Bessie Rayner Parkes. Folha. Negativo de desenho fotogénico, 1848, Courtesy of Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs, NY.
Bessie Rayner Parkes Belloc (16 June 1829- 23 March 1925) was one of the most prominent English feminists and campaigners for women’s rights in Victorian times and also a poet, essayist and journalist.
1. Early Life
A great-grandchild of the eminent scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley, Bessie Rayner Parkes was born to loving, well-off parents, in a household interested in people and ideas. Her father was Joseph Parkes, (1796-1865) a prosperous solicitor and a liberal with Radical sympathies. His support for his daughter’s aspirations were mitigated. Her mother, Elizabeth Rayner Priestley (1797-1877), usually called Eliza, was a wife and mother, who always considered herself an American, having been born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. She remembered her grandfather with admiration and love. Although not in great sympathy with her daughter over her strong wish to make changes in the status of women, she nevertheless loved her dearly and did not actively oppose her. Unusually for girls of her background, Bessie was well educated at a progressive Unitarian boarding school, a period of her life which she enjoyed.
Bessie became gradually aware of the unjust, contradictory and even absurd situation of women in Great-Britain, though there were many differences according to the social class they belonged to. The first endeavour that Bessie and her friend Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon took on was to try and change the restrictive property laws that applied to married women. Bessie was also indignant about the distinction made between ‘ladies’ and ‘women’. ‘Ladies’, that is to say middle-class women, lost social status if they earned money, the only acceptable exceptions being writing, painting or teaching, which for the most part meant ‘governessing’. Due in part to her efforts, by the close of the century, it became acceptable for a middle-class woman to acquire a proper education and train to do paid work. Working-class women had always belonged to the work-force, whether they wanted to or not. BRP and her friends interacted with women in other countries of Europe and in the USA, adding a very considerable international dimension to their efforts. In the 1860’s she was to belong to the first women’s group which set out to obtain voting rights.
Barbara Bodichon (grande amiga de Bessie), "The New Generation". Segundo Pam Hirsh as quatro mulheres representadas são: Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Jane Benham e
Anna Maria Howitt.
Bessie Rayner Parkes’ wide circle of literary and political friends included George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, Anna Jameson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Elizabeth Blackwell, Lord Shaftesbury, Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Thackeray, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, John Ruskin, Henry W. Longfellow and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her most fruitful friendship was with Barbara Bodichon for, out of their efforts, grew the first organized women’s movement in Britain.
4. The English Woman’s Journal
BRP became the principal editor of the first feminist British periodical – The English Woman’s Journal - published monthly in London between 1858 and 1864. Its closure was due both to financial reasons and to the conflicts that arose among its sponsors and chief contributors. The offshoots that sprang from it were many and varied, such as the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women, the Victoria Printing Press (entirely staffed by women), the Law-Copying Office, and the Langham Place Group, where women gathered informally to discuss their lives or simply have a rest.
5. Conversion to the Roman Catholic Church
Another part of her life story was her slow but determined path to the Roman Catholic Church (1864). She took in all the debate around the Oxford Movement but what really impressed her was the immense amount of social work carried out by nuns. She knew the three famous English Cardinals personally and recalled them in her writings.
Aged 38, BRP fell in love with a Frenchman of delicate health, called Louis Belloc, himself the son of a notable woman, Louise Swanton-Belloc. Their five-year long marriage, spent in France, she described as Arcadia. The family lived through the Franco-Prussian war and was deeply hit by it on a material level. She never got over her husband’s sudden death in 1872.
Their children, Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) went on to become renowned writers in their different ways.
8. Widowhood and after
BRP herself continued to write until late in life, and to be a keen observer of politics and society. However, after her marriage and the death of her husband, her active involvement in the organized women’s movements abated. Anguish over the stupidity of war and pride in her country coloured her feelings during the First World War. Almost at its close, her eldest grandchild, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, went missing. He was shot down and killed near Cambrai, in France.
9. Published work
Bessie Rayner Parkes published fourteen books: poetry, essays, biography, memoirs, travel, and literature for children and young people, as well as a very effective booklet on women’s rights and dozens of articles. A lot of her literary work was well received during her lifetime and her poetry was admired by Ruskin and Longfellow.
10. Further reading
Anderson, Bonnie S., Joyous Greetings, The International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860, (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Belloc Lowndes, Mrs., I, too, have lived in Arcadia, (London: Macmillan, 1941).
Fulmer, Constance M., “Bessie Rayner Parkes”, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 240: Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century British Women Poets, (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001).
Herstein, Sheila R., A Mid-Victorian Feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).
Hirsch, Pam, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1998).
Lowndes, Susan (ed.), Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1911-1947, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971).
Rendall, Jane, “‘A Moral Engine’? Feminism, Liberalism and the English Woman’s Journal”, in Jane Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800-1914, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).
-----, Jane, Friendship and Politics: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-91) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925), in Mendus, Susan & Rendall, Jane (ed.), Sexuality and Subordination, (London: Routledge, 1989).
Ana Vicente (1943-2015), bisneta de Bessie Rayner Parkes.