I did talk about, but I didn’t have such a strict guideline that I was working with. I liked it. It makes a lot of sense and it’s a good way to justify the illustrations to your publisher.

SMITH

I was also particularly concerned about being sure that we incorporated images in all of the chapters, not just in the chapters that I was working on, and that we incorporated them in what I thought was a substantive rather than a relatively cursory or merely illustrative way. I wanted significant analysis as much as possible to be done with all of the images, rather than just having them there as an illustration on the page.

PAGE

There was that issue, and another one, which I also think is a disciplinary difference that we had. I’ll give you an example: I am the primary author of the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. That chapter had even more in it when I first shared it with Elise that was very speculative about Dorothy Wordsworth and her relationship to her brother. Elise wanted evidence. […] On what grounds are you making this statement? What can you point to? What evidence is there? I took it out when it was purely speculative and I didn’t really have the evidence. I worked according to that and I think it was good for me. It certainly made our writing more compatible because she is devoted to really careful scholarship and all of her evidence and references are very precise. It was a good discipline for me to have that because I think that we, as literature scholars, perhaps tend to have more flights of fancy and things that we can’t absolutely justify [with hard evidence], but that we still think we’re right.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about your collaborative process?

PAGE

We were collaborating from the very beginning. As soon as we would write a chapter, we would share the chapter. We agreed from the outset that each of us would write four chapters. The book has eight chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. One of us drafted the introduction—I did—and one of us drafted the conclusion. Then, we each revised them, so they were all truly collaborative.

I also think that our voice is pretty close. […] Maybe someone who analyzed the chapters with some kind of technological program could tell there are certain ticks or ways of writing that are distinctive, but I think we’re actually quite close in our writing styles and I think that it made for a greater harmony in terms of the voice.

SMITH

We assigned ourselves key chapters to draft up and then we would send that draft to the other person. I’d send my draft to Judy and would get all kinds of responses from her and vice versa. Often, something that I might have been working on, for example, related to images, I realized didn’t really fit in my chapter anymore but could easily fit into one of Judy’s chapters as additional visual material […] or a literary passage could really fit well into one of my chapters, so that worked well in the later stages of drafting.

PAGE

We were also both committed to the “we”. We were committed to writing the book together, so it was something that we accepted. I know at one point, Elise said, “I feel really funny using the word “we” in the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. It’s so clearly your chapter. You’re the Wordsworth scholar.” There were moments like that where we both chuckled a little, but even the chapters […] where one obviously wrote more of that chapter than the other, at the end of our process, we ended up taking some things out of one chapter and putting it in another with no regard for who wrote the chapter originally. I would say our process, if I had to have a metaphor for what it was like, was like making a quilt. We got the parts, we thought of the chapters, and then we pieced things together in them, so it’s quilt making, if you think of quilt making as an organic process.

INTERVIEWER

In your book, you mention collected specimens, exotic flowers, and how “the microscope suggested a hidden life rich with possibility and meaning” (58-9). If we consider female botanists collectors, can we compare them to famous male botanist and collector, James Banks? Could they be following his example, set in 1771, when he returned from Captain James Cook’s first voyage to South America with samples in tow?

PAGE

Some of the women that we wrote about, for example, Agnes Ibbetson, who is a very accomplished botanist, did have an interesting system of categorizing and collecting in that sense, but we didn’t find this grand design of women as collectors in the sense of Banks or some of those great collectors and adventurers. […] It’s almost a kind of gendered distinction. Male adventurers have a strong desire to conquer and collect and to bring it all back as a part of the empire and put it on display in Kew and other gardens in Britain.

We found less of that in women writers and artists. We found more of an interest in teaching that a lot of this knowledge goes into an educational function […] That educational interest that is very strong, so that you find women who have great knowledge of different parts of the botanical world. That knowledge takes the form of dialogues between mothers and children and various kinds of scenes of instruction in books, so that the botanical knowledge is often put toward that kind of advancement of intellect.

That said, I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, which was published a couple of months ago. The main character is a woman botanist who has an amazing collection of moss and becomes an incredible expert. I was fascinated by the portrayal of this character not just because she was a collector and wanted to get to the heart of it, but because of what she saw when she studied the moss really closely under the microscope. Gilbert’s character demonstrated this notion that we see in Chapter Two, this discovery of this interior world, an amazing world that was represented when you could actually see into the life of this species, this plant. I think there was this sense of wonder in the world. A lot of women botanists write about wonder, often putting it in a religious perspective too.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting! You discuss the garden as a liminal space of education and exploration, especially for girls before they become women. Did the garden have the same erotic connotations as other well known liminal spaces of education and exploration, such as boarding schools?

PAGE

We do indeed focus on the garden as a place of exploration and education, a place where women and girls can extend their sense of themselves. […] The garden for both men and women always has this erotic charge. It makes me think about the Garden of Eden and all of those kinds of metaphors that go with that. The book is not comprehensive and we didn’t talk a lot about that, but if I had added another chapter, […] I would’ve loved to talk about writers in that context—one of them is Austen. I did a paper for the Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice that just came out last year on the landscapes and estates and gardens. One of the things I talk about there is not the garden narrowly defined as a garden per se, but certainly the outdoor space and the outdoor world in Austen’s novels is a place of freedom. It’s a place where many of the really important scenes and activities take place and discussions between characters that are highly charged and couldn’t take place in the drawing room. They take place out of doors.

Think about the moment in Emma, at the end of the book, where Emma is described as hurrying into the shrubbery. She’s overcome in that moment. She’s recognized that, “I’ve loved Mr. Knightley all along—Harriet can’t have him because I love him!” And she’s pacing the garden, the shrubbery. In that moment, Mr. Knightley appears. That moment can only take place out of doors. It’s highly erotic, and Austen handles it so beautifully.

