Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

A Nineteenth-Century "Womanist" on Gender Issues: Edith J. Simcox in Her Autobiography of a Shirtmaker

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

A Nineteenth-Century "Womanist" on Gender Issues: Edith J. Simcox in Her Autobiography of a Shirtmaker

Article excerpt

Edith J. Simcox (1844-1901) was a respected public figure who kept a private journal from 1876 to 1900 in which she recorded her activities as scholar, reformer, and businesswoman, as well as secrets of her unrequited love for George Eliot and her observations on gender issues.

Edith J. Simcox was born on August 21, 1844, and began to keep a personal journal, which she called Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, (1) in May of 1876. From 1876 until a few months before her death in 1901, Simcox recorded the day-to-day activities involved in her public life as a prolific writer, businesswoman, member of the London School Board, and social reformer. Her candor and wit make her Autobiography a unique repository of observations on gender issues from the perspective of a woman who is involved in many roles usually reserved for men. Simcox also uses her journal as a private diary in which she confides personal matters, including her secret love for the novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) and her pain that the love is not returned. From 1961, with Keith A. McKenzie's publication of his booklength study Edith Simcox and George Eliot, (2) based on his reading of the manuscript of the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, until the 1998 publication of the entire journal, Simcox has been known almost exclusively in connection with Eliot. However, during Edith Simcox's life, she chose never to discuss her unrequited love with any other person but saved her confessions for the pages of her autobiography, which she writes is "not the autobiography of a shirtmaker but of a love" (32). Simcox's journal entries continued for nineteen years after Eliot's death on December 22, 1880. Throughout the entire Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, Simcox makes it perfectly clear in numerous entries that she determined that all she accomplished should serve as a tribute to Eliot and as a monument to her memory. Until her own death on September 15, 1901, Simcox worked diligently "to build for her a monument in the bettering of words and deeds to come" (137). Both Simcox's reform efforts and her writings provide an impressive legacy. This article will first focus on the self-revelatory private details recorded in the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker concerning Edith Simcox's love for Eliot, her attitudes toward marriage, her friendships with women other than Eliot, and her sense of her own androgyny. It will also discuss the gender issues related to Simcox's diligent efforts to better the lives of working class men, women, and children.

I think Edith Simcox would have thought it appropriate to label herself a "womanist," according to Alice Walker's definition in her In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. She is an example of "A woman who loves other women, sexually and nonsexually ... Appreciates and prefers women's culture ... and women's strength.... Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female." (3) Edith Simcox loved Eliot sexually and nonsexually although Eliot returned her love in neither sense, and Simcox sustained many positive nonsexual relationships with women who reciprocated her friendship. In her public life Simcox dedicated her time, energy, and writing to worthwhile causes that would improve the survival and wholeness of men and women, but especially to help provide better economic, educational, and social opportunities for women. As an ardent reformer, she was a positive role model for other women and often wrote about women who could serve as examples for other women to follow. She advocated that women be given more freedom of choice in all matters--particularly in being able to vote and in being able to decide for themselves whether or not to marry. In every aspect of her own life, Edith Simcox demonstrated that an educated woman with sufficient economic independence could enjoy privileges equal to those available to men.

In all of her roles Simcox is secure in her androgynous sense of self and makes it clear in her Autobiography of a Shirtmaker that she consciously transformed her intense pain in having Eliot reject her love into the positive energy that fueled her many accomplishments. Simcox loved George Eliot, who was twenty-five years older than she, from the time they met in 1872, when Simcox was preparing her review of Middlemarch, (4) until her own death on September 15, 1901. On July 16, 1878, she writes: "The history of the years I have known her might be told in two words--Love and Pain--endless, intense" (36). In the first entry of the Autobiography, dated March 1876, Simcox acknowledges that her love avails nothing (3); on May 13, 1880 she mentions having received an "unhappy letter" in which Eliot referred to herself as "a wife with a wife's supreme and sufficing love" (122); and Eliot frequently strongly recommended that Simcox renounce her love and find herself a husband.

In spite of this and many other similar rebuffs, Simcox continued to love her and to hope that her love would be returned. On February 1, 1880, Simcox writes:

   I have almost accepted the knowledge that our lives are to be
   shaped apart and independently, that her days will never be happier
   or the easier through me ... It is something known, lived through
   and unalterable that my life has flung itself at her feet--and not
   been picked up--only told to rise and make itself a serviceable
   place elsewhere--so be it--so it is. (114)

Even though Simcox definitely lived a serviceable life elsewhere, as long as Eliot was alive, she continued to write numerous letters (5) to Eliot, and although she often bemoaned the fact that she and Eliot were seldom alone, she made the most of the opportunities she had. On November 16, 1878, she writes, "I dream of all sorts of new ways of wooing her!" (49). Simcox delighted in kissing and being kissed by Eliot; in a journal entry written only two months before Eliot married John Walter Cross on May 6, 1880, Simcox says, "I kissed her again and playfully expressed the hope that she did not mind having holes kissed in her cheek" (117). Eliot returned her kisses but never with the enthusiasm with which they were given.

