Jane Senior, who according to Sybil Oldfield was George Eliot's model for Dorothea Brooke, differed from the heroine of Middlemarch in one significant respect. Dorothea has no friends. Especially, she finds no empathetic bonds with other women, not even her sister Celia, who remains in equal measure loving and uncomprehending towards her until the end.
By contrast, Jane Senior belonged to a quite extraordinary network of female friendships in the 1860s and 70s, which included the pioneering social reformers Octavia Hill and Florence Nightingale, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, George Eliot, Anny Thackeray (daughter of the novelist), Caroline Stephen (younger sister of Leslie Stephen) and Kate Collins (Dickens's daughter and Wilkie Collins's sister-in-law). The most valuable aspect of Oldfield's biography is its reconstruction of this empowering network of women, as it bore upon the personal and public facets of Jane Senior's life. A continuity emerges of the friendships between women and their collective participation in the larger gender struggle.
Jane Elizabeth Senior, known as "Jeanie" to her intimates, was the first woman civil servant, appointed government inspector of workhouses in 1873 by the radical president of the Local Government Board, James Stansfeld. Her remit was to report on the education of "pauper girls". (There is a pleasing coincidence, although Oldfield does not notice it, in the childhood nickname given for Walter Scott's Jeanie Deans, another fighter for women.) A letter to Stansfeld lauding the appointment was signed by the great women activists of the day, among them Harriet Martineau, Ernestine Rose, Josephine Butler and Florence Nightingale. Oldfield describes Senior's years of charitable work leading to the appointment, including her part in the founding of the Red Cross, and emphasises her social awareness and radical sympathies, shared with her brother Thomas Hughes, reformer and author of Tom Brown's School Days. Balancing the emphasis on female friendship, Senior's intense relationships with men, notably G. F. Watts, Prosper Merimee and her own son Walter, are also detailed.
Another important topic is Senior's ability as a singer. Oldfield sets Senior in a musical circle that encompassed Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim and makes the connection between Senior's singing and her effort, more metaphorically, to find a voice.
The book's shortcomings stem from the frequency with which the enthusiast prevails over the academic biographer. The lack of this biography is critical distance. Portraying, often in cliched terms, a more or less one-dimensional picture of heroism and selflessness, Oldfield tends to varnish over the more questionable aspects of Senior's personal life and social positions: the self-righteousness manifest in her attitude to her husband, the disturbingly intense emotional demands made on her son. The critique of Senior's report by a modern commentator "as the view of a typical bourgeoise, concerned only that working-class girls make good servants" is dismissed, yet Oldfield's own quotations from, and commentary on, the report do little to counter such a view.
Oldfield's identification of her heroine with George Eliot's is similarly problematic. Drawing on Barbara Hardy's considerably more nuanced and tentative suggestions (in George Eliot, 2006) about Senior's possible impact on the creation of Dorothea, Oldfield goes in for a wholesale identification, whose basis hardly stands up to scrutiny: "despite all ... discrepancies in the externals of situation and appearance and even in some aspects of mental life there is, in my view, the most profound resemblance in the souls of the two women".
Critical sharpness aside, this book's merits are in the meticulous historical research that has gone into the making of a genuinely informative biography. Oldfield's achievement is the compelling detail in which she portrays the life and times of an exceptional woman whose contribution to national life has been too long forgotten.
Jeanie, an 'Army of One': Mrs Nassau Senior, 1828-1877, the First Woman in Whitehall
By Sybil Oldfield
Sussex Academic Press
£55.00 and £17.95
ISBN 9781845192532 and 2549
Published 9 January 2008