Tuesday, January 29, 2013

More Deadly than the Male: the life of Katharine Woolley

A lecture by Henrietta McCall at the British Museum, 8 November 2012

So, this post offers up a bit more new-blogger lameness in that it is a review of something that happened, oh, nearly three months ago. That’s because this lecture took place after I had the idea for the blog, but before the blog actually existed; at the time I attended this lecture, there was simply no place to post this review. And yet there was never any question that I would eventually post it.  As you may recall, it was Katharine who first sparked my interest in Ur, and she simply must be given her due. So, now that the blog is up and running, I promise there will be no more three-month-old reviews. Unless, of course, I have a really good excuse . . .

British Museum promotional material for the lecture

It was as though the Museum was reading my mind -- like they heard about my lady crush on Katharine Woolley, knew I was hoping to learn more about her, and wanted to help me out. Just weeks after I began my study of Leonard Woolley’s work at Ur, the Powers that Be announced a lecture intended to shed some light on the life of his glamorous wife. Finally, I would get to know the lady in this amazing photo -- and she would prove more extraordinary than I could have ever imagined.

Photo of Leonard and Katharine Woolley 
on display in the British Museum's Ur exhibition, Room 56

The promo materials for the event were the first indication that Kat was a seriously enigmatic gal:

“It was rumored that her first husband shot himself 
on the steps of the Great Pyramid during their honeymoon, 
and that she consented to marry Woolley only if the marriage 
remained unconsummated.” 

The blurb went on to state that a freakin’ Agatha Christie murder victim was based on her.  Who was this woman!? I could hardly wait to find out.

The lecture was presented by Henrietta McCall in the Museum’s comfortable BP Lecture Theatre. The Museum provided disappointingly little background on McCall, but Google reveals her to be an Egyptologist and Agatha Christie expert. She has worked as a curator at the British Museum and has written several books, including Mesopotamian Myths and a biography of eminent archaeologist Max Mallowan. Her talk was based on a paper she has written about the mysteries surrounding Katharine’s life. As I understood it, there are no current plans to publish the paper, but I hope that changes. A lot of information was presented during the lecture -- I’ve really only captured the basic plot here -- and I’d very much enjoy a chance to digest it more slowly.

Anyhoo, McCall began Katharine’s tale with her childhood in Germany where she was born in 1888 to a wealthy and well-respected family. She attended Oxford, but her frail health (or, some suggest, hypochondria) prevented her from finishing her degree. She ended up working as a British military nurse -- which required her to keep her German heritage a secret -- serving in London, Poland, and Egypt. It was probably in London that she met her first husband, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Keeling, who was part of a team conducting geographical surveys of Egypt. The two married in 1919 and traveled together to Egypt shortly thereafter.

On September 20, 1919, six months after their wedding, Katharine was feeling ill and a doctor was summoned to examine her. This is where the story starts to get very strange. After examining Katharine, the doctor met with her husband privately for about 20 minutes. Keeling left the house, ran some minor errands, and then committed suicide by poisoning himself in the Giza desert. An investigation found that Keeling was not under any particular stress and had no known risk factors for suicide. It was determined that he had killed himself during a bout of temporary insanity. Citing a good deal of persuasive evidence, McCall speculates that Katharine’s doctor must have said something to Keeling so shocking that he decided suicide was his only answer.

Now a young widow, Katharine resumed her nursing career. She ended up in Baghdad and visited the site of the Ur excavation in 1924. McCall believes she probably impressed the excavation team by drawing some of their finds, and excavation leader Charles Leonard Woolley invited her to join as a volunteer assistant. The excavation house was expanded in order to accommodate Katharine, and she began receiving a stipend in the 1925-26 season.

Katharine was a demanding-yet-beguiling woman, and McCall speculates that every man on the dig was at least a little in love with her. Yet Katharine was determined that she would never marry again after her disastrous first marriage, and while she very much enjoyed male attention, she refused all romantic overtures. It took a threat to her position with the excavation to change her mind.

