Brightwen, Eliza (1830–1906)

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Brightwen, Eliza (1830–1906)

British naturalist who observed nature from the grounds of her English home. Born Eliza Elder at Banff, Scotland, on October 30, 1830; died at Stanmore, England, on May 5, 1906; daughter of Margaret and George Elder; educated at home; married George Brightwen on June 5, 1855 (died, 1883); no children.

Selected works:

My Practical Thoughts on Bible Study (1871); Wild Nature Won by Kindness; More about Wild Nature (1892).

Eliza Elder was six years old when her mother died, forcing the separation of Eliza and her five siblings from one another and from their Scotland home. Alexander Elder offered to adopt his niece, and Eliza moved to England. Her childhood was isolated and lonely, with playmates limited to cousins who visited occasionally. Each day, she had general lessons, including reading and drawing, and was allowed to play with her pet donkey. A brief venture to boarding school in 1842 made her physically ill from stress. With her aunt and uncle, she traveled around Europe, and she also made solo treks to visit family friends.

On a visit to Stanmore, England, she met George Brightwen, the neighbor of her hosts, and 18 months later she agreed to marry him. "I believe I never knew the keen joy that so many speak of when they are engaged to the man of their choice," Brightwen wrote in her diary. Nevertheless, she was not wealthy, and George was considered a suitable man, which pleased her uncle. They married in 1885 after a three-month engagement and spent two weeks honeymooning in France. The Brightwen estate was named The Grove, and Eliza spent her days drawing, sculpting, and working with indigent children on their Bible studies. She developed friendships with her siblings and kept up regular correspondence with a few sisters. Frequently sick, Brightwen had fainting spells. In 1872, she took to her bed for a decade. "I am now increasingly suffering, and yet must try to keep up and be cheerful for my dear husband's sake; my life is very difficult and far from happy." Her health improved as George fell ill. She nursed him until his February 1883 death.

While she mourned and recuperated, Brightwen began to explore The Grove with renewed interest. Examining the foliage, insects, and animals of her property, she wrote about her findings and experiences. Often invited to lecture, she traveled to host clubs or sponsored day trips to The Grove. She fed, clothed and preached to the poor and lectured on nature to school children. Brightwen took in hurt animals, including a white owl and several mice, which became her pets. Always in poor health, she had two live-in assistants to nurse her. "I have always been so afraid that I was dying," she wrote during her final illness, "and now I am in such dread that I shall not be able to die." Kept company by two squirrels and a robin, Brightwen died on May 5, 1906, at The Grove.


Chesson, W.H., ed. Eliza Brightwen: The Life and Thoughts of a Naturalist. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts

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Brightwen, Eliza (1830–1906)

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