Sunday, 18 May 2008

Excellent Women: Felicia Skene

While browsing Project Canterbury, I came across the following title The Inheritance of Evil Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister and decided to indulge in reading some Victorian polemical fiction. Referring to this nineteenth century political and ecclesiastical controversy, and written in opposition to the repeal of the 1835 Marriage Act, it relates the tragic tale of Elizabeth Maynard who suspects that her new husband is falling in love with her younger sister. I won’t reveal too much of the plot other than that, as you may already suspect, it lacks a happy ending.

However, the author, Felicia Skene, does not quite fit the modern stereotype of the Victorian lady novelist. In Felicia Skene of Oxford, her biographer Edith Rickards recounts incidents of mischievous childhood behaviour:

“it was the child's delight to slip her arm through her governess's in order to give a sly pull to the long veil which modestly covered that lady's face, so as to force her to make an involuntary bow to any officer they might chance to meet.”

This trait seems to have continued throughout her life:

“They think, ' There's that pious old lady, Miss Skene! ' and they'd never dream I could be so wicked."

She spent much of her early life travelling throughout Europe and lived in Athens for several years. On returning to England, she met the Revd Thomas Chamberlain of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford and his cousin Marion Hughes and, under their influence, eventually moved to Oxford where she organised teams of nurses, some of whom later joined Florence Nightingale at Scutari, to tend to the victims of smallpox and cholera epidemics in 1849 and 1854. A local farmer was so impressed by her courage and devotion that he followed her home from the hospital and proposed marriage. This was, of course, politely refused, but Edith Rickards writes:

“Felicia's sense of humour was so tickled by the astonishment she felt at receiving such an unexpected offer that she hardly knew how to restrain her laughter.”

After the epidemics, she turned her attention to the plight of women held in Oxford prison. For the last twenty years of her life, she visited twice a week providing comfort and advice to the prisoners, and food and employment for the recently released. She encouraged former inmates to marry and provided the wedding breakfast which always included plentiful gin. She was the first woman in England to be given official permission to be a regular visitor in a public prison.

The conditions she saw in Oxford and elsewhere encouraged her to use her ability as a writer to campaign for the reform of women’s penitentiaries . Her 1865 pamphlet, Penitentiaries and Reformatories describes some of the dreadful conditions and humiliations that women in these institutions had to endure and condemns the traditional attitude to ‘fallen women’, that society “'sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery, while it let thousands of wretched women drift year after year into the abyss. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that scrupled not to receive with open arms the very men for whom they sinned”. This anonymous pamphlet drove a clergyman to write to her to express his vehement disagreement but, thinking that it could only have been written by a man, he addressed the letter “Dear Sir”.

Were she alive today, I wonder if she would be blogging?

(The image is of the title page of Penitentiaries and Reformatories as digitized by the University of Indiana's Victorian Women Writers Project)

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