Bessie and I
My name is Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. I am a mid-19th century feminist and women’s rights activist. I also co-founded the English Woman’s Journal in 1858 with my dear friend Bessie Rayner Parkes. Today, I thought of telling you all a bit more about her.
How would I describe Bessie? She was someone who deeply cared about women’s rights. A writer, self-taught poet, photography enthusiast, essayist, journalist, editor, publisher—when one person does so many things in a lifetime, there isn’t one distinct box you can fit them into.
Bessie was born in Birmingham on 16th June 1829 to Joseph Parkes, a wealthy solicitor, and Elizabeth Rayner Priestley – the granddaughter of the scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley, who is considered to be involved in the pre-history of photography.
Bessie studied at a Unitarian boarding school until she was 11 and was exposed to art at a young age due to her parents’ interest in it. Poetry was one of her passions and she was a self-taught poet. This is one of my favourite poems by Bessie:
In An Album
A SMILE and a tear were disputing one day
On their different merits and skill;
It grieves me to state that in furious debate
These friends should behave themselves ill.
But Reason stepped in with her magical wand,
And bade both the disputants cease,
Severely did chide for their folly and pride,
And sternly insisted on peace.
“Ye are equal,” she said, “then why wrangle so loud?
Ye are equal in charms and in powers;
For the sun might decline on the rosebeds to shine,
If the rain did not water the flowers.
“And, if one seems to triumph, the other may rest
Undisturbed by the ghost of a fear;
For the heart which a smile can most surely beguile,
Is ever most touched by a tear.”
Bessie had an impressive circle of friends including George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I met Bessie in 1846, at Hastings. She and her family spent a lot of time there to be closer to the sea as neither Bessie nor her brother, Priestly, were of strong health.
Over the years our friendship deepened and our mutual love for activism grew, especially after a trip we took around Europe. One of our first endeavours was to change the restrictive laws that applied to married women and property.
In 1853 Bessie also joined the Committee for the Ladies’ Address to their American Sisters on Slavery. The group of women worked to secure 576,000 signatures on their anti-slavery petition in the United States. Around the same time Bessie wrote the essay Remarks on the Education of Girls, through which she tried to advocate for the education of young women.
Bessie also campaigned for middle-class women to obtain a proper education and seek employment without the fear of losing their social statuses. She and her other activist friends interacted with women in Europe and the United States, giving their efforts for women’s equality a global edge. In the 1860s, Bessie was part of the first women’s group which obtained the right to vote.
In 1857, with a little financial support from me, Bessie and I set up the English Woman’s Journal, Britain’s first monthly feminist periodical, of which Bessie was also the editor. The journal talked about important issues such as employment, women’s education and training, and women’s philanthropic responsibilities.
The journal had several offshoots such as the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women; the Victoria Printing Press, whose entire workforce comprised women; the Law-Copying Office; and the Langham Place Group, a group where women gathered to discuss their lives or simply have moment of respite from the daily grind.
The journal was seminal for the women’s rights movement in England as it provided many women with education and employment opportunities. Victoria Printing Press was where the English Woman’s Journal was printed. Bessie did not know how to print, so she hired a man to teach her and then she taught her entire staff the nuances of printing.
The press also printed The Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and other publications. I distinctly remember Bessie saying to her staff that learning a trade, such as how to print, was ‘one dream of my life’.
For a woman who wanted to affect a significant change in the lives and rights of women in the 19th century, she didn’t receive much support from her parents. Though Elizabeth and Joseph loved her very much and didn’t actively oppose her activist aspirations, the encouragement was not as enthusiastic or wholehearted as Bessie would have hoped for.
I did mention that Bessie also dabbled in photography. For sometime in 1847, photography was an all consuming passion for her. This was during the time she lived in Hastings on account of ill health. She taught herself the photogenic drawing process and photographed the New Zealand ferns that her uncle, the illustrator Edwin Swainson, brought for her.
The photogenic process entailed dipping writing paper in a solution of sodium chloride and coating one side with silver nitrate, a compound which turned dark when exposed to sunlight. An impression of an object was made by placing it on the side coated with sodium chloride and exposing it to the sun. The exposed background would come out dark and the shadow left by the object was light. The image was then stabilised with a salt solution. The technique relied on light rather than chemicals to bring out the image.
‘I have been very busy with the photogenic paper lately, and have taken some very good impressions of New Zealand ferns. The washing is the greatest trouble. It is endless,’ she wrote to me in one of her letters. In November 1847, she wrote to a schoolmate, Kate Jeavons, lamenting that had she been a man, it would have been easy to pursue photography ‘I have been very much interested lately in photography, and send you some specimens of ferns and lace. The photogenic paper is easy to prepare but requires knack. If I had been a man I would have had such a laboratory’.
She told me about this letter when we met in the summer the following year. Truth be told, I was overcome with a pang of jealousy, seeing that she shared a deeply personal sentiment with a classmate. I remember sulking for a few days and not telling Bessie why I was in a sour mood. Looking back, I laugh at my silliness. How could I hold a grudge against an innocent moment she shared with another friend as an 18-year old? It all pales in comparison to the long, productive and purposeful life she and I had as adults.
Barring the 18 images she made of ferns and laces, Bessie didn’t pursue her interest in photography beyond a few months in 1847. I am not entirely sure why that was, though I wouldn’t want to believe it was because she wasn’t a man with a big laboratory. This was a woman who taught herself how to use a printing press, wrote about women’s rights, and brought about a change in the status of women in England. Her gender, though an obstacle in many circles, compelled her to strive for reforms for herself and other women.
I believe that comment from an 18-year old Bessie was not a mourning of her inadequacies as a woman, but the ways in which society was skewed in favour of men. I suppose it’s alright that she didn’t develop a lucrative career in photography. Not everyone is meant to do everything or make a name in every field they choose to be involved in. What she did accomplish is as worthy of recognition as anything she might have achieved as a photographer.
Bessie was 38 when she met Louis Belloc, during a trip she and I took to La Celle St. Cloud in France. Louis was diagnosed with brain inflammation and was therefore of delicate constitution, but he was a good man and I could see she was falling in love with him. I was happy for my dearest friend. They got married on 19th September 1867 at St. James Catholic Church in London. The marriage lasted for five years during which time they had two children, Marie Belloc Lowndes and Joseph Hilaire Belloc, both of whom became writers of renown later in life.
After her marriage, Bessie’s involvement in the women’s movements lessened. After Louis’ death, the family relocated to London although Bessie never completely got over his demise. She continued to write late into life and published works including essays, memoirs, poems and travel literature. I never got married though I still have Bessie’s friendship.
I come back to the question I began with. How would I describe Bessie? Was she just an activist with a creative side or a creative person who cared about activism? Perhaps it’s best not to assign labels, on her or those who come after her; labels never do justice to one’s skill, intentions, and actions.
Barbara Bodichon died on 11th June 1891 and Bessie Rayner Parkes died on 23rd March 1925.
A Creative Non-Fiction Piece by Shyama Laxman