Unfinished Business: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future. 

Portrait by Richard Stone, 1986

Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.

Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”

George VI in the uniform of a field marshal

As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.

Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.

In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.

Portrait by Philip de László, 1925

Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.

In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.

Elizabeth in Queensland, 1927

After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).

On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.

Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.

Portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly.

Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.

Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74). 

Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.

Southern Rhodesian stamp celebrating the 1947 royal tour of Southern Africa

After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.

In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.

As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).

Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis CBE

Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.

After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.

Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.

Elizabeth at Dover Castle

The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.

On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.

In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.

The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.

Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.

On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.

Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”

Sir Hugh Casson

When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.

Bronze statue of Elizabeth on The Mall, London, overlooked by the statue of her husband King George VI

Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).

In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.

Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.

Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.

As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.

The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft
Sylvia Pankhurst


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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Grace Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy

Grace Darling became a national hero after rescuing the survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Northumberland. Living with her father in a lighthouse, Grace often experienced stormy weather, dangerous seas and damaged sailing vessels. Her life, in comparison to the average Victorian, was far from normal, but it was her daring act of bravery that brought her to the attention of the nation.

The Darling family lived on the Farne Islands, a group of 15 or 20 islands within 5 miles of the mainland. Today, they are uninhabited except for the National Trust rangers who look after the remaining buildings. Grace’s grandfather, Robert Darling (d.1815), moved to Brownsman Island, one of the largest islands in the group, in 1795 to look after the lighthouse. Robert prepared his youngest child and only son, William (1786-1865), to take over the job when the time came.

During his teens, William worked as the assistant lighthouse keeper. He also worked as a labourer in Bamburgh on the mainland where he met his future wife, Thomasin Horsley (1774-1848) whose father, Job Horsley, worked in the gardens of the Bamburgh Castle Estate. Aged 31, Thomasin was an unlikely match for 19-year-old William, but she agreed to his marriage proposal and move to Brownsman Island.

The Darling family cottage on Brownsman Island

In 1806, Thomasin gave birth to her first child, William (1806-69), nicknamed “Laddie” to differentiate him from his father. Soon, five more children came along: twins, Thomasin (1808-86) and Mary Ann (1808-43); Job (1810-30); Elizabeth Grace (1812-44); and Robert (1814-77). On 24th November 1815, Thomasin gave birth to her fourth daughter, naming her Grace after her twin sister, who died at birth. Shortly after, Robert Darling passed away, making his son the new lighthouse keeper. The large family made the lighthouse their home and soon welcomed two more sons, twins George Alexander (1819-1903) and William Brooks (1819-70).

The children paid regular trips to the mainland to visit their maternal grandfather. They enjoyed exploring the gardens he looked after, helping him sow seeds and pick fruit. Although their father grew vegetables on the island, fruit did not regularly appear in their diet. Surrounded by water, the Darling family usually ate fish and the eggs of local wildfowl. Eider ducks and puffins were among the creatures that inhabited the islands.

Victorian children typically played in the streets or countryside, but not the Darling children; the water was their world. They learned to row from a young age, frequently accompanying their father on fishing trips. Fearless of the waves, the siblings often ventured out on their own, visiting the other rocky islands, searching for eggs and shells while investigating caves and climbing rocks.

For running the lighthouse, built as early as 1795, the keepers earned £70 per year (the equivalent of £6,300 today). Whilst the job did not pay particularly well, the family made do with the simple accommodation that came with the role. Whilst the responsibility for working the lighthouse fell to their father, the Darling children frequently helped out when needed, for example, when a ship failed to miss the warning about nearby rocks. The boys accompanied their father in the lifeboat to rescue sailors and salvage goods, whilst the girls helped their mother prepare food and warmth for the sodden men, plus keeping the lantern burning.

Although many ships crashed into the rocky islands, the lighthouse provided safe passage to the majority of sailors. Statistically, the most shipwrecks occurred around the easterly rocks, and William Darling noted the lantern failed to reach that area. He attempted to make some beacons to place on these rocks, but they frequently fell into the sea during storms. Soon Darling approached Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses, and warned them of the danger. Architects drew up proposals for a new lighthouse, and construction began on Longstone Rock in 1825.

Longstone Lighthouse

The Darling family moved into the new lighthouse, then known as the Outer Farne Lighthouse, in 1826. A second lighthouse was soon built on one of the inner islands and managed by another keeper. Longstone Lighthouse reached a height of 83 feet and contained five floors, three of which the large family used for bedrooms. Grace, then aged ten, shared the third floor with her sister Elizabeth. The family used the ground floor of the lighthouse as their living room, kitchen and dining room.