For seven years Edith Simcox was frequently among the literary elite who gathered on Sunday afternoons at the home of Eliot and her "husband" George Henry Lewes (1817-1878). After the death of Lewes on November 30, 1878, Eliot refused to see Simcox for four months and only admitted her a few times before marrying John Walter Cross (1840-1924) eighteen months later.

However, in spite of her rejection of Simcox's love, Eliot seems to have thoroughly enjoyed receiving so much attention and at times actually encouraged Simcox's expressions of affection. Five years after Eliot's death, Simcox writes: "It is folly not to allow myself to believe that my love was real to Her when She spoke of it more than once in words which She had before appropriated only to Her most loving husband" (218). With her characteristic humor, Simcox often commented on the ambiguity of her own relationship to George Henry Lewes. She describes herself and Lewes as "brother worshipers at one dear shrine" (241) and says they "delighted in sharing the blessedness of loving" Eliot (120). Simcox enjoyed and appreciated a sense of genuine camaraderie with Lewes and frequently commented that he was kinder to her than Eliot was.

At other times Eliot and Lewes definitely are both unnecessarily cruel in encouraging Simcox in the attention which she paid to Eliot yet refusing to give her any meaningful place in their lives. Eliot seems deliberately to give her false hope--not only by returning her kisses--but by telling her on several occasions that her love letters should be preserved for posterity. Once Simcox says, "She told me about Browning and his wife's Portuguese sonnets, and she said once more that she wished my letters could be printed in the same veiled way--the Newest Heloise" (39). And on February 6, 1878, Simcox says "I did nothing but make reckless love to her," and adds, "I brought her two of my least spoiled Valentines, which she humanely forbore to read in my presence. She said it was a pity my letters could not be kept some 5 centuries to show a more sober posterity what hyperbole had once been possible" (25).

However, Eliot and Lewes most often totally ignore her letters and refuse to see her for weeks at a time, and even worse--they both--but particularly Eliot--constantly rebuke Simcox for not being married (164) and often taunt her for not being "more charitable to men" (4). Of course, Simcox deeply resents this and frequently expresses her strong objections to their remarks:

   It is rather humiliating to me to be told again and again that the
   association called up by my name is always that of a woman who
   might find a husband if she would take a little more pains with her
   dress and drawing room conversation--and this in the mind of some
   one that I love. (125)

Simcox often defended herself with indignant comments such as: "Was it my fault that I didn't wish to be married in general and no one in particular wished to marry me?" (164) and "I have never wished to be married in the abstract and I would decidedly much rather not be married to any concrete Dick or Tom" (236).

Several of Simcox's periodical articles (6) express her disapproval and disappointment that society as a whole was still making the ridiculous demand that all women marry. In an article entitled "Custom and Sex" (7) she says that "the sober womenfolk of a work-a-day world are still expected to model themselves upon the heroines of chivalrous romance," and "to try to get married" (314). And in her Nineteenth Century article, "The Capacity of Women," (8) Simcox uses the example of Samuel Richardson's Pamela to illustrate the point that "the whole duty of woman cannot be reduced to the single chapter, whether to marry--or not to marry--a rake" (401).

An entire section of the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker dated October 17, 1887, is devoted entirely to gender issues. She begins the section by writing:

   I confess I should like to hear a few more flank autobiographical
   details as to women's intimate natural feeling about men than the
   sex has yet indulged in. Historically, psychologically,
   intellectually--and it may be admitted from pure carnal curiosity
   too I should like to know how many women there are who have
   honestly no story to tell, how many have some other story than the
   one which alone is supposed to count and how many of those who
   think it worth while to dissect themselves are in a position to
   tell all they know of the result. (233)

Simcox's confessions are occasioned by "a bit of college gossip" which her brother Augustus (9) has brought home from Oxford about a younger man who had married an older woman (233). The story triggers a series of reminiscences that summarize and organize her other personal thoughts about gender.

Many of these are related to marriage, and she states emphatically that she never even wished to be in love with a mortal man or "even contemplated the possibility of being--except in the abstract under the pressure of Mrs. Lewes's real and supposed preferences and that very reluctantly and against the grain" (235). However, she adds, "I have thought my experience in this matter worth recording, for the benefit of young folks, not of my own sex exclusively. There is more common human nature in both boys and girls than anything else." However, she adds, "as far as humanity differentiates into sex, my temperament leans towards the masculine" (237).

