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Isabel de Giberne Sieveking’s life, as it is outlined through the written fragments and printed ephemera assembled in this exhibit, is marked by numerous complexities and contradictions. They both disrupt and further illuminate popular ideas and definitions of "womanhood" during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Sieveking was a militant radical in rural England who advocated literally burning down the patriarchy (and the homes of government officials if necessary). Yet she was still conventionally eulogized as a devoted mother and a woman who lived an acceptable “Life of Service.” She was a devout Catholic suffragette in a time where members of the religious right, the Tory party, strove to keep women legally confined to, and incapacitated within, their “Natural spheres.” Sieveking was also (at the very least) the object of passionate lesbian desire during the Victorian period, challenging conventional depictions of Victorianism as prudishly traditional, repressed, and heteronormative in its views of sexuality. Sieveking, by her very life and existence, thus destabilizes previous narratives that neatly demarcate the Victorian and Edwardian periods into relentlessly conservative and radically progressive eras. Her example also throws doubt on the familiar desire to establish, in any period, the double bind of femininity- to separate the conventional “good” woman and the insurbordinate “bad” woman, the Angel of the House and the Devil who tries to burn it down.
All photographs of Sieveking Mss. documents taken by Zach Downey, courtesy of the Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana.