2/24/2008 7:19 AM
Jeanie (pronounced 'Jay-nee') Senior, née Hughes, sister of Thomas Hughes, author of 'Tom Brown's Schooldays', was probably the greatest amateur singer of her day (she was selected to test the accoustics of the new Albert Hall) and was also one of the great humanitarian women of the 19th century, along with Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler and others whose names are now sadly forgotten. Her charitable work on behalf of pauper children, friendless servant girls and others, along with the fact that she was a co-founder of the British Red Cross and the first woman to be appointed to high public office in Whitehall (i.e. central government civil service), would be enough to perpetuate her name, but the story of her life is made all the more fascinating by the remarkable number of eminent and interesting people she knew; these included George Eliot (who wrote about her), Millais (who painted her), G. F. Watts, the 'English Michelangelo' (who also painted her - and whose muse she became), Julia Margaret Cameron (who photographed her), Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale' (who sang with her), Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, Prosper Mérimée, the author of Carmen (who tried to seduce her - failing miserably), and many others. As Lady Ritchie (Annie Thackeray) wrote of Jeanie's home in London:
'Stately and charming people used to assemble at Elm House. It is an odd saying that people of a certain stamp attract each other. It was a really remarkable assemblage of accomplished and beautiful women who were in the habit of coming there, that home so bare, so simple yet so luxurious.'
More important than this was Jeanie's personality, her beauty, grace, sincerity and concern for others, which led people who knew her to say:
'She was the most fascinating woman I ever met. The beauty of her expression, the sweetness and richness of her voice (in speaking as well as singing), and the charm of her manner combined to make her unlike anyone else.'
'Surely a more beautiful life has scarcely ever been lived. Its very brevity seems almost in keeping. It was a concentration of sweetness and beauty which could, one would fancy, hardly have lasted longer than those 49 short years.'
'The sweetest face I ever saw. Masses of golden hair, bright as a young child's, shaded the delicate, transparent features... She reminded me of a Fra Angelico angel, but her face was the face of one who has experienced suffering and overcome it.'
'I never look back on her as an ordinary woman who lived in this world. Her beauty of form and character always seemed to me as something not of this world at all. I do not believe that any man or woman ever gave out such marvellous influence as she did; and this not to a few, but to everyone and every class of person. All seemed as if they must and did adore her.'
Nonetheless, her appointment to high public office in Whitehall was fiercely resisted and her subsequent report on the education of pauper girls caused a furore and was savagely attacked in the press. She was vilified by The Times and publicly accused of lying in its correspondence columns. Her detractors, who referred to her as 'That Woman', afforded her no respite even when she was confined to her bed and dying of exhaustion and cancer. She fought the long defeat, from her bed, with the backing of Florence Nightingale, George Eliot, Octavia Hill, Lord Shaftesbury, Sir James Stansfeld and others, but 'it was too much - she fell asleep on the 24th March 1877'*. Sadly for the generations of pauper children concerned it was to be many years before her recommendations were implemented** or another woman appointed to high public office***, but her example was not forgotten, by some at least, and she became an icon for the Women's Movement during its most difficult years.
*'Recollections of the Hughes family' - Walter Money FSA
**Children were not taken out of the workhouses until 1915. Outside the official sphere the torch was taken up by the great Dr. Barnardo, whose Barkingside Girls' Village Home opened in 1876. Dr. Barnardo said 'Boarding out.. really owes its introduction in England to the idefatigable labours of the late Mrs. Nassau Senior.'
***Miss M H Mason in 1885
This book is, above all, the story of a woman and her struggles in life, as wife, mother, sister, daughter, muse, lover and friend, in the face of an unhappy marriage, personal and family disaster (including bankruptcy) and cancer - the triumph of an undaunted heart. It is the intimate story of the person who, the author argues on the basis of convincing new evidence, and with authoritative academic support, became the model for the heroine of the greatest work of fiction in the English language, that is Dorothea in George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'. But this is not just a moving and absorbing story of a life well-lived, it is also the story of a family struggling with the great challenges of the 19th century, including the massive social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution.
On Jeanie Senior's death, Watts wrote a letter, in what can only be described as a fit of anger, to his particularly sexist patron, Charles Rickards (1812-1886):
'I have lost a friend who could never be replaced even if I had a long life before me, one in whom I had unbounded confidence, never shaken in the course of friendship very rare during 26 years, Mrs. Nassau Senior, whom I dare say you remember talking about with me, who was called by a friend of yours "That Woman". I think when you read the biography of "That Woman", for it is one that will be written, [you will find] that very few canonized saints so well deserved glorification, for all that makes human nature admirable, lovable, & estimable, she had very few equals indeed, & I am certain no superior. It is not too much to say that children yet unborn will have cause to rue this comparative early death.'
In 'Recollections of the Hughes family' Walter Money wrote:
'If any lady of the 19th century, in England or abroad, could have been allowed to put in a claim for the credit of not having lived in vain, that woman, we honestly believe, was Mrs. Nassau Senior.'
Sybil Oldfield's scholarly and devoted research into the extensive papers lovingly preserved by Jeanie's son, Walter, (a veritable treasure trove of unpublished letters from eminent Victorians, including George Eliot and Florence Nightingale) and her brilliant detective work in archives all over the world are impressive beyond words. Like Jeanie herself Sybil Oldfield has that which Carlyle called the first quality of genius, an immense capacity for taking trouble. More than this, Sybil has written a warm, humane and immensely readable book.