[This document comes from Helena Wojtczak's English Social History: Women of Nineteenth-Century Hastings and St.Leonards. An Illustrated Historical Miscellany, which the author has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on the title to obtain the original site, which has additional information.]

The author of the following extracts, Bessie Rayner Parkes, later Madame Belloc (1828-1925), came from a family of political radicals. Her grandfather was a leading Dissenter, her father a reforming politician.

A feminist and suffragist, Bessie's greatest passion was women's access to education and the professions. In 1858 she became editor of The Englishwoman's Review, which she co-founded with Barbara Bodichon. In 1867, she married Louis Belloc and both of their children became famous: their daughter was the novelist Marie Belloc-Lowndes; their son the writer and MP Hilaire Belloc. Ironically, he strongly and publicly opposed women having either education or the vote.

In the next year, 1845, the Howitts went to Hastings, and formed a close intimacy with a family with which my parents and I were also shortly to be tenderly and gratefully associated: that of Mr. Benjamin Smith, the member for Norwich. A great domestic affliction caused us to take up our residence in Hastings--where, indeed, we were Mr. Smith's tenants -- and until July, 1850, we were almost as one family, sheltered under the magnificent rock of the Castle Hill.

Hastings was not then what it is now; the old town was widely separated from St. Leonards, and the lanes leading up to Ore Church were lanes of deep country seclusion. It was here, in 1846-7, that I first heard of the Howitts as a family. Mrs. Howitt's tales and poems had, of course, been familiar to me from early childhood, more especially the exquisite "Sketches from Natural History," containing that ballad beginning "Will you walk into my parlour, said the Spider to the Fly," which has become so much a classic phrase that I have seen it quoted in prose in a political leader, without any reference to the authoress, or to the fact that the quotation formed part of a verse.

If on the one hand we were all full of the distinguished authoress, and her charming eldest daughter Anna Mary, on the other hand here is Mrs. Howitt's allusion to the Leigh Smiths, which will explain a reference in one of her future letters to me. She describes the group of five, of whom the eldest was then eighteen, and the youngest twelve; speaks of their carriages and horses, and outdoor life, and of how "Every year their father takes them a journey. He has a large carriage built like an omnibus, in which they and their servants can travel and in it, with four horses, they make long journeys. This year they were in Ireland, and next year I expect they will go into Italy. Their father dotes on them. They take with them books and sketching materials; and they have every advantage which can be obtained them, whether at home or abroad. Such were and are our friends the Leigh Smiths, and thou canst imagine how much pleasure we were likely to derive from such a family."

In 1855 "Anna Mary and Barbara" go off to Hastings, and get lodged in Clive Vale Farm, [Ann Samworth's] the place where Holman Hunt had painted his famous picture of the sheep upon the downs. He had made a great mess with his oils upon a certain table, which gave pleasure to the artists who were following in his footsteps!

The first letter which I find I have preserved of Mary Howitt's is dated from this residence, on the West Hill, where they remained many years. It is of December, 1858, and is addressed to my mother, at a moment when I was lying in imminent danger of death. It is too personal for quotation, and I pass on to Good Friday of the year 1865, when Mrs. Howitt writes from West Hill Lodge about a Sussex Guide of mine which she had in her possession. She is about to go to Switzerland, but "that is only perhaps." The note ends thus:--"How the budding leaves and all the amenity of this lovely springtime recall Scalands and those pleasant woods to my mind." She refers to a time which really gave me my last living memory of dear Mary Howitt, though our intimacy may truly be said to have lasted unbroken to the weeks immediately preceding her death, five and twenty years afterwards. I shall ever remain grateful for those spring weeks of 1864, when William and Mary Howitt were living at Scalands Cottage, the English home of Miss Leigh Smith, who had become Madame Bodichon. It was in the April of that year that I met Mrs. Howitt on the platform of the Robertsbridge station. I was going to a kind friend at an old farmhouse known as Brown's, and the Howitts were at Scalands, of which she writes: "Barbara has built her cottage upon the plan of the old Sussex houses, in a style which must have prevailed at the time of the Conquest. It is very quaint, and very comfortable at the same time." And she gives lovely pictures in her letters of those "purple woods of Sussex," then blue with the wild hyacinth, in all the inexpressible tender beauty of the spring. It was there that I was privileged to enjoy my last conversations with Mary Howitt."

Further readings

The whole of "In A Walled Garden" is available at the Victorian Women's Writer's Project.

A short biography of Bessie Rayner Parkes can be found at Spartacus Schoolnet.

Last modified 2000