Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (later Belloc, known as Bessie), was one of only two children of Joseph Parkes, a Birmingham Unitarian, and Elizabeth Parkes, granddaughter of Joseph Priestley. She was a lifelong friend of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and with her was an active supporter of the campaigns for women's work, suffrage, legal rights and education.
Bessie Parkes was born in Birmingham on 16 June 1829. Both her father and mother were from long-established Unitarian families. However, despite their radical liberal politics both Joseph and Elizabeth believed in an orthodox and conventional upbringing for their daughter. This sometimes gave rise to friction, particularly with her father. The family moved to London in 1832, to a house in Great George Street, Westminster. At the age of seven, in 1836, Bessie was sent, as a boarder, to a Unitarian school for girls run by William Field at Leam, in Warwickshire. Neither Bessie nor her brother Priestley was robust and the family spent time at Hastings for the curative sea air. It was here that she first met Barbara Leigh Smith, probably in about 1846, shortly after she left the school in Leam aged sixteen. In 1850 Bessie's brother Priestley died. Bessie continued to live at home until her marriage in 1867 at the age of 38.
In her early twenties, she began a career in journalism, writing for local newspapers and radical journals. She went on to publish volumes of poetry, essays and memoirs. In the 1850s she contributed both as a conference speaker and writer to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and in 1854 published 'Remarks on the Education of Girls'. In 1857, with financial backing from Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, the two women established a journal for 'working women' which Bessie Parkes edited from 1858 until 1862 as the English Woman's Journal. Key issues in the Journal were employment, the need for education and training and women's philanthropic responsibilities. The Journal offices were the headquarters of the Langham Place Group and a focus for employment and emigration issues. Among her friends at this time were George Eliot, Adelaide Procter, Anna Jameson, Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti and the Howitt family.
In 1862, Bessie Parkes began to retreat from her work for the Journal. Her health was suffering and she found the frictions within the office stressful. She was also becoming increasingly attracted to the intellectual appeal of Catholicism and in 1864 she was formally converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Three years later, on a protracted visit to France, she met Louis Belloc whom she married the same year. In the following five years she lived almost entirely in France at La Celle St Cloud near Paris. In her husband's family she found a sympathetic literary and religious circle with whom she kept in close touch, even after she was widowed in 1872. Her mother-in-law, Louise Swanton Belloc was a particular friend and mentor. BRP had a daughter, Marie, in 1868 (later Mrs Belloc Lowndes), and a son, Hilaire (the poet), in 1870.
She continued to write, publishing articles and volumes of essays well into her seventies. She died at Slindon in Sussex on 23 March 1925.
The papers have been acquired by Girton College in several deposits. The original batch was arranged and listed in 1985 and consists of personal writings, diary fragments, correspondence, newspaper cuttings and unpublished material for a biography of Bessie's early life. Additional papers donated in 2013 were arranged and listed in 2014: these comprise chiefly papers of and relating to Louise Swanton Belloc and family. Correspondence forms a large percentage of the archive (perhaps about 70%: a large percentage of this in turn consists of letters from Bessie Parkes to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon). Many letters are annotated - in various hands - together with envelopes with notes as to content, dates, explanations of persons mentioned etc. In a number of cases parts of letters are missing. Some have been transcribed and the typed transcripts annotated. In some cases, only the transcripts survive. Many of the letters of both Bessie Parkes and her mother-in-law Louise Swanton Belloc are thought to have been destroyed in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871.
1213/46 (part) - The papers of Bessie Rayner Parkes were purchased by Girton College from Elizabeth Iddesleigh, Dowager Countess of Iddesleigh, and Mrs Susan Lowndes Marques, granddaughters of BRP, in 1982. Two further additions of papers found by Lady Iddesleigh were made in 1984 and 1985. Any item in the catalogue whose reference code is suffixed with the letter a is part of the later deposits. Further papers, chiefly relating to Louise Swanton Belloc and family, were donated in 2013 by Ana Vicente (great granddaughter and biographer of Bessie Rayner Parkes, writes under the name Emma Lowndes).
By the time the papers arrived at Girton, any original order in them was indistinguishable, although it was clear that some at least had probably been arranged in chapters for the book. They were arranged in 1985 as described.
BRP's daughter Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote a biography entitled 'I too have lived in Arcadia: a record of love and of childhood', London: Macmillan 1941, which is an account of BRP's life from 1867 (ie marriage etc). Her intention was to write a companion volume 'Before she found Arcadia' or 'My Mother's Life' but she died (1947) before it was finished (material in GCPP Parkes 16, formerly BRP Appendix B). The task was then taken on by MBL's daughters Elizabeth Iddesleigh and Susan Lowndes Marques but they did not complete it either. They handed the project over to a professional biographer, Margaret Crompton, who completed a typescript, 'Prelude to Arcadia', but the family were not satisfied that it was of a standard suitable for publication (material included in GCPP Parkes 15, formerly BRP Appendix A). Emma Lowndes [Ana Vicente], 'Turning Victorian Ladies into Women: The Life of Bessie Rayner Parkes' was published in 2012. See also Fred Hunter, 'Notes on Manuscripts: The Bessie Rayner Parkes Collection at Girton College, Cambridge', in Victorian Periodicals Review, Volume XVI No. 1 Spring 1983 pp 32-33.
The various spellings of 'Savile Row' in the Parkes letters are as found.
The Parkes Papers were scheduled to be microfilmed by Harvester Microform Research Publications Company in 1989 but the work was never carried out.