Whilst the lighthouse on Longstone provided a more visible warning to sailors of hidden rocks, the surrounding land was desolate and unsuited for growing crops. William Darling sought permission from Trinity House to continue using the land on Brownsman Island as an allotment and place to keep animals. He and the children regularly rowed back and forth between the islands, collecting vegetables and bird eggs for their meals.

Some of the older Darling children decided to move to the mainland, rather than live on a barren rock. William Jr found an apprenticeship in Alnwick. Here, he met his future wife Ann Cobb, who he married in 1837. William did not forget his former life and regularly returned home on visits. In 1839, the Duke of Northumberland appointed William as the first lighthouse keeper on Coquet Island, one mile from the coast of Amble. He lived there for the rest of his life with his wife and six children.

Job Darling followed in his older brother’s footsteps and found an apprenticeship in Newcastle. He began training as a joiner at the age of 15 and wrote to his father about the enjoyable experience. He planned to return home in 1830 to celebrate Christmas and his 20th birthday but succumbed to an illness a few weeks before.

Thomasin Darling

Thomasin Darling, Grace’s favourite sister, believed she would never attract a husband on account of her cleft lip. She moved to the mainland to set up a dressmaker’s business in Bamburgh. She kept in touch with her family, regularly writing to Grace. She later wrote the book Grace Darling, Her True Story. Thomasin’s twin sister, Mary Ann, also moved to Bamburgh, marrying George Dixon Carr in 1832. After four children died in infancy, Mary Ann finally conceived a healthy baby. Unfortunately, George died at the age of 32 before the birth of his daughter Georgiann. Mary Ann moved back to the lighthouse following his death but passed away three years later, leaving her orphan child with her grandparents. 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Darling shared a room with her younger sister Grace when they first moved to Longstone. Betsy was 14 at the time and a year or so later moved to North Sunderland to work as a maidservant. She married a draper, John Maule, and had two children: James and Thomasin.

Unlike the other children, Robert Darling attended boarding school at Bamburgh Castle. In 1831, he apprenticed as a stonemason in Belford but moved to Newcastle after marrying Elizabeth Pye (1803-1881). Like his other siblings, Robert often returned to the lighthouse for family celebrations. He had one daughter, Elizabeth Grace.

Grace never went to school but received an education at home from her father. William taught her to read and write and gave her lessons on arithmetic, geography, history and the bible. Whilst the family were religious, they could not all leave the lighthouse to attend church. Instead, William read from the scriptures and wrote sermons. The history of the Farne Islands frequently cropped up in Grace’s lessons. This included the names and lives of saints and monks who once lived on the islands. William taught his children that Christianity first arrived in England on the nearby shores of Northumberland. He also gave them musical instruction and wrote marches and airs for them to perform. The Darling children, but particularly Grace, had fine singing voices.

By the age of 15, only Grace and her younger twin brothers remained at the lighthouse with their parents. As the only girl, Grace spent the majority of her time helping her mother with domestic jobs. She felt unable to leave the island as her older siblings had done because she believed her parents would need her in their old age. She learnt to maintain the lighthouse lantern, mend fishing nets and watch the sea for signs of ships and danger. Grace also helped to look after the garden and livestock on Brownsman Island, often rowing there alone.

William Brooks Darling

In 1834, George Darling left the family home to work as a ship carpenter’s apprentice in Newcastle. Allegedly, George, his twin and his father rowed from the islands to the city. With George away, William relied heavily on Grace and William Brooks to help out around the lighthouse. Having lived on the islands her entire life, the sea was Grace’s world, and she knew the tides like the back of her hand. She could detect changes in the weather and climate by intently studying the surrounding waters and happily spent hours watching the horizon for ships with a telescope.

In the early hours of 7th September 1838, Grace woke during a storm. Peering at the waves from her bedroom window, she saw a dark shape in the distance near one of the rocks. Believing it to be a ship, Grace woke her father, and the pair kept an eye on it through the telescope. There did not appear to be any sign of life.

SS Forfarshire, circa 1835

The ship was the SS Forfarshire, a paddle steamer belonging to the Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company. Built in 1834 by Thomas Adamson, the Forfarshire carried passengers along the North Sea Coast from Hull on the River Humber to Dundee on the River Tay and back again. SS Forfarshire held at least 40 passengers and crew each trip, as well as animals and cargo.

