This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Unruly Figures is a twice-monthly celebration of history’s biggest rule-breakers.
You’re fascinated by stories of people who couldn’t follow the rules. Why is that?
I could probably come up with a million reasons, but I think the most obvious is that those people tend to be more fun, you know? I like reading about people with whom I would want to go on an adventure. And rarely does an adventure start with someone who prefers to stay at home and make tea. (The only exception I can think of is poor Bilbo Baggins, who wanted nothing more than to stay at home.)
Ironically, I’m a bit of a timid rule-follower myself. Maybe I like these stories because they inspire me to come out of my shell a little.
Your first subject was Joe Carstairs. Why did you choose her to kick off your podcast?
Gosh, I love Joe. I picked her for a few reasons – she’s the ultimate benevolent rule-breaker. The rules she broke rarely hurt anyone and often actually benefited people. She became an ambulance driver in World War I because she wanted to go to war when women weren’t allowed to. She wore men’s clothes just because she wanted to. Joe was very emphatically her own person during a century when everyone wanted to tell women exactly how they should act, and I wanted to celebrate that.
But also, from a practical perspective, because Joe was largely forgotten by history after 1950, there’s not a ton of information out there about her. There’s literally one biography, and from a research/writing/storytelling perspective, that seemed very doable for my first episode. I’m doing everything for Unruly Figures by myself: I research, write, record, edit, and promote this podcast alone. Starting out, I had no way of knowing how long each step would take. Beginning with a limited amount of material left me space to make mistakes.
In your graduate studies, you focused on the emergence of sexual identities in late-Victorian England. How does that work inform Unruly Figures?
In a number of really huge ways, actually. When I was researching Victorian attitudes about sexuality and how that influenced their understanding of fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes, I kept reading about these amazing activists and authors who were taking big risks to make Victorians understand that same-sex attraction was not a crime or a sin or a sickness, that it was real love. There was Lord Alfred Douglas saying, “the love that dare not speak its name” at the trial of his lover, Oscar Wilde. There was Edward Carpenter, a philosopher claiming that our biggest ill is actually civilization, and once we cured ourselves of that, everyone would be able to love more openly, among other things. There was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, risking his career and legacy to stand up for men like Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement when they were put on trial for homosexual affairs. They each refused to stick to what they were told the rules were around something as simple as love. It was really inspiring.
My research also impacts how I talk about people now. Joe Carstairs was a lesbian and very open about it. She dressed in a very masculine fashion and often passed as a man, which leads some armchair historians to say she would be trans if she lived today. In the episode, I cover that gender affirmation surgeries have been around since the early 20th century, and Joe could have easily had one if she saw herself as a man. Joe was many things, but she wasn’t trans. We tend to try to find people from the past to support present ideas, which makes sense, but it’s important that we’re not putting labels on people that they wouldn’t have wanted.
I kept reading about these amazing activists and authors who were taking big risks … They each refused to stick to what they were told the rules were around something as simple as love.
What rebellious figures are on your shortlist to feature soon?
I’ve got pirates and radicals and rebels galore coming up. I’m really excited to cover Ching Shih, a female Chinese pirate leader who commanded the Guangdong Pirate Confederation and a fleet of 50,000 pirates. I’m also planning to cover German people who resisted the Nazis, like Fritz Wandel, and women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, who went to war, married two different kings, and gave birth to three more. No period of history is off-limits.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
If you’re into history, especially the people who history usually leaves out, I can’t recommend Ælfgif-who? enough. Florence HR Scott is a historian and her writing is fantastic. Each post also has an audio portion, which I really dig.