Caroline Spurgeon

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Caroline Spurgeon, from a 1920 publication.

Caroline Frances Eleanor Spurgeon (24 October 1869, India – 24 October 1942, Tucson, Arizona) was an English literary critic. In 1913, she was appointed Hildred Carlisle Professor of English at the University of London and became head of the Department of English at Bedford College, London. She was the first woman to be awarded a chair at the University of London, and only the second in Britain (the first was Edith Morley).


Alciston Parish Church, Alciston, 2017

Caroline Spurgeon was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College, Dresden and at King's College London and University College London.

She is known as the first female university professor in London, the second in England. She was actually the first female professor involved in English literature, and the first fully accepted in England at all. From May 1900 she lectured on English Literature in London. She became a member of the staff of Bedford College, London, in 1901, and successfully competed for the newly created chair for English literature in 1913.[1]

She was an expert on Geoffrey Chaucer and in 1911 wrote a thesis in Paris on Chaucer devant la critique, and in 1929 in London on 500 years of Chaucer criticism and allusion. In 1936 she settled in Tucson, Arizona, where she died, on her 73rd birthday from cerbral arteriosclerosis.[2] After WWII, Dr Virginia Gildersleeve moved her body to be buried alongside her long time companion Lilian Mary Clapham (1871 – December 21, 1935) at Alciston Parish Church, Alciston, United Kingdom.[3]

English studies[edit]

Smart networking in the British Federation of University Women and with female counterparts in the more progressive United States helped her gain leadership positions in the restructuring of English studies in Britain (e.g., the English Association) as well as in the launching of the English literature curriculum at the University of London. Through her various professional activities inside her own department, she participated in the academic literary-critical renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s. She was also an active militant in favour of women's eligibility to academic degrees. She advocated for more opportunities for foreign women in British Universities. Her own appointment to a chair's position marked a turning point in the history of women's higher education.[4]

Chaucer reception[edit]

Spurgeon's 1911 Paris doctoral dissertation, Chaucer devant la critique en Angleterre et en France depuis son temps jusqu' nos jours, which she published in three volumes in English in 1929, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900, secured her a lasting place in the history of scholarship on the Middle English author. The study made available to her colleagues the rich tapestry of the reception of the father of English poetry.[5]

Shakespeare's imagery[edit]

In 1935, Spurgeon wrote the pioneer study on the use of images in William Shakespeare's Work, called Shakespeare's Imagery, and what it tells us. It has been reprinted several times. In it she analyses the different types of images and motifs that he uses in his plays. She also shows that there is a "cluster", or there are several "clusters", of images in each of the major plays, for instance, illness and injury images in "Hamlet", and light and darkness images in "Romeo and Juliet".

Some examples may here suffice.

  • She finds sea images: e.g. "Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, the sighs ... will overset thy tempest-tossed body" (Romeo and Juliet)
  • clothing images: e.g. "Why do you dress me in borrowed robes" (Macbeth)
  • colour images: "this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red." (Macbeth)
  • gardening images: "Hang here like a fruit, my soul, till the tree die." (Cymbeline)
  • and many more.

The study of imagery can, apart from helping to understand the meaning of the play, give some insight into the poet's mind, because it shows what ideas come to his mind when in need of poetic expression, thus giving some clues as to his background, his upbringing, his social position, and so on.

It can also often help to distinguish his style from that of other authors, and thus is a vital instrument in disproving for example the theory that Francis Bacon may be the author of Shakespeare's plays, since a statistical comparison between the fields of imagery in both authors shows revealing differences.[6]


  1. ^ Haas, Renate (2005): "Caroline F. E. Spurgeon (1869–1942). First Woman Professor of English in England" in: Chance, Jane, ed., Woman Medievalists and the Academy. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, pp. 99–109.
  2. ^ John H. Schwarz, 'Spurgeon, Caroline Frances Eleanor (1869–1942)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [1]. Retrieved 15 April 2017
  3. ^ "Issue 19 . Summer 2006". Brighton Ourstory. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  4. ^ Juliette Dor, "Caroline Spurgeon (1869–1942) and the Institutionalisation of English Studies as a Scholarly Discipline," in: Eminent Chaucerians? Early Women Scholars and the History of Reading Chaucer, ed. Richard Utz and Peter Schneck, Philologie im Netz (Supplement 4, 2009), pp. 55–66.
  5. ^ Dor, Juliette (2007): "Caroline Spurgeon and Relationships to Chaucer. The Text of her Viva Presentation at the Sorbonne" in Summerfield, Thea and Keith Busby, eds.: People and Texts: Relationships in Medieval Literature, Studies Presented to Erik Kooper. Amsterdam, Rodopi. 87–98
  6. ^ Schabert, Ina (2005): "A Double-Voice Discourse: Shakespeare's Studies by Women in Early 20th Century" in Kauko, Miriam, Sylvia Mieszkowski and Alexandra Tischel, eds., Gendered Academia. Wissenschaft und Geschlechterdifferenz 1890–1945. Göttingen, Wallstein. 255–77.

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