On 5th September 1838, the SS Forfarshire set sail from Hull at 6:30pm and reached the open seas three hours later. During the night, one of the boilers sprang a leak, which the crew hastily repaired. In the morning, the crew discovered further issues with the boilers and the frightened passengers urged the captain to dock in the nearest port. Captain John Humble assured them the ship was safe and continued the journey.

The ship continued to face problems, but the captain encouraged his crew to keep sailing. The Forfarshire could have reached its destination if the weather had not at that moment changed from a gentle breeze to gale-force winds. The added pressure on the ship caused more leakages in the boilers. They could not produce enough steam to travel forward. At 11 pm, the captain, realising his mistake, stopped the engines and the ship began to drift south.

With the wind forcing the ship further south, the captain decided to turn around and search for shelter. Using a makeshift sail, the crew pointed the SS Forfarshire in the direction of the Farne Islands. The wind, rain, darkness and choppy sea made it extremely difficult to navigate. Finally, in the distance, the captain spotted a light. He steered the ship towards what he believed to be the Inner Farne Lighthouse, but he had widely miscalculated. It was Longstone Lighthouse which, unlike the Inner Farne, is surrounded by sharp, dangerous rocks.

The wind shunted the ship into Big Harcar Rock, one mile from the lighthouse, causing the vessel to split in half. The front became wedged into the rock, but the aft and lower deck swept away into the sea. Many passengers were thrown overboard or drowned in their cabins, including the Captain. Those on the deck managed to avoid a watery fate, but the gale threatened to blow them into the sea. The ship’s carpenter, John Tulloch, decided to jump from the deck onto the rocks. Steerage passenger, Daniel Donovan, followed suit and encouraged a few others to jump to safety, including a woman and two children. Soon, all the surviving passengers were on the rock, plus the body of Reverend Robb, who had died while in prayer.

The Rescue of the SS ‘Forfarshire’ – Francis Sebastian Lowther

Back at the lighthouse, Grace and her father sat at the telescope searching for signs of life. For hours, they saw nothing. Around 7 am, Grace finally spotted some movement on one of the rocks. The storm was still raging, and William knew it would be too difficult for the lifeboat in North Sunderland to sail out to sea. Grace pleaded with her father to do something, suggesting they take their rowing boat, which they had with them at the lighthouse. Before he could refuse, Grace was already getting into the boat.

Father and daughter rowed towards the wreckage, taking a long way round to avoid getting crushed against the rocks. In the gale, the mile journey took a long time to complete, but they persevered. On reaching the rock, they found nine survivors, too many to fit into the rowing boat. Positioning themselves as close to the rock as possible, William jumped ashore while Grace fought to keep the boat in place. William spoke to the men and argued about who he should rescue first. Eventually, William helped the only woman, Sarah Dawson, into the boat after forcing her to part with her children, James and Matilda, who had died during the night.

An injured man joined Mrs Dawson in the rowing boat and William enlisted John Tulloch and another crew member, John Nicholson, to help him row back to the lighthouse. The remaining survivors waited on the rock for their return. On reaching the lighthouse, Grace helped Mrs Dawson and the injured man into the lighthouse where she and her mother cared for them. William returned to the rock with the two crewmen to rescue the other survivors. They left the dead bodies behind, planning to collect them when the storm abated.

When William and Grace set out on the first trip to the rock, Thomasin Darling tried to contact the lifeboat station in North Sunderland, fearing that her husband and daughter would perish during the rescue mission. William had been right about the harsh weather making it difficult for the lifeboat to sail, and they did not arrive until 9 am, by which time the rowing boat had brought everyone to safety. With the storm raging on, the lifeboat team sheltered at the lighthouse until safe to leave. Grace’s youngest brother William Brooks was one of the lifeguards that day.

Grace Darling at the Forfarshire by Thomas Musgrave Joy

Since the event, people conducted several attempts to name everyone that perished at sea. The Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company kept no passenger list, so it is uncertain how many people were on board the SS Forfarshire. Reports list at least 43 casualties but some remain unnamed.

As soon as the press found out about the disaster, the list of survivors appeared in the newspapers. For a while, these men and woman were famous throughout the country. The Darling’s rescued five crewmen, all coincidentally named John: John Tulloch, John Kidd, John Nicholas, John MacQueen and Jonathan Thickett. The other four survivors were passengers: Thomas Buchanan, a baker; Daniel Donovan, a fireman, James Kelly, a weaver; and Sarah Dawson, the “wife of a labourer, formerly of Dundee, but then working in Hull”.

