An important but relatively unknown part of Susan Isaacs’s work is the parenting advice column she wrote for The Nursery World in the late 1920s and 1930s, under the pseudonym of Ursula. But in case you think this is a sort of dusty by-way from the past, I would seriously urge you to read an important new collection of some of those columns, Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting and think again – because they speak to contemporary concerns about childhood, learning, health and parenting in a remarkably vivid way.
At this stage, I must declare an interest: Wise Words is edited by my partner, Caroline Vollans. Throughout the development of the book, from first idea, to the months she spent digging around in the Isaacs archive at the UCL Institute of Education, I have been privileged to be the first to hear her excited accounts of discoveries amongst many hundreds of letters and Isaacs’s answers.
Astoundingly, Isaacs answered every single letter – published or not – and she quite clearly saw her work as Ursula Wise as being as important as anything else she did. She spent much of her final months, suffering the agonies of cancer and the dreadful side-effects of powerful radiotherapy treatment, putting together a collection of the columns which is now long out of print.
In a recent journal article, the researcher Michal Shapira argues that the Ursula Wise columns were instrumental in popularising ideas from psycho-analysis and offered a “powerful rebuttals to behaviourist, disciplinarian parenting methods helped shift the focus of caregivers to the child’s perspective, encouraging them to acknowledge children as independent subjects and future democratic citizens.”
Childhood and parenting in England were changed forever by the columns of Ursula Wise: and Wise Words offers a fascinating insight into how Isaacs persuaded, argued with and encouraged middle-class parents and nannies to think differently about the children they loved and cared for.
To give you a flavour of the book, here are a couple of my favourite letters and the replies. There are more details about how to order Wise Words and how to claim a 20% discount here.