Even though Eliot had accused her of "an ascetic contempt for marriage" when Simcox remarked that it was "dangerous to refer a girl to marriage as a solution to the life problem" (116), Simcox actually felt that it was best for most people to marry. In her October 17, 1887, entry she goes on to write that her prescription for both young men and women who feel compelled to marry is:

   Do more work; get enough play; know more people intimately; like
   more people well; in fact, know and like so many more than you
   could possibly marry that you would not begin to think about
   marrying any of them unless there turns out to be something quite
   different from all the rest in that one liking as to reveal
   itself--the true god of love. (239)

She advises both men and women not to marry until they know that they are "in love" with the one person they can love for life. To "the girls" she says:

   Without entering upon the trite ground of what women have to gain
   by wider interests and more varied avocations, it may suffice to
   show that women are not constitutionally inconsolable for the
   calamity of not finding a marriageable hero, if we remember what a
   disproportionate number of the women with plenty of money of their
   own remain single. (238)

Even though George Eliot did not have the courage to tell Simcox that she intended to marry John Walter Cross only eighteen months after the death of Lewes, Simcox was not surprised when George Henry Lewes' son came on May 7, 1880, to tell her that Eliot had married Cross on the previous morning (121). She had long realized that she was second to Johnny Cross in Eliot's affections; from the earliest journal entries Simcox was painfully aware of her jealousy toward "the fatal Johnny" (4, 11, 19). A few days after the wedding Simcox copied what she describes as amusing and appropriate lines from Eliot's "Brother and Sister" sonnets: "I think with joy/That I shall have my share, though he has more/Because he is the elder and a boy" (10) (123). However, she never had "her share." After Eliot's marriage Simcox seldom heard from her and saw her again for only a few minutes the day Eliot died (135). When recording the news of George Eliot's death, only eight months after her marriage to Cross, Simcox writes, "No one knows how deep my need of pity" (135). In her time of deep personal loss, Simcox's journal writing is her primary means of catharsis although she does mention that "the kind words and letters" from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the physician, and Eliza Orme, the lawyer, "and the rest are truly welcome" (138). Apparently there were several women who understood at least to some extent the personal devastation Simcox felt at the death of her loved one.

Clearly it is out of respect for George Eliot that Edith Simcox never actually discussed her love or her pain with anyone. In her journal Simcox never implies that her love would be viewed as unacceptable by anyone except Eliot, and she finds comfort in being able to say: "The grief is bitter, but it is only mine--it hurts no one else" (151). She did not allow herself the solace of sharing her pain even with Maria Congreve who admitted--Simcox says--"that she also loved my darling 'lover-wise'" (146). Even after Eliot's death, she wrote: "I think it would be a culpable weakness to betray now, even to Mrs. Congreve, the secret of my love sorrows" (149). Earlier, over a period of several days, Simcox had debated with herself whether or not she could share her love and pain with Mary Cross--novelist and sister to John Walter Cross. She writes, "This evening I have been crying a little and thinking again of confiding in Mary Cross" (131). But she never did.

Instead she expresses the thoughts she wanted to share in her book, Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women and Lovers, (11) published after Eliot's death in 1882. All twelve of these fictional vignettes portray Simcox's secret love for George Eliot and, like the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, serve as a significant link between Simcox's public and private worlds. And all twelve of the Episodes are "pure reminiscence" that include actual details of Simcox's experience with Eliot; she even names one of her female characters Marian for Eliot and another Edith for herself. More often she "disguises" herself as a male character as she writes fictionalized accounts of her own pain and rejection.

After George Eliot's death on December 22, 1880, Simcox made a sentimental journey to Nuneaton and Coventry to meet the women--like Maria Lewis and Sara Hennell--who were significant to Eliot when she was Mary Ann Evans. Simcox also deliberately cultivated relationships with the other women who had loved Eliot "passionately" such as Elma Stuart, Barbara Bodichon, and Maria Congreve. These women shared with Simcox letters that they had received from Eliot and confessed to Simcox the details of their love for Eliot. Simcox always preferred the friendship of women and on several occasions mentions in pairs the names of the women whom she invited to dinner. Simcox frequently comments that she is overworked because Mary Hamilton, her partner in the shirtmaking co-operative, is travelling with another woman to Scotland, to Egypt, or to Italy. And on January 5, 1879, Simcox writes, "Mary came back in another tribulation--some lovers' quarrel between Rhoda and Miss Richardson and herself" (62-63).