Unbeknownst to the Darlings at the time, eight crewmen and one passenger managed to escape the ship on a quarter boat. As soon as they reached the shore, they reported the incident but believed they were the only survivors. Before long, word spread about the men and woman rescued by the Darlings and journalists rushed to the scene to interview them. One man told a reporter that a young woman in a rowing boat saved his life.

“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”

The Times

The news story spread like wildfire with accounts in local and national newspapers, such as The Times. The articles emphasised the storm, the dangerous rocks, and the fate of the ship and its passengers. Many people declared Grace Darling a heroine; not only did she put her life on the line, but she did so for strangers. Although Grace’s father did the majority of the rescue, rowing back to collect the rest of the survivors, the media focused on Grace’s involvement. 

The public believed Grace should be rewarded for her actions and sent her presents and monetary donations. Even the young Queen Victoria (1819-1901) sent £50 to express her thanks. Hundreds of letters addressed to Grace arrived at the lighthouse, each one hoping for a reply. Some asked her to kiss the paper and return to the sender. As well as letters, visitors arrived en masse to get a glimpse of the heroine.

The fate of the SS Forfarshire spread across the continent, eventually reaching people as far as Japan, Australia and America. Now a celebrity, everyone wanted to read about Grace Darling. They yearned to know what she looked like and, unsatisfied with the written descriptions in news articles, commissioned artists to paint her likeness. Although William Darling gave his consent, he soon put a limit on how many times Grace would sit for portraits.

Grace Darling by Henry Perlee Parker

Some artists became friends with the Darling family, for instance, Henry Perlee Parker (1785-1873), who named his daughter Grace after Grace Darling. John Wilson Carmichael (1800-68), a maritime painter who visited the Darlings with Parker, continued to send them presents of books after finishing the painting. The sculptor, David Dunbar (1792-1866) travelled from Newcastle to produce busts of Grace and her father.

Other artists preferred to paint the rescue scene with Grace in the rowing boat and the waves rising above her. Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866) lodged with the Darlings for several weeks to paint as accurate a painting as possible. He quizzed William Darling about the position of each person in the boat and on the rock. He also requested details of their appearances. Pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott (1811-90) produced a mural of the rescue, which now hangs in Wallington Hall.

As well as letters and requests for paintings, Grace received numerous invitations, many of which she rejected. Theatres across the country invited her to act out her heroic rescue on stage. The Adelphi Theatre in London offered her £10 a week to act in The Wreck At Sea. She refused, and an actress took her place. Grace accepted an invitation to visit a circus, but when she learned they wished to make her the highlight of the show, she declined. 

Grace Darling – Heroine of the Farne Islands by Eva Hope

Songs, poems and souvenirs quickly appeared around the country in celebration of the young heroine. They continued to crop up long after her death, including a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who lost his brother in a shipwreck. All this attention may have been nice, to begin with, but Grace soon hated all the attention. Marriage proposals arrived from men of all stations, all of which Grace rejected. She did not wish to leave the lighthouse and did not understand why they celebrated her actions. The nation hailed her a heroine, but all she was doing was her job.

On a visit to relatives in Alnwick, Grace met Hugh Percy, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847) who insisted on becoming her guardian. He wished to protect Grace from the people who wanted to exploit her, for example, the circus owners and theatre managers. William Darling readily agreed to this proposal and the Duke appointed trustees to look after Grace’s affairs. The Duke provided the Darling family with regular gifts. He also ordered and paid for the construction of a lighthouse on Coquet Island, of which he appointed William Darling Jr as the first lighthouse keeper.

Even with the Duke’s protection, life became difficult for Grace. As a celebrity, she found it impossible to go to the mainland without someone recognising her. Initially, Grace did not wish to leave the lighthouse, but her home no longer resembled a peaceful place. Her youngest brother and his family moved into the lighthouse, as did her widowed sister, making it a noisy, bustling place.

In March 1842, Grace braved a trip to Coquet Island to spend time with her eldest brother. News of her voyage spread fast, and crowds turned up to see her off on the steamer ship. After her break away, she visited her cousins in Alnwick before returning home. During the trip, Grace caught a virus and developed a persistent cough. She wished to rest at home, but frequent visitors, letters and money matters needed her attention. Gradually, Grace withdrew into herself, becoming weak and unwell.

