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Karl Pearson

Karl Pearson (1857 - 1936) was a British mathematician and one of the founders of modern statistics, who also later developed pronounced eugenicist convictions. Pearson studied at the University of Cambridge where he created controversy by refusing compulsory chapel attendance, and by the time he graduated Pearson regarded himself as a freethinker. He subsequently spent some time studying philosophy, mathematics and physics in Germany and then became Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, in 1884, and later Galton Professor of Eugenics. Pearson published prolifically throughout his career. He first achieved publishing prominence with the appearance of his The Ethic of Free Thought in 1888 and then with Grammar of Science in 1892. By 1906 he had published over a hundred articles on statistical theory and applications, and after he turned his intellectual focus to the study of eugenics, he published some fifty papers in this area. Pearson married Maria Sharpe, a member of the Men and Women’s Club and sister to Elisabeth Cobb; they had three children. When she died in 1929, he married Margaret Victoria Child.

Schreiner was in fact introduced to Pearson in June 1885 by Cobb, who was married to the nonconformist banker, solicitor and Liberal MP, Henry Cobb, when they met in Hastings in November 1884. Schreiner and Pearson (who had prior to their meeting already read The Story of an African Farm) quickly established a friendship and Cobb also ‘recruited’ Schreiner to join the Men and Women’s Club, the small discussion group that Pearson had founded. The Club’s remit was “discussion of matters ‘connected with the mutual position and relation of men and women’, from ‘the historical and scientific, as distinguished from the theological standpoint’” (Burdett 2001: 50, see also Bland 1995, Walkowitz 1992). Schreiner attended the first formal meeting of the Club on 9 July 1885, where Pearson delivered his paper ‘The Woman’s Question’. Her earliest letters to Pearson date from just before this time, with her extant letters to him concentrated in the period between mid-1885 and the end of 1886, when she left England for Europe. Schreiner’s letters to Pearson, or rather the selected secondary extracts drawn on, have been interpreted by many feminist and ‘New Woman’ scholars as entirely ‘intimate’, and specifically as private, emotional and centred on her allegedly romantic (and unrequited) love for Pearson.

Reading Schreiner’s letters to Pearson as expressions of passionate, emotional love in these accounts in part stems from commentators reading these letters in isolation from Schreiner’s other letters, reading only a small number of the letters to Pearson (mainly around the summer and autumn of 1886), and relying on the versions in edited collections which are selected and often editorially ‘tampered with’. In addition, the interpretation of Schreiner’s letters to Pearson as ‘mainly’ or ‘only’ unrequited love letters is also a product of attempts to make sense of a few of the letters having sometimes complicated and difficult to interpret content by imposing one settled meaning on them. However, Schreiner’s 134 extant letters to Pearson are overall complex, wide-ranging, often extremely lengthy, highly cerebral and challenging, and full of intellectual excitement and fervour. A few of them have troubled or upset content and are written in an ambiguous and rather convoluted way. The result is that as a set they are difficult to categorise as being just one kind or ‘type’ of letter.

When Schreiner’s letters to Pearson are situated within the overall corpus of her extant letters and re-read in that context, it becomes evident that they are predominantly letters of intellectual and political engagement, and are to some extent paraenetic. That is, in common with numbers of her letters to other correspondents, they entail, although in a complex way, Schreiner corresponding with people for whom she had some liking and respect but where major political and/or ethical disagreements existed and - key to such letter-writing - she also wanted to persuade or dissuade the people concerned regarding their views and activities (Stanley and Dampier 2010). This is evident, for instance, in one of Schreiner’s earliest extant letters to Pearson, in which she critiques his ‘Woman’s Question’ paper, commenting, “The omission [in your paper] was ‘Man.’ Your whole paper reads as though the object of the club were to dis-cuss woman, her objects, her needs, her mental & physical nature, & man only in as far as he throws light upon her question. This is entirely wrong”. As with her other letters of paraenetic engagement, Schreiner uses many of her letters to Pearson to display her intellectual abilities, and to influence and persuade him on a range of political and intellectual topics. Contra the secondary literature commenting on the Pearson letters, they are actually predominantly concerned with analysis and development of topics then under discussion by the Men and Woman’s Club and more generally at the time - that is, with matters concerning the external, public world. In this regard, the letters discuss in detail a range of intellectual, literary, political and other concerns, from freethinking to aesthetics, from the nature of life to what books to read, as well as a set of contemporary political concerns connected to ‘the woman question’, including prostitution, the age of sexual consent, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Schreiner’s letters to Pearson are a mix of the quotidian and the highly intellectual: many letters or parts of letters deal with ordinary Club business, make social arrangements for lunch parties or to go boating, describe landlady woes or discuss the weather. In other letters to Pearson, Schreiner presents magnificent discourses on prostitution (19 July 1885), on Montaigne’s essay on friendship (4 April 1886), on phases of the mind (Tuesday July 1886), aesthetics (7 July 1886) and on her planned ‘sex book’ (10 September 1886). Reading the quotidian interspersed amongst these ‘big’ letters to Pearson puts a different complexion on the whole correspondence, and certainly suggests a very different interpretation of their relationship. This is that, for Schreiner at least, it was mainly concerned with of the external world and intellectual exchange, and not the personal one of romantic love, as her comment to him on 30 January 1887 makes clear:

