TURNING VICTORIAN LADIES INTO WOMEN : THE LIFE OF BESSIE RAYNER PARKES, 1829 - 1925 by Emma Lowndes, Reviewed by Cheri L. Larsen Hoeckley
 

TURNING VICTORIAN LADIES INTO WOMEN : THE LIFE OF BESSIE RAYNER PARKES, 1829 - 1925
By Emma Lowndes
(Academica Press, 2012) xv + 288 pp.
Reviewed by Cheri L. Larsen Hoeckley on 2012-07-20.

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"Nothing [is] truer than a letter. . . for letters reveal the inner self of the correspondent" (qtd. 5). Or so Marie Belloc Lowndes told her grand-daughter Emma Lowndes, speaking particularly of the copious records left by Bessie Rayner Parkes Belloc, their mother and great-grandmother respectively, and a central figure in early British women's rights. As Lowndes frames her memoir, she seems on the one hand to take her grandmother's claim to heart. Yet she occasionally also recognizes the complexity of her subject's life--a complexity that challenges the truth value of any single document. How does a century's collection of letters represent "truth" about a woman who was-- over the course of her life-- a dutiful upper-class Victorian daughter, a Unitarian, a committed women's rights activist, an intensely passionate female companion, a writer of literary aspirations, a devoted wife, a Catholic convert, a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War, an adoring mother to two daughters and also (perhaps especially) to her son Hilaire Belloc, the anti-semitic statesman and novelist? Even without Parkes' multi-faceted history, what is the truth of an inner life lived by someone with a sense of her own potential celebrity? Prompted equally by her commitment to truth and her desire to tell an engaging story of her great-grandmother, Lowndes has produced just the kind of female family biography that reached the height of its success in Parkes' era. Along the way, Lowndes has also produced a compelling case study in the possibilities and challenges of using the material traces of a Victorian life to represent an "inner self."

Lowndes has indefatigably researched her subject. Besides consulting several key studies of Victorian women's history, she has drawn on unpublished family documents and anecdotes, on the well-known wealth of Parkes' personal papers in the Girton College archive, and on a variety of documents scattered through other archives. One of her most frequently cited sources is a typescript prepared by Marie Belloc Lowndes for a biography she never completed. With the aid of this material, Lowndes tracks in detail Parkes' ninety-six years, from the height of the Victorian reform era to the aftermath of the First World War. Lowndes richly documents Parkes' early schooling, her life with traditional Victorian parents, and her growing commitment to women's rights---most emphatically the right to work, a commitment solidified by her life-long friendship with Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. Mining the Girton archives, Lowndes retrieves the daily lives of the women who worked at the Langham Place offices, especially in establishing The English Woman's Journal, which Parkes edited, but also in other projects for promoting women's right to work, property, and education. Lowndes also extensively tracks "Bessie's" travels, both with her family and--unchaperoned--with female friends across the Continent and into Algiers, where Barbara settled for several months every year after her marriage to Eugene Bodichon. Parkes' conversion to Catholicism helps to explain her attraction to religious women's working communities and to the circle of London Catholics she came to know and befriend. Moving well outside Langham Place, in fact, Parkes' broad circle of literary and political friends included George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Brougham, Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Cardinal Henry Manning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Herbert Spencer.

Though the title of her book retains her great-grandmother's better-known given name, Lowndes' narrative of Parkes' life moves well beyond her marriage to Louis Belloc in 1867, where most work on Parkes concludes. In her forward, Bonnie Anderson explains that scholars have shown little interest in reconciling Parkes' feminist activities with the less activist phase that coincides with her later Catholicism. After her 1864 conversion and her marriage three years later, she never returned with zeal to the political causes she spearheaded at Langham Place: causes that seem to have exhausted her emotionally and physically. But she lived for six more decades, and in the final third of this memoir, Lowndes tells us what filled them: her continued international friendships, the death of her husband and of Bodichon, the publication of five books (mostly biography and memoir), her return to England after her sojourn in France, her continued concern over the well being of her three children and grandchildren as her family fortune ebbed, her support of her son's literary career, and her variety of local philanthropic activities with Catholic and women's charities.