The Darling family thought the atmosphere at Longstone Lighthouse contributed to her poor health, so sent her to stay with friends in Wooler near the Cheviot Hills. During her stay, she rallied a little and decided to risk the journey home via her cousins in Alnwick. Soon after her arrival, her health rapidly declined, and the Duke of Northumberland sent his physician to attend to her. The doctor diagnosed Grace with tuberculosis, and she became sicker as the days went by.

William Darling decided to move his daughter closer to home, hoping that familiar surroundings would revive her. Grace moved in with her sister Thomasin in Bamburgh Village, but her health did not improve. She had frequent nightmares and hallucinations about people watching her, and constant visits from well-wishers upset her. Grace understood the seriousness of her illness and asked for her family during her final days. Grace Darling passed away on Thursday 20th October 1842, aged 26, in her father’s arms.

Monument in St Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh

“…at the hour appointed, 3.o’clock p.m. the village was crowded with strangers, both rich and poor, many of whom had come a long way…the coffin being carried by four young men belonging to Bamburgh…followed by ten of her relatives…and a young man from Durham, who wore the mourning emblem of intimate friends of the family.”

The Berwick Advertiser, 24th October 1842

Grace Darling’s funeral took place four days after her death at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh. As reported in the Berwick Advertiser, hundreds crowded into the village to watch the coffin process from the cottage to the church. The young man wearing a mourning emblem has not been identified but may have been one of Grace’s many marriage proposals. 

The family plot in St Aidan’s churchyard contains Grace’s coffin, with some of her family members. Within a few days of the burial, donations began pouring in to raise a monument to the young heroine. They commissioned an architect to design and build a stone structure containing a life-size figure of Grace lying with an oar by her side. Rather than erecting the monument over her grave, they placed the structure at the west end of the churchyard where it can be seen by passing ships. Over time, the weather damaged the figure, and the village raised funds to make another with more durable stone. The original now lies inside the church building.

Memorial window to Grace Darling

The village raised more than enough money to replace the statue of Grace Darling, so the Reverend of St Aidan’s Church installed a stained-glass window in her honour. Situated in the North Transept, the window features three female figures, each representing the virtues charity, fortitude and hope. They hold a heart, oar and anchor as symbols of Grace’s heroic act. Below these women, three angels hold banners containing Grace’s name, date of birth and death, and the date of the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.

Even in death, Grace Darling has not escaped fame. In Bamburgh, the RNLI Grace Darling Museum tells the story of her short life, focusing on rescuing nine shipwreck survivors. Artists and writers have produced fictionalised versions of the story, leading to images of Grace as “the girl with windswept hair”. Many poems about Grace Darling appeared in the 19th century and, in the 20th century, songwriters took inspiration from her life. The English rock band Strawbs released a song called Grace Darling, which contains the lyrics “You are my saving grace/Darling, I love you.” Further honours include an RNLI lifeboat, which holds her name; and the Grace Darling Hotel in Melbourne Australia, which opened in 1854, thus emphasising the extent of her fame.

When Grace Darling begged her father to rescue the SS Forfarshire survivors on 7th September 1838, she did not imagine the fame that could follow. Grace did her job as an assistant lighthouse keeper, putting aside thoughts of herself as she put herself in danger to save the lives of others. Becoming a celebrity overnight may have been exciting, at first, but the constant attention it brought eliminated any privacy. Even before she contracted tuberculosis, Grace struggled to live in the public eye. Fame destroyed the quiet girl who grew up only knowing her family and the sea.

Should we continue to remember Grace Darling as a hero or respect her wishes to be treated as a “normal” Victorian woman? Her fame emphasises the rift between men and women in the 19th century. Her father, who did twice the work, received little recognition. Rescuing stranded sailors was William Darling’s job – a man’s job. No one expected a woman to do the same, and it is for that reason that Grace reached celebrity status. Both William and Grace should receive recognition for their heroic actions, but through Grace, we should remember the detrimental effects of fame.


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Victor Hugo

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo
Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When Victor Hugo sat down to write one of his novels, little did he know it would inspire the greatest musical of our time, Les Misérables. He did not intend his novel for the stage, but as the above quote suggests, Hugo understood the importance of music. During his literary career of over six decades, Hugo wrote lyrics, poems, satires, essays, speeches, funeral orations, letters, diaries, plays and novels. As well as Les Misérables, Hugo is famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into an animated musical in 1996. Through musical adaptations, millions of people know Victor Hugo’s work; it is time to learn about the author.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo

Victor-Marie Hugo, born on 26th February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France, spent his first year travelling from place to place due to his father’s career in the Napoleonic Army. Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774-1828) enlisted in La Grande Armée at the age of 14 and had worked his way up the ranks to General by the birth of his youngest son.

Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821), a French painter, gave birth to two sons before Victor: Abel Joseph (1798-1855) and Eugène (1800-1837). His father claimed Victor’s mother conceived him on a peak in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France on 24th June 1801. Victor Hugo later used this date as the prisoner number of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables: “24601”. After Victor’s first birthday, Sophie grew tired of the frequent upheaval of army life and settled in Paris with her sons. While there, Sophie regularly met with her youngest son’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie (1766-1812), with whom she may have had an affair. She soon learnt her husband, now a Colonel, also had a secret liaison, although he returned to the family in 1807. 

Joseph Léopold spent less than a year with his sons before being called to Spain to fight in the Peninsular War. Sophie and her sons moved into an old convent at the edge of Paris. Victor’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie, lived in hiding in a chapel on the estate from the Revolutionary Army who wished him dead due to his political beliefs. Sophie, who secretly shared these ideas, allowed Fanneau de La Horie to mentor her sons until they moved to Spain in 1811. The Spanish king Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) had honoured her husband with the title Count Hugo de Cogolludo y Sigüenza.

Abel Joseph, Eugène and Victor were sent to the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad in Madrid for a proper education, but Sophie wished to return to France. Joseph Léopold overruled his wife’s wish to take the boys with her, so she returned to Paris alone, officially separated from her husband. Whether she returned to her lover, Fanneau de La Horie is uncertain, but records state the Revolutionary Army arrested and executed him in 1812. To prevent his sons returning to their mother after their schooling, he enrolled them at a private boarding school in Paris where they remained for three years.

Adèle Hugo as a young woman, by Louis Boulanger

During his time at the school in Paris, where he also attended lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand, Victor Hugo developed a passion for writing. In 1817, he received an honourable mention for a poem he had written, and many Academicians refused to believe he was only 15 years old. After leaving school, Hugo moved in with his mother and started attending law school. Going against his mother’s wishes, Hugo began dating his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher (1803-68). A year after his mother died in June 1821, Hugo and Adèle married.

Hugo started his writing career with his brothers who established the periodical Le Conservateur littéraire (“The Literary Curator”). The magazine allowed writers to express their royalist views but had little success in liberal France. In 1822, the year of his marriage, Hugo wrote a book of poems, which earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII (1755-1824), and the following year, he published his first novel, Han d’Islande.

Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine on the day of her first communion.

Hugo and Adèle celebrated the arrival of their first child Léopold in 1823, but sadly he died before his first birthday. The following year on 28th August, they welcomed their second child Léopoldine (1824-43), followed by Charles (1826-71), François-Victor (1828-73) and Adèle (1830-1915). His children did not hinder Hugo’s career, and he published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840. The year before his youngest daughter’s birth, Hugo wrote his first mature novel, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (“The Last Day of a Condemned Man”). The story expressed Hugo’s negative feelings toward the death penalty in France. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) praised the book as “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” The story also influenced British writers, such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Victor Hugo in 1829, lithograph by Achille Devéria

By the late 1820s, Hugo had a reputation as the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. Several plays boosted his popularity and, in 1831, he published the hugely successful Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”). Set in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI (1423-83), the story focuses on the deformed character Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the Catholic cathedral. The novel prompted the City of Paris to repair the neglected Cathedral of Notre-Dame and appreciate the other pre-Renaissance buildings in the city.

Whilst Hugo experienced success in his career, his family life suffered. Both he and his wife conducted affairs, although they continued to live with each other and never divorced. Between 1830 and 1837, Adèle had a rendezvous with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a French critic and friend of the Hugo family. Possibly in retaliation, Hugo began seeing the French actress Juliette Drouet (1806-83) in 1833. As well as his mistress, Drouet acted as Hugo’s secretary and travelling companion. It is evident from letters that Drouet devoted her life to Hugo, but he did not treat her with similar respect.

