In 2020, Legenda published Cláudia Pazos Alonso's new book Francisca Wood and Nineteenth-Century Periodical Culture: Pressing for Change. Barbara Burns has this interview.
BB. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your fabulous name?
CPA. I was born in Portugal, grew up in different countries, and have been living in Britain since the age of fifteen. So I guess that, not unlike the subject of my book, Francisca Wood, I’ve had quite a cosmopolitan life-trajectory. As is common in Portugal, my full name is rather long – so much so that my recently acquired British passport cannot fit it all in! My mother was a devout Catholic, schooled by nuns: it figures that my second name should be Maria. I love the surnames I inherited from my maternal grandparents and never get to use (Moreno de Oliveira). As for my Spanish-sounding surname (Pazos Alonso), it comes from paternal grandparents, who migrated from Galicia to Lisbon, where my father was born during the Spanish civil war. Both my parents nurtured my love of reading and learning. I used to joke that I became an academic because I got paid to read books!
BB. You’ve written a wonderful book about an important but little-known Portuguese journalist and novelist who was a nineteenth-century trailblazer for progressive ideas. How did you first encounter Francisca de Assis Martins Wood?
CPA. I first became aware of Francisca Wood more than thirty years ago, when I was a doctoral student working on the early twentieth-century cult poet Florbela Espanca. I remember a conversation with the Director of the Portuguese Commission for the Condition of Women (as it was then called), who suggested that I ditch Florbela for Francisca, on account of the latter’s pioneer feminist periodical. I politely dismissed the idea because I saw myself exclusively as a literary scholar, and while Francisca Wood had published a novel, there was no trace of it in the National Library in Lisbon… Still, unbeknown to me, the idea must have remained at the back of my mind!
BB. Can you remember the initial impact her work had on you?
CPA. In 2012, after completing a book on twentieth-century Portuguese women’s writing, co-written with Hilary Owen, I felt it was finally time to turn my attention to addressing the neglect of nineteenth-century women in Portuguese cultural history. Fortunately, in the meantime, online tools had made this type of archival research a more viable proposition. I remember the sheer exhilaration of discovering, courtesy of WorldCat, that a copy of Wood’s novel Maria Severn, which was completely absent from the Portuguese online database Porbase, was held by the British Library. As I sat in the British library, reading the two volumes from cover to cover – they were in absolutely pristine condition! –, I kept thinking ‘yes, yes, yes!’, with mounting excitement. An early episode of wife-selling was quite simply extraordinary. Besides, Maria Severn featured a manuscript dedication to Charles Wentworth Dilke, an influential British politician. So many questions sprang to mind. That’s what spurred me on really.
BB. You seem to have done a lot of detective work to piece together Wood’s biography and trace her impact. How did you feel about this aspect of your research? Was it fun or frustrating?
CPA. It was both fun and frustrating, but certainly never dull. I have a longstanding repetitive strain injury, managed through exercise and fortnightly massage sessions. When I told my therapist, Alison, about my ongoing research, she became hooked and insisted I had to join Ancestry.com. In fact, one week I arrived for my appointment, and she had printed off some stuff for me! Over the course of many months, Alison kept asking me about the latest installment and speculating about what else might transpire. It dawned on me that if a non-academic found Wood’s story engrossing, then it definitely was worth investigating. By then, I was co-directing the interdisciplinary MSt in Women’s Studies at Oxford, so I was ready to embrace a much more interdisciplinary perspective and methodology. I still remember the moment when, sitting at the computer after lots of unsuccessful trawling of online archives, I finally hit upon Wood’s 1852 marriage certificate. And imagine my surprise when another document (the 1851 census) revealed that she was a ‘visitor’ to the house of her husband-to-be. Wow, what a woman!
BB. Francisca Wood spent a significant part of her life in Victorian England. In what ways was this period instrumental in her development?
