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.’

Her work for the cause of women can be read as a long act of reparation to her slighted mother. Her feminist commitment was sustained for decades, and it took many forms. She worked for legal reform, particularly for the recognition of autonomy for married women. She founded the campaigning English Woman’s Journal. She helped establish the Kensington Society, which pioneered women’s demands for suffrage. She supported efforts to win the right for women to enter professional life. She inspired the Langham Place group, which lay behind much public agitation for the advancement of women. She organised schemes for educational reform, and was the major benefactor of Girton College. ‘Education seems to me the only remedy,’ she once remarked. She was also a prolific and rather successful painter, and founded the Society of Female Artists. There was hardly a scheme for the furtherance of women’s interests that did not bear the imprint of her driving aspirations. The only exception lay in projects sponsored by any branch of Christianity, for though she was not an atheist she had her own reasons for keeping her distance from organised religion. ‘Ah! If you were only like Miss Barbara Smith!’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to his pious and retiring sister Christina. She must have shuddered at the thought.

Ironically, however, Barbara owed her extraordinary confidence and energy to her father. Bessie Parkes, her lifelong friend, recalled with astonishment seeing the Pater kneel down to put Barbara’s boots on. Though her own father, Joseph Parkes, held advanced opinions, a scene of that kind would be inconceivable in her family. Ben showed his daughter that it was perfectly possible to thrive without conforming, and that a woman could claim her own space in the scheme of things. Just as important, he gave her an income and an education. She was influenced by the Swedenborgian beliefs of her first teacher, James Buchanan, a family protégé endowed with unusual meekness:

We were all five of us very tyrannical towards him but he never resisted our tyranny never! ... I remember often, we made him read to us at meal times, & would not let him eat anything. Our nurse would say ‘Oh Mr B do come to dinner’ ‘No Nursie, I will read to the dear children and explain as long as they will listen’ & never did I see him out of patience in my life. We used to make him carry us upstairs.

No wonder Barbara could not content herself with traditional middle-class relations between the dominant male and submissive female.

Other women found her an inspiration. One of the most instructive features of this enthusiastic account of her life is the recognition of its basis in female friendship. Barbara was drawn to women who shared her bold ideals; they were impressed and cheered by her charismatic vitality. A pioneer in what we might think of as networking, her circle of friends and colleagues included a strikingly high proportion of those who were chipping away at contemporary assumptions of what a woman could be: Marian Evans, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Blackwell, Gertrude Jekyll, Mary Howitt, Sara Hennell, Octavia Hill, Elizabeth Garrett, Millicent Garrett, Bessie Parkes, Anna Mary Howitt, Adelaide Procter, Max Hays, Emily Faithfull, Lizzie Siddal, Helen Taylor, Anna Jameson, Jessie White. Many of these women looked on Barbara as an indomitable model. She was not the most intellectually gifted of their number – though she was far from stupid – but few could rival her generosity of spirit. Loyal and forgiving, she was prepared to let others take centre-stage when they seemed useful, and to sweep aside the petty rivalries and quarrels thrown up in any political movement. Anna Mary Howitt painted her as Boadicea, while her mother Mary Howitt described her as ‘a modern Valkyria’.

A woman who made that kind of impression on people had a problem when it came to finding a husband. A conventional wife’s existence clearly would not do. On the other hand, lifelong celibacy was not tempting. Her mother’s example provided a bleak warning of the hazards of licence. John Chapman, publisher and sexual opportunist, tried very hard to persuade her to give herself (and her money) to him, arguing that she ‘would be able without fear and undue anxiety and without the knowledge of the world to be really united with me and to look forward with joyous anticipation to becoming a Mother’. This must have been a dubious enticement. Chapman, already married, thought that her feminism would make her vulnerable (‘knowing what your feelings are I would not allow you to surrender yourself legally into my hands by means of an English marriage even if there were no legal impediments to our legal union’). The Pater was outraged at the thought of his daughter taking the same path as her mother, and Barbara was not so far lost in love as to forget the cost of such an arrangement. Chapman was denied his prey. But the episode left Barbara dejected. She wrote to the more decorous Bessie: ‘It will be a dreadful waste of my life if I can’t find anyone. You don’t understand the feeling at all nor the desire for children which is a growing passion in me. Where are the men who are good? I do not see them.’

A family trip to Algeria provided an answer. Barbara immediately took to the warmth and glamour of Algiers, which was full of exiles and adventurers. There she met Eugène Bodichon, bohemian and idealist, a philosopher doctor who had chosen North Africa as a retreat from the repressions of mid-century France. He was tall, aloof and uncompromising, with poor English and no social graces. To the dismay of her friends and family, Barbara quickly decided to marry him. She could afford to ignore their protests, as her father had made her financially independent. At the age of 30, she knew her own mind, and had little to gain from a long engagement. She and Eugène were married in London. The union was odd, but not unhappy. Eugène made it clear that he would not settle in England, and after her marriage Barbara spent her winters in Algeria. In many ways this suited her: her painting prospered among the Algerian hills, and her annual retreat to North Africa provided a change from the hothouse politics of London. Eugène was perfectly prepared to let his wife pursue her own interests, while he lived much as he had as a middle-aged bachelor. Friends and family continued to disapprove. ‘Dr B. never appears till 11 a.m., when he takes breakfast arrayed in a long garment of white flannel, just like a lady’s waterproof sack, with its hood. All day long he wanders about in the wood hatless, umbrella tucked under his arm, & wearing his flannel garment.’ Towards the end of his life these peculiarities passed into madness and Barbara’s sister wrote waspishly that his doctor ‘of course thinks as I do – that Dr Bodichon never has been sane! ... It almost makes me a convert to “mariages de convenance” – for no Frenchwoman wd have been allowed to marry the Doctor! He had neither money nor sense!’ Barbara, characteristically, was constant to the end. The yearly trips to Algiers became increasingly irksome as she grew older, and the longed-for children never arrived, but she would not abandon ‘my Doctor’. His death was a lasting grief to her.

A series of strokes, the first occurring when she was just 50, relentlessly robbed Bodichon of her powers, and she gradually withdrew from public activity in the years leading to her death in 1891. Pam Hirsch wonders whether this was a reason for the continuing underestimation of her impact on 19th-century feminism. Had she died at the height of her reputation, she might have been more warmly judged. Perhaps the diverse nature of her activities has also worked against her. Fame is inclined to follow the single-minded (George Eliot the novelist, Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet, Florence Nightingale the nurse, Elizabeth Garrett the doctor). Barbara Bodichon’s talents – her ability to shape ideas in their earliest stages and to give others the confidence, and often the money, to bring them to completion – have proved easier to overlook. She was a facilitator on a grand scale. Girton College, which might be seen as her most lasting monument, would not have been built without her commitment to higher education for women, or without the financial support that was crucial in its fragile early days. Hirsch’s account of Girton’s precarious development is one of the most absorbing episodes in the book. Emily Davies, Bodichon’s great ally in its foundation, was ruthless in her insistence on academic achievement. This mattered less to Barbara, who could not be dissuaded from interesting herself in the health and happiness of the students – and in planting gardens. She sponsored a poor Jewish girl, Hertha Marks, who wrote in despair when her exam results were disappointing: ‘So I have turned out a failure.’ ‘My dear, you are not a failure!’ Bodichon wrote by return. ‘Your life will not be a failure ... Tell me if you are well and sleep well ... Always your B.’ She continued to pay for the girl’s studies and Hertha Marks went on to become one of the most distinguished physicists of her generation; her daughter Barbara Gould entered Parliament as a Labour MP in 1945.

Engagingly partisan, Pam Hirsch never misses an opportunity to promote and praise her subject’s achievements, or to draw attention to the meaner spirits of those, like Florence Nightingale or Emily Davies, who have drawn more applause. Any independent 20th-century woman has reason to remember what Barbara Bodichon did for those who would come after her. When her early campaign for women’s suffrage ended in defeat, she is said to have remarked to Emily Davies: ‘You will go up and vote upon crutches and I shall come up out of my grave and vote in my windingsheet.’ She never doubted that political change should come, or that it would come. But she could never quite convince herself that it was the only thing that mattered. On discovering that her servant Esther had sent her baby boy to a foundling hospital, she devoted as much energy to his rescue as she had to the care of the students at Girton. Ignoring as always a good deal of judicious advice, she made herself the boy’s legal guardian and set up a trust fund for him. No feminist heroine was more stalwart, more humane or more likeable.