- Philanthropy and the Construction of Victorian Women’s Citizenship: Lady Frederick Cavendish and Miss Emma Cons by Andrea Geddes Poole
Nineteenth-century philanthropy has become an increasingly productive field in both history and literature since Frank Prochaska opened the ground back in 1980. Andrea Geddes Poole’s fascinating look at the charitable careers of two late Victorian and early Edwardian women from differing social classes is a welcome addition to the mix. With her account of the lives and works of these women, Poole demonstrates how British women, despite not having a vote in parliamentary affairs, used philanthropy to affect broader debates on public policy and construct a new identity as citizens. She shows how their work, individually and co-operatively, exemplified patterns that constructed a distinct women’s public sphere as early as the 1880s.
Poole begins her story with two chapters on how Lady Frederick Cavendish, a bereaved widow whose husband had been tragically murdered, forged for herself a consuming and publicly useful career as both a private philanthropist who visited the poor in their homes and an influential member of philanthropic committees, associations, and societies that influenced social policy. Cavendish worked within the confines of the Church of England but managed to avoid the help and interference of the clergy in order to expand opportunities for charitable women and give them autonomy, especially through the major role she played in the Ladies Diocesan Society, the Parochial Mission Society, and the Women’s Union of the Church of England Temperance Society. It was primarily through her temperance work that Cavendish met Emma Cons, the other subject of the book. [End Page 442]
Chapter three begins the story of Cons, giving her charitable biography starting with her close association with Octavia Hill’s housing experiment, then moving beyond to her own housing project, and finally focusing on her heavy involvement with the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall and the associated Morley College. Not an aristocrat like Lady Cavendish, Cons came from a skilled artisan background, which seems to have given her more actual understanding of what the poor wanted and needed, including respect. Along with Lady Cavendish, however, Cons was also well connected with overlapping groups of powerful friends she could call on for advice, capital, and influence. Known for her forthrightness, financial acumen, efficiency in addressing problems, ability to gather networks of people for well-budgeted projects, and general expertise, she not only ran the Old Vic but was also appointed as the first woman alderman on the London County Council in 1888. Chapter four specifically details the way she and others were successful at introducing and generating a love for opera at the Old Vic, something other philanthropists had tried but not succeeded in, while chapter five talks about the long history of Morley College, which started as occasional scientific lectures at the music hall and ended as an established institution that helped the working classes become citizens.
It is not until chapter six that Poole really gets to the point about women’s citizenship and brings together Lady Cavendish and Cons. In the three chapters devoted to Cons, Lady Cavendish appears only occasionally and not in major roles. In this penultimate chapter we learn how philanthropy for women was transformed from a Christian duty to a civil, patriotic one that included using their right to vote in local elections to expand into holding office in local governments, as both women did. This broadened the public’s sense of the permissible limits for women and was, Poole claims, a more important aspect of identity formation for Victorian women than parliamentary suffrage. The conclusion brings the two women together as creators of change, each typifying a different aspect of utterly respectable Victorian womanhood.
Poole’s book is engagingly written and continuously absorbing, even for those not particularly interested in philanthropy. It opens new channels of thought and suggests more histories that need exploration. While it might have done a better job of acknowledging previous interdisciplinary scholarship on...