Professor Emma Gilby, Professor of Modern Literature and Thought and Bye-Fellow, has been awarded a three-year Major Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust for her project ‘Women and the Making of Modern Languages: A New Modernism’.


Professor Emma Gilby said: “It’s a great privilege to have the time and space to look into the first years of Modern Languages as a university discipline. I hope that this study will point to the internationalism and breadth that the subject offered in its early decades, and that the study of languages, cultures and societies can still offer today.”

Around the turn of the twentieth century, two social developments were gathering pace: the higher education of women, and the new idea that ‘living’ languages should be taught in universities, alongside Latin and Greek. This project is the first to connect these two developments. Forward-thinking academics were increasingly pushing for degrees in modern languages from the 1880s on. The women who first turned to this area of study were leading newly modern lives, and their academic ambitions were part of that.

Professor Gilby’s interest in the area grew, in part, from a discovery made during her research for her book Descartes's Fictions: Reading Philosophy with Poetics (OUP, 2019).

‘As part of my research for that book, I spent time reading collections of letters from across early modern Europe. One collection, published in Paris in 1933, stood out for its very detailed information about variants and layouts. Searching library catalogues, I discovered two surprising facts: its editors, H. Bibas and K.T. Butler, were women (Henriette and Kathleen) and teachers of French and Italian at my own institution, Cambridge. This was long before women were officially admitted to full membership of the University. Investigating the story of Bibas and Butler, I came to realise that they were linked to a powerful but understudied network of women who spent their time travelling, teaching, editing, translating and transcribing.’

The project will trace the development of this network of early linguists, focusing on their internationalist perspective, their use of the medieval and early modern periods as a point of cultural comparison, and their impact on literary criticism as well as language study. 

‘These women show us a new modernism: they provide a glimpse of the cultural and intellectual developments in the inter-war period, as the world tried to make sense of the human devastation wrought by conflict.’

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