A brief biography of Edith Simcox Natasha Booth-Johnson (she/her)
Edith Jemima Simcox (1844-1901) was a successful trade union activist and businesswoman. She gained support as a prominent proto-feminist activist and worked tirelessly towards developing equal opportunities for women both in factories and in business. She also gained a small level of fame as a reviewer working under The Academy from 1869 to 1895. For the first few years of this part of her career, she wrote under the gender-neutral pseudonym H. Lawrenny. However, after 1873 she began publishing under her own name and continued to do so until she ceased writing over two decades later.
Simcox was born on 21st August 1844, the youngest of three siblings into an upper-middle class family. Despite a lack of formal higher education, she became well-versed in language, politics, and business. Due to the timing of her birth, she was unable to attend the women’s colleges that began opening during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but she nonetheless developed into a highly-skilled and intelligent woman, even without the benefit of higher education.
Simcox is most commonly known for her contentious relationship with the famous Victorian author George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). They developed their friendship in 1872 when Simcox penned a review of Middlemarch for The Academy, and they remained close until Eliot’s death in 1880. This relationship was passionate yet tumultuous; queer on the side of Simcox, and maternal on the side of Eliot. Rosemarie Bodenheimer writes that
‘Simcox went to George Eliot as a great writer who had led an unconventional woman’s life, and found herself battling instead with an icon who projected – among other things – Victorian norms of womanly sympathy, renunciation, and heterosexual marriage’ (Bodenheimer, 405).
This constant back of forth was a cause of great distress for Simcox. This we know due to Simcox’s extensive journals, an abridged version of which was first published by KA McKenzie in 1961, then later followed by a full and complete edition more recently in 1998 by Constance M. Fulmer and Margaret Barfield.
The journal provides marvellous insight into Simcox’s relationships and her work. We know, for instance, that Simcox was highly conflicted about her desire for Eliot, as she wrote that she understood her devotion to the elder as a ‘wholesome’ and ‘natural’ ‘passion’, but also ‘abnormal’ (Simcox, 114; 141). Bodenheimer writes that Simcox’s ‘solution to the dilemma of prohibited desire was to dwell in an idealizing love that left her safely, if depressingly, alone’ (Bodenheimer, 412). She followed Eliot’s guidance where possible, but nonetheless remained privately dedicated to her own activism and beliefs.
While Simcox is indeed most well-known for this relationship with Eliot, and often understood as a lens through which to view Eliot, she nonetheless established a successful career in her own right. It would be a mistake to view Simcox solely as a follower of Eliot when she herself possessed such strong business acumen and a talent for writing. While Simcox did consider her sole work of published fiction, Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women, and Lovers (1882), to be a ‘plain [confession]’ of devotion to Eliot, it is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of love and gender that allows us to understand her potential experience of gender.
Simcox described herself as ‘half a man’ and as possessing ‘a man’s mind’ in a way that separated her from traditional nineteenth-century femininity. This is evidenced not only in her fiction – many of the sketches within the anthology withhold the gender of the narrator intentionally – but in her articles for The Academy. Under the penname H. Lawrenny, Brenda Ayres remarks, Simcox could ‘explore occasionally biting satire and suggestive, albeit subterranean critique’ (Ayres, 58). Through this persona, Simcox could produce opinion pieces that were much more controversial than would have been allowed under her real name – as Lawrenny, she engages with the suffrage movement through a lens of ‘what is right and best for all mankind’ and thus appeal to a wider audience (Ayres, 60).
As for her fiction, the sketches within Episodes fall into two categories. The first consists of stories of realised love set in a pastoral, European setting, and the second is those of ‘unresolved feeling’ that take as their setting the Atlantic coastline (Bodenheimer, 413). As the title of the anthology suggests, within these stories Simcox splits her characters into three distinct gender groupings – men, women, and lovers. This is reflective of Simcox’s belief in a third sex or non-binary gender of which she considered herself to be a part.
Gillian Beer perhaps summarises Simcox’s life and work best when she writes that ‘her involvement in political activity was no second best to writing. It was, rather part of an exploration of ethics which was to encompass an eschatology without religious dimensions’ (Beer, 175). For Simcox, political activism, of which she remained a part until her death on 15th September 1901, was a significant means to explore her understanding of her place in the world. To conclude, I will cite Beer once more: ‘incompleteness, perdurance, the refusal to make things fit satisfactorily, a distrust of philosophical narratives and philosophical resolutions, a determination to participate: all these attitudes vie with each other in [Simcox’s] life work’ (Beer, 179).
Ayres, Brenda, ‘Edith Simcox’s Diptych: Sexuality and Textuality’, Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siecle: Making a Name for Herself ed. by F. Elizabeth Gray, (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Beer, Gillian, ‘Passion, Politics, Philosophy: The Work of Edith Simcox’, Women: A Cultural Review 6.1 (1995).
Bodenheimer, Rosemarie, ‘Autobiography in Fragments: The Elusive Life of Edith Simcox’, Victorian Studies 44.3 (2002).
Simcox, Edith, Autobiography of a Shirtmaker: A Monument to the Memory of George Eliot ed. by Constance M. Fulmer and Margaret Barfield (New York: Garland, 1998).