I admire women who follow their own path and have some impact on the world—the ones who stick to their path and don’t get sidetracked when their efforts are thwarted. Amelia Edwards was one of those. How difficult it must have been for a woman growing up in the early Victorian period to live such an independent life. True, she was born into a well-educated middle class family and was given a good education by her mother, which made her life easier than it was for less fortunate women.
Amelia had a flair for writing and and began publishing short stories by the time she was twelve years old. Then she turned to novels, publishing her first one in 1855. She soon became one of the most popular writers in England especially after the appearance of her novel about bigamy, Barbara’s History in 1864. Her novels mirrored the concerns of many English women of the mid-nineteenth century—love, marriage and family—but her own life was more unusual. She seemed uninterested in marriage, and by the time her parents died when she was 30, she was set in her pattern of spinster life and determined to enjoy it.
Travel was what attracted her, so she set off with a friend to visit Europe. They enjoyed the new sights and Amelia, of course, wrote about their trip. The result was one of her long-lasting books Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys which recounted their tour through the Dolomites, which at the time was seldom visited by tourists. Both the book and the tour were a success and Amelia turned her attention to travel writing and gave up novels.
Europe was not enough, however, for the travelers. During a sketching tour of France, she and her companion found nothing but wet weather and talked about moving further south to find sunshine. According to Amelia’s account, they decided to go to Cairo without much thought, “Never was distant expedition entered upon with less premeditation.” Without any special knowledge, skills or equipment, they arrived at Shepherd’s hotel in Cairo on November 29, 1873. It was an arrival that would change Amelia’s life.
Like most tourists, their first trip out of Cairo was to see the Pyramids, at that time an easy hour and a half’s drive from the hotel. At first sight, the Pyramids were not impressive but, “when at last the edge of the desert is reached and the long sand slope climbed…the Great Pyramid in all its unexpected bulk and majesty towers close above one’s head, the effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming.” Amelia was enchanted and determined at once to take the long trip up the Nile to see more of Egypt. She would spend the rest of her life traveling, researching, and writing about Egypt.
There is no question but that Amelia’s book A Thousand Miles up the Nile reached thousands of readers and made the subject of ancient Egypt an important part of the popular culture of England and America. From that time until this, pyramids, mummies, tombs and treasure have spawned books, movies, plays and paintings around the world.
Amelia Edwards popularized Egyptian culture, but she did not falsify it. She was interested in expanding scholarly studies of pharaohs and for this reason she started the Egyptological Society for which she became a tireless fundraiser. At that time Egyptology was not an established scholarly field, so the untrained amateur could meet experts and exchange ideas. Amelia became a friend and sponsor of the great Flinders Petrie, one of the founders of Egyptology. As the field developed, scholars became more rigid and as so often happens, they gradually pushed out the amateurs. University men were not hospitable to women who “invaded” their field even thought they might rely on them for funding.
Amelia Edwards was no doubt disappointed in being pushed out of the control of the Society she had founded, but in the end she got her own way. After the years she had spent writing and publicizing Egypt, she suffered a blow when her companion of thirty years died. Their relationship was never a public one, but it seems likely that they were lesbian lovers who had a successful and happy union. Amelia did not recover well from her loss. She died a few years later, but was able to leave enough money to secure the future of the Egyptological Society and the position of her friend Flinders Petrie as the first Professor of Egyptology at the University of London. Her spirit lingers on.
Reading about other people’s lives is one of my favorite activities. Who needs fictional accounts of fantastic worlds when the real world offers so many fascinating stories? Often it’s not the lives of people who had brilliant successes that affect me most; it’s the people who didn’t quite make it. May Alcott was one of these. She was the “sister of the more famous Louisa” as family historians might say.
There were five Alcott daughters. Louisa grew up to be a famous author. Her book Little Women gives readers a glimpse of the lives of the Alcott sisters. In the book they are called the March sisters and the youngest, called Amy in the book, was modeled on May Alcott. Amy loved art, just as May did, but her life was more exciting than the one Louisa put into the book.