SMITH

I think that you can particularly see erotic fears perhaps most prominently and ironically in children’s literature–this fear of the children escaping past the wall and the kind of punishment, the literal and metaphorical fall, that these children might have if they climb up on top of the wall. And, of course, the idea of the fall takes on so much resonance symbolically. That could be read as sexual metaphor. I have not made that explicit in the chapter that I wrote, but I think it’s a really neat way of thinking further about that work.

PAGE

We describe this in the beginning of the book that we use the term garden very fully and loosely and we take in botanical writings, landscape, and a whole range of ways that people can engage with the natural environment in the book.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about your next project?

PAGE

We decided that we loved writing this book together so much that we’re going to write one more book together. […] If critical books could have a sequel, I suppose it’s a sequel. […] What we found looking at the later 19th century is that if in this earlier period, we talked about the way that so many women writers and artists negotiate their relationship between the public and private, in the newer project, one of the things we talk about is an increasing professionalization of the way that women writers and artists talk about the garden, the garden as a potential profession. If women were amateur gardeners in the 19th century, and many of them did move into professional garden writing […] at the end of the 19th century, you have women thinking of themselves as professional writers, professional gardeners, and that there’s a kind of conjunction between women and the garden and women who worked in the city, New Women, if you will. The whole notion of the New Woman fits into this.

Some of the figures, for instance, that I’m interested in, begin to write important gardening histories. They see themselves as historians of what has taken place in the garden not only over the last century, but going back for many centuries. […] There are examples of women who have university educations and see themselves as historians of the garden. We’re going to look at some of those writers.

SMITH

Mostly, I’m working on the time between the very tail end of the 19th century through World War I. That’s where most of my stuff is leading right now. […] I’ve drafted a chapter on garden memoirs written by women who were gardeners themselves and were really thinking about how to create a space for themselves outside of the city. The city/country dichotomy is very important because many of these women travelled back and forth between their country retreat and the city. In fact, I’ll be giving a talk at the 19th Century Studies Association in Chicago in March, which is a conference centered on the city in the 19th century. I’ll be talking about these women in the country and the way in which they contrasted what they valued about their lives in the country, in their gardens, as opposed to what they saw as really problematic about the city, the noise, the dirt, and also the city as standing for some of the violence that they associated with the war torn years.

One of these garden memoirists wrote in defining this contrast between the city and the country, “Asphalt or turf? Pose or repose?” She was referring to the idea of the pose, the sort of artifice of the poseur life in London, as opposed to being able to let that all go when one is rooted in the countryside. That was a lot of fun for me to write. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the women before, but very few other people now have heard of them either. As an art historian, I’m finding myself pulled into text based writing and text based image making, because there is very little imagery involved as I dig into these memoirs and write about them. My other chapter, so far, is about an artist from the Bloomsbury group who knew Virginia Woolf. Her name is Dora Carrington. She was working in the 1910s and ‘20s before she committed suicide. She did a lot of paintings of the land around the three homes that she lived in. One was her childhood home and two were houses that she lived in with the Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey. I argue that these landscapes that she painted are really a way of attempting to make a psychological home base for herself because of the way she felt increasingly removed from friends and lovers, and even the actual homes themselves, which she didn’t own. […] She was afraid of being a hanger-on with Lytton Strachey. […] My next chapter will be on children’s stories and illustrations centered around Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, but I will also look into other children’s books written by women that deal with children in the garden in some way, which will be an extension from the chapter that I wrote about children’s literature in the last book. I’m not sure what my fourth chapter will be. That is sort of giving you an indication of how Judy and I are feeling our way into what we might want to write about.

 PAGE

I’m very interested in figures like Beatrix Potter and Vita Sackville-West, women who saw themselves in terms of a kind of mission that they had to revitalize the English landscape. Beatrix Potter is an example of someone who is best known as a children’s author. She wrote the Peter Rabbit books that we all grew up on. However, after she wrote the Peter Rabbit books and settled in the Lake District, she became a conservationist and someone who dedicated her life to the restoration of the countryside. […] Sackville-West wrote books where the garden features very importantly, but she also developed and designed with her husband and then worked in one of the most important gardens of the 20th century, Sissinghurst, which is still regarded as one of the great gardens in England. I’ll be looking at what the relationship between her life as an actual gardener and what she wrote about her gardening life. In this project, we’re also going to be very interested in looking at the effect of the First World War, but we’re going to take it through the Second World War and the effect of the war on the sense of the landscape, the place of the garden in the landscape, and women’s relationship to it in particular. One of the things that developed during the First World War is the Women’s Land Army, and women increasingly took the place of men as workers on the land as men were drafted into the army. Many of those women became committed to those skills and to that life, even after the war. Looking at those kinds of changes in how women contributed to the land and the landscape during the war years is something that we’re going to be very interested in.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for scholars interested in collaborative work?

PAGE

I would say that productive collaborations arise from shared interests and passions, and when each contributor brings a different knowledge or disciplinary perspective to the mix. Once you get going on the collaboration, think of it like other relationships that always require give and take—and compromise.

SMITH

I think my main advice would be that you have to give up turf possession. That’s a good metaphor to use when we’re talking about gardening. You have to give up the sense of, “Oh, I’m an art historian, and thus what I write has to be situated in art history.” I learned long ago by coming to Millsaps and being the only art historian here for many years, to give up turf ownership of any particular period in art history because I teach from ancient all the way up to contemporary. […] Now, by working with Judy collaboratively, I’ve had to broaden out beyond being just an art historian to being a thinker about the world, open to all kinds of questions, and then following those questions to whatever kind of evidence might come to bear on those questions. I think about texts as well as images. That advice is important advice for any scholar in whatever field, whatever they’re doing – go where the questions lead you.