Fiona Maccarthy is the author most recently of The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. (July 2015)

A Tragic Heroine of the Reading Room

Eleanor Marx at the age of about sixteen, 1871
On Thursday, March 31, 1898, a few weeks after her strenuous involvement as campaign manager and fund-raiser for a lengthy strike of British engineers, Eleanor Marx instructed her maid Gerty to unwrap her favorite white dress from the tissue wrapping in which it had been packed away for winter. The …

One of a Kind in Cumbria

The interior of St. Mary’s Church, Wreay, Cumbria, designed by Sarah Losh and built in 1842
In the county of Cumbria far to the north of England, a land of ancient feudings alongside the Scottish border, stands a small stone village church built in 1842. So remarkable is this building that it stops in their tracks almost everyone who sees it. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel …

A Hero of the Gothic

In his brief lifespan as an architect and writer A.W.N. Pugin transformed the British landscape. By the time he died, insane, at the age of forty, he had given the great cities of London and Edinburgh two defining landmarks—“Big Ben,” the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, and the …

The First Feminist

Lyndall Gordon’s new book opens with a wonderful first paragraph describing Mary Wollstonecraft’s crossing of the Channel from England to Revolutionary France. In December 1792 Wollstonecraft was thirty-three. She was traveling alone and, characteristically contrary, she was making a journey in the opposite direction to most of her fellow countrymen …

Notes from Underground

On a dank foggy morning in London in December 1831 two men are brought out to be dispatched on the scaffold erected outside Newgate Prison. A crowd of between 30,000 and 40,000 people press forward, risking their own lives, to watch the gruesome culmination of what had become a notorious …

Skin Deep

This summer three British transsexuals who want to be women won their appeal against the local health authority which had refused them a sex-change operation. In a case widely publicized in the UK, the Court of Appeal upheld an earlier High Court ruling that the authority had acted unlawfully, without …

The Green Pimpernel

Insurrectionary spirits looked back with some nostalgia to the fiery clarities of the French Revolution and to the Irish rebellion of 1798 with which it was so tragically intertwined. Lord Byron, for example, was enchanted by “anecdotes of those times when I, alas! was an infant.” He added, “If I …

Refuseniks

Around midnight on Monday, November 4, 1604, or possibly in the small hours of the next morning, a man in a cloak and dark hat was discovered in a cellar underneath the English House of Parliament in Westminster. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were stored there. The man, a Roman Catholic …

How the Other Half Lived

Olwen Hufton opens the first volume of her two-part history of Western European women with a supposedly revealing anecdote. In the late 1950s Keith Thomas was rash enough to offer a series of lectures on seventeenth-century women to Oxford undergraduates. His colleagues found the subject bizarre and the students simply …

The Power of Chastity

Sister Wendy Beckett has been becoming a curious cult figure in Britain over the past year. She is a nun in her mid-sixties who lives in a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite con-vent in Norfolk when she is not otherwise engaged in making films about art history for …

Star

Lola Montez was caustic about the biographies that accumulated in her lifetime, accusing them of bearing no more resemblance to her than to the man in the moon. The inaccurate biographies continued after her death in New York in 1861. Typical is Edmund B. d’Auvergne’s account, published in London in …

Governess on Speed

Christina Rossetti wrote poems of peculiar frozen feeling. This is one of the reasons for her long neglect after her death in 1894, an unpopularity out of all proportion to the neglect of Victorian poetry in general. Even children singing her Christmas carol “In the bleak mid-winter” recognize that this …