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Florence Fenwick Miller (1854 – l935)

Florence Fenwick Miller was a British woman of modest origins who became a prominent leader in the trans-century struggle for women’s suffrage and the general emancipation of women, through her roles as a medical pioneer, lecturer, journalist, editor, and activist, in both England and the United States.

The daughter of a thoughtful but frequently absent merchant marine ship captain and an excitable, frustrated mother, Florence early felt the need to make something significant of her life. In 1871, at age 17, she persuaded her parents to allow her to join the Sophia Jex-Blake group of women seeking medical degrees at Edinburgh University. When that program was cancelled, amidst much controversy, she returned to London and graduated with honours from the new Ladies School of Medicine; she practiced briefly out of her parents’ home.

At this time, a friend introduced her to the London Dialectical Society, a mixed group of both men and women comprising some the most radical thinkers in London, where she was exposed to debates on birth control, cremation, land reform, and other largely taboo subjects. As she gained confidence, she lectured frequently to the group on physiology and medical matters, then largely unknown subjects for women. In 1874, she was invited to lecture before the Sunday Lecture Society, devoted to bringing education to the lower classes on a day when they could attend; here she became so popular she was invited back repeatedly over the next ten years. At the same time she also embarked on a successful lecture tour taking her to many parts of England, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow and northern Scotland.

At the Dialectical Society, she met Frederick Alfred Ford, a stockbroker’s clerk, whom she married in 1877, while keeping her own name, thus becoming Mrs. Fenwick Miller. For this unconventional act she was severely criticized by traditionalists. In order to support the marriage she turned to journalism and paid public lecturing on physiology, public health, and the rights of women, contributing to such journals as Fraser’s Magazine, Lett’s Illustrated Household Magazine, Belgravia, and the Governess.

Her increasing fame led to her first campaign, in 1876, for a seat on the newly formed London School Board where she mingled with men of power, wealth, and importance much older than herself; here she served successfully for three consecutive three-year terms. Her early advocacy for birth control during her first term, brought about by her support of the Bradlaugh/Besant controversy, led to anguished and controversial calls for her resignation, which were ultimately unsuccessful.

An invitation in 1886 to write a weekly column, ‘Ladies Notes,’ for the Illustrated London News marked the beginning of the second half of her public career. For over 33 years she wrote in this influential periodical on women’s accomplishments and women’s affairs, sometimes using the pen name ‘Filomena.’ She ’profiled‘ prominent women, wrote freely on education, suffrage, public affairs, legal issues, and fashion, always with the view of supporting the suffrage of married women and their emancipation from male dominance. In l889, she was one of the founders of the Women’s Franchise League.

In 1895, because of her prominence, Lady Henry Somerset ceded ownership of the Woman’s Signal—then a radical but failing venture, largely devoted to temperance issues—to Fenwick Miller. For three and a half years Fenwick Miller increased its circulation and converted it to one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s suffrage, although ultimately it failed financially.

In 1893, Fenwick Miller traveled to America to cover the Chicago World’s Fair, the ‘Columbian Exposition,’ for her British paper, the Echo, where she, in turn, was lionized for her advocacy of women. She lectured frequently and successfully to sold out audiences of American women, eager to hear about suffragists in other lands. Here she also met and became intimately acquainted with American suffrage leaders, among them Susan B. Anthony, who became a friend, and such stalwarts as Rachel Foster Avery, May Wright Sewall, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Anna Howard Shaw. In 1902, she came again to the United States as a founding member of the International Council of Women, for which she also served as treasurer, thus becoming influential in the international suffrage movement.

In the new century Fenwick Miller’s column reflected changing times: she rode a bicycle, wrote her column on a typewriter, used an electric vacuum, and wrote about automobiles and ’aeroplanes.’ During World War I she urged women’s participation in the military and advocated home gardening to augment scarce wartime foods.

In 1918, her Illustrated London News column came to an abrupt end, with no editorial notice of its long and distinguished service. Fenwick Miller retired essentially from public life, emerging only occasionally to write on controversial women’s issues. She died 24 April, l935 at age 80 and, true to her principles, was cremated and her ashes returned to earth.   

By Rosemary T. VanArsdel

Dr. Rosemary T. VanArsdel, Distinguished Professor of English, Emerita, has published widely on Victorian periodical literature, including the only biography of Florence Fenwick Miller (2001).

See also:

Rosemary T. Van Arsdel, Entry on Florence Fenwick Miller, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Dr. VanArsdel’s biography of Fenwick Miller, Florence Fenwick Miller. Feminist, Journalist and Educator (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).

Victoria Cross (1868-1952)

‘If one could only marry Thomas Hardy to Victoria Cross he might have gained some inkling of real passion with which to animate his little keepsake pictures of starched ladies,’ claimed Oscar Wilde (Harris 477). Certainly, passionate encounters—spiritual and physical connections—were repeatedly dealt with in Cross’s fiction. Annie Sophie Cory was a prolific author who wrote under the pseudonyms Victoria Cross(e), Vivian Cory Griffin and V.C. Griffin. ‘Victoria Cross,’ her most common pseudonym, was chosen as a complicated joke, according to Shoshana Milgram Knapp. She believed she deserved the Victoria Cross for her valour and ‘she hoped to make (Queen) Victoria cross through her candor‘ (Knapp 78).

