Amelia Edwards: A Victorian Trailblazer

Amelia Edwards was a fascinating woman who popped her head above the parapet of  convention and made a real impact in her own lifetime. And this was an era when women were supposed to stay at home and not be noticed. Not only did she support herself with her writing, both as a novelist and  journalist, but she fell in love with Egypt and the consequences were absolutely wonderful.

Inclement weather during a hiking holiday in France, and a pioneering spirit, led Amelia to Egypt in the autumn of 1873. Mere chance, but it changed her life completely. Already an experienced travel writer, she took to the land of the pharaohs with a passion and wrote about her experiences in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile.

I came across the book by chance while undertaking research for my second Lucy Lawrence novel, Footprints in the Sand. I was astonished when I first read the book for it could have been written today. There was none of the stilted dryness you would expect from a Victorian writer but humour and a fascinating insight into Egypt’s heritage and its people. For anyone with an interest in Victorian women (who broke the mould!) or indeed Egyptology, I highly recommend investing in a copy. She even did the wonderful illustrations in the book (example below)!

Amelia was born in London in 1831, daughter of an ex-army officer and an Irish mother. She was educated at home and soon showed a talent for the written word. She produced her first full length novel in 1855 – My Brother’s Wife. Her poetry, stories and articles were published in magazines including Chamber’s Journal, Household Words and the Saturday Review and Morning Post. Her many novels proved popular.

By the time Amelia was 30, both her parents had passed away. Against the conventions of the time, she decided to go travelling (without the proper male escort!) and had the funds to do it because of her writing success. With a female companion, Lucy Renshawe, she set off, only hiring male servants or guides as required. Her first trip was to Belgium in 1862 and in June 1872 the pair explored the Dolomite Region of Northern Italy (Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys).

Credit: Amelia Edwards

But over the winter of 1873-74, Amelia and Lucy sailed up the Nile to Abu Simbel. Unlike most travellers who saw Egypt as another pleasure-ground, Amelia was keenly aware of the underlying political and cultural problems of the country. To her shock, she witnessed the results of the highly lucrative and extensive illegal trade in antiquities. Sites were being pillaged and destroyed by all and sundry. All of this was happening in an unstable political climate with rivalry and tension between French and English explorers added to the mix. Saddened and disturbed by what she saw as the desecration of Egypt’s heritage, she returned to England determined to do something about it.

Flinders Petrie

Amelia was convinced a more scientific approach was needed to preserve Egypt’s treasurers. She studied Egyptology and formed lasting friendships with the likes of Gaston Maspero, who would later become director general of excavations and antiquities for the Egyptian government, and one of the greatest Egyptologists, Flinders Petrie. Amelia promoted the founding of an Egyptological society, culminating in its first meeting in 1880 at the British Museum. Two years’ later, it became the Egypt Exploration Fund, its main purpose to study, conserve and protect ancient sites in Egypt. Amelia’s campaigning paid off, and soon they were able to fund the exploration work of Flinders Petrie in Egypt.

Subsequently, Amelia undertook gruelling lecture tours and even gave up her successful novel writing to concentrate on all matters Egyptological. Eventually, her work earned her honorary degrees from several American universities and in honour of her work, she received an English civil list pension for “her services to literature and archaeology”.

In the early 1890s, Amelia’s health began to deteriorate, and in January 1892, Lucy Renshawe, the woman who had travelled with her and shared her home for nearly thirty years, died. A few months later, Amelia succumbed to influenza. She is buried at St. Mary the Virgin, Henbury, Bristol.

Amelia left a library and collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College London and a bequest to establish the first English Chair in Egyptology. Fittingly, Flinders Petrie was the first appointed to the Edwards Chair in UCL.

I cannot deny that the Egypt described by Amelia in her book presented countless possibilities for mischief to a mystery writer. Her descriptions of Cairo and the many sites she visited, transported me back to Victorian Egypt like no dry contemporary source could do. My heroine, Lucy Lawrence, shared some of Miss Edwards’ qualities of curiosity and determination and so Footprints in the Sand quickly transformed from a vague plot idea to a novel.

Cairo, Autumn 1887: A melting pot of jealousy, lust and revenge. Who will pay the ultimate price?

Lucy Lawrence throws caution to the wind and embarks on a journey of self-discovery in the land of the pharaohs.

Travelling to Cairo as the patron of the charming French Egyptologist, Armand Moreau, Lucy discovers a city teeming with professional rivalries, and a thriving black market in antiquities which threatens Egypt’s precious heritage.

When the Egyptian Museum is burgled, Lucy is determined to solve the case, much to the annoyance of the local inspector of police, and the alarm of Mary, her maid. But when an archaeologist is found murdered in the Great Pyramid, Lucy is catapulted into the resulting maelstrom. Can she keep her wits about her to avoid meeting a similar fate?

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Death by Coffin!

For any lover of the Victorian era, London’s most famous cemeteries hold endless fascination. My favourites are Highgate and Kensal Green with their eerie Gothic and Neo-classical architecture. The Victorian obsession with death, the after-life and spiritualism, sparked the trend for highly decorated tombs and crypts. Heartbreaking inscriptions, lichen-encrusted headstones and mournful statuary lend a melancholy air to these places. It’s no wonder they feature so much in Gothic fiction. As I researched my latest novel, No Stone Unturned, I delved a little deeper into the history.

Both cemeteries were built in response to London’s population explosion in the early part of the 19th century which had resulted in graveyards being crammed in between shops and houses with little control over the number of corpses being interred. The smell these sites generated was described as terrible.

With public health at risk, Parliament passed a statute for seven new private cemeteries to be opened in the countryside around the city boundary. These included Highgate and Kensal Green.

Highgate Cemetery

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Photo Credit: Dan Bridge

Highgate is probably the most famous of all the Gothic cemeteries. In May 1839, it was dedicated to St James by the Lord Bishop of London. Of the seventeen acres, fifteen were consecrated for members of the Church of England and the remaining two acres were set aside for ‘Dissenters’ (everyone else). Elizabeth Jackson, aged thirty-six, was the first ever burial in Highgate in May 1839.

London’s wealthy invested heavily in the cemetery due to its amazing views over London (highest point 375 feet above sea level) and its unique architecture and landscaping.

Kensal Green Cemetery

“For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.” G.K. Chesterton’s poem The Rolling English Road.

Kensal Green was opened by the Bishop of London on 24th January 1833 and was the first commercial cemetery in London. The first burial was the same month.

A competition for the design of the cemetery was held and the winning entry was for a Gothic style, however, the Chairman of the General Cemetery Company had other ideas. The final design was Neo-classical. As in Highgate, the burial grounds were divided up between the Church of England and the Dissenters. 

Killed by a coffin
Illustrated Police News, 2nd November 1872

An Unfortunate Death!

A pallbearer by the name of Henry Taylor met a tragic end in Kensal Green. While carrying a coffin, he missed his footing and stumbled. His fellow pallbearers let go of the coffin which fell on poor Henry, killing him instantly.

Here is the description from The Illustrated Police News, November 1872:

“KILLED BY COFFIN. Dr. Lancaster held an inquest Saturday evening at the University College Hospital, London, on the body Henry Taylor, aged 60. The evidence of E. J. Heading, undertaker’s foreman, and others showed that on the 19th inst. deceased, with others, was engaged at a funeral at Kensal-Green Cemetery. The Church service having been finished, the coffin and mourners proceeded in coaches towards the place of burial. The day being damp, the foreman directed the coaches with the mourners to proceed to the grave by the foot-way, and the hearse across the grass towards a grave-digger, who was motioning the nearest way. The coffin was moved from the hearse and being carried down a path only three feet six wide, by six bearers, when orders were given to turn, so that the coffin, which was what is known in the trade as a four pound leaden one, should head first. While the men were changing, it is supposed that deceased caught his foot against a side stone and stumbled; the other bearers, to save themselves, let the coffin go, and it fell with great force on to deceased, fracturing his jaws and ribs. The greatest confusion was created among the mourners who witnessed the accident, and the widow of the person about to be buried nearly went into hysterics. Further assistance having been procured the burial service was proceeded with, while deceased was conveyed to a surgery, and ultimately to the above mentioned hospital, where he expired on the 24th inst. The jury recommended that straps should be placed round coffins, which would tend to prevent such accidents. Verdict—accidental death. “

Sadly, although Henry lost his life in Kensal Green, it appears he was not buried there.

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In No Stone Unturned, my heroine Lucy Lawrence buries her husband Charlie in Kensal Green. A mysterious mourner at the graveside soon turns her life upside-down as Charlie’s dirty secrets spill from the grave …

No Stone Unturned is the first book in the Lucy Lawrence Mystery Series.

NoStone-EBOOKA suspicious death, stolen gems and an unclaimed reward; who will be the victor in a deadly game of cat and mouse?

London October 1886: Trapped in a troubled marriage, Lucy Lawrence is ripe for an adventure. But when she meets the enigmatic Phineas Stone, over the body of her husband in the mortuary, her world begins to fall apart.

When her late husband’s secrets spill from the grave and her life is threatened by the leader of London’s most notorious gang, Lucy must find the strength to rise to the challenge. But who can she trust and how is she to stay out of the murderous clutches of London’s most dangerous criminal?

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The Lady Mourns

My 1888-advert-from-illustrated-london-newslatest heroine, Lucy Lawrence, is newly widowed and resisting some of the more stringent customs imposed upon her. Unsurprisingly, mourning rules and customs affected women more than men and an entire industry grew up around it. Many made their fortunes due to regulations and superstitions we would now  laugh at.  These specialist shops or warehouses popped up everywhere, and all because Queen Victoria (the ‘Widow of Windsor’) took to black on Prince Albert’s death and never took it off again. The Lady Mourns