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Where some ideas are stranger than others...


The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


Dedication and Citation: With many, many delighted thanks to platypus and the other women whose skill in genealogical research online found more material and thereby made this essay far better than it would have otherwise been. They found the original last name of the woman whose work is discussed here, as well as the website pages providing the description of her family.

One day back in the middle of my physics degree, at the end of a long semester and with neither field work nor classes planned for the summer, just a summer job, I finally wended my way over to the humanities library. This was at an older university where the science and humanities libraries are literally across the campus from each other. The science collection outgrew its original home in the central humanities library (at one time the sciences were counted among the humanities) and the majority of the science laboratories and classrooms moved to newer buildings. Part of my purpose on this exploratory trip to the humanities library was to pick up an armful of books on radical feminism, including an unusually titled book by a scholar I had never heard of before, Mary Daly. It is probably overdetermined that this book was Gyn/Ecology, then recently reprinted in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition. I was so curious what the hell this could be about, being a physics major, that I sat down in the aisle where I found it to have a look, with the rest of the books sitting by one knee. Hours later, I had to run downstairs and persuade a person at the circulation desk to allow me to check out my pile of books, because it was so late they were playing announcements over the PA system that they were closing the building for the night. Not that I noticed until they started flicking the lights on and off. The next day I started digging through Daly's footnotes for titles of other books to read, and happened on this recommendation from the great woman herself:

If the Searcher can find it, she should look at Mrs. J.H. Philpot, The Sacred Tree, or The Tree in Religion and Myth (London and New York: Macmillan, 1897). It is saddening to read in the author's preface: 'The reader is requested to bear in mind that this volume lays no claim to scholarship, independent research, or originality of view.... In so dealing with one of the many modes of primitive religion, it is perhaps inevitable that the writer should seem to exaggerate its import...' A Hag who peruses this book will see that it displays extraordinary scholarship, independent research, and originality of view. She will also find that it takes no great effort of imagination to grasp the circumstances under which this devoted author labored — conditions which drove her to apologize for seeming to exaggerate the importance of the Sacred Tree and of her Self. Since she does not tell us her own name, we are left with the quaint label, 'Mrs. J.H. Philpot,' signifying the burial of this courageous foresister. Her book contains many important illustrations of Tree Goddesses. She discusses christian 'adaptations' of the May Tree and of what came to be known as the 'Christmas Tree.' She causes the reader to reflect upon gynocentric origins of such biblical images as that of Yahweh speaking to Moses from the burning bush, pointing out that the sacred sycamores of Egypt were believed to be inhabited by such Goddesses as Hāthor and Nuit.

Today it is easy to find The Sacred Tree, or The Tree in Religion and Myth, just check out the internet archive. There is even more than one scanned copy, so it isn't necessary to put up with the version done by under the aegis of google. Not then. Then an interlibrary loan was necessary and the loan periods were not quite as long as they tend to be nowadays. As Daly observed, it is an excellent book, contrary to what we might expect today if we start by reading its Preface and take those preferatory remarks too seriously. The historical context of the book is the late nineteenth century, when respectable women who pushed boundaries by publishing serious work were forced by social pressure to write prefaces disavowing the gravity of their interest and intent. Mrs. Philpot had another needle to thread with her chosen topic, avoiding the appearance of critiquing the established church in england even as she strove to reconstruct the origins of elements of more recent tree imagery and ritual in both christianized rural rituals and elite culture. But this is not something I had the faintest clue about on first encountering this footnote. Nevertheless, the wistfulness in Daly's words stuck with me, and being rather a contrarian on such things, found myself thinking it should be possible to find the author's own name. Possible, even if difficult.

All manner of life events and complications intervened before I could turn back to the question, and having tracked down an online copy of the book to find a reference in it, it struck me that what was once very difficult should be quite approachable now. After all, today besides all the not so great and helpful material online is a great deal of remarkable information made available to the public by universities, museums, and ordinary people pursuing their own research. The indefatigable genealogists have founded and built amazing databases, including prising an impressive amount of material from organizations like the mormon church and the catholic oblate order, both of which have a habit of collecting genealogical data far beyond the immediate confines of their own parishioners. Plus, the listings in openlibrary and worldcat are great for rousting out authorial pseudonyms, original names, and expanding initials. Indeed, expanded initials were the first thing I found: Mrs. Joseph Henry Philpot. And not a thing else. Hardly satisfactory. Next I tried a basic web search using duckduckgo and swisscows in order to draw out better european results. That is when things started getting exciting.

Among the search results, after filtering out the various entries referring to The Sacred Tree, there appeared a series of results pointing back to Olive Schreiner's letters. Barring the similar time period, the late nineteenth century, there was no reason I knew of to expect Mrs. Philpot and Schreiner to have the slightest thing to do with one another. What could the author famous for her novel The Story of An African Farm, married to it seems the almost inevitable cad of a husband, born in 1855 and died in 1920 have to do with this mysterious scholar of ancient religion? Well, as it turned out, a rather surprising amount. They knew each other via a combination of work in the drive to win recognition of british women's right to vote, and time Schreiner spent with the Philpots in london during the 1880s. The letters reveal that Mrs. Philpot's first name was Isaline, a variant of Elisabeth, and that unfortunately her relationship with Schreiner was rather rocky. It probably did not help that Schreiner was a founder and active member for some years of The Men's and Women's Club with Karl Pearson in 1885. This club pursued frank discussion of sexuality during its run, exacerbating tensions in Scheiner's own marriage and encouraging mistrust between her and her london friends. Still, they had a real friendship for nearly twenty years, evidenced by many letters and an inscribed edition of Schreiner's book Dreams dated 17 june 1897.