Throughout her life Simcox seems totally aware of and comfortable with her own androgyny. In her entry of October 17, 1887, she says that even as a small child (under 12) she was rebuked because she "liked boys best" and that she and her two brothers were referred to as "the three boys." She explains: "The base of the preference was a want of sympathy with girls' games and talk--I did not care for dolls or dress or any sort of needlework." She recalls that as a student she had an affection for a French governess which could be described as being "of a demonstrative, 'fondling' sort, not at all deeply sentimental" (233-34).

Simcox refers to herself as "half a man" (4) and as a "tomboy" (114), mentions her "young manhood" (256) and observes that even though she would be "the least womanish of available women," she would be glad "to serve on the new municipality if women were eligible (as I fear they won't be)" (184). On December 13, 1885, she says she has never doubted that her brain "was of entirely masculine quality," and would never regard herself "as a typical She" (228). Simcox also enjoyed transgendered writing; she used the pseudonym H. Lawrenny for several of her periodical articles and laughed at having signed her name E.J. Simcox on purpose to get "mistered" (20). She also wrote on many traditionally "masculine" topics such as economics, science, and theology; her books include Natural Law, 1877, in which she formulated a system of ethics; and Primitive Civilizations, 1894, in which she traced the ownership of property in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and China; in addition to Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women and Lovers, 1882. Among her "confessions" in the October 17, 1887, entry of the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, Simcox speaks of being socially inept as a teenager and goes on to write:

   I still find it difficult to get on with people unless I am brought
   forcibly in contact with them. My mind is a blank if I have to talk
   to anyone and more especially to men, about nothing in particular;
   I always liked the conversation of men of business.... As a rule
   the men I have known best have been introduced to me as their
   wives' husbands, my brother's pupils, or by my own colleagues on
   the School Board or 'Societies.' I was on pleasantly fraternal
   terms with the best members of the former body, and without going
   so far as to affirm that I still 'liked boys best,' it is a fact
   that I more often found myself working with the men than women. I
   eschewed both cookery and needlework and my favorite Committee was
   the Sites and Buildings Subcommittee of the Works and General
   Purposes. (239)

However, she often notes that the men do not accept her or other women as equals in the workplace. For example, on September 14, 1881, she says:

   This week the Trades Congress meets and I had men and brethren to
   dine at Mortimer Street. Mr. Burnett refused to admit the hypocrisy
   of calling it 'lunch' and the men today seized the opportunity of
   praising the fare and the cooking to insinuate that there 'woman's
   mission' lay. (162)

Edith Simcox was not so masculine or so unattractive that rumors were not started about her and the men with whom she worked closely. She had been a regular reviewer for the Academy since the first issue in 1869; over the years she came to know its founder Charles Appleton quite well--well enough to elicit the comment: "The fact that I found it easier to talk 'Academy' shop to poor Appleton than social platitudes to other people probably gave rise to the canard exaggerating my intimacy with him" (240). On October 30, 1881, she writes:

   Was a little amused--hardly annoyed--to hear last Monday, when I
   had a note from Mr. Cross that some asses had arranged an
   'engagement' between us.... It puzzles me, I confess. I don't know
   any other woman who wears spectacles and doesn't frequent 'society'
   whose name is made free with in that way. (166)

Ironically though, Simcox realizes that several women also appear to be attracted to her. In recording the details of her trip to Paris as a delegate to the International Conference in September of 1883, Simcox mentions that a "wretched young woman" had seized her by force and dragged her into the circle to dance; this incident calls to mind another time "years ago" when a "Miss Newberry made me dance a polka with her" (201). There is also a Miss Williams who loves Simcox but whose love Simcox does not return. On July 23, 1881, Simcox says "the poor creature professed a feeling for me different from what she had ever had for any one, it might make her happiness if I could return it." She adds that Miss Williams was justified in accusing her of being "a little cold" in her response (159). Throughout the next year Simcox felt all the more guilt at hurting Miss Williams because she knew so well the pain she was causing and comments that Miss Williams' soul lies heavy on her conscience (162). On January 6, 1882, thinking of Eliot, Simcox says, "Poor Miss Williams haunts me like an exaggeration of every foolishness with which I ever teased or wearied Her.... It is a fit judgment that I should feel all the helplessness I can ever have made Her feel" (179).

However, Simcox never allowed her private pain to hamper her in her ardent efforts to improve the opportunities open to other women. On December 28, 1880, a few days after Eliot's death, Simcox writes: "It is urgent in more ways than one to help the young--and especially young women--to harness their fresh impulses and enthusiasms" (138). On February 22, 1884, she records, "Have been to Oxford on a quaint errand--to 'read a paper' on Women's work, at an assemblage of town and gown in a room at Balliol" (203). She always worked diligently to practice the reform that she advocated.

