- Bessie Parkes's Summer Sketches:George Eliot as Poetic Persona
In 1853 an historic group of literary Victoriansgatheredat the King's Arms Inn at the foot of Leith Hill for a part of their summer holiday. A vanguard group of three women, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), her aunt Julia Smith, and Bessie Rayner Parkes (later Belloc), arrived in the Surrey village of Ockley near the end of June and installed themselves in the snug little inn. After several days, during which they established an active yet restful rural routine, a party arrived from London to expand the group by three women and a man: Marian Evans (eventually George Eliot), Sara Hennell, Susanna Chapman, and her publisher husband John.1
Most of the group who met at the King's Arms were writers. Leigh Smith completed and published her Brief Summary of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women the following year. Sara Hennell plugged away at her metaphysics and brought out Christianity and Infidelity in 1856 and Thoughts in Aid of Faith in 1859. John Chapman continued writing occasional articles, including, in 1855, an essay on women's rights, and, in 1858, his single independent publication, a seven-page pamphlet on Chloroform and Other Anesthetics. Evans also wrote noteworthy articles, the most important of them for the Westminster Review.2 By the end of the decade she had become one of England's most respected novelists. And Parkes, although she later found her place in literary London editing feminist periodicals, at the time was writing both prose and poetry, including Summer Sketches, an epistolary narrative poem set largely in the Surrey village she and her friends visited in the summer of 1853.
Despite writing four books of poetry containing more than a hundred poems, Parkes's verses, whether about Ockley or her many other subjects, never achieved for her much fame as a poet.3 Instead, she figures in Victorian history as a women's rights activist, periodical editor, convert to Catholicism, mother of twentieth-century poet Hilaire Belloc, and early friend of Marian Evans/George Eliot. Her MP father Joseph Parkes commissioned Evans' first publication in book form, the translation ofD. F. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, which appeared in 1846. Nine years later, she and [End Page 295] Barbara Leigh Smith took the unusual course of failing to ostracize their friend after her scandalous elopement to Germany with George Henry Lewes. Continually, Parkes prodded Evans/Eliot to show more of her feminist side in her writing and her life.
The singular poetic achievement of Summer Sketches also proceeds from Parkes's friendship with George Eliot, for in the poem she follows her two sections of narration of events at Ockley with a third part in which she takes the audacious step of creating the future novelist (at the time an important London editor) as her poetic persona.4 In the early parts of the epistolary poem, the letter writer, "Lilian" (Parkes) describes the creative activities, political discussions, and immediate surroundings of herself, "Mistress Clare" (Julia Smith), and "Ella" (Leigh Smith) to her friend "Helen" (Evans), still hard at work in London. In the third section, supposedly posted from London, the prosaic, moderate voice of "Helen" most often conforms to usual interpretations of George Eliot's positions, practices, and beliefs as described by her many biographers.5 To the ongoing George Eliot biographical project in general, this voice contributes a rare and credible portrait of an almost-young Marian Evans/George Eliot as interpreted by a close friend.6
Moreover, Parkes's plan for her three-part poem creates Evans as a presence well before she hands the narrative over to her, indeed from the opening salutation to "Dear Helen." Before Helen/Evans becomes the voice of the third letter, she figures as the addressee of its first two sections. This arrangement implies that Lilian selects her topics to appeal to the interests of Helen, and these choices in turn imply that in 1853 Evans was, like her friends, concerned with theories about social reform, especially women's rights and improved education. In addition, Parkes's descriptions of country excursions, as well as of some of...