Not much is known of her personal life. She was born in Rawalpindi, India, the third daughter of Colonel Arthur Cory and Fanny Elizabeth Griffin. She was educated primarily in England, but she spent most of her early life in India with her parents and sisters. Her sister, Adela Florence Cory Nicolson (‘Violet‘), was also a successful writer who wrote three volumes of poetry under the pseudonym Laurence Hope. Like much of Cross’s fiction, her poetry explored female desire and sexuality within the colonial context. Cross lived largely in isolation, she never married, and developed a close relationship with her uncle Heneage Griffin with whom she travelled extensively. After her uncle’s death, she appears to have fallen in love with an American consul in Marseilles, Leonard Bradford, and transferred large sums of money to him. In a final act of eccentricity, Cross left her entire estate to Paolo Tosi, a Milanese diamond dealer.

Her writing career ‘spanned some forty years, and produced twenty-three novels and three volumes of short stories‘ (Cunningham vii). Her novels were well read and were translated into several languages. Anna Lombard (1901), for example, ‘sold six million copies, ran through more than thirty editions and remained in print until the 1930s‘ (Cunningham vii). Reviewers were sometimes critical of her work. The New York Times claimed that Anna Lombard was a novel that ‘no man should read immediately before dinner unless he wishes to lose his appetite’ (Alden). One brief review of Paula: A Sketch from Life (1896) in The Academy simply states, ‘This is not a good novel.’ Yet others, for example W.T. Stead, praised and admired her work. Whether praised or reviled, Cross’s fiction certainly remained popular throughout much of her career.

She began her career in 1895 with the publication of “Theodora: A Fragment” in The Yellow Book and gained recognition later that year with her novel The Woman Who Didn’t—a response to Grant Allen’s novel The Woman Who Did (1895). She continued her success with Paula in 1896 and A Girl of the Klondike in 1899. She explored passionate love in wide-ranging settings—Alaska, India, Burma, Arizona, Egypt, Yellowstone Park, and (in her only futuristic novel) thirtieth-century England—and no topic was off-limits. She tackled interracial relationships in Anna Lombard and Life of My Heart (1905), both novels in which English women marry Indian men. She championed animal rights in her collection of short stories The Beating Heart (1924) and supported the antivivisection movement. In Hilda Against the World (1914), the heroine fosters the intellectual and sexual awakening of Clive Talbot, a resident of an insane asylum. Her heroines rarely embraced traditionally feminine roles like motherhood and often abandoned (or, in the extreme case of Anna Lombard, even murdered) their children. In 1915, her novel, Five Nights (1908), was made into a film by Bert Haldane and, although it was passed by the British Board of Film Censors, it was ‘judged indecent by some local authorities, and was banned in several major cities including London and Brighton‘ (Cunningham viii). Paula was also made into a film in 1915, directed by Cecil Birch, and The Night of Temptation in 1919, directed by G. Serra (Mitchell 50). In the 1920s, her popularity began to decline as her writing began to be seen as old-fashioned, but she continued to write and published her final novel, Jim, in 1937.

By Melissa Purdue.

Melissa Purdue is an Assistant Professor of English at Minnesota State University-Mankato. She is the co-editor of New Woman Writers, Authority and the Body (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009) and is a founding editor of the journal Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies.

Works Cited

Alden, William L. ‘London Literary Letter.’ New York Times (1 June 1901): BR 15, 395.
Cunningham, Gail. ‘Introduction.’ Anna Lombard. Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham Press, 2003.
Harris, Frank. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions. Vol. 2. New York: Harris, 1916.
Knapp, Shoshanna Milgram. ‘Victoria Cross (Annie Sophie Cory).’ Late Victorian and Edwardian Novelists, Second Series. Ed. George M. Johnson. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. 75-84.
Mitchell, Charlotte. Victoria Cross: A Bibliography. Victorian Research Guide 30. Queensland: University of Queensland, 2002.
‘Review of Paula: A Sketch from Life.’ The Academy 50 (5 Dec. 1896): 490.

Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866-22 December 1943)

The first child of Rupert Potter and Helen Leech, Helen Beatrix Potter became one of the world’s best loved children’s writers, famous for more than twenty illustrated books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906), The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908).

Beatrix Potter had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing in Bolton Gardens. Both the maternal and paternal sides of her family made their wealth from cotton in Lancashire (Taylor 11). Beatrix Potter was a delicate child. Her parents and her nurse, Miss McKenzie, encouraged her to read, draw, and paint. When Beatrix was six years old, her brother Bertram was born. The children kept many animals as pets and loved to study and draw them. They thought of themselves as budding naturalists, collecting specimens of caterpillars, frogs, beetles, lizards, snake skins—whatever they could find on their excursions. Beatrix and Bertram even made little books, which they filled with their drawings of wildlife and plants (Lane 33). Beatrix went with her father to museums and art galleries, even visiting John Millais at his studio (Taylor, Potter: Artist 13). Her family took holidays to Scotland, inviting Millais, William Gaskell, and John Bright along with them. It was in Scotland and the Lakes where Beatrix’s love of country life grew. She was fascinated by rabbits, roe deer and birds.