In aiming "to share the itinerary of a woman who was committed to the never-ending task of improving the world at large by improving women's lot, and to literature, religion, travel and her family and friends" (6), Lowndes places this book in the tradition of nineteenth-century women's memoirs written to commemorate a loved one: memoirs such as Mary Howitt's autobiography edited by her daughter Margaret, Gerardine MacPherson's memoir of her aunt Anna Jameson, or In a Walled Garden (1895), one of Parkes' own collections of biographical sketches. Lowndes marks her familial connection and intention not only with a genealogical table in the introduction--tracing her lineage to Bessie's parents Joseph Parkes and Elizabeth Rayner Priestly--but also with a dedication "to my grandchildren," a generation absent from the genealogical table. In quoting extensively from her sources, Lowndes makes this book--like its predecessors--especially helpful for researchers who cannot reach the archives or who are preparing for an archival visit.

The evidentiary value of these quotations, however, raises scholarly questions that Lowndes does not always fully recognize. Take for instance her account of the possibly "apocryphal" report that Parkes travelled to Haworth with Elizabeth Gaskell when Gaskell was gathering material for her Life of Charlotte Bronte:

One literary excursion that Bessie was to recall, according to her daughter, was the occasion, in July 1855, when Mrs. (Elizabeth) Gaskell asked her to go on a visit to Charlotte Brontë's home town of Haworth, a few months after the writer's death. Gaskell had decided to undertake writing Charlotte's biography. Gaskell was fond of Bessie and had been told about Marian Evans' decision to live with George Lewes by Bessie herself. Marie recalled being told by her mother that during the visit Brontë's sorrowful father was far more helpful to them than was Charlotte's husband. Although the father made it understood that he did not approve of the idea of a biography, he gave Gaskell all the papers that remained on Charlotte's desk. Bessie and Gaskell also took care to go round the village and speak to everyone who had known her. Curiously, no reference is found in Gaskell's correspondence mentioning Bessie's part in the visit, so it is possible that the story is apocryphal (76).

Lowndes' only source for this story is Parkes' recollection to "her daughter," Marie Belloc. Straying from her usual habits of careful citation, Lowndes offers no direct documentation from Marie's typescript, but she admits that she finds no trace of the story in either Gaskell's Life or her Letters (ed. J. A. V. Chappell and Arthur Pollard [1966]). Nevertheless, Gaskell and Parkes had a mutual friend in Eliza Fox, who--in 1855--co-led with Parkes the Married Women's Property Committee while Gaskell composed her Life. We have reason, then, to consider the possibility that Parkes silently accompanied Gaskell on her bleak literary pilgrimage. As told by Lowndes, Parkes' life consists of a variety of these potential political and literary exchanges, presented for others to confirm or deny.

Firmer evidence undergirds Lowndes' account of Parkes' friendship with George Eliot. Though no other source confirms the claim that Parkes was Gaskell's informant on Evans' cohabitating with Lewes, Lowndes often cites--from Gordon Haight's exhaustive edition of Eliot's letters --her extensive correspondence with Parkes. They met in Coventry in 1850 after Bessie's father Joseph Parkes had funded Evans' translation of David Friedrich Strauss' The Life of Jesus. Ranging over several decades and across geographic and political distances, their letters reveal both literary and professional agreements and disagreements. With Eliot's letters, Lowndes takes full advantage of her stated hope that nineteenth-century voices will speak above hers (6). But what does Eliot's voice tell us? Though she often sounds affectionate in writing to Parkes, her letters to Barbara Bodichon also criticize the decisions and actions of their mutual friend. Listening for the novelist's voice, as Lowndes hopes her readers will, one begins to wonder if Parkes was as important to the life of Eliot as Eliot was to the life of Parkes.