For eight years she managed every aspect of the daily operation of a cooperative shirt and collar manufacturing company in London's Soho. In 1875 Simcox and her friend Mary Hamilton started the business to employ women under decent working conditions. Until the business became financially stable enough to operate without her, she managed the women employees, waited on customers, handled complaints, kept the accounts including payrolls, paid the bills, and prepared the reports to the shareholders. On January 25, 1884, she released her share in Hamilton and Company in order to devote more time to her writing and other reform efforts (203).

In addition to the details of her association with Hamilton and Company that appear in her Autobiography, Simcox gives an account of her "Eight Years of Co-Operative Shirtmaking" in an article that appeared in Nineteenth Century. (12) The article begins with a tribute to the work of Emma Paterson (13) (1848-1886), who took the lead in establishing trade unions for women workers (1037). Simcox goes on to explain that her experiment in co-operative shirtmaking grew out of discussions at a meeting of women workers that Emma Paterson held on July 1, 1875 (1037). The women shirtmakers were so enthusiastic that Simcox says she and Mary Hamilton agreed to provide rooms, sewing machines, and work for them (1039) and were thus "united in the bonds of lawful partnership" (1040). She says, "Our dream was of a strictly self-supporting clothes-making factory, where women should do all the work, and divide the profits among them" (1039). Over the next eight years, only women were involved in the entire operation of the business; "Customers multiplied, and were no longer drawn mainly from the ranks of private acquaintanceship" (1046). By the third year the business needed larger quarters and moved from 68 Dean Street to 27 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square, and all in all turned out to be a successful venture.

In her article Simcox says that she learned the steps involved in making a shirt so that she could allot the work to increase efficiency and even settled quarrels among the women over all manner of problems such as which chair belonged to which woman and when and how onions would be baked at the shop. In several journal entries she alludes to counseling with a young woman who had misappropriated funds (212-13). Even after Simcox officially withdrew from Hamilton and Company, she stayed in touch with the women; in 1893 she mentions having the Shirtmakers for Bank Holiday on two different occasions (259 and 260).

Several of Simcox's periodical articles deal explicitly with the imperative need for better economic opportunities for women. In her Fraser's article, "Industrial Employment of Women," (14) she points out that "the worst paid trades are followed principally by women, very few by men, and the majority of these unsuccessful trades are the lineal descendant of the old-fashioned domestic industries of former times." (15) Since "the victims have a right to something better than sermons on resignation and content" (255), Simcox proposes organizing and contracting work for women as she did in managing Hamilton and Company.

In another article entitled "Organization of Unremunerative Industry," (16) although she commends Octavia Hill in her missionary work, Simcox concludes that charitable organizations are not enough to provide appropriate employment for women. She argues that benevolent work should be done by those who have nothing else to do, and women who are willing to work in industry should be adequately prepared, permitted to do so, and paid wages comparable to those earned by men (614). She acknowledges the difficulty of finding employment for women with young children and even proposes child care for women workers. Since the children must be minded, she suggests setting up a day boarding-school which would also provide worthwhile work for additional women (620-21).

Along with Emma Paterson, Edith Simcox labored tirelessly to support the establishment of trade unions. Simcox and Paterson encouraged women bookbinders, upholsteresses, shirtmakers, dressmakers, sewing machinists, tailoresses, hatmakers, umbrella-makers, nailmakers, staymakers, laundresses, and other women workers to form societies having the same objects as the unions of men, which had just been legalized in 1871. (17)

In November and December of 1885 she notes that she is lecturing for the Socialists and writing a paper for the Fabian Society. In her journal entry as late as December 20, 1889, she says that she is "trying to nurse the Women's Trades Council into larger life" (248). Her article "Women's Work and Women's Wages" explains how trade unions actually help the workers--particularly the women. She gives the history of Paterson's reform work and says:

   We owe to Mrs. Paterson the discovery that the education of the
   workshop is just as effective in producing a class of intelligent
   workingwomen as in developing the intelligent working-man of whom
   we have heard so often and so long. (575)

She concludes the article by writing, "every sound economic principle applies to women as well as men" (581).

