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Ellice Hopkins (1836-1904)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 22-26 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0009

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Ellice Hopkins (1836-1904) is best known today as the late Victorian social purity campaigner who helped establish the White Cross Army. Frank Mort calls her the "organic intellectual" of the social purity movement (93). She was at different stages of her career a rescue worker, lobbyist, fundraiser, and public orator, as well as a poet who published two volumes, English Idylls (1865) and Autumn Swallows (1883), and novelist, though she only published a single novel, Rose Turquand (1876). This novel was written after she met James Hinton (1822-1875), an innovative ear surgeon and radical philosopher, when Hopkins shifted from active rescue work with women to preventive work with men before her withdrawal from public life, in 1888, as a result of chronic ill health. Like Florence Nightingale, she was a participant in the Victorian "culture of invalidism" (Frawley 6), and she wrote extensively on the subject in devotional works, such as Christ the Consoler, A Book of Comfort for the Sick (1879), that demonstrate the remarkably ecumenical reach of her feminist Christology. In the final stage of her work, in works such as The Power of Womanhood (1899), she advocated a "maternalist feminism" (Mumm 208) that grew from a belief in woman's role in moral evolution. At this time, in texts like The Story of Life (1902), she also advocated for realistic sex education, and thus she was an early intervener in Victorian scientia sexualis whose work attracted the attention of Havelock Ellis. While The Story of Life is somewhat reticent, it makes clear, as does her essay "The Song of Songs" and Rose Turquand, that she celebrated erotic passion within the bonds of marriage and was not a prudish spinster as she was constructed by some of her late-Victorian and subsequent attackers.

"Forgotten but important" was Edward Bristow's 1977 assessment of Hopkins; "she is one of the most interesting of forgotten Victorians" (94). Sheila Jeffreys added in 1985 that Hopkins has been relegated to the province of "church historians," and "by those concerned with the history of sexuality, she has been represented as a straightforward prude" (18). Bristow and Jeffreys trace the decline in Hopkins's reputation to her agitation for the Industrial Schools Act (ISA) (1880). More recently, the neglect of Hopkins's achievements has been rectified in part by the pioneering work of Sue Morgan and Susan Mumm on Hopkins's women's rights activism and her role in Victorian feminist theology. In particular, Morgan's A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the Late-Victorian Church (1999) offers an engaging, comprehensive study of religion and gender in Hopkins's work. An edition of Hopkins's long out-of-print and sorely neglected novel, Rose Turquand, with appendices taken from some of her activist work, recently appeared in the four-volume set Victorian Social Activists' Novels, edited by Oliver Lovesey.

Contemporary recognition of Hopkins's work was also limited by her chronic ill health (she suffered from aphasia, apoplexy, and sciatica) (Morgan 64) and seclusion but primarily by the Victorian suspicion of women's activism, the conventions of Victorian life-writing, and her own modesty. In 1869, more than a decade before the ISA controversy, she lamented her waning influence: "I have a sort of despairing feeling that [my publications] will never get known, as through my long illness I have so completely dropped out of the working world" (qtd. in Barrett 26). The Power of Womanhood begins with an abbreviated account of her career, as Hopkins notes that her long illness and her withdrawal from public life will have made her unfamiliar to young readers. Hopkins, however, was also ambivalent about women's public role. In 1876, she wrote to Elihu Burritt, the American philanthropist and philologist, who described Hopkins as a women whose "seed-lives" would bring forth great yields in future generations, thanking him for preserving her anonymity and upholding Nightingale as her model ("Seed Lives 18 [1876]"). Despite such assertions, Hopkins was not sanguine about the diminution of her role. She wrote in An Englishwoman's Work among Workingmen (1875), "It was hard that the power which would have been a glory to...

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