This weeks Woman Crush Wednesday post, is going to be one of my favorites of all time! Today we are going to talk about Amelia Edwards, an English novelist, journalist, world traveler, and of course Egyptologist. She is also sometimes referred to as the “Godmother of Egyptology.”
She was born Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards on June 7th, 1831 in London. Her mother was of Irish descent and her father was a British Army officer turned banker. She was educated at home by her mother and showed early promise in a variety of topics. She was an especially strong writer, and she was able to publish her first poem at 7 and her first story at 12. Amelia also wrote for the Saturday Review and Morning Post.
She was also a talented artist, illustrating some of her own writings and painting scenes from other books she had read. At 12, she was offered to be taught by George Cruikshank, who was a British caricaturist and book illustrator, but her parents didn’t let her. They believed that art was not a respectable career. This decision haunted Edwards throughout her early life.
And if it was hard to believe, Amelia was also a talented composer and singer. But after a bout of typhus in 1849, she quit due to a frequent sore throat. She also enjoyed pistol shooting, horse riding, and mathematics. Actively supporting the suffrage movement, at one time she served as Vice-President of the Society for Promoting Women’s Suffrage.
In the early 1850s, she began to focus more exclusively on being a writer. Her first full length novel was My Brother’s Wife, but Barbara’s History in 1864 helped establish her reputation. She probably spent about two years to fully research and then write all of her books. Her book Lord Brakenbury ran 15 editions! She also wrote several ghost stories which appeared in anthologies, “The Phantom’s Coach,” being her most popular. The background and characters in many of her writings were based on her personal experiences.
Here is a list of all of her books, short stories, and poetry:
Histroy and Archaeology
- A Summary of English History: from the Roman Conquest to the present time, 1856
- Outlines of English history: from the Roman conquest to the present time: with observations on the progress of art, science and civilization and questions adapted to each paragraph: for the use of schools, c. 1857
- The History of France; from the Conquest of Gaul by the Romans to the Peace of 1856, 1858
- The Story of Cervantes, etc., 1862
- A Thousand Miles Up the Nile London: George Routledge and Sons Ltd, 1877 (1st edition) and 1890 (2nd edition, ISBN 0-9819284-2-0)
- Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891
- My Brother’s Wife. A life–history, 1855
- The Ladder of Life. A heart history, 1857
- The Young Marquis, or, a story from a Reign, c. 1857
- The Eleventh of March. (From a pocket-book of forty years ago), 1863
- No Hero: an Autobiography, 1863
- Barbara’s History, 1864
- Hand and Glove. A tale, 1865
- Miss Carew (short stories), 1865
- Half a Million of Money, c. 1868
- Debenham’s Vow, 1870
- In the Days of My Youth, 1873
- Lord Brackenbury, 1880
- The Phantom Coach, by Amelia B. Edwards, adapted by I. M. Richardson, illustrated by Hal Ashmead, c. 1982
- Ballads. London: Tinsley, 1865
- A Poetry-book of Elder Poets, consisting of songs & sonnets, odes & lyrics, selected and arranged, with notes, from the works of the elder English poets, dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century. 1878
- Manual of Egyptian Archaeology and Guide to the Study of Antiquities in Egypt: for the use of students and travellers by Sir G. Maspero, translated by Amelia B. Edwards
Monsieur Maurice and other stories, 1873; contains the stories:
- “Monsieur Maurice”
- “An Engineer’s Story”
- “The Cabaret of the Break of Day”
- “The Story of Ernst Christian Schoeffer”
- “The New Pass”
- “A Service of Danger”
- “A Night on the Borders of the Black Forest”
- “The Story of Salome”
- “In the Confessional”
- “The Tragedy in the Palazzo Bardell”
- “The Four Fifteen Express”
- “Sister Johanna’s Story”
- “All Saints’ Eve”
- Sights and Stories: being some account of a Holiday Tour through the north of Belgium, 1862
- A Thousand Miles up the Nile, 1877
- Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites. London: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1873
Click this link to learn more about her life in her own writing!
