Amelia Edwards: Woman of the Week

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.

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