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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.
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, see Married Women's Property Act 1870.
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 organised women's movement in Britain.
Bessie Rayner Parkes met Harriet Hosmer in Italy in May 1857, described Hosmer as ‘such a bright little creature; bright hair, bright eyes … as busy as a bee’. Parkes was intrigued by the combination in Hosmer’s dress of singularity and fashionability, and she was delighted by a likeness to her own appearance: She is the funniest little creature not at all rough or slangy but like a little boy…. There is much energy and spirit in a pair of splendid grey eyes, her face is that of an arch faun…. She lives with an old French lady, but conducts herself exactly as she chooses …. She has short curled hair like mine, & usually swept back from a very broad brow, wears a black hat and little feather everywhere, concerts & all, seeming quite ignorant of bonnets; manages her petticoats with a certain extraordinary ease suggestive of trousers – but the finishing and funniest point of all is a very thin waist, & this strangely for a sculptor seems Hatty’s weak point, for all her jackets fit quite tight & neat. Hosmer’s dedication, her ‘sublime steadiness’, impressed her. When Hosmer visited London for the exhibition of Beatrice Cenci, she called on Parkes at the offices of the Waverley Journal and took out a subscription to the magazine. Parkes was introduced by Matilda Mary Hays, an actress, novelist, translator of the works of George Sand and Charlotte Cushman’s partner, who was to leave Rome to become joint editor of The English Woman’s Journal; her essay on Hosmer was printed in July 1858.
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.
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.
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 title is a reference to Et in Arcadia ego). 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.
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 organised 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.
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