At the age of 30, following the death of her parents, Amelia Edwards had little reason to stay in England. The proceeds of her writing were sufficient to enable her to live independently and to go where she wished. During this time, male chaperonage was considered socially and physically essential for a female traveler, but Amelia refused. She began travelling with friend and possibly girlfriend (more on that later), Lucy Renshawe.
In 1871, she was on a European tour visiting Munich, Oberammergau, and Rome. She took some art classes in Rome with an Italian artist. A marble bust of Amelia was made during this time by Percival Ball. The bust was in her home until her death, at which point it was donated to the National Gallery in London (NPG 929). A cast was also made and given to University College London. She wrote this in her notebook recording Reminiscences & Notes of a Tour in Germany, Bavaria, Tyrol and Italy,
“As life goes on, one’s heart deadens & wearies from many disappointments, & one ceases to look for heart in others.… I go through the world now as one goes through the Hall of Busts at the Capitol, seeing only heads and looking for hearts no longer. To me my fellow-creatures are busts only.… Whether the bust is that of a good or a bad person, a Christian or a Pagan, a man or a woman, matters nothing. To me it is a work of art only, & so are my fellow creatures. Sometimes I feel as if I also were a mere bust – or worse still, a terminal statue – head above and a marble column below. At other times I am scarcely conscious of even my head, & feel like a shadow moving among shadows – emotionless, passionless, unimpressed.…”
She often wrote journals and later published these. Her first was Sights and Stories: A Holiday Tour Through Northern Belgium. Then in 1872, she and Lucy traversed through the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. They hired some mountains guides for certain portions, although the majority of the mountains had not even been documented. She described this journey in two books. They were warned that this trip was too challenging, but Amelia’s attraction of traveling was the challenge of reaching areas that were almost entirely untouched and inaccessible, especially of meeting and overcoming difficulties that others would not face.
After being disappointed at the end of their Dolomites trip, Amelia and Lucy traveled to France for a walking tour. Unfortunately, it was ruined by a bout of rain, so the ladies looked south for a new adventure.
They fell upon Egypt, which began Amelia’s career in Egyptology. From 1872 to 1874, they traveled from Cairo to Philae and Abu Simbel on a dahebiyeh, which is a manned houseboat. They were accompanied by Andrew McCallum, an English painter, and eventually another English traveler Marianne Brocklehurst. This Nile voyage was documented in her book A Thousand Miles up the Nile, along with the multiple sketches she made for the book.
They stayed in Abu Simbel for six weeks, where Amelia excavated at the Temple of Ramses II. After this, she was smitten with Egyptology in more ways than one. In the 19th century, the protection of monuments and artifacts had only recently begun. The trade in antiquities was largely illegal and lucrative and the political climate of Egypt was quite unstable because there was tension and colonial rivalry between French and English explorers. Amelia witnessed the illegal destruction of monuments and the threats of tourism and modern developments. She set out to hinder these through public awareness and scientific endeavor.
The Egypt Exploration Fund
When she returned to England in 1882, she co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund with Reginald Stuart Poole, who was the curator of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum. It was originally called the Egyptological Society. She attended to the publicity and subscription work, by writing letters soliciting possibly supporters and campaigned for the society. To advance the Fund’s work, she largely abandoned other writing in favor of Egyptology. She also took a strenuous lecture tour of the US from 1889 to 1890, which appeared as a book, Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers.
She befriended a lot of prominent figures in Egyptian Archaeology at the time, included Flinders Petrie, whose excavations were often funded by the EEF and her marketing. Her Egyptological work was generally respected, especially her translations of a number of works into English. During her lifetime, she received three honorary degrees from Columbia College, New York, Smith College, Massachusetts, and the College of the Sisters of Bethany, Massachusetts. She also received an English civil list pension for her service to literature and archaeology.
Unfortunately her career with the Egypt Exploration Fund would not last. As the field of archaeology became increasingly filled with professional males, her influence in the policies and direction of the EEF decreased. She was not included in decisions and was eventually, Poole and Newton cut her out. Petrie complained about this decision, but it was not changed. Amelia was saddened, but she still continued to dedicate herself to the Fund through letters and lectures.