In encouraging the working men and women, Simcox visited the sweat shops and became involved in their lives. She looked at the actual working conditions, asked questions, compared wages and prices, examined the finished products, and took notes to substantiate her arguments in order to benefit both men and women. However, Edith Simcox clearly felt that women workers were more mistreated and had fewer opportunities for employment than men. In comparing the effectiveness of women workers to men of the same trade, she says: "The men preferred to spend the time in a gambling house with a speaking tube to send word up to them of suspicious strangers"; and when Simcox asked one of the women what games the men played while avoiding work, the woman replied, "brag" (206). As Simcox goes about from shop to shop, she says, "We were assured everywhere the girls leave work at 8, and only work eleven hours" (206), and "We also went to several shops where they professed to employ no girls now--they couldn't afford it,--girls were too much trouble" (207).

Simcox enjoyed getting to know the working people whose cause she defended and took pleasure in learning their unique personal characteristics. In a journal entry in April of 1879 she describes a meeting of the Westminster Democratic Club where more than a dozen of the women workers came to the platform one by one to give depositions regarding their grievances. One of the mistreated women stated that she was ready "to declare solemnly before God and anyone else!" and another said there was no way she could get ahead financially because she would be thrown into prison if she had to beg or steal to support herself and would even be sentenced to seven days in prison if she committed suicide (80).

On several occasions Simcox actually visited the homes of the workers. After one trade union meeting she reports:

   Instead of walking the streets as an experimental experience
   between the meeting and the first down train, as I had meant to do,
   I went back with Burns to his diggings, and--after rather shocking
   his wife by my advent--spent the night on their sofa in the
   kitchen, leaving between 4 and 5 in time to board the train at
   Clapham Junction along with heavy-eyed men, some of whom most likely
   had been up till midnight, like me, trying to set the world to
   rights. (245)

On another occasion, she mentions being glad when her committee work took her into the home of a watchmaker in Clerkenwell (11).

She particularly enjoys finding herself involved in situations where she is the only woman or where it is unusual for women to be--such as when she joined "polyglot tailors" in a conclave until closing time at the Brown Bear Pub, Fishman Street, Whitechapel (205). And even in Paris, she was delighted when she was taken into the workmen's inner circle and mentions letting the brethren of the Radical club pay for her glass of iced pomegranate syrup (197).

She consistently took advantage of every opportunity to "preach" (154) the type of reform that she practiced as a shirtmaker, and she is surprised at her popularity as a public speaker. On March 9, 1879, she says of her second Workman's Club Lecture, "Yesterday I read fast and awkwardly what was meant for a popular subject. Before night was writing to prepare a better delivery for a duller subject" (73). She talked to irate mobs in the streets although she drew the line at what she calls "street preaching" (206). She delivered prepared orations to public gatherings of all types of workers who were attempting to protect their rights and was pleased to know that her voice was strong enough to fill even a large hall (206).

In 1875 Simcox and Emma Paterson went to Glasgow as the first women delegates to the International Trade Union Congress; Simcox represented the British workers at the International Congress on at least eight occasions and even delivered an extemporaneous address in French at the International Labor Congress in Paris in 1889. In commenting on the International Workman's Conference in Paris to which she went alone in 1883, she says, "In general the Frenchmen seemed to me to take less notice of the women as such, than English Unionists, but also to treat them more entirely as equals" (198). However, she did not fare as well in the city of Paris. On September 28, 1889, she records: "Felt that the problem as to 'women's rights' would be rather difficult in Paris where private sitting rooms are dear and the Boulevards pleasant, so that it is a hardship if the femme sole can't hire a chair and newspaper for an hour at the same cheap rate as a man" (247). Throughout her journal Simcox describes herself working untiringly and always with the sense that she has left much undone; she is frequently promoting the formation of a Co-operative Store for women (31), trying to save the life of the Women's Printing Company (77), or offering remarks on University Extension (164).

She also actively promoted women's suffrage. In her Fortnightly Review (18) article entitled "Custom and Sex," she says, "the claims of women to the franchise, and a good many other things, are opposed in the House of Commons and elsewhere because the habits formed when women's position was very very different from what it is now, are still supposed to prevail" (311). But in spite of this prevailing lack of encouragement, she urges women to pursue learned and commercial careers and says that even though there has been strong opposition to women's studying medicine, serving as members of the local school boards, amusing themselves by skating and riding, once women assume these roles, the controversy "is peaceably extinct" (317). Custom, however, in certain circles still makes it not quite "the thing" for women to publish and still rules that "they shall not engage miscellaneously in remunerative pursuits" (317). Not only did Simcox publish, engage in remunerative pursuits, and serve on the School Board, she records in her Autobiography having taken up riding--both horseback riding (257) and bicycle riding (264).