“The life of a woman like myself is a very solitary one. You have had a succession of friendships that have answered to the successive stages of your mental. When I came to England a few years ago, I had once, only, spoken to a person who knew the names of such books as I loved. Intellectual friendship was a thing I had only dreamed of. Our brief intellectual relations & our few conversations have been common-place enough to you, to me they have been absolutely unique. I have known nothing like it in my life. You will be generous & consider this when you remember how I have tortured you with half-fledged ideas, & plans of books that could never be written.”

Schreiner it seems was ‘trying out’ a new kind of friendship in her letters to Pearson, a ‘from man to man’ comradeship wherein the impersonal discussion of public matters dominated. She commented directly on this on a number of epistolary occasions, for example by urging him to consider her as a friend, and therefore in contemporary terms as a man: “but I’m not a woman, I’m a man, & you are to regard me as such.” She later commented wryly to Edward Carpenter, “I won’t be a woman in a couple of years. I began to be one when I was only ten so I dare say I will leave off being one in about two or perhaps three more, & then you’ll think I am a man, all of you, won’t you? Karl Pearson & every one, & will be comrades with me!” It seems that, rather than foregrounding a romantic love element to her friendship with Pearson, Schreiner viewed her being of the ‘opposite sex’ as an impediment to the friendship, which she conceived of as centred on intellectual and political comradeship.  

However, in spite of her attempts to focus exclusively on the impersonal, the scientific and public matters, Schreiner’s letters slip and slide into other things, such as expressing concern for Pearson’s physical health, and becoming embroiled in the exchange of Club gossip about who has said what about whom. This came to head towards the end of 1886, when Schreiner’s friendship with Pearson effectively ended following a ‘blow up’ involving Pearson, Mrs Cobb and another member of the Club, Bryan Donkin. It is this rupture (in which it appears that both Mrs Cobb and Bryan Donkin at different times decided that Schreiner was ‘in love’ with Pearson and conveyed this to him, followed by Schreiner’s subsequent denials and eventual departure for Europe) which has importantly shaped the readings made of Schreiner’s letters to Pearson. Certainly a curious ‘push’ and ‘pull’ occurs in Schreiner’s post-1886 letters to Pearson, where she vacillates between ‘do not write to me’, ‘I no longer have any need of you’, and then continues writing to him and asking him to send her his work. This suggests that she was not able to separate the ‘public’ and ‘private’ in any easy way. And for those commentators who have looked at these later letters, this has doubtless contributed to the idea that Schreiner’s letters to Pearson are predominantly concerned with her unrequited love for him, and have also perhaps resulted in the perception of Schreiner as unstable in some undefined sense.

As with Schreiner’s other letters of engagement, which come to abrupt end at the point at which she gives up on the person concerned ever changing, so her correspondence with Pearson effectively ended when she left Europe for South Africa in late 1889 and consciously turned away from the inter-personal and towards the external, public world of politics and action. Only a small handful of letters to Pearson were written in the period from then to the last extant letter of July 1895. In these Schreiner attempts to explain to Pearson what his friendship had meant to her, and she thanks him for helping her to focus on her writing as a means of bringing about political and social change, rather than helping individuals in a piecemeal way which in fact detracted from her ability to write. Another letter was written to congratulate Pearson when on 30 June 1890 he married Maria Sharpe.

For further information see:
Lucy Bland (1995) Banishing the Beast: Feminism, Sex and Morality London: Tauris Parke
Carolyn Burdett (2001) Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire London: Palgrave
Theodore Porter (2004) Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press
Judith Walkowitz (1992) City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London London: Virago
Joanne Woiak (2004) ‘Pearson, Karl (1857-1936)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35442
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