Beatrix had a thirst for something to do; boredom was intolerable. She used her pets as models for her illustrations and as inspirations for her children’s books. In her twenties, she had a pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, who went everywhere with her. Then, in 1893, she paid four sixpence for a Belgian rabbit from London. She named him Peter Piper and taught him to do tricks for visiting children (Taylor, Potter: Artist 60-61). On 4 September 1893 Beatrix Potter sent a letter to her friend’s young son. Later she admitted that she did not know what to write to the young Noel Moore, so she just made up a story about a rabbit family. In this letter she included the early text and pen illustrations of what would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Her biographer, Margaret Lane, points out that Potter’s illustrated letters were by ‘no means the serious naturalist at work, but the imagination which could picture the sandy recesses of a rabbit hole as furnished with little chairs and table, and maintain that dried lavender was really rabbit tobacco’ (Lane 61). Her writings were as much for children as for the entertainment of adults. Seven years later, encouraged by her friend Canon Rawnsley, Beatrix Potter self-published Peter Rabbit, gave the copies as gifts to friends and family, and sold the remaining copies. After revising the text and adding colour to the sketches, Frederick Warne agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit on 2 October 1902. By the end of 1903, The Tale of Peter Rabbit had sold an impressive 50,000 copies (Taylor, Potter: Artist 60-61, 90).

Beatrix Potter’s parents did not entirely encourage her very public profession of writing. Since she was unmarried, they ordered that a chaperone accompany her on all of her excursions to her publisher’s office. And, to add to her parent’s disapproval, Norman Warne, her publisher, proposed marriage to her in 1905. Her parents thought Norman Warne was below Beatrix’s station since he was a man of trade. She accepted his proposal but kept it a secret from the public (ibid. 99). Norman Warne died before they could be married. After Warne’s death, Beatrix Potter continued to write and illustrate children’s books.

By 1908 Beatrix Potter’s books were making ‘quite a lot of money’ and merchandise was developed from the books: a Peter Rabbit board game, figurines, dolls, and tea sets (ibid. 113). With the independence and wealth she earned from publishing her children’s books, Beatrix Potter became politically active, fighting against free trade proposals that would take manufacturing jobs away from Britain (ibid. 115). She bought property and homes in the Lake District, eventually marrying William Heelis on 15 October 1913, and farming there with him. She also developed an interest in breeding and showing Herdwick sheep. Her love of animals and the country flowed through all of her works. At her death in 1943, she left 4,000 acres of her Lake District land to the National Trust. She wanted her beloved Hill Top Farm and its surrounding countryside preserved and protected from overdevelopment.

By Precious McKenzie, University of South Florida.

Precious McKenzie Stearns, PhD, teaches British Literature and Professional Writing at the University of South Florida and New College of Florida. Her research interests include colonialism and women's rights. She is the co-editor of Forces of Nature (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009) and the author of eight children's books.

Works Cited:

Lane, Margaret. The Tale of Beatrix Potter: A Biography. London: Frederick Warne, 1968.
Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. London: Penguin, 1996.
Taylor, Judy, Joyce Irene Whalley, Anne Stevenson Hobbs, and Elizabeth M. Battrick. Beatrix Potter, 1866-1943: The Artist and Her World. London: Frederick Warne with the National Trust, 1987.

Edith Somerville (2 May 1858- 8 October 1949)

Edith Somerville captured Irish humour, character, and landscape in her writing, giving voice to the Anglo- Irish Big House set as well as to the rural Irish labourers. She wrote during the tumultuous years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and witnessed many changes to her beloved Ireland.

Edith’s father, Thomas Somerville, was a colonel and returned to Ireland from Corfu when Edith was just a year old. She was the oldest of eight children. The Somerville family lived in Drishane House, County Cork, Ireland. Edith loved the outdoors and animals, especially horses and dogs. She had governesses and studied at Alexandria College, Dublin (Cronin 13). In 1886, Somerville met her cousin, Violet Martin (pen name: Martin Ross), an encounter that shaped the rest of their lives. Somerville and Ross began writing together, first compiling a dictionary of family expressions, then moving on to novel writing, oftentimes mailing ideas and revisions to one another when they could not meet in person (Somerville lived in Paris for a time to study art). By 1889 their first novel, An Irish Cousin, was published. In 1890, Somerville and Ross began a journey through Connemara, which they described in a series of articles in The Lady’s Pictorial and, two years later, in their book Through Connemara in a Governess Cart. Soon after that adventure, they published a novel, The Real Charlotte (1894). Their short stories regularly appeared in Badminton Magazine, Black and White, Longman’s Magazine, The Lady’s Pictorial, The National Review, and the Pall Mall Gazette, with Somerville drawing the illustrations.