While the records of Parkes' friendships limit access to her inner life, her conversion to Catholicism challenges Lowndes with a different kind of problem. In a single chapter on her conversion (which she occasionally mentions thereafter), she notes that Parkes' friends, namely Bodichon and Eliot, objected to it. By her own account in the Girton archives, which--says Lowndes--reveals "a great deal about how Bessie saw herself," Bessie turned to "the Christian fold" because she was "haunted by the misery of the world" (qtd. 147). This response does not explain why Parkes would choose the more socially difficult Catholic church over High Anglicanism. But Lowndes gives two strong reasons for her choice: the efficacy of Catholic women's religious orders in social justice work and the influence of her beloved friend Adelaide Procter, who died early in 1864, the year Parkes entered the Catholic church. Beyond Parkes' own words, readers looking for insight into her spiritual motivations might find it in Lowndes' later description of Parkes' collective biography, Historic Nuns (1898), in passing references to her consultations with Cardinal Manning in her grief over Louis' death (200), or in her choice of Reverend Daniel Gilbert to baptize her because his natal Catholicism placed him outside the zeal of converts and because of their shared interest in his work among London's homeless and impoverished women (142).

While Lowndes draws generously from her sources, she can do nothing about the significant gaps that history has made in Parkes' personal documents. More than once Lowndes mentions the cache of letters and papers that were lost when the Prussian army occupied La Celle-Saint-Cloud, the Belloc family home outside Paris, where Parkes lived on with her mother-in-law even after her husband's death. Likewise, Lowndes astutely mentions the loss of the hundreds of letters from women seeking work or support: letters that reached the Langham Place offices for Parkes to answer personally but that her daughter Marie seems to have destroyed for lack of interest in women's right to work (135-36). Deeper mystery surrounds a lost set of personal letters from Jeanette Garr Washburn Kelsey (1850-1930), whose friendship Parkes cultivated in her widowhood after she had returned to England. Wife of a Philadelphia industrialist and also a novelist (of Clouded Amber in 1915 under the pseudonym Patience Warren), Kelsey followed Parkes in converting to Catholicism. According to Lowndes, Kelsey may have slaked Parkes' "thirst for affection and empathy in 1895." Needing someone "to replace Barbara and her mother-in-law. . . . Parkes made a new friend . . . to whom she became very close, though they lived on different continents and saw each other rarely" (224). Since Parkes kept her letters from Jeanette "in a stout wooden box with a lock and key," Lowndes infers that Marie must have destroyed them "after her mother's death" (227), but she offers no reason for the destruction. Parkes' letters to Jeanette, however, are preserved in the Kelsey Family Papers at Boston College .

Lowndes is just as captivated by Parkes' intense friendships with women as by her relations with men, her politics, or her Catholicism. On one hand, while all her friends seemed surprised at her decision to marry the frail Catholic Frenchman Louis Belloc, her extended grief at his sudden death emerges as one of the most palpable emotional landmarks of Lowndes' work. Furthermore, Lowndes dwells at length on an earlier "on-again off-again, and painful courtship with Samuel Blackwell" that lasted seventeen years and that may have constituted her younger self's attempt at a life somewhat more conventional than the one she was then living (151). On the other hand, with what Lowndes calls a "dual sexuality" (152), she could also have been sexually attracted to or involved with her female friends. Though Sharon Marcus's Between Women (2007) has taught us a great deal about nineteenth-century female sexuality, the sheer number and range of what we would call queer relationships acknowledged in this book--Parkes' relations with Bodichon, Procter, Kelsey, and Kate Jeavons---reminds us of the work yet to be done on women's friendship and erotic attachment in the Victorian period.

As she charts these various territories of an internal landscape, of course, Lowndes takes on a tremendous challenge that she does not fully meet. Early on, she declares that Parkes' life was shaped by gender, class, and religion (3), yet she never interweaves those strands, nor does she consider their relation to Parkes' sexuality or nationalism. In the end, this book provokes many questions. What, for instance, is the intellectual value of an individual life without celebrity? If there were a notion as complex as an inner life, why would it lend itself to the constraints of narrativity, rather than completely resisting them? Nevertheless, Lowndes has accomplished her stated purpose of commemorating the many facets of her great-grandmother's life. Along the way, she has also ploughed fertile ground for continued study of Victorian women's literary and political history.

Cheri L. Larsen Hoeckley is Professor of English and Coordinator of Gender Studies at Westmont College.


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