Excavation sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania were becoming increasingly concerned about the appropriateness of an attractive young widow living with four men in the excavation house, and University officials suggested it might be best for Katharine to leave. To secure her place on the team, Leonard Woolley proposed marriage. McCall suspects Katharine had rejected numerous proposals from Woolley in the past, but this time things were different, and she accepted with a shocking caveat: Katharine would marry Woolley only if he agreed that the marriage would never be consummated. Woolley accepted the bizarre terms, surely expecting he could change her mind over time. The two were married in 1927 and, as wife of the lead archaeologist, Katharine’s place on the dig was secure.

As her skills advanced, Katharine became more and more useful to the expedition. A talented artist, Katharine’s drawings proved a major contribution to the work at Ur and were critical to publicizing and raising funds for the effort.  Her work appeared regularly in the Illustrated London News, a publication that played a key role in the popularization of archaeology during its golden age. Katharine’s artistic eye was also essential to the reconstruction of many of the objects uncovered in Ur’s royal graves, including the restoration of Queen Puabi’s elaborate headdress.

The British Museum's Ur exhibit gives Katharine credit for the restoration 
of Queen Puabi's headdress, shown in this photograph from Room 56

In 1928, Agatha Christie visited the site. (I know, right!? How cool was this party?) She had been following the dig in the London press and was keen to see it first hand. McCall claims that Katharine rarely permitted single women to visit the site because she was reluctant to share the male attention, but an exception was made for Christie because Katharine admired her work. Apparently the two women became fast and unlikely friends, though the relationship was strained when Christie struck up a romance with Max Mallowan, one of the archaeologists on the excavation.  It seems Christie felt that Mallowan liked Katharine a bit too much, and that Katharine liked his liking her a bit too much . . . After Christie and Mallowan married in 1930, Christie was no longer welcome on the site, and Mallowan soon left as well. 

Christie’s novel Murder in Mesopotamia centers on the murder of a beautiful-but-difficult archaeologist’s wife during an excavation in Iraq, and the character is apparently instantly recognizable as Katharine. According to McCall, Katharine didn’t mind this and, in fact, enjoyed the notoriety. I also got the impression that their friendship healed at some point, though McCall didn’t explicitly state this. (And I ran home and immediately ordered the book from Amazon. I found a pristine used copy for less than £3, shipping included--sweet!)

I’ll be reviewing this in a few weeks.  It was not . . . um . . . good. 
 But it did offer some excellent food for speculation regarding the excavation at Ur.

Unfortunately, while love was blossoming for Christie and Mallowan, things were turning sour in the Woolley marriage. In 1929, some two years after they wed, Leonard sent his attorney a letter asking him to prepare a divorce on the grounds that Katharine refused to consummate their union. Woolley said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that her disgust toward him in that regard was so extreme that he considered it to be a physical defect. Huh.

The divorce never happened, though.  McCall thinks this may have been because Katharine was soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Woolley may have decided that divorcing her then was too cruel. Even as her health declined, Katharine remained dedicated to her work, advancing her husband’s career through her art and writing, producing press materials, and strategically socializing with London's elite.

In 1929, Katharine wrote a book titled Adventure Calls. It’s about a woman who poses as a man in order to pursue a more exciting life than that afforded her own gender. She joins an archaeological team and makes a male best friend who becomes her partner on numerous daring exploits. Toward the end of the book, her friend discovers her true identity and the two are married and live happily ever after. For those who have speculated about Katharine’s sexuality, the books’ gender-bending heroine has certainly proved of interest. (Sadly, I’ve not yet found a copy of this book, though I will keep searching. If you have any leads, please let me know!)

Toward the end of her life, Katharine assisted her husband on a massive project to catalog the holdings of British museums so there would be a record should the Nazis invade and sack the  county’s cultural institutions. One evening in 1945 when Katharine had become very ill, she told her husband that she expected to die during the night. Her instincts were right, and Katharine died at home at the early age of 58.

At this point in the lecture, McCall turned to consideration of Katharine’s tragic and bizarre love life. She notes that many people have proposed that Katharine was secretly a man -- an accusation McCall dismisses as cruel and baseless. She notes Katharine was known for her beauty, and there has never been any suggestion that she had a masculine appearance.  To paraphrase McCall, Katharine didn’t have an Adam’s apple, and no one ever said anything about her beauty being marred by a five o'clock shadow.

