Charlotte Moore

Aunt Barbara’s fireplace

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

Aunt Barbara’s  fireplace
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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, co-founder 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 protégés. ‘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 working-class 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... extremely considerate,’ she told the poet and journalist Bessie Parkes. After Lewes’s death, Barbara invited Marian to make her home with her, but the offer was declined: ‘Dearest Barbara, bless you for all your goodness to me, but I am a bruised creature, and shrink even from the tenderest touch.’ When, to universal amazement, Marian, in her sixties, married a man 20 years younger, Barbara declared stoutly, ‘Tell Johnny Cross I should have done exactly what he has done if you would let me and I had been a man.’

Barbara told her niece Amy (my great-grandmother) that, even more than George Eliot’s famous intellect, what struck her was ‘the power of being truthful & having a soul which is pure & active’. Admiration was mutual — there was much of Barbara in Eliot’s Romola. Another signatory, Hertha Marks, may have been the model for Miriam in Daniel Deronda. Hertha, the gifted, penniless orphan of a Jewish watchmaker, was all but adopted by Barbara, who sent her to Girton. Hertha became an eminent physicist, and named her daughter after her benefactress. Barbara would have relished the fact that her little namesake was to become a Labour MP.

‘Dante Rossetti is my favourite of the young men [the Pre-Raphaelites],’ Barbara told Bessie Parkes, but she was even more interested in the artistic talent of Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti’s muse and mistress, declaring her ‘a genius’. She saw that tuberculosis would soon finish Lizzie — ‘Rossetti is like a child, he cannot believe she is in danger’ — and invited the couple to Sussex, hoping that country air would help. She, Rossetti, and Anna Mary Howitt, another artist friend, sketched Lizzie with irises in her hair.

In 1870, eight years after Lizzie’s death, Rossetti exhumed the poems he had buried with her. Now in love with William Morris’s wife Janey, and hooked on chloral hydrate, Rossetti was approaching a breakdown. Barbara invited him to recuperate at Scalands. ‘Barbara does not indulge in bell-pulls, hardly in servants to summon thereby,’ he wrote to the poet William Allingham, another signatory, ‘what she does affect is any amount of through draught.’ His jaunty tone belies the tension in the house. The Morrises came to stay. Rossetti persuaded William to return to town leaving Janey behind, so Scalands became the setting for another doomed tryst.

Gertrude Jekyll was a more stable friend. She helped nurse Barbara, who in 1877 suffered a stroke, and never fully recovered her vigour. With Miss Jekyll she plotted her next project — a night school for working-class men. Miss Jekyll designed an extension to the ground floor at Scalands, to house the school and its library. Most of the teaching was done by the semi-invalid Barbara and elderly, tiny, deaf Aunt Julia Smith — ‘Aunt Ju takes the big men who can’t read’ — but, surprisingly perhaps, the school was a success. ‘She has educated a generation of agricultural labourers in the principles of liberalism,’ stated Barbara’s obituary, ‘...these classes brought a wholly new element into the lives of the country people she loved so well.’

Barbara died in 1891. Scalands remained in the family for another 60 years. It fell into disrepair, and suffered two fires, but the signatures survived. Aunt Barbara would be pleased to know that it is now the home of a female doctor and her family, and that the names of her friends can still be dimly discerned on the old brick fireplace.

Hancox: A House and a Family by Charlotte Moore is published by Viking/Penguin on 1 July.