Simcox's successes in her enthusiastic efforts to reform the British educational system deserve particular attention. In 1879 Simcox was persuaded to stand for election in the Westminster district of the London School Board (101). After three weeks of electioneering (104), she was elected by a large majority to represent the Radicals who wanted to free the schools from the control of the Church of England and to require and enforce compulsory elementary education for all children. For three years she works with her characteristic energy and enthusiasm and mentions "going fiercely from school to school" to make regular visits, looking at examinations, listening to geometry lessons, and receiving kisses from pupils; she also alludes to "wallowing in school board reports," having the Westminster teachers to tea (126), and harassing members of parliament to encourage reform and enforce attendance policies. On July 23, 1881, Simcox tells of being part of a delegation sent to Sir William Harcourt, the House Secretary, to represent the School Board. As their group of four men and Simcox are leaving, she observes: "I reflected in passing through the privileged corridors and lobbies, (where the men did not seem to notice my presence at all odd) that probably the house would resign itself without very much difficulty to its first lady member" (159). Even though she withdrew from the School Board in November of 1882 (189), in her October 17, 1887, passage on gender issues, she writes:

   Had I stayed on the Board and the parties remained unchanged, I
   should probably have been proposed to succeed Lyulph Stanley on the
   Statistical Committee, and tho' I'm not sure that a majority of men
   would have cared to give such a post of honour to a woman, they
   would have given it to me as readily as to any. (239)

In her article "The Capacity of Women," (19) Simcox asserts very effectively that women are not intellectually inferior to men and would definitely benefit from having an education and other opportunities equal to those available to men. She concludes: "We shall never have both men and women at their best and greatest until we have the cream of the cream of both sexes educating each other towards the highest standard of all imaginable human excellence" (402). She explains that since cultural and social circumstances have perpetrated the idea of the intellectual superiority of men, men enjoy educational privileges, encouragement, group support, and stimulation of ideas that the customs of the age do not provide for women. And she adds,

   It is needless to say that the most studiously disposed or gifted
   of young women in past generations have been cut off by custom
   absolutely from the stimulus of such common intellectual life as
   from the university teaching in its stricter form. (397)

Using the example of Mary Somerville's having taught herself mathematics, she says:

   If women are to do any kind of literary or other intellectual work,
   however humble, it is for the interests of the community that they
   shall be taught and required to do it as well as their natural
   faculties will allow. (399)

In the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker Simcox alludes to Marie Bashkirtseff as a woman who "had a real desire to learn and would have been perfectly happy taking a brilliant University degree.... She had plenty of cleverness and it was really pathetic that she should have found it so hard to find any use for it" (250). In another Fortnightly Review article entitled "Ideals of Feminine Usefulness," (20) Simcox describes two successful women as excellent role models for contemporary women. The first is Dorothy Pattison, who in 1864 became part of the sisterhood of Good Samaritans in order to nurse smallpox victims and literally gave her life in such service (661-62). The second is Mary Carpenter, who worked in a Ragged School, advocated industrial and reformatory schools, prison discipline, and the education of women in India. Simcox concludes her review of the biography of each woman by saying that she is glad both Pattison and Carpenter were able to do the work for which they were "supremely suited" although, if society had approved their choices, they could have begun earlier. And she adds, "Most old-fashioned believers in the 'womanly sphere' will turn from the two memoirs with a compassionate sigh--'Poor things' they would have been happier married and with a pack of children'" (665).

Even though she never married, Edith Simcox was not free from household responsibilities. The entries in the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker indicate that she managed the Simcox household and diligently and lovingly cared for her mother, Jemima Haslope Simcox (1816-1897) during her many years of growing weakness and sickness. She did everything possible to make her mother comfortable and happy. She read aloud to her, provided her with a horse and a dog, entertained her by playing games with her, saw that she could attend church regularly, took her on trips for her health--to the British coast, the French Riviera, to Switzerland, and to the Bavarian Alps. Jemima Simcox died December 18, 1897, only four years before her daughter. The two women are buried together in the graveyard at Aspley Guise near Bedford.

Because of her unusually close relationship to her mother, Simcox is quite surprised at how little she has changed her mother's attitudes about gender issues. When her mother was preparing her will, Edith thought that she wanted to leave her son Augustus a disproportionately large sum; she says,

   I am amused that the result of 46 years intercourse with as devout a
   believer in the rights of women and the rights of younger children as
   myself should have left her in the mood to desire spontaneously that
   her son should be 'worth' just as much as her daughter. (255)

In spite of her disappointment in her mother's judgment of her "worth," Simcox was economically secure and totally independent in every aspect of her life. She did whatever she did passionately and with all her might. Her energy and enthusiasm seem boundless. She walked across London at all hours in all kinds of weather and never complains at crossing Hyde Park alone at night. On one occasion she drove the dog-cart from one end of England to the other, staying alone at country inns and taking care of the horse herself (21) (222). At times she walked twenty miles or more from one village to another, and in 1895 she travelled alone to Egypt for her health (262). Even in her last entry in her Autobiography of a Shirtmaker on January 29, 1900, she mentions that in spite of her debilitating pulmonary diseases she has written an article at "usual pace." (22) Edith Simcox died on September 15, 1901; on her death certificate she is appropriately identified as "a gentlewoman of independent means." She was always diligent in her enthusiastic efforts in behalf of useful movements that were designed to better women's lives, and she left an impressive monument to the memory of George Eliot.

