Bessie Rayner Parkes

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Bessie Rayner Parkes

Bessie Rayner Parkes Belloc (16 June 1829 - 23 March 1925) was one of the most prominent English feminists and campaigners for women’s rights in Victorian times and also a poet, essayist and journalist.

Early life

A great-grandchild of the eminent scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Bessie Rayner Parkes was born to loving, well-off parents, in a household interested in people and ideas. Her father was Joseph Parkes (1796-1865), a prosperous solicitor and a liberal with Radical sympathies. His support for his daughter’s aspirations was moderate. Bessie's mother, Elizabeth Rayner Priestley (1797-1877), usually called Eliza, was a wife and mother, who always considered herself an American, having been born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. She remembered her grandfather with admiration and love. Although not in great sympathy with her daughter over her strong wish to make changes in the status of women, she nevertheless loved her dearly and did not actively oppose her. Unusually for girls of her background, Bessie was well educated at a progressive Unitarian boarding school, a period of her life which she enjoyed.


Parkes became gradually aware of the unjust, contradictory, and even absurd situation of women in Great Britain, though there were many differences according to the social class they belonged to. The first endeavour that Parkes and her friend Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon took on was to try to change the restrictive property laws that applied to married women. Parkes was also indignant about the distinction made between "ladies" and "women". "Ladies", that is to say middle-class women, lost social status if they earned money, the only acceptable exceptions being writing, painting, or teaching, which for the most part meant governessing. Due in part to her efforts, by the close of the century, it became acceptable for a middle-class woman to acquire a proper education and train to do paid work. Working-class women had always belonged to the work force, whether they wanted to or not. Parkes and her activist friends interacted with women in other countries of Europe and in the United States, adding a very considerable international dimension to their efforts. In the 1860s Parkes belonged to the first women’s group which set out to obtain voting rights.


Bessie Rayner Parkes’ wide circle of literary and political friends included George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, Anna Jameson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Elizabeth Blackwell, Lord Shaftesbury, Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Thackeray, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, John Ruskin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her most fruitful friendship was with Barbara Bodichon, for out of their joint efforts grew the first organized women’s movement in Britain.

English Woman's Journal

Parkes became the principal editor of the first feminist British periodical – the English Woman’s Journal - published monthly in London between 1858 and 1864. Its closure was due both to financial reasons and to the conflicts that arose among its sponsors and chief contributors. The offshoots that sprang from it were many and varied, such as the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women, the Victoria Printing Press (entirely staffed by women), the Law-Copying Office, and the Langham Place Group, where women gathered informally to discuss their lives or simply have a rest.

Conversion to Roman Catholicism

Another important part of Parkes' life story was her path to the Roman Catholic Church, to which she converted in 1864. She took in all the debate around the Oxford Movement, but what impressed her was the social work carried out by Catholic nuns. She knew three English Cardinals personally and recalled them in her writings.

Marriage and children

Aged 38, Bessie Rayner Parkes fell in love with a Frenchman of delicate health, named Louis Belloc, himself the son of a notable woman, Louise Swanton-Belloc. Their five-year-long marriage, spent in France, was lovingly recounted by their daughter in her memoir, I Too Have Lived In Arcadia. The family lived through the Franco-Prussian War and was deeply affected by it on a material level. Parkes never got over her husband’s sudden death in 1872. Their children, Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), went on to become renowned writers in their different ways.

Later life

Parkes continued to write until late in life and remained a keen observer of politics and society. However, following her marriage and the death of her husband, her active involvement in the organized women’s movements abated. Anguish over the stupidity of war and pride in her country coloured her feelings during the First World War. Almost at its close, her eldest grandchild, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, went missing. He was shot down and killed near Cambrai, in France. She died in 1925, aged 95.

Published work

Bessie Rayner Parkes published fourteen books: poetry, essays, biography, memoirs, travel, and literature for children and adolescents, as well as a very effective booklet on women’s rights and dozens of articles. A lot of her literary work was well received during her lifetime and her poetry was admired by Ruskin and Longfellow.

Books by Bessie Rayner Parkes

  • Poems (London, John Chapman, 1st edition 1852, 2nd edition, 1855)
  • Summer Sketches and Other Poems (London, John Chapman, 1854)
  • Remarks on the Education of Girls, with Reference to the Social, Legal, and Industrial Position of Women in the Present Day (London, John Chapman, 1854, 1st unsigned edition, 3rd signed edition 1856).
  • Gabriel: A Poem (London, John Chapman, 1856)
  • The History of our Cat Aspasia (London, Bosworth and Harrison, 1856). Illustrated by Annie Leigh Smith.
  • Ballads and Songs (London, Bell & Daldy, 1863)
  • Essays on Woman’s Work (London, Alexander Strahan, 1865)
  • Vignettes: Twelve Biographical Sketches (London and New York, Alexander Strahan, 1866)
  • La Belle France (London, Dalby, Isbister & Co., 1877). Signed Bessie Parkes-Belloc.
  • Peoples of the World (London, Paris & New York, Cassell Petter & Galpin, [1870]). Signed Bessie Parkes-Belloc.
  • In a Walled Garden (London, Ward & Downey, 1st edition, 1895, 5th edition 1900). Signed Bessie Rayner Belloc.
  • A Passing World (London, Ward & Downey, 1897). Signed Bessie Rayner Belloc.
  • Historic Nuns (London, Duckworth, 1898). Signed Bessie R. Belloc.
  • The Flowing Tide (London, Sands & Co., 1900). Signed Bessie Rayner Belloc.
  • In Fifty Years (London, Sands & Co., 1904). Signed Bessie Rayner Belloc.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Bonnie S. Joyous Greetings, The International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Belloc Lowndes, Mrs. I, too, have lived in Arcadia (London: Macmillan, 1941).
  • Fulmer, Constance M. “Bessie Rayner Parkes”. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 240: Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century British Women Poets (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001).
  • Herstein, Sheila R. A Mid-Victorian Feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
  • Hirsch, Pam. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (London: Chatto & Windus, 1998).
  • Lowndes, Emma. Turning Victorian Ladies into Women: The Life of Bessie Rayner Parkes, 1829-1925 (Palo Alto, CA: Academica Press, 2011).
  • Lowndes, Susan, ed. Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1911-1947 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971).
  • Rendall, Jane. "'A Moral Engine'? Feminism, Liberalism and the English Woman’s Journal", in Jane Rendall, ed., Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).
  • ---. "Friendship and Politics: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-91) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925)", in Susan Mendus & Jane Rendall, eds., Sexuality and Subordination (London: Routledge, 1989).

External links