CPA. The truth of the matter is that there are still so many unknowns regarding her time in England. It was much easier to unearth information about her husband and his family. It seems to me likely that she worked as a governess, given her lifelong interest in education. This would also explain her predilection for Jane Eyre – indeed, one of the research findings that emerged from my project was that Wood was the earliest translator of Brontë into Portuguese, albeit in an anonymous translation. And it’s obvious that she moved in progressive circles. But even my discovery of her (unsigned) piece about Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer, only came to light when the book was already at the proof stage. Graham Nelson, bless him, allowed me to add the new material at the eleventh hour.
BB. What surprised you most about Wood when you studied her closely?
CPA. What surprised me most was the sheer grit and determination that allowed Wood to keep her newspaper going, against all odds. I hadn’t expected the ongoing hate campaign. Perhaps I should have, given that she was a woman who resisted traditional Catholic propriety. It heightened my awareness of the extent to which a similar range of smearing tactics continue to be operational online today. On a more positive note, I was also utterly fascinated by Wood’s conviction that her cause – feminism, a word not yet available to her – would eventually triumph, and that history would one day do her justice. What’s more, her brand of feminism, which went hand-in-hand with pacifism, and with the protection of animal rights, was completely unheard of in Portugal at the time. Her advocacy of women’s suffrage, more than a century before all Portuguese women became entitled to vote, was the icing on the cake. Her confidence blew me away!
BB. How would you sum up Francisca Wood’s importance in just a couple of sentences?
CPA. Perhaps it’s easier to sum her up with a few adjectives: feisty, fearless Francisca. Not content to fade quietly into respectable old age, she had the confidence to front the first equal-rights women’s periodical in nineteenth-century Portugal. She was instrumental in disseminating on a weekly basis the message that the transnational momentum of feminism across Europe and the New World was here to stay.
BB. You finish your book appropriately with the tantalizing words associated with periodical culture: ‘to be continued...’ Has your study already sparked responses from other academics, or is more information about Francisca Wood still coming to light which will inform future research?
CPA. It was gratifying to see the book reviewed favourably in both Portugal and Britain, and to be invited to talk about it for a Brazilian audience. One bit of information that only came to light after the book was published was that Wood collated her newspaper articles and published them in two volumes. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, because this Colecção [Collection] is not available in the National library, or on the Porbase database. Plus ça change... It was Ana Teresa Marques dos Santos, a younger colleague with whom I had been co-writing an article on translations of Jane Eyre into Portuguese, who dropped me an email to draw my attention to this previously unknown item. It was rather inconvenient in terms of timing: by then Bruno Silva Rodrigues, my indispensable research assistant, had already transcribed more than 50,000 words worth of editorials, to be published as an anthology in Portugal, for which I had already drafted an introduction. And we were in the middle of Covid, so I couldn't travel to the Azores. The library staff were superb and sent me a PDF almost by return. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the Colecção materialize on my screen – among other things, it confirmed the authorship of two unsigned editorials, and one missing one. Another wonderful coincidence is that the book itself belonged to Natalia Correia, an extraordinary public intellectual whose literary estate, uncannily, I had been meaning to research for a while…
BB. What’s next for you on the research front?
CPA. I’m currently on sabbatical leave. On the back of my research on Francisca Wood, Sibila, a publishing house that specializes in publishing works authored by women, headed by Inês Pedrosa (herself a feisty journalist and writer) and Gilson Lopes, will be bringing out the novel Maria Severn in March 2022. Also, Wood’s editorials are forthcoming with Afrontamento, and it’s exciting that the anthology was able to enjoy the full benefit of the newly-discovered book version. In the meantime, I’ve also been trying to get off the ground a new project on literary representations of slavery in the nineteenth-century Lusophone black Atlantic. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Portuguese in serialized form in the 1850s. Soon after this, a wonderful Cape Verdean novel, O Escravo, by Evaristo de Almeida, on which I am currently working, was also serialized. To be continued indeed…