After a she broke her arm during her 1889-1890 tour in America, her health began to deteriorate. She then caught the flu, and died on April 15ht, 1892 at Weston -super-mare, three months after he partner died.
Her as an Early LGBTQ+ Figure
As I mentioned previously, Amelia Edwards was a lesbian and did not keep a secret. Some modern biographers, and even on Wikipedia, have tried to hide or avoid talking about this aspect of her life, but Edwards never did. Her friend John Addington Symonds, told this to Henry Havelock Ellis, who was the co-author of the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality in 1897. She told both Symonds and Ellis that she had forged a menage a trois with and English woman and her clergyman husband, who were most likely John Rice Byrne and Ellen Bryne. One day the husband had married the women at the alter of the church. And when they moved away from Bristol, it was “like a death blow” to Edwards.
She was most likely in a relationship with Lucy Renshawe while they traveled Europe and Egypt together. Unfortunately, little is known about Lucy. The only other partner of Amelia was Ellen Drew Braysher (1804-1892). They lived for 30 years together in Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol. There is also little known about Ellen, although she had a daughter named Sarah Harriet Braysher (1832-1864). All three women are buried together in St. Mary the Virgin, Henbury, Bristol, with Ellen labeled as Amelia’s “beloved friend.”
In September 2016, Historic England designated the grave as a historic landmark in English LGBTQ+ history.
After her death, she bequeathed her collection Egyptian antiquities and her library to University College London, with a sum of 5,000 pounds to found an Edwards Chair of Egyptology. This chair position was first gifted to her good friend Flinders Petrie. This was the first Egyptology teaching position in England. She offered this to UCL rather than Oxford or Cambridge, because UCL was the only university in England where degrees were given to women.
She also supported Sommerville College Library, leaving books, papers, and watercolors to Sommerville College, Oxford, along with a small collection of Greek and Roman pots. Check out these links for a list of her collection at Sommerville College.
Her collection is the core of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian archaeology at the University College London. Edwards typically though that the art of ancient Egypt, should be left in Egypt, but she did have a substantial collection of small finds. She was even quoted to say,
“Dearer to me than all the rest of my curios are my Egyptian antiquities… I have enough to stock a modest little museum.”
In comparison to Petrie’s collection, Edward’s has very little provenance or provenience information. The top of a staute of a man and woman, a small head of a statue of Amenemhat III, a wooden stela of Neskhons, and a fragment of a coffin of Amenemipet are some of the treasures of her collection. Unfortunately the majority of her collection has been confused in the mix of items the museum owns. More research is needed to separate her collection, posthumous additions to the Edwards collection, Petrie’s collection, and other items donated to UCL.
Her legacy is established in her presence in University College London, the Petrie Museum, and even as the namesake of Elizabeth Peters character Amelia Peabody.
Amelia Photograph – Wikimedia Commons (unbekannt – entweder der Verlag oder eine Zeitung – aus dem Buch von Amelia B Edwards “PHARAOHS, FELLAHS AND EXPLORERS”)
Drawing of the Dolomites, Philae from the South, Digging for Mummies – Amelia Edwards
Amelia in black – https://americanliterature.com/author/amelia-b-edwards
Cover of the Phantom Coach – Barnes and Noble
A Thousand miles up the Nile cover – Amazon
Blue Plaque unveiling – https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about-us/search-news/amelia-edwards-blue-plaque/
Bust and Photographs of Amelia – National Portrait Gallery
Objects from the Edwards Collection, Photo of Newspaper cutting, her office, and bust in Petrie Museum – https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2015/03/04/the-edwards-museum/#more-40195
Photo of her grave – https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/homes-and-domestic-spaces/under-scrutiny-at-home/
Readers of this site might be interested in my new biography, ‘THE ADVENTUROUS LIFE OF
AMELIA B. EDWARDS: EGYPTOLOGIST, NOVELIST, ACTIVIST’ (Bloomsbury, 2022)
Margaret C. Jones