When Violet Martin died in 1915, Somerville grieved deeply. From a young age, Somerville believed in ghosts and spirits. She contacted mediums to summon Martin’s spirit and wrote the remainder of her works in the mode of automatic writing, believing that Martin’s spirit was collaborating with her through the bodily form of the psychic medium.

Virginia Beard’s statement on Somerville and Ross’s The Real Charlotte illustrates to modern readers how unconventional Somerville and Ross were in their novels, stating ‘the power of sexual drive, the frank acknowledgement of aristocratic effeteness, its thorough skepticism about the mental and moral well-being of the Anglo-Irish, its implicit trashing of the expectation that fiction written by nice young women be genteel and romantic. They expose social taboos and double standards on both the Irish and the Anglo-Irish part’ (Beards xx). Somerville and Ross reveal the incredible tides of social and political change that were rolling through Ireland, discussing issues that included eviction, estate management, boycotting, and land wars (Stevens 3). Their ‘darkly comic vision’ has been read as ‘dirty Irish realism’ (Stevens 17).

In addition to her active professional writing career and her farming, Somerville took leadership roles in her community. She was the first woman to earn the position of Master of Foxhounds, which she held in the West Carbery organization. She worked for suffrage; in 1913 she was elected President of the Munster Women’s Franchise League (Beards) and worked for the education of women, believing that through education women would be better situated to improve their public rights.

By Precious McKenzie, University of South Florida, Tampa.

Precious McKenzie Stearns, PhD, teaches British Literature and Professional Writing at the University of South Florida and New College of Florida. Her research interests include colonialism and women's rights. She is the co-editor of Forces of Nature (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009) and the author of eight children's books.

Annie Besant (1847-1933)

Throughout her life, Annie Besant defended a great variety of social, political and spiritual causes. A talented journalist, public lecturer and organizer of various militant societies, she advocated political rights for women, neo-Malthusianism, radicalism, and socialism, before she converted to theosophy and involved herself in Home Rule for India. Though she never fully integrated into the feminist or Suffragette movements, she always explained how the reforms she promoted would advance women’s position in society.

Annie Besant (born Wood) came from a respectable middle-class family, but her father, a former doctor who worked in the City of London, died when she was five. Although her mother was reduced to running a boarding house for boys at Harrow School, Annie received a good education. Her religious upbringing left a lasting imprint on her, despite various changes in her convictions. Her education was imbued with Victorian era moral values such as hard work, duty and respectability. At twenty-one, she married the Reverend Frank Besant. As she explains in An Autobiography, she was ‘innocent on all questions of sex’ and unprepared for ‘married existence’ (Besant, An Autobiography 54). She soon gave birth to Digby and Mabel. In 1873, however, due to her crisis of faith and the continuous disputes with her husband, she left the household and settled in London with her daughter.

There, she faced financial hardships and prejudices against her status and convictions. She started writing pamphlets to denounce the abuses and illusions of established religion. Her first public lecture in August 1874 was entitled The Political Status of Women. She advocated ‘the extension of the franchise to women’ (Besant, Political Status 14). That year she also met the radical leader and avowed atheist Charles Bradlaugh. In spite of the prevailing cultural prejudices against atheism, she became his close associate and friend. He offered her the opportunity to contribute to The National Reformer, a weekly paper that she soon edited with him. In the course of their interactions, she became an atheist and a radical herself and continued to defend women’s causes. For example, in 1883 she wrote God’s View on Marriage: as Revealed in the Old Testament (Besant, Marriage 16). Her atheism represented a tool to denounce women’s oppression, but it also antagonized Christian feminists.

In 1877, she decided to plead publicly for birth control. Believing that repeated pregnancies were harmful to women and that large families created one cause of poverty, she wanted to encourage education on these issues. These neo-Malthusian convictions led Besant and Bradlaugh to reprint Charles Knowlton’s banned pamphlet, The Fruits of Philosophy. In consequence, they faced a much-publicized trial. The jury declared that the book was intended to deprave its readers, even though Besant and Bradlaugh’s intentions were not considered malevolent. They received a six-month prison sentence; the verdict was overturned on a technicality, however, so that they did not have to serve their sentence. Annie Besant felt encouraged to continue the fight. The same year, she co-founded the Malthusian League with Charles Drysdale and wrote her own pamphlet, The Law of Population (Taylor 121-122). In publicly advocating birth control and in striving to educate men and women on sex matters, Annie Besant knew that her reputation was at stake. Though she strove all her life to be seen as a respectable woman and, in fact, never took a lover after her separation with Frank Besant, her position was widely rejected. She suffered the consequences. First, she lost the custody of her daughter when her husband, Rev. Besant, used the Knowlton case to argue Annie was unfit to bring up the child. She also estranged other feminists, such as Millicent Fawcett, who did not want to be associated with what they considered disreputable ideas. In addition, her opinions prevented her from obtaining the degree in science that she had started to prepare when the University of London opened its doors to women.

