Simcox, Edith (1844–1901)

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Simcox, Edith (1844–1901)

British journalist, labor activist, and social reformer. Name variations: (pseudonym) H. Lawrenny. Born on August 21, 1844; died on September 15, 1901; daughter of Jemima Haslope and George Price Simcox (a merchant).

Selected writings:

Natural Law: An Essay in Ethics (1877); Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women and Lovers (1882); Primitive Civilizations (1894).

Perhaps best remembered as one of novelist George Eliot's (Mary Anne Evans ) most ardent admirers, Edith Simcox earned esteem for her own substantial contributions to economic theory and social reform in England. Simcox, who was born into a prosperous middle-class Victorian family in 1844, possessed the same intellectual potential as her two brothers; unlike them, however, she was unable to attend Oxford, which did not admit women as degree candidates until 1920. Although her formal education extended no further than grammar school, she was a self-educated woman who learned several languages and was particularly well read in literature and philosophy. The magnitude of her knowledge is evinced by the sweeping array of subjects about which she wrote articles for leading Victorian periodicals. As well, for more than 25 years, she contributed reviews under the pseudonym "H. Lawrenny" on literature and economics to the distinguished journal The Academy. Founded in 1869 by a group of young university liberals, it boasted a prestigious roster of writers and editors, including Matthew Arnold, George Saintsbury, and Walter Pater.

Particularly influenced by her reading of philosophers Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and August Comte, Simcox developed her own socialist ideas, which formed the basis of her work on behalf of women and laborers. According to James Diedrick, "Simcox's major writings might be seen as both extending and modifying (especially in terms of class and gender) Mill's arguments on political economy, ethics, and the women's question."

Simcox first met Eliot shortly after her glowing and insightful review of Middlemarch appeared in The Academy in 1872. Eliot resided in London and hosted many important intellectuals and writers of the day at her Sunday gatherings, and Simcox was a frequent visitor until the author's death in 1880. Although Simcox's beliefs were well established by the time she met Eliot, she referred to Eliot as her "idol" and attributed all her subsequent accomplishments to Eliot's influence. While Eliot was receptive to Simcox's friendship and welcomed her into her home, Diedrick notes that Eliot was uncomfortable with her fervent professions of devotion. Two years after Eliot's death, Simcox published Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women, and Lovers, comprising 11 loosely connected fables that obliquely explore her love for Eliot in fictional terms.

Unlike other Victorian feminists who were frequently concerned primarily with suffragist issues, Simcox involved herself in the trade-union movement through her acquaintance with Emma Paterson , who had been secretary of the Women's Suffrage Association (1872–73) and had founded the Women's Protective and Provident League (1874). They formed the Shirt and Collar Makers' Union on July 1, 1875, and were admitted to the eighth annual Trade Union Congress, which met in Glasgow in October 1875, becoming the first women delegates. At that meeting, Simcox called for the improvement of factory inspections, reduced work hours, and parliamentary representation of the working class. That same year Simcox partnered with Mary Hamilton in creating a cooperative shirt-making workshop, Hamilton and Company, which provided women with useful employment under humane conditions. Throughout her life, Simcox was active in organizing workers, speaking at union meetings, and representing English trade unions at labor conferences.

Simcox took her plans for reform to the schools upon her overwhelming election to the London School Board as the Radical candidate in 1879. During her successful three-year term, she visited classrooms and spoke with teachers, worked with the board to set and enforce school policies, and observed the boards of other schools throughout England—all of which earned her high praise from other members of the school board.

Simcox's major writings were scholarly in nature. Her 1877 Natural Law: An Essay in Ethics attempted to identify the "laws" that underlie human relations in order to contribute to a "science" of society in accordance with her rationalist beliefs. "Revealing all of the major influences on her thinking," writes Diedrick, "Natural Law is an amalgam of Spinozan ethics, Comtean Positivism, and Utilitarianism—all leavened by a sympathetic awareness of human frailty inspired by Eliot's novels." In 1894, after an enormous amount of research, she published Primitive Civilizations; or, Outlines of the History of Ownership in Archaic Communities, which delineates the history of property, concluding that modern English society fell short of precedents set by older civilizations like Egypt and Babylonia concerning the distribution of wealth, power, and status. She also examined the treatment of women in various civilizations, as Diedrick notes, "particularly … how social expectations and legal structures shape the lives of women and mothers." Simcox determined that women had been accorded a greater position in non-Western societies than they had in English society.

By the time Primitive Civilizations was published, Simcox's career as an activist and writer was drawing to a close. Although she still supported trade unions, she was becoming dismayed by internal petty political squabbles, and was no longer writing on a regular basis. Suffering from recurrent respiratory problems and failing eyesight, Simcox died on September 15, 1901. Although she had hoped to be buried at Highgate Cemetery near her beloved George Eliot, she was buried with her mother, with whom she had lived most of her life, at Aspley Guise near Bedford.


Diedrick, James. "Edith Jemima Simcox," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 190: British Reform Writers, 1832–1914. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998, pp. 289–297.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Simcox, Edith Jemima. A Monument to the Memory of George Eliot: Edith Jemima Simcox's Autobiography of a Shirtmaker. Edited by Constance M. Fulmer and Margaret E. Barfield. NY: Garland, 1998.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan

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Simcox, Edith (1844–1901)

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