One of the Cracked

Dinah Birch

  • Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel by Pam Hirsch
    Chatto, 390 pp, £20.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6797 1

Like many forceful Victorian women, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon had a strong father and an obscure mother. Benjamin Smith, known in the family as ‘the Pater’, came from a formidable line of radical activists who had campaigned vigorously against the slave trade, and fostered projects for educational and political reform. Capable and self-assured, he combined progressive liberalism with a sharp eye for business. His interest in social betterment evidently did not extend to an involvement with the temperance movement, and he saw no difficulty in making his fortune out of distilling spirits. Nor did he see any difficulty in arranging his private life according to his own convenience. Visiting his married sister Fanny Nightingale (mother of Florence, who inherited a full share of the Smith resolve), he met a young milliner, Anne Longden. She was the daughter of a local miller, far beneath him in fortune and rank. He made her his mistress, and Barbara Leigh Smith was the first of the five children she bore him. He did not marry Anne. The more fastidious Smiths including Florence Nightingale’s well-to-do parents, were never reconciled to this ‘tabooed family’, and refused to acknowledge them. Anne, like most of her numerous counterparts in fiction, did not live long, dying of tuberculosis when Barbara was seven. Ben called her ‘the least selfish being I ever saw’, a description which certainly could not have been applied to him. He soon found himself another mistress, still further down the social scale (the daughter of an agricultural labourer), with whom he had a second covert family, never acknowledged.

The death of her mother made Barbara’s career possible. Only then could the children be brought into the light of day. They were healthy, active and intelligent, and Ben was proud of them. He was especially proud of red-haired Barbara, the strongest-willed and the most beautiful of his three daughters. All five children were brought up with an unusual freedom: the girls’ illegitimacy meant that they could never be quite respectable, but it also meant that they could escape some of the confinements of propriety. Barbara, the only one old enough to remember their lost mother with any clarity, came to know that their liberty was uneasily related to injustice and suffering. As ever, Elizabeth Gaskell was quick to see the point: ‘She is – I think in consequence of her birth, a strong fighter against the established opinions of the world, – which always goes against my – what shall I call it? – taste (that is not the word), but I can’t help admiring her noble bravery, and respecting – while I don’t personally like her.’ Gaskell had too much to lose to share the younger woman’s defiance. But Barbara Leigh Smith had never possessed what Gaskell feared to sacrifice. ‘I am one of the cracked people of the world, and I like to herd with the cracked such as ... queer Americans, democrats, socialists, artists, poor devils or angels; and am never happy in an English genteel family life.’

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