Emma Frances Brooke

Name
Emma Frances Brooke
Other names
E. Fairfax Byrrne and Margaret Redfern; she also published anonymously
Birth and death
1844 - 1926
Occupations
Profession details
Novelist
Related place
Author
Rebecca Jukes

Life in Elmbridge

On the 28th November 1926, Emma Frances Brooke passed away at Heath Nursing Home in Weybridge as a result of 'old age and cardiac degeneration' (ODNB, 2004). As Brooke had never lived in Weybridge before, it is likely that she had close relatives nearby and so chose to end her days here. However, her relatives have proved hard to identify - for example, Booke's record in Newnham College's matriculation register is marked 'n/c', implying that there were no members of her family around to check the back-dated entry (Newnham College Archives). She died in Weybridge with a wealth of £702, childless and unmarried, having previously stated that motherhood was a 'stigma' not the 'valuable act of citizenship' she believed it ought to be. In addition, she wrote that 'to be compelled to marry to escape destitution is clearly sexual slavery' (Woman's Fabian Tracts, 1988). As Brooke saw marriage as little more than legalised prostitution, one could suppose that she did not mind ending her days as a single woman.

Brooke's legacy is a difficult one to gauge. With her novels and other writings she strove hard to make a difference to women's rights and change their role in society. However, her works have since fallen out of popular consciousness and despite some minor scholarship she has been, perhaps unfairly, largely forgotten as a writer.

Life beyond Elmbridge

Emma Frances Brooke was born just a few days before Christmas 1844, in Cheshire. She was educated at Newnham College Cambridge, moved to London in 1879 and became a student at the London School of Economics (LSE) (Who's Who, 1920-2008). She joined the Fabian Society at its inception in 1844.

Brooke became concerned that Victorian society was unfairly subjugating women and that even the Fabian Socialist movement was not doing enough to tackle sexual inequality. Brooke turned to fiction as a means to express her