Magazine article The Spectator

Aunt Barbara's Fireplace

Magazine article The Spectator

Aunt Barbara's Fireplace

Article excerpt

Charlotte Moore on her intrepid relative, who numbered many of the great Victorians - Rossetti, Gertrude Jekyll, George Eliot - among her closest friends

'A young lady. . . blessed with large rations of tin, fat, enthusiasm, and golden hair, who thinks nothing of climbing up a mountain in breeches, or wading through a stream in none.' So Dante Gabriel Rossetti described his new friend Barbara Leigh Smith, later Bodichon.

'Aunt Barbara' stood out, vibrant even among a pretty exceptional bunch. She was an artist, traveller, journalist, feminist agitator, cofounder of Girton College, architect of the Married Women's Property Act, philanthropist, plantswoman and friend. At Scalands Gate, her Sussex home, visitors painted their names on the bricks round the fireplace, sometimes adding a sketch or a motto. The 300-odd signatures reflect the many facets of Barbara's powerful character.

Barbara designed Scalands herself. The great gardener Gertrude Jekyll helped her plan the garden. Informal lawns, climbers scrambling up fruit trees, garden flowers mingling in drifts with wild species, helped soften the divisions between the garden, the surrounding woodland, and the distant blue Wealden landscape.

The garden was, said Barbara's aunt Julia Smith, 'a second volume to her house. . . a history of her life & travels in the form of leaves, flowers, fruit from at least three of the world's quarters.'

'I am one of the cracked people of the world, and I like to herd with the cracked, ' wrote Barbara, and the signatures on her fireplace are a rich mixture. Artists - Rossetti, William Morris, Sickert, Marianne North, Madox Brown; writers as diverse as George Eliot and Hilaire Belloc; Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor, the sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick, Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust, the suffragist Millicent Fawcett - these names mingle with family, Girton students, servants and proteges.

'Nursie' Walker is there, a Sussex dialect speaker who brought up Barbara and her siblings on local songs and stories. So is Alfred Clements, the illegitimate son of Barbara's maid. Barbara rescued him from a foundling hospital, fostered him with a fisherman's family, and left him a trust fund so that he could start a grocery business.

Barbara's circumstances gave her sympathy for outsiders. Her father, Ben Smith MP, lived out of wedlock with Barbara's workingclass mother, and the family disapproved.

That experience made her George Eliot's most supportive female friend, chief of the tiny handful who would 'receive' the novelist once she began her cohabitation with a married man, G.H. Lewes. On Barbara's fireplace, George Eliot signs herself 'M. Lewes'.

When Adam Bede appeared, Barbara was the first to penetrate the pen-name: 'I know that it is you. . . that it is written by Marian Evans, there is her great big head and her wise wide views.' In reply, Marian called Barbara 'the first heart that has recognised me in a book which has come from my heart of hearts.' Lewes added a postscript: 'You're a darling. . . You are the person on whose sympathy we both counted.' Barbara sent Marian a hamper from Sussex; Marian wrote thanking her for the 'beautiful things - the butter, such as Mrs Poyser [keeper of the dairy in Adam Bede] would not have scorned, the ferns, the cresses, the fruits, the mushrooms!

I took it as a hamper full of love, expressed in all those sweet country things.'

Barbara was chief apologist for the tabooed couple. 'Marian tells me that in their intimate marital relationship [Lewes] is. …

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