The Firecracker Feminist

She is almost forgotten today but Sussex-born Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was a tireless Victorian feminist and human rights activist who lived on her own terms. Jill Parkin takes up her remarkable story 

As far as visitor books go, the one at Scalands Gate in Robertsbridge is unusual. The guests, who included painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, artist Walter Sickert and political activist Millicent Fawcett, painted their signatures on the bricks of the inglenook. And there they remain today.

Add to the above, artist Ford Madox Brown, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and textile designer William Morris. Yet even more surprising is that their hostess is almost unheard-of. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was born in 1827, the illegitimate first child of a miller’s daughter, Anne Longden, and Benjamin Smith, a successful businessman and liberal politician.

Smith had a conviction that marriage was unnecessary; such a strong conviction that it could not be shaken by the obvious disadvantage that illegitimacy was to his children. And this birth stain is at the heart of this book, which tells us of the firecracker that Barbara grew into, sending sparks of light and warmth in all directions.

An outcast from polite Victorian society, she revelled in the freedom which that, and family money, gave her. Wearing no stays, her hair red and loose, she addressed meetings, talked about female sexual pleasure, wrote to the newspapers and published pamphlets calling for the vote for women.

Robinson’s book reads like a Who’s Who of Victorian political and artistic society. A network of Barbara’s circle includes her cousin Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot), Florence Nightingale, novelists Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell, artist and Pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddal, and politician and philanthropist William Wilberforce.

The firecracker was first and foremost a feminist. Her childhood homes, near Scalands and on Hastings seafront, nurtured a freewheeling champion of her sex. Barbara fought for married women’s property rights, the right to divorce, decent treatment for the mentally ill and, of course, female suffrage.

She co-founded Girton College, Cambridge, and the campaigning English Women’s Journal. At its offices in Langham Place in London, there was a Ladies’ Institute which had a women’s reading room and luncheon room, with lavatories. So, for an annual subscription of a guinea, women could stay away from home during the day for longer.

You close this book with a new character in your mental list of great Victorians: a breathless woman refusing to break her stride for mere convention. The visitor book in brick shakes our lazy view of Victorian stuffiness – the era was full of reformers and iconoclasts. Many were undersung women, who threw off their stays, both physical and social, so we later women could breathe and move more freely.

Trailblazer: The First Feminist to Change Our World by Jane Robinson is published by Doubleday at £25.

APRIL READS

THE SECRET PHOTOGRAPH

By Siobhan Curham

Bookouture, £9.99

Sussex author Siobhan Curham continues exploring life during World War II with another novel set in occupied France. Inspiration this time comes from American photographer Lee Miller, who began her career on fashion shoots before becoming a wartime photojournalist covering harrowing scenes. Miller later lived in East Sussex until her death in 1977.

Wondering what it was like for such an intrepid woman photographer at that time, Curham creates Clarisse – an American who leaves her French husband and becomes a member of the resistance after photographing a distraught Jewish girl being separated from her mother during a ‘round-up’.

Clarisse’s desire to find and help the girl drive her on as she takes increasing risks for the resistance. Meanwhile, she falls in love with Louis, who introduced her to the movement, but his life, too, is in constant danger.

Curham has done her research thoroughly and writes vividly and well, making this a deeply emotional read. Given the subject matter, happy endings could be overly sentimental but a satisfying conclusion awaits.

Anne Hill

PREHISTORIC SUSSEX

By Alex Vincent

Amberley Publishing, £15.99

This book proves you don’t have to be an enthusiastic antiquarian to get hooked on pre-history. From burial mounds where the Devil is said to have capered to the final resting place of a giant and the mystery of a rumoured silver coffin, the county is littered with the ancient remains of our long-gone ancestors, their way of life, and the myths and legends that have sprung from them across the centuries.

The author takes us on an extensive field trip, identifying features we might see daily without realising their historic significance – from mighty hillforts to places where early Sussex man fashioned his flint tools; from burial mounds to ancient tracks.

He takes us through thousands of years of human activity – and there are some surprising revelations. The floral clock in Hove’s Palmeira Square was modelled on a now vanished ancient barrow. And that silver coffin? Well, apparently it was interred on Firle Beacon not so far from the giant’s grave. Fascinating book perfect for I-Spy prehistory walks.

Freddie Lawrence

THE MYSTERY OF YEW TREE HOUSE

By Lesley Thomson

Head of Zeus, £9.99

Detective fiction is hugely popular for many reasons, but surely one is the lure of the series. However gruesome the crime, there is something comforting in solving it alongside familiar characters, while following their lives from book to book.

Sussex author Lesley Thomson’s Detective’s Daughter series, featuring Stella Darnell, has so far run to eight bestselling novels. In 2020 Thomson premiered Sussex DI Toni Kemp, whose reappearance in 2022 suggested a new series was underway. However, with this latest, Thomson does something surprising – she brings her two sleuths together.

Stella and partner Jack are holidaying in Sussex with Jack’s seven-year-old twins to see if they can get along as a family. Young Milly’s discovery of a body in the garden isn’t quite the happy vibe they hoped for. While DI Kemp heads the official investigation, Milly and her brother are keen to find the ‘murder-rah’ themselves – though Stella and Jack hope to get there first.

A complex, multi-layered, vividly peopled read which Stella and Toni fans especially, will relish.

Anne Hill

MY LIFE IN BOOKS

GW Shaw

Brighton resident William Shaw writes the critically acclaimed Alex Cupidi detective series set in Dungeness, but his latest novel, The Conspirators, now out in paperback (Riverrun, £9.99) and written under the pen name GW Shaw, is an addictive contemporary thriller set in the Austrian Alps

The book I loved as a child

Stig of the Dump by Clive King is brilliant. I love a story where, within a few pages, you have to give in to its world. Sure, there’s a Stone Age man living behind my house. Why not?

The book that inspired me as a teenager

The narrator’s voice in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was exciting to me as a teenager. It showed that books didn’t have to be like the ones I was studying. You could experiment.

The book I’ve never finished

I bet you get a lot of Joyce in this section. I wouldn’t say I’ve never finished Ulysses – rather, I’m still working on it. Love it, but modernist fiction is the best argument for the existence of a rollicking story.

The book that moved me most

More than 20 years ago I joined a small writers group in Brighton. One of the members was CJ Sansom, who blew us away with the draft of what would be his debut novel, Dissolution. I’ve read everything of his in draft since, but his health isn’t great these days. When he told me he thought that his latest book, Tombland, might be his last, I suggested he came up with an ending that completed an emotional arc for the series. I have no idea if he listened, but if you’ve followed the whole Shardlake series, the way he lands this book is gorgeous.

The book I’m reading now

Elly Griffiths’ The Last Remains. The way she has led her characters on an elegant dance through the Ruth Galloway series is superb and this is a perfect way to finish.

Book of the Month

SOUTHDOWN OUT OF GREEN & CREAM

By Simon Stanford

Amberley Publishing, £15.99

Vintage bus enthusiasts will find much to enjoy in this abundantly illustrated book celebrating Southdown Motor Services, the bus operator on the South Coast whose delightful green and cream livery is still fondly remembered today.

But as Simon Stanford points out in his introduction, the company adopted a range of hues from its inception in 1960 until its purchase by Stagecoach in 1989. The formation of the National Bus Company in 1969 meant that its trademark green and cream gradually disappeared in favour of National green and white on its buses and National white on its coaches. Southdown jazzed things up by adding advertising and route branding.

This wealth of previously-unpublished material offers a tantalising glimpse of a lost transport world.

Angela Wintle