Pepperdine University


(1) A Monument to the Memory of George Eliot: Edith J. Simcox's Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, ed. Constance M. Fulmer and Margaret E. Barfield (Garland, 1998). This is an annotated edition of the manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University (Eng. misc. d. 494).

(2) Keith A. McKenzie, Edith Simcox and George Eliot (Oxford UP 1961, reprinted Greenwood, 1978). Gordon S. Haight refers to the manuscript in his George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford UP, 1969) and includes lengthy excerpts in Volume IX of The George Eliot Letters, 9 vols. (Yale UP, 1954-1974). Many of the passages from the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker to which I refer in this paper are also quoted by McKenzie or Haight.

(3) Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983), xi.

(4) Review of Middlemarch, Academy 4 (January 1873): 1-4; reprinted in A Century of George Eliot Criticism, ed. John Holmstrom and Lawrence Lerner (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966); and George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, ed. David Carroll (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971).

(5) Only one letter in the Simcox-Eliot correspondence survives. It was preserved between the pages of the Simcox journal and is reprinted in the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker as part of the entry for March 28, 1880 (119).

(6) See Constance M. Fulmer, "Edith Simcox: Feminist Critic and Reformer," Victorian Periodicals Review 31.1 (Spring 1998): 105-121.

(7) "Custom and Sex," Fortnightly Review II (March 1872): 310-23.

(8) "The Capacity of Women," Nineteenth Century 22 (September 1887): 252-67; Prose by Victorian Women, ed. Andrea Broomfield and Sally Mitchell (Garland, 1996), 583-597.

(9) George Augustus Simcox (1841-1905) was a classical scholar, a distinguished author, and a fellow of Queen's College Oxford from 1863 until his death.

(10) George Eliot's sonnet sequence "Brother and Sister," II, 6, 7, 8.

(11) Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women and Lovers (Trubner, 1882); five of the twelve were published as separate vignettes in Fraser's Magazine (June 1881 to November 1881).

(12) "Eight Years of Co-Operative Shirtmaking," Nineteenth Century 15 (June 1884): 1037-54.

(13) Emma Paterson founded the Protective and Provident League in July 1874; the members were largely men and women of the upper middle class and the purpose was to help women form trade unions. She was honorary secretary until her death in 1886. She also edited the Women's Union Journal.

(14) "Industrial Employment of Women," Fraser's Magazine 19 (February 1879): 246-55.

(15) With the exception of domestic service, the main source of employment for women was the textile industry. In 1833, 5,000 women were working in cotton factories as compared with 60,000 men (Norbert Soldon, Women in British Trade Unions: 1874-1975, Macmillan, 1978, 2).

(16) "Organization of Unremunerative Industry," Fraser's Magazine 18 (November 1878): 609-21.

(17) Trade unionism began during the 18th century with societies of journeymen, but trade unions did not receive legal status until the Trade Union Act of 1871. Serious agitation resulting from concern regarding women's political and economic status began in the 1850s. Between 1851 and 1881 adult women comprised roughly one-third of the population. Of this number, in 1851, forty-two percent of the women between the ages of twenty and forty were spinsters, but only one-fifth were employed. The movement to find increased employment opportunities for women introduced the first Married Women's Property Rights Bill in 1856, which was not passed until 1882 (Norbert Soldon, Women in British Trade Unions: 1874-1976, Macmillan, 1978, 6-7).

(18) "Custom and Sex," Fortnightly Review II (March 1872): 310-23.

(19) "The Capacity of Women," Nineteenth Century 22 (September 1887): 252-67; Prose by Victorian Women, ed. Andrea Broomfield and Sally Mitchell, Garland, 1996. 583-97.

(20) "Ideals of Feminine Usefulness," Fortnightly Review 27 (May 1880): 656-71.

(21) Her observations on this trip are the basis of her article "Rural Roads," Macmillan's Magazine (September 1885): 371-82.

(22) "The Native Australian Family," Nineteenth Century 46 (July 1899): 51-64.

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