In 1883, Annie Besant started her own free-thought magazine, Our Corner. In 1885, she became a member of the Fabian Society. Though her name has almost faded from view, she was at the time the most famous figure of this newly created group. As a socialist, Annie Besant remained interested in women’s issues and argued that socialism, which she described as a society founded on brotherhood, would ameliorate the social and political condition of women. She devoted many articles to women in various socialist papers. In 1888, thanks to The Link, a paper that she had founded with William T. Stead, she publicized the women matchmakers’ strike and contributed to its success. In its aftermath she helped create their union, which represented the first unskilled women union in England. At the end of 1888, she decided to take part in local elections and she was triumphantly elected to the London School Board on a socialist platform.

Though Annie Besant declared herself an atheist, her interest for religious studies and spirituality never disappeared. In 1889, she adopted theosophy. Her rejection of materialism has to be understood in the context of the revival of spiritualist studies. With this new creed, she wanted to devote herself to the creation of a universal brotherhood, which would include people from all races, colours and sexes. As a theosophist, she rejected her neo-Malthusian convictions because she explained that they were incompatible with the idea of reincarnation. In 1893, Annie Besant moved to India, where she focused on the spiritual revival of the nation. She believed that Indian traditional spirituality represented the only means to save the world from the grip of Western materialism. In addition to insisting on education for both young men and women, she also translated sacred Hindu texts in order to make them available for a larger public.

Though Annie Besant lived in India, she often returned to England, where she was still active in defending the notions of brotherhood and equality of the sexes. In 1902, she founded the first mixed lodge in England - Lodge Human Duty No. 6. She became its master, and some of her feminist and theosophist friends became officers. In 1911, she publicly underlined the link between Co-Masonry and the struggle for the rights of women to vote when she put on her Masonic clothes to lead a group of Co-Masonic women in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession in London (Nethercot 165).

Annie Besant was a famous and controversial spiritual leader, but her theosophy did not mean withdrawal from political and social reform campaigns. In India, she strove to ameliorate women’s position. Annie Besant claimed that divine elements could be found in both men and women and that they both had their part to play in human progress. She nevertheless welcomed gender distinctions, which she considered natural. Though she tried to appear moderate, her demands were daring. She asked Indians to abandon early marriage and early motherhood and advocated education for women in order to make them fit for the franchise. In 1917, she created the Women’s India Association, which promoted these ideas. That same year, she contributed to the adoption by the Indian National Congress of a resolution on women’s vote.

On the eve of the First World War, Annie Besant launched a campaign for Home Rule, arguing that India had to become an equal partner in the Commonwealth. Her political activities led to her internment. However, she became even more popular and in 1917 she was elected President of the Congress for a year. After the war, Annie Besant’s position – fighting with constitutional means and rejecting massive law-breaking – became unpopular as Gandhi took leadership of the nationalist movement with his civil disobedience tactics. She continued the fight in trying to persuade the Labour Government to grant Dominion status to India. She also worked on a Commonwealth and India Bill, which was presented to Parliament in 1925 (Kumar 101-115).

She died in Madras in 1933. In India, Annie Besant is still considered a nationalist heroine, and the thirtieth anniversary of her death was commemorated with a postage stamp.

By Marie Terrier

Marie Terrier is a doctorate student in Paris (Université Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle). She is particularly interested in Annie Besant’s social and political thought and currently carries out research on Besant’s socialism and involvement in the Fabian Society. Terrier’s article ‘Annie Besant et les débuts de la Société fabienne’ appeared in La Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques, and Traits-d’Union published her piece ‘L’Activité socialiste fabienne d’Annie Besant ou les mécanismes de l’oubli individuel et collectif.’

Works Cited

Besant, Annie. The Political Status of Women. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1874.
---. The Law of Population: Its Consequences, and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1877.
---. God’s View on Marriage: as Revealed in the Old Testament. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1883.
Knowlton, Charles. The Fruits of Philosophy. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1877 (1832).
Kumar, Raj, Devi, Ramerwari, Pruthi, Romila. Annie Besant, Founder of the Home Rule Movement. Pointer Publisher, Jaipur, 2003.
Nethercot, Arthur. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. London: Rupert-Hart-Davis, 1963.
Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant. A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Amy Levy (1861-1889)

Writing in her regular column for the Boston Herald in March 1889, Louise Chandler Moulton noted:

I first heard of Amy Levy in the autumn of 1887 . . . Oscar Wilde had assumed editorship of ‘The Woman’s World,’ and was telling me his plans for the new number, which was to be issued in December of ’87. ‘The most wonderful thing in the number,’ he said, ‘will be a story, one page long, by Amy Levy . . . a mere girl, but a girl of genius.’ (Chandler Moulton)

Within months of Chandler Moulton’s report of Wilde’s laudatory comment appearing in the press, Amy Levy had committed suicide by suffocating herself with charcoal fumes in a small room at her parents’ London home in Bloomsbury. Ironically, she chose to die at a time when, as Wilde indicated, her literary star was in the ascendant, as both her poetry and her prose were attracting an increasing level of public and critical recognition.

