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Edith J. Simcox (1844-1901)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 30-33 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0019

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Edith J. Simcox (1844-1901) was an eminent Victorian scholar and social reformer. She was a successful author, a business woman, a leader in the trades union movement, an elected member of the London School Board, and a social activist who worked to improve every aspect of women's lives. She was an independent woman who not only advocated economic and intellectual opportunities for women but also worked to provide them.

She kept a personal journal from 1876 until a few months before her death, in 1900. This private diary, which she called the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, records her daily activities and her emotional turmoil from and frustration over her unrequited love for George Eliot. In 1872, Simcox met George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, just after she had reviewed the newly published Middlemarch. Simcox never confided in anyone—other than the two of them— that she loved Eliot "lover-wise" (Monument 146) but used her journal therapeutically to deal with the intense pain of rejection. From the first entry, she realized that it was "her mission to love rather than to be loved" (41). Simcox wanted her work to serve as a tribute to George Eliot, hence the complete edition of Autobiography of a Shirtmaker was published with the title A Monument to the Memory of George Eliot.

When Simcox began her journal, she went daily to Hamilton and Company, where she managed every aspect of a shirtmaking co-operative that she had established with Mary Hamilton to employ women in ideal working conditions. Many of her journal entries refer to handling the accounts, solving personnel problems, and dealing with customers. In 1875, the business was established in Soho, London, at 68 Dean Street. George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and many other well-known literary and political figures ordered their shirts from Hamilton and Company. In 1879, Hamilton and Company moved to larger quarters at 23 Charles Street, Mayfair, and then to even larger quarters at 27 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square, where they added dressmaking to their work. Simcox records her role as a successful shirtmaker in her Nineteenth Century article "Eight Years of Co-operative Shirtmaking." By January 1884, she felt that the business was stable enough for her to sell her shares in order to devote more time to other activities.

These other activities included contributing regularly to the leading periodicals, sometimes using the pseudonym H. Laurenny but most often using her own name. Beginning with its first issue in 1869, she wrote more than seventy articles for the Academy. She brought a new global awareness to English readers by reviewing literary, philosophical, religious, and scientific texts. In her major articles, she supports women's education and employment, advocates improving women's economic plight, and argues for women's independence. However, her topics for articles also included art, philosophy, autobiographies, the Australian family, and myths and fairytales, and her work appeared in Fraser's Magazine, the Fortnightly Review, the Nineteenth Century, Macmillan's Magazine, the North British Review, St. Paul's Magazine, and Longman's Magazine. As a representative to the International Trades Union Congress, she frequently contributed daily reports to the Manchester Guardian. As a part of her other reform efforts, she also wrote for the Co-Operative News, the Labour Tribune, the Women's Union Journal, and the London Times.

Simcox's three books exemplify her support for women, her concern with economic issues, and her extensive research and erudition. In Natural Law, she formulated her own system of ethics. The two volumes entitled Primitive Civilisations; or, An Outline of the History of Ownership in Archaic Communities, required years of painstaking research on the appropriation of property in ancient Assyria, Egypt, China, and Babylon. During the British Age of Imperialism, Simcox's approach and conclusions manifested a deep respect for these forgotten civilizations. Her writing emphasizes women's roles and economic status to demonstrate that civilizations that permitted women to own property were intellectually superior. Her fictional Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women, and Lovers is a series of twelve vignettes, five of which were originally published in Fraser's Magazine. These sketches relate to gender issues and when read alongside the Autobiography...



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