SOME EMINENT WOMEN OF OUR TIMES.*
THE company brought together in this little book might be described in bad English as "very mixed." Queens and philanthropists, prose-writers and poets, scientific women, strong-minded women, women who, if weaker in brain, knew even better how to efface themselves for others, women of many shades of religions belief, heroines like Lady Sale, unhappy geniuses like Emily Brontë,—the long procession follow each other in a rather curious order of precedence, or rather, in none at all; for though Elizabeth Fry leads the way, as is usual in books of this kind, Sister Dora finds her- self in advance of Mrs. Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, and Hannah More. Except Queen Louisa of Prussia and the two American Abolitionists, all the twenty-five are of British nationality. The book, so far as it goes, is meant to illustrate the fact that "nearly all the best contributions of women to literature have been made during the last hundred years," and also that
there has been an equally remarkable activity in spheres of work held to be peculiarly feminine." "The same impulse," from Mrs. Fawcett's point of view, has given us Mary Carpenter and Jane Austen, Sarah Martin and Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Browning.
"The same, yet not the same !" one feels inclined to say ; for looking simply at the services rendered by all these different women to humanity, without considering their different level of genius or talent, it is difficult to see any possible parallel, for instance, between poor, wonderful, repulsive Emily Bronte, the cause of nothing but misery to those around her, and such a woman as Dorothy Wordsworth or Florence Nightingale. We should say that the lives of many of these women were indeed moved by the same impulse—the love of humanity, or something higher—but that this great moving power was in some cases conspicuously absent. Genius is a thing by itself, a wonder, to be admired for itself ; it has nothing to do with literary or philanthrophic "activity." All these women of whom Mrs. Fawcett writes, were no doubt " eminent " in one way or another ; but it is surely a mistaken view of the impulse that moved Elizabeth Fry and Sister Dora, to call it the sante as that which inspired Jane Austen and the Brontes. But not to linger too long with the preface, which seems to contain the motive of the book, we must now go on to say that the sketches themselves are very cleverly done. They are, of course, extremely short, sometimes hardly long enough to tell us all we should like to know of the less familiar figures ; but nothing of real interest is left out, and the difficult business of condensing is done in the best and clearest way. Mrs. Fawcett is very fair to her char- acters, though here and there she admits old prejudices which surprise us. We must say a word, for instance, in defence of Hannah More. All that has been written lately, it seems, • Some Eminent Women of Our Times : Short Biographical Sketches, By Mrs. Henry Fawcett London : Macmillan and Co. 1889.
about that charming, excellent, and remarkable woman has not removed the reproach of Methodism so absurdly fastened upon her by Sydney Smith and other people who ought to have known better. The Cheddar savages, to whom innocent songs and games were unknown, their only idea of gaiety being coarseness, could only be taught and reformed by a certain sternness in religion, the utter disappearance of which in these days some far-seeing people are beginning to regret. Hannah More's success might to make us hesitate before we feel so very sure that we could have managed Cheddar better than she did.
Mrs. Fawcett's remarks on Sisterhoods, in her sketch of Sister Dora, seem also to call for some remonstrance. They are the remarks of a writer who is pleased to ignore, in a way too common, but unworthy of her powers, a great machinery for good which has been revived in the English Church in the
present day. Sister Dora's behaviour with regard to the Sisterhood she had joined was not particularly to her credit,
and showed by no means the finest side of her character. The following statement requires notice :—
"In some institutions of this kind, after the floor has been carefully and thoroughly scrubbed by a novice, some one enters, by order of the Superior, with mud or ashes, and purposely makes it dirty again ; the novice is then ordered to return to her work and scrub the floor once more, and she is expected to do so without
showing the least sign of disappointment or annoyance This unnatural system is perverting to the moral sense and judgment, as Sister Dora, a few years later, found to her cost."
In answer to such absurdities, it need only be said that the heads of English Sisterhoods are good, cultivated, and reasonable women, and that these stories are on a par with those revelations made by escaped nuns, to which Mrs. Fawcett, we think, would hardly listen patiently. One of the most entertaining of these short biographies is that of Maria Edgeworth. Her wonderful father, his inventions and
his marriages, her friendship with Scott, her novels and adven- tures, the exciting times through which she lived, make her a figure that must be always attractive and interesting. The sketch of Harriet Martineau is also very good; but among so many lives, and of such varied interest, it is difficult to choose the best. Among these "Eminent Women" Mrs. Fawcett has placed Queen Victoria. Her sketch of the Queen is in excellent taste, though her remarks on the Queen's uncles, made for the sake of contrast, are perhaps almost too strong.
On the whole, in spite of the blemishes we have pointed out, the little book is a spirited collection of portraits worth remembering. It will be useful in education and as a book of reference, covering as it does the most distinguished names among a century of women.