Born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in 1861, Levy’s parents were ahead of their time in so far as they gave their daughters the same level of education as their sons. Amy, who was their second daughter, took full advantage of this opportunity. Having been one of the first intake of students at the Brighton High School (one of the first schools founded by the Girls Public Day School Trust), she went on to become the first Jewish woman to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. Throughout her childhood she had written stories and verses for her own amusement and to entertain her brothers and sisters, and shortly before leaving Newnham in 1879 her first collection of poetry Xantippe and Other Verse was published by private subscription. The critical acclaim that followed its publication set her on the path to a literary career.

However, despite or because of her achievements, after leaving the university she experienced difficulty in adjusting to home life once more. Chafing against the restraints that her parents tried to impose upon her, she embarked upon a series of lengthy visits to Continental Europe, invariably accompanied by one or other of her female friends. During one of these extended holidays in the summer of 1884, she defied convention by making – to quote her own words – an ‘entirely unchaperoned’ stay at the village inn in the isolated hamlet of Saig in the Black Forest. This was her friend Karl Pearson’s customary summertime retreat.

In the autumn of the following year Levy paid the first of her two visits to Italy, setting up home for the winter in the city of Florence with her friend Clementina Black. Levy fell in love at first sight with the place that had been the home of her poetic mentor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and some believe that whilst staying in Florence she also fell in love with another of its literary residents, the novelist and aesthetician Vernon Lee. Indeed, this supposed aspect of Levy’s personal life has aroused much comment in recent years. Hailed as a pioneer of lesbian writing, she has been described unequivocally as ‘a woman whose desire was homoerotic’ (Hunt Beckman 7), but in fact the issue of her sexuality is far less clear-cut. Throughout her life she suffered from low self-esteem, disliking her appearance and having a tendency to compare her own achievements unfavourably with those of others. This lack of self-confidence led her to look to charismatic individuals for intellectual guidance and moral support; and to judge by the evidence of her correspondence with Vernon Lee, Levy regarded her in just this light - as a role model, rather than a ‘romantic friend’. Like Karl Pearson, in Levy’s eyes Lee possessed the physical attributes and power of intellect that she believed she lacked herself, and as a result, as with Pearson, she invested their friendship with a degree of emotional significance that inevitably doomed it to fall short of her expectations.

When she was not travelling abroad, in the intervals when she was at home in London, Levy attended meetings of a radical debating society known as A Men and Women’s Club (the forerunner of The Men and Women’s Club founded by Pearson, who was at that time professor of mathematics and later professor of eugenics at University College, London), and continued to pursue her studies in the Reading Room of the British Museum. This meant that by the time she reached her mid-twenties, she was not only a seasoned traveller, but had also gained an entrée into the most advanced social and intellectual circle of her day. As well as Karl Pearson and Vernon Lee, her friends and acquaintances now included Eleanor, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx; the South African feminist novelist Olive Schreiner; Clementina Black, pioneer of the Women’s Trade Union movement; Beatrice Potter, the social reformer and later the wife of the founding Fabian, Sidney Webb; the poets Dollie and Ernest Radford, who were close friends of William Morris and members of the Socialist League; the poet Graham R. Tomson (née Rosamund Ball), who had divorced her husband to marry the artist Arthur Graham Tomson; Mona Caird, Katherine Tynan, George Bernard Shaw and, of course, Oscar Wilde.

Since childhood Levy had held strong feminist convictions and accordingly, she was determined to achieve financial independence. To this end, her literary output after leaving Cambridge was prodigious. In addition to producing another two volumes of poetry, A Minor Poet and A London Plane Tree (published posthumously), she wrote three novels, The Romance of a Shop, Reuben Sachs, and Miss Meredith, and contributed numerous articles and short stories to contemporary journals - always keeping a careful record of the fees that she received. But despite her wide circle of friends and her independent lifestyle she was unhappy. Dogged throughout her life by illness and depression, after a cruel rejection by Pearson, who specifically excluded her from membership of his second Men and Women’s Club, she may have found herself unable to reconcile the reality of her life with what Wilde termed ‘the cravings of her heart’. And shortly after hearing the news of Pearson’s engagement from Olive Schreiner (with whom she spent a few days at the seaside in late August 1889), on 10th September, she brought her suffering to an end with her extraordinary self-inflicted death. When she died she was just two months short of her twenty-eighth birthday.

Works Cited:

Beckman, Linda Hunt. Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters. Ohio: University of Ohio Press, 2000
Chandler Moulton, Louise. ‘A Young English Genius: Graceful Prose and Poetry of Amy Levy.’ Boston Herald. 17 March 1889.
Pullen, Christine. The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy. Kingston upon Thames: Kingston University Press, 2010.