May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the community Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for two-year-old May. When her mother tried to milk the cow, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”
“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.
As May grew up she was independent and ambitious. Most of her friends thought only about getting married, but May had different ideas. She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands earn money. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.
May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women. Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had never even seen photographs of them. Instead, she had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals. Louisa had been in Europe once before, when she had traveled as a paid companion to an ill elderly woman, but they had done little sightseeing. She wanted to return to Europe and spend leisurely time introducing May to the places she had seen briefly before.
Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.
The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.
This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.
Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:
Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.
When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.
Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.
In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminister Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”
One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played. He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.
By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.
May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:
Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.
And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May did not survive the childbirth, although her daughter did. May’s life was cut short and she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals. To me she is still a heroine because she faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. That’s why she is my Woman of the Week.
We live in an age of dissidents. The well-earned triumph of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma this week fills us with joy because she has worked so patiently for so long to persuade her countrymen to turn toward democracy. No doubt there are still years of struggle ahead, but something significant has changed in the country and much of it is due to the strength and courage of one woman.
Here in America we haven’t had a nation-changing heroine like Aung San Suu Kyi, but we have had several women who have showed courage in standing up for their beliefs despite the opposition of friends and neighbors. This week I want to honor one of them, who has nearly been forgotten over the years, a woman who fought against slavery even though she lived in Virginia during a time when most Virginians strongly supported the institution.
Slavery had been a problem since the beginning of the country. By 1850s, some Virginians and people in other Southern states were talking about breaking away from the United States over the slavery question. They worried that Northerners would put an end to slavery and this would cause hardship for the South. Eventually the quarreling became so bitter that theVirginialegislature voted to quit theUnited States. They joined the Confederacy of Southern states to become a new country.
Still many Virginians did not want to leave the United States. Men who opposed joining the Confederacy could join the Union Army and fight to preserve the country. Women weren’t allowed to be soldiers, so they had to find different ways of supporting theUnited States. Elizabeth van Lew was one of these women. She believed that slavery was wrong. She lovedVirginia, but she loved her country more and believed secession was a tragedy.
After fighting broke out close to Richmond, Elizabeth and her mother got permission to nurse wounded Union soldiers.Elizabethhelped the soldiers write letters to their families. She also found another way to help—she became a spy.
A network of people helped get soldiers’ letters to the Northern states. They were taken on boats flying a “flag of truce,” which were allowed to sail between Virginia and the Northern States. General Benjamin Butler, a Union officer, heard aboutElizabeth’s work and asked whether she could send information about the movements of Southern troops. He did this by sending a letter addressed to “my dear aunt” and signed with a false name. The letter was carried toElizabethby a Northern agent who slipped through the Confederate lines. When the letter was treated with acid and heat, another letter written in invisible ink appeared. In this letterButlerasked her if she would “aid the Union cause by furnishing me with information”.
Soon Elizabeth was able to set up a system through which she could send secret messages to a false address in the North. They were then picked up and sent to General Butler.Elizabethcouldn’t travel around the city, because she was a well-known and wealthy woman and people noticed her. Usually she sent a servant, often a young boy, to carry the letters to the ship. People didn’t pay much attention to teenage boys walking around the streets near the port.
Elizabeth got her information just by watching what was going on in the city. She was also able to talk with Confederate army officers and officials. Most of them did not believe a woman could be collecting information for the North. They consideredElizabethjust another wealthy society woman.
Elizabeth not only sent information to the North. She also helped to hide Union prisoners when they escaped from the military prisons inRichmond. She and her mother nursed prisoners who were sick or injured and let them stay in the house until they were strong enough to travel.
When the war ended with the Union victory, Elizabeth was made postmaster of Richmond. This was a tribute to her services to the Union cause. Most of her neighbors, however, never forgave her for being loyal to her country instead of to the South. She lived a sad and lonely life, forgotten by the North and scorned by the Southerners who lived around her. It takes a lot of courage to fight and suffer for an unpopular cause.