Perhaps thought of primarily as the mother of Hilaire Belloc and Marie Lowndes-Belloc, both writers of repute, Bessie Rayner Parkes (Belloc) should be remembered in her own right as a poet, essayist, and feminist.
Born in Birmingham, she was the daughter of Joseph Parkes, a solicitor and Unitarian, and Elizabeth Priestley, eldest granddaughter of the scientist Joseph Priestley. Her background was thus one of Unitarianism and political radicalism, with her father's circle of friends including Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills. The family moved to London when Bessie was young, but she was educated at a school in Warwickshire.
In 1846 she met Barbara Leigh Smith (later Barbara Bodichon), who was to remain a life-long friend, despite an estrangement of some years caused by Bessie's short marriage. Together they established (1858) the English woman's journal, with the aim of advancing ideas on the reform of women's education and legal rights, eventually giving rise also to a women's employment bureau, reading room, clerical school, and the Victoria Press. In 1854 Bessie had published Remarks upon the education of girls, and in 1865 Essays on women's work. Although an enthusiastic supporter of the rights of married women to property, earnings and the vote, she was not an advocate of complete equality, believing as she did in the uniquely "delicate" organisation of the female brain and body.
Among her circle of friends and acquaintances were Elizabeth Gaskell, Anna Jameson, George Eliot, Matilda Hays, Adelaide Procter, Isa Craig, Thackeray, Trollope and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Sometime between 1861 and 1864, after a period of agnosticism, she converted to Roman Catholicism. This conversion may have been influenced by the death of her friend, Adelaide Procter. In 1867, while on holiday in France after an unhappy love affair, Bessie met and married Louis Belloc: after just five years of extremely happy life together, Louis died suddenly from sunstroke, leaving Bessie with two children, Hilaire and Marie (later Belloc-Lowndes).
Although both children were to become writers, neither followed her political leanings: Marie seemingly uninterested in, and Hilaire antagonistic towards, feminism. Bessie herself did not renew her links with the active women's movement on her return from France when, reduced to near poverty, she eventually moved to Slindon, near Arundel in Sussex, where she was to live for the rest of her life.
Summer sketches and other poems (1854)
Gabriel; a poem (1856)
Ballads and songs (1863)
In a walled garden (Collected essays) (1895)
A passing world (essays) (1897)
A sample selection and the complete text of Poems is available on this website.
More information about the author may be found in the following books about her, her family and her friends, available in the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection:-
I too have lived in Arcadia by Marie Belloc-Lowndes
Barbara Bodichon 1827-91 by Hester Burton (1949)*
The life of Hilaire Belloc by Robert Speaight (1957) *
Page created 13 August 2002 and last updated
28 October 2002
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