Dr. Christine Pullen is an independent scholar and biographer who has contributed to academic publications, presented papers at conferences and given lectures on various aspects of late nineteenth-century social history and women’s writing. She is the author of The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy, which was published by Kingston University Press in November 2010.

A Scholarly Dialogue: In Response to Christine Pullen

By Linda Hunt Beckman

I read with interest Christine Pullen on Amy Levy as featured New Woman in a previous issue of The Latchkey.  I will not review Pullen’s The Woman Who Dared. Instead, as the author of the critical biography Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters (2000), I will respond only to the importance her book gives to Karl Pearson, her “rejection” by his club, his marriage four years later.  I will also make some remarks aimed at providing a more nuanced picture of Levy so that she appears more as she was, far from altogether lacking in self-esteem and not always depressed.

Quoting me, Pullen says that Levy has been described “unequivocally as ‘a woman whose desire was homoerotic.” When I said Levy had homoerotic desire, I provided ample support, but I did not say that she had no desire for men, just that I could find no evidence for it. (One might consider Judith’s desire for Reuben in the novel Reuben Sachs, evoked very powerfully, as backing, but while I use Levy’s literary works for signs that certain themes were on her mind, I do not interpret fiction biographically nor rely on it literally for information about Levy’s life.) Since I worked with Levy’s surviving papers (plus anything else I could find about her), met her sister Kate’s grandchildren, and corresponded with other relatives, I feel fairly confident that I found what remains of the record. I found nothing about heterosexual impulses. While it did occur to me that there might have been a man in her heart at some point, I found no sign of one. This question of evidence is important: Pullen, it seems to me, has none for her contention that Levy was in love with Karl Pearson, that she was deeply hurt by not being invited to join the second Men and Women’s Club, and that she committed suicide four years later when she learned he was engaged to marry Maria Sharpe.

Evidence is important in writing a biography if the genre is to be regarded as scholarly. There is a place for speculation, of course, but even speculation has to be grounded convincingly. There is no evidence that Levy was in love with Pearson, not even evidence that he was an actual friend. Some of Pullen’s reasoning is based on stereotypical assumptions that are disturbing:  About Pearson: “Certainly, within the limited circle of her Jewish acquaintance, Amy would be unlikely to have encountered a man with his awesome array of physical and intellectual attributes” (91).

Pearson belonged to the first discussion club for both sexes that Levy was in, the group called on its record book “A Men and Women’s Club.” Meeting since 1879, this club had Levy attend a meeting for the first time in 1882. Its large, loose and shifting membership had many of her friends and acquaintances, and at meetings a plethora of topics were addressed.

Levy was not invited to join the second group, organized by Pearson, and referred to as The Men and Women’s Club, which met from 1885 to 1889. It was specifically dedicated to talking about sexuality and relations between the sexes. Judith Walkowitz, in City of Dreadful Delight (1992), says that “power relations” between the sexes “were much less symmetrical than club rule demanded” and that Pearson and other male members “dominated and intimidated” the female members. This second club broke up because the men were disappointed in the intellectual level of the women and claimed that they were not capable of the level of scientific analysis that the men wanted.  While the second club was committed to having equal number of male and female members (twenty of each), none of the women invited to join it had been to university, while all the men had. Pullen cites Pearson as saying to Maria Sharpe that the only reason that he did not invite “Miss Levy” was her hearing loss, but there were many reasons why she does not seem a likely member.

Amy Levy had gone to Cambridge, as had a few of the female members of the first club. This alone made it less likely she would have been invited to join the second, but if she had, she would not have been content with the ethos of masculine superiority and the level of domination the female members experienced in the group Pearson organized. How she actually felt about not being invited we do not know. It seems likely to me that she would not have wanted to join, and may not have had a keen interest in the topic. The only people transferring from the first club to the second were four men. Olive Schreiner was the only friend of Levy’s who was in it. Levy belonged to several literary groups with writers of both sexes, and attended the first meeting in 1889 of the Literary Ladies Dining Club, a “New Woman” group, when she was given a prize for fiction. In “A Club of Their Own” (VLC 55), Linda Hughes cites someone who describes her in a good mood at that meeting: “Miss Amy Levy . . . has a charming animated face, and responded briefly to the toast of Fiction, giving a gentle dig at Mr. Andrew Lang, whom evidently she does not admire.”

If she had ever had feelings for Pearson, they certainly would have been in the past by 1889. In the late summer and fall of that year she became clinically depressed and ultimately committed suicide.  But in 1888, the previous year, closer to 1885 when she mentions Pearson, she was in very good spirits. Levy, like most sufferers from hard-wired Major Depressive Disorder (an illness that crops up in her family), was far from always unhappy. There is no evidence that she was bipolar, though Pullen states it as a fact, and Levy’s letters and her other writings show that she had periods of happiness and of just plain feeling good. (The illness is described in the medical literature as “episodic.”) She did have a tendency to dark humor and at times a melancholy disposition, and she could be quiet and shy. But if she had not had high-spirited times, we would not have her amusing letters nor her very funny published and unpublished essays and fiction, nor would she have had so many friends and acquaintances. Almost everyone in London’s literary and social activist/feminist world of her time knew her, and in 1889 the good friends she saw most often included Jenny de Pass, a Jewish woman; Clementina Black, a trade unionist (long her “best chum”); Euphemia (Effie) Stevens, a married pal from high school; and Bertha Thomas, a fiction writer (and member of Vernon Lee’s crowd).