The obvious next search to try was of course for Isaline Philpot. This ran rather promptly into Mary Isaline Philpot, who married a Brigadier Knightley Fletcher Dunsterville in 1919. At first I thought this was likely a false positive, because older wealthy families in britain reuse names such that quite distant relatives may have the same name. But further searching with the help of the genealogy expertise of other women helped restore Mrs. Philpot's own name and soon found a better source of information that confirmed that Mary Isaline Philpot was in fact Isaline Philpot's daughter. So we have a still somewhat shadowy woman scholar whose excellent social connections helped her daughter marry into the peerage, irregardless of her potentially frowned upon political activities and radical ideas. At this point the genealogical sites finally allowed the reconstruction of a very basic biography for Isaline Needham, born in 1852, who married Joseph Henry Philpot in april 1877. Her parents were Joseph Needham of northamptonshire in england and Elizabeth Brissett, of brecknockshire in wales. Then the trail goes cold again. If Isaline Needham attended finishing school, there is no simple to find record of this online, but in her youth it was still more common for young women of better off families to be entirely homeschooled. Her daughter was born circa 1884, and she herself lived until july 1925, although her husband outlived her. Oddly, the genealogy site that notes about Joseph Henry Philpot that he wrote novels under the pen name Philip Lafargue, never mentions Isaline Needham's book. In fact, it is a bit embarrassing how easy it is to find references to J.H. Philpot's ephemeral novels in comparison to the general absence of recognition of Isaline Needham Philpot's study.

The Sacred Tree heralds an efflorescence of studies of ancient religion, many of them pursued and published by women including some of the first to win and hold academic positions in cambridge or oxford. Among the most famous of these is Jane Ellen Harrison, associated in her turn with Virginia Woolf, and one of the founders of the modern study of ancient greek religion. It would be easy to miss syncretic studies like Isaline Needham Philpot's in part because it went somewhat against the grain. Lewis Farnell's five volume Cults of the Greek States, let alone Harrison's famous trilogy of books of the Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Themis, and Epilogomena to the Study of Greek Religion are better known. Placed within an academic context, not exactly mainstream but recognized and selling well to the broader public, their authors also had greater access to new archaeological data as it became available. Unlike these counterparts, Isaline Needham Philpot traced the concepts and practices she wrote about right to the present and to england itself.

Having found Isaline Needham Philpot and at least a sketch of a woman whose work Mary Daly used in her own analysis and books to such effect, it does lead me to wonder about her decision to sign her book "Mrs. J.H. Philpot." After all, while it turned out that this made connecting her own name and life to her book quite difficult for strangers until recently, perhaps that was anything but what she would have expected. Could it be that she thought it would be obvious to anybody who mattered who she was, and that they would be able to make the connections? As a member of a reasonably well off and socially placed family, with connections direct and indirect to famous authors and activists of her time, within her own community her interests and activities were likely well known. On the other hand, books do have a special staying power and a way of holding just enough detail to make their authors identifiable again even if they otherwise attempted to remain at least pseudonymous. Another example who comes to mind is artist and author Miss L.M. Budgen, better known as Acheta Domestica or Acheta, who wrote and illustrated the three volume Episodes of Insect Life and several other books. She was a member of the british royal entomological society, with enough clout to have a serious science publisher produce her books, which are highly prized antiquarian items in their original editions. That said, I must admit that I haven't managed to learn anything more about L.M. Budgen as yet, not even the expansion of her initials. Another lost name to find!

  1. Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. Chapter Two: Dismemberment by Christian and Postchristian Myth, Note 12.
  2. I'm not a fan of google these days, but that's not why I prefer not to use their scans. Their scans are often of mixed quality, with such things as pages scanned folded over, pages rendered illegible by OCR algorithm errors that looks suspiciously like the product of dividing by zero somewhere, and occasionally a vivid picture of the person who did the work's hand or sleeve. Older books tend to suffer these issues most badly.
  3. The Olive Schreiner Letters Online: Isaline Philpot and Dr. J. Henry Philpot.
  4. Jessica Ampel provides a brief overview of this club on pages 12-13 of her prize-winning essay A Social Change-Maker and a Dreamer: Olive Schreiner's Figures for an Ideal Future.
  5. ModernFirstEditions: Dreams by Olive Schreiner, inscribed to the Philpots.
  6. The Peerage: Person Page - 67548, Our Family History: Genealogy of Our Smith and Killick Families, Ancestors of Brigadier Knightley Fletcher Dunsterville DSO.
  7. The Lancet, 14 April 1877, "PHILPOT – NEEDHAM. – On the 5th inst., at St. Michael's, Chestersquare, Joseph Henry Philpot, M.D., to Isaline, daughter of Joseph Needham, Esq."
  8. Tantalizing as the suggestion Isaline Needham could have some connection to the geneticist and sinologist Joseph Needham is, the most that can be said here is that they may have been distantly related if at all.
  9. As summarized by one of my researching colleagues, "Isaline May Needham birthdate approximately 1853, who married a man named Joseph Henry Philpot MD, in England in 1877. Her death is listed as July 22, 1925. Prior to her death, she lived at 19 Camden Hill-square, Kensington, Middlesex, England. She predeceased her husband, and left him about 980 pounds in her will. I do not have the death certificate."
  10. A few minutes search promptly turns up At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837-1901 and Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Philip Lafargue.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:53:04