Considering the events of Katharine’s life (including a string of mysterious surgeries and other things I've not touched upon here), McCall hypothesizes that Katharine suffered from complete androgen insensitivity. Basically, this means that she was genetically male, with both X and Y chromosomes, but that her body was insensitive to male hormones, so she appeared female. She would not have had male genitalia, and though she would have developed breasts, she would not have had proper female genitalia, either. McCall explains that women with this disorder have vaginas that range from a mere “dimple” to about one-third the depth of a normal vagina. Sufferers do not have uteruses or menstruate, and if untreated, they find sexual intercourse very painful.

Though the condition is well understood today and sufferers have numerous options to help them cope, very little was known of the disorder in Katharine’s time, and McCall thinks she likely had no idea she was different from other women until she attempted intimacy with her first husband. McCall further speculates that the doctor who saw Katharine on that fateful day in 1919 examined her abnormal genitalia and gave Keeling a most crude and insensitive account of his findings (perhaps something along the lines of telling Keeling that his wife was not really a woman), thus prompting Keeling’s shock and suicide. Having suffered such a tragedy -- not to mention humiliation -- it would be unsurprising for Katharine to spend the rest of her life shunning sexual relationships, thus explaining the odd nature of her marriage to Woolley.

McCall concluded by noting that it is truly a shame that speculation about Katharine’s personal life and sexuality has overshadowed her enormous contributions to the field of archaeology. She notes that the Ur excavation would never have received the attention and support it did were it not for Katharine’s tireless work, nor would it hold its lofty place in the annuls of history and archaeology. She further noted that Katharine’s obituary (which I think she said was written by Mallowan) referred to her as an archaeologist, not merely as an archaeologist’s wife or assistant -- a tribute I found very touching.

I’ve attended quite a few lectures at the British Museum, and I must say this was among the very best. McCall is obviously a thorough and passionate researcher who delights in her subject, and she presents her work with a warmth and humor that makes listening to her truly enjoyable. But of course, Katharine Woolley was the true star of the show and led a life even more exciting and tragic than could possibly be gleaned from that glamorous photo in Room 56. Her story very much deserves to be told, and I thank Ms. McCall for sharing it.

If this has sparked your interest in hearing McCall talk about Katharine Woolley, you’ll be glad to know that she will be presenting her paper in London on Saturday, February 24 as part of the Egypt Exploration Society’s day-long seminar “Pith Helmets and Petticoats: Women in 19th Century Egypt."  For details and tickets, visit


RachelP said...

Whoa! Super fascinating, B. J.!

Trici Venola said...

Thanks for this fascinating essay. I was looking for a decent photo of Katharine Woolley and found you. Re-reading Agatha Christie's autobiography I once again became intrigued by Woolley. I agree with McCall that she probably had this genital abnormality. (Elizabeth Short, the murder victim known as The Black Dahlia, is supposed to have suffered a similar condition) Taken on top of the frustration of competing in a man's profession, it sure would account for Woolley's moodiness!

B.J. Richards said...

Thanks for stopping by, Trici. Glad you liked the post -- moodiness solved, indeed! Very interesting about Ms Short, too. I don't really know much about the Black Dahlia case and I'd not heard that speculation before.

Anonymous said...

How generous of you to write this and how wonderful it was for me to find out about a lecture that would otherwise had remained the possession of a few lucky ones! I also fell in love with the British Museum many years ago when I moved to England. Now that I am sadly living very far from it I naturally miss it very much. Even as a young woman I fully appreciated what now, when life diminishes and takes away constantly, would be a very paradise. Thank you again! I will be visiting often. Rosa

B.J. Richards said...

Thank you for your lovely comment, Rosa! I plan to be posting again soon, and I do hope you'll be back :)

Anonymous said...

Very cool story, BJ. I wonder whether she might have been a hermaphrodite?
--Liz F

Erin Kenny said...

This was great fun to read! I lived outside London for about 6 months, many years ago, and was similarly enamoured of the BM - - i love that you created this blog. Thanks!