Levy’s very productivity depended on at least feeling good enough, and in 1888, as I say in my book, she was feeling great, as evidenced by her working on and completing her two important novels Reuben Sachs and Romance of a Shop, probably the poem “Ballad of Religion and Marriage,” which though dark in its prediction of the future is witty and audacious. This is also true in other poems that appeared in Plane-Tree, the ones written in a non-symbolist style that she seems to have used in her later, more lyrical work when she was not trying to express ineffable feelings and looking inward in an unhealthy way. She also had that year a possible romantic relationship or near-relationship with Dorothy Blomfield, a poet and fiction writer, that she confirmed had ended once she returned from Italy to London in early 1889. By the end of her life, she felt bad about her hearing loss (serious), her overall health, possibly her lack of a romantic partner, felt torn trying to have a foot in both the Anglo-Jewish social world and the wider world of London intellectuals (which was somewhat anti-Semitic), and perhaps most of all was upset about the misreading by both gentiles and Jews of her important novel Reuben Sachs. 

Depression is not rational, and it would seem her sadness over actual events and situations was only the trigger for a state of mind that often drives people with her vulnerability to depressive illness to suicide if things go wrong.  In the end, as I say in my biography, we can never really know what prompted her unfortunate act. In any case, only the sentimental or very young and foolish commit suicide merely because someone who rejected them several years in the past-- and did not invite them to join a club--got married.  Levy was none of these. 

As for what Pullen says about Karl Pearson and the period when Levy ran into him near Saig in the Black Forest on a trip to Germany in 1885, I would argue that any possible romantic feelings for him are ruled out by a careful reading of the letters I published about that part of her trip. Pullen refers to letters 21, 22 and 23 in my book, the first to sister Katie, the second to Dollie Radford, the third almost certainly to Katie. Pullen also relies on a slight piece of fiction, “In the Black Forest,” part of a series she published about the adventures of two young women, Melissa and Psyche from Princess Ida’s College, that is loosely based on her travels. These are very light (with the exception of the one she writes about Cornwall), and I do not agree that, as Pullen says, this piece “has the ring of authenticity.”

The epistolary voice that Levy uses in the three letters referred to is amused and ironic. Levy says about Pearson that “his villagers . . . regard him as a sort of king,” and “he hawked us all around the place” (note that choice of verb), and says that she and her friend “were introduced to his peasants” . . . He is sort of a little god among them—wh. END OF SENTENCE MISSING? He rather enjoys, I fancy.” I feel that these remarks are made to ridicule Pearson, and their diction and tone are the reason that I say in my head note to the letters that she “obviously regards him as a self-important egotist.” Pullen, it seems to me, either does not have a good ear for verbal irony or has not read these letters closely. 

She makes a big deal about Levy violating convention by spending the night in a village where Pearson often stayed, and Levy’s remarks about Pearson suggest to Pullen “amused and admiring affection.” She contrasts them to his mocking remarks about his friend Harry Bond, whom she and her friend call “The Head Nurse.”  Both of them are treated mockingly, in my view, but there are more jeers at Pearson, and they all refer to his high opinion of himself, and how he revels in the admiration of the villagers. Levy does not seem to lack self-esteem in the bold way she satirizes Pearson. I see no evidence that he, as Pullen says in her book, “attempted to lure Amy” to Saig, nor is he mentioned as being there even if he did often stay in that village. Pullen does a lot of groundless speculating about this and other incidents. That the letter from Saig has a drawing of the guesthouse he stayed in means nothing since she was staying there, and it was probably the only place to stay in that little hamlet (her letters are often illustrated).

The letter from Saig does not say a word about him, nor does Levy seem disturbed by being in violation of social rules. Indeed the tone of the first line is daring, humorous, even liberated: “Behold me in my village retreat.  I am in a state of naked impropriety—absolutely unchaperoned.”  She goes on to describe what she takes to be a sexually predatory priest who knocked on her door, and says that her companion Blanche Smith will be joining her. (That Levy goes to the place Pullen associates with Pearson is what Pullen finds so shocking, but Levy did not remain alone there.) Amy Levy in 1885 at twenty-four was not heavily burdened by conventional attitudes, and her reference to the women at the inn in Saig thinking her “no better than she should be” is jocular. Perhaps the disapproval of Germans did not “count.” She tells Katie, “Yr. hair wd. have stood on end to have seen me last night, after dinner sitting at the table with no less than three German mashers engaged in animated converse.” My argument against Levy’s supposed love for Pearson remains that Pullen offers no evidence for her assertions, and her references to him are undermined by a close reading of the writings to which she refers.