Hugo’s celebrity status earned him friendships in many circles, including amongst composers and musicians. Hector Berlioz (1803-69) and Franz Liszt (1811-86) were among his closest companions and the latter regularly played for Hugo in private concerts. Liszt also taught Hugo to play his favourite piece by Beethoven (1770-1827) on the piano, albeit with only one finger. Another musical friend, Louise Bertin (1805-77) based an opera on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de ParisLa Esmeralda premiered in 1836 but closed after its fifth performance. Despite the flop, Hugo’s various works have inspired thousands of musical compositions, including over 100 operas. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Rigoletto, for example, is based on Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) based La Gioconda on the historical work Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

As well as writing for pleasure, Hugo used his skills to tackle political issues. He joined the Académie française in 1841, but briefly withdrew from the scene in 1843 following the death of his eldest daughter. At just 19 years old, Léopoldine drowned in the Seine after a boat overturned, leaving her father devastated. He did not learn of her death straight away because he was travelling in the South of France. The first he knew of the incident was in a newspaper that he read while sitting in a cafe. He expressed his grief through poetry and used his daughter as the subject of many of his future works.

Hugo returned to the political scene in 1845 when King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) nominated him for the Higher Chamber as a pair de France (Peerage of France). He took the opportunity to speak out against social injustices and the death penalty. His strong opinions were known across Europe, especially after joining the National Assembly in 1849. Around the same time, he began an affair with the author Léonie d’Aunet (1820-79), which lasted approximately seven years. Due to his peerage, Hugo avoided punishment for his adultery. Unfortunately, d’Aunet faced two months in prison and a further six in a convent. Hugo promised to support her financially for the rest of her life, but he continued to conduct affairs with other women. 

When Napoleon III (1808-73) seized power in 1851, Hugo openly called him a traitor for his anti-parliamentary ideas. As a result, Hugo gained many enemies, prompting him to flee to Belgium and then the Bailiwick of Jersey, the largest Channel Island. Hugo’s politics caused problems in Jersey, most notably his support for an anti-Queen Victoria newspaper. In 1855, Jersey expelled Hugo from the island, and Hugo spent the next 15 years in exile on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. His family joined him the following year at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard (1862)

While in exile, Hugo continued to attack Napoleon through political pamphlets, such as Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime. France banned these works, but many copies found their way into the country, smuggled in bales of hay and tins of sardines. Hugo also produced three poetry collections while on the island, but his most notable work from the period is his novel, Les Misérables. Although published in 1862, Hugo started planning the story as early as the 1830s.

“My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.”

Victor Hugo, 23rd March 1862

The inspiration for the main character in Les Misérables came from an incident Hugo witnessed in 1829. Hugo saw a policeman arrest a man for stealing a loaf of bread. At the start of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread. Hugo also took inspiration from the ex-convict Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1557) for Valjean’s character. Vidocq’s criminal actions had landed him in prison, but on his release, he changed his ways. Vidocq became the father of modern criminology and was also the world’s first private detective.

Hugo’s diaries record many scenes that he later wrote into Les Misérables, including the attempted arrest of a prostitute. Hugo stepped in to defend the girl and recorded his speech in his diary, which, in turn, made it into his novel. This scene inspired the character Fantine, whose only means of earning money to look after her daughter Cosette was prostitution. Many real-life figures Hugo met or observed appear in the story. Examples include a street urchin (Gavroche) and French republican students fighting during the 1848 Paris insurrection (Enjolras and Les Amis de l’ABC). 

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables as though he is narrating the story rather than a character. He includes factual information to make the story seem less fictional, often referring to recent events. At one point, he even addresses the reader: “The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself…” Hugo also hid personal information in the novel. Examples include, the date his parents conceived him for Jean Valjean’s prison number “24601” and the date of (spoiler alert) Marius and Cosette’s wedding night is 16th February 1833, the same day Hugo first met his mistress Juliette Drouet. 

Due to his popularity as a poet, many people had high expectations for Hugo’s forthcoming novel. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarising the story before its publication. Instead, he asked them to focus on his past successes as a means of publicity. For example “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Misérables.” Rather than printing the entire novel, the publishers released Les Misérables in five volumes, the first of which they released in Brussels on 30th March 1862. The second volume appeared the following day, but sales of the remaining volumes did not start until 15th May.

Compared to Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s new novel received a lot of criticism. Many found the subject matter immoral, artificial and disappointing. Some people expressed contempt about Hugo’s support of revolutionaries. On the other hand, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) praised Hugo for drawing attention to social problems of the time. Despite the initial criticisms, Les Misérables sold well and remains a popular book today. During the same year of its publication, copies appeared in other languages, including Italian, Greek and Portuguese. Before long, people all over the continent knew the story.

Les Mis Poster

Since its publication, Les Misérables has been adapted for eight films, a radio production, three television programmes and an anime series. Of course, the most famous adaptation is the 1980 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b.1944) and Alain Boublil (b.1941). Although originally performed in French, Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the West End, running continuously since October 1985.

After the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo turned his attention to other social matters, particularly slavery. Although he believed colonialism would help to civilise “barbaric” nations, he called for an end to the slave trade.

“Only one slave on Earth is enough to dishonour the freedom of all men. So the abolition of slavery is, at this hour, the supreme goal of the thinkers.”

Victor Hugo, 17th January 1862

As well as campaigning against slavery, Hugo called for the abolition of the death penalty. Before his exile, Hugo declared “You have overthrown the throne… Now overthrow the scaffold.” Whilst he successfully influenced Geneva, Portugal and Colombia, he had little impact on the French government. In 1859, Napoleon III granted amnesty to all political exiles, but Hugo refused to return to Paris until Napoleon fell from power in 1870.

Shortly after his return to the French capital, the Siege of Paris began. This resulted in the capture of the city by Prussian forces. During this time, Parisians, including Hugo, were reduced to “eating the unknown” meat supplied by the Paris Zoo. Following the siege, Hugo temporarily moved to Brussels where he observed the goings-on in Paris through newspapers. Between March and May 1871, radical socialists created a short-lived revolutionary government. Writing for the Belgian newspaper l’Indépendance, Hugo expressed his support for the rebels, which angered many people. That evening, a mob of sixty men attempted to break into Hugo’s home, shouting “Death to Victor Hugo! Hang him! Death to the scoundrel!”

In 1872, Hugo attempted to encourage Parisians to re-elect him to the National Assembly, stating in his diary, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Despite people hailing Hugo as a national hero, he lost his bid. Nonetheless, he continued to express his views, prophesying that by the 20th century there would be no more war, no death penalty and no hatred. He believed Europe should unite as the “United States of Europe” to make the continent a peaceful place.

Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris

Victor Hugo’s health started to go downhill from the mid-1870s after he suffered a mini-stroke. By this time, his wife Adèle had died, and his sons passed away soon afterwards. His remaining daughter Adèle lived in an insane asylum, so it fell to Hugo’s mistress Juliette Drouet to care for him. In 1878, Hugo suffered another mild stroke, yet he continued to inspire the people of Paris. For his 80th birthday, the city presented him with a Sèvres vase, an item traditionally reserved for sovereigns. Following this honour, the longest parade in French history took place, lasting 6 hours. Hugo watched the paraders from his house on the Avenue d’Eylau, soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo.

In 1883, Juliette Drouet passed away. Although they lived as lovers since the death of Hugo’s wife, they never married. On 22nd May 1885, at the age of 83, Victor Hugo breathed his last after suffering from pneumonia. The whole of France mourned his death and, although he requested a paupers funeral, he received a state funeral attended by over two million people and his final written words, “To love is to act”, became immortalised. His body rests in the Panthéon along with the writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-70).

“I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations from all Churches. I demand a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”

The Will of Victor Hugo
Town with Tumbledown Bridge, Victor Hugo, 1847

After his death, it came to light that Hugo drew and painted as a hobby. He produced over 4000 drawings but never revealed them to the public for fear they would detract from his literary work. His family and close friends knew about his artistic skills and often received handmade cards from the author, particularly during his exile. A few painters of the time tried to encourage Hugo to seriously consider working as a professional artist, including Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who believed Hugo had the potential to outshine the artists of their century. Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) also admired Hugo’s work.

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin

Hugo’s legacy lives on in many ways, not just through the award-winning musical Les Misérables. In Guernsey, Jean Boucher (1870-1939) erected a sculpture of the author to commemorate his stay on the island. Several shops and cafes in Paris honour Hugo’s name, as does the school Lycée Victor Hugo, founded in the town of his birth. Hugo’s fame also spread across to America where he is remembered by street names in Quebec and San Francisco, and a city in Kansas. In 1929, the Vietnamese religion of Cao Đài venerated Hugo as a saint. 

Who is Victor Hugo? Most people answer “the author of Les Misérables“, but his biography proves this is just one of his many achievements. Victor Hugo was a poet, novelist, dramatist, politician, peer of France, drawer and painter. He has hundreds of works to his name and, in France, he is remembered for his radical thinking and opinions. As the crowds at his funeral show, Victor Hugo had many fans and his greatest works will live on through modern adaptations forevermore.

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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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