BARBARA LEIGH SMITH BODICHON: A MID-VICTORIAN FEMINIST by Sheila R. Herstein

BARBARA LEIGH SMITH BODICHON: A MID-VICTORIAN FEMINIST

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Although Barbara Leight Smith Bodichon was ""individualistic to the point of eccentricity,"" there are few signs of individualism, much less ""eccentricity,"" in this curiously torpid biography. The author admits she was tempted to tell Bodichon's story in ""flamboyant prose."" While flamboyance is hardly called for, livelier writing and less reticence in revealing the personal details of the feminist's life would have resulted in a more satisfying book. The illegitimate daughter of Unitarian reformer and British M.P. Benjamin Leigh Smith, Barbara was from an early age aware of the problems facing women in 19th-century England. She would, for example, have been unable to inherit her share of her father's considerable fortune, owing to her ""irregular"" status, had not Leigh Smith foresightedly settled lifelong allowances on her and her four bastard brothers and sisters. As it was, the money allowed Barbara to involve herself with reform movements throughout her life, supporting schools, periodicals and associations aimed at alleviating the plight of women. She was an indefatigable, if undistinguished, writer of books and pamphlets on feminist topics and formed lasting friendships with the likes of Elizabeth Barrett, George Eliot, Harriet Martineau and John Stuart Mill. Bodichon's story could have been a fascinating one--complex, puzzling and provocative. But, perhaps because of her reluctance to face up to its ambiguities and seeming contradictions, Herstein provides little more than a recital of publication dates, the minutes of committee meetings and tedious rehearsals of struggles within the women's movement of the time. To be sure, Herstein is more successful in delineating the larger abstract issues--property rights, employment, suffrage, education--with which Bodichon was concerned, but the woman herself remains two-dimensional. Her iconoclasm; her vivacity, alternating with recurrent periods of depression; her unlikely affair with John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review (he was not only egotistical and chauvinistic but an opportunist to boot); her something-less-than-orthodox marriage to Eugene Bodichon are all mentioned and then left relatively unexplored. While Bodichon may have lacked the fire and hell-for-leather assurance of the Pankhursts a century later, her story holds a dramatic promise that Herstein's biography fails to fulfill. That's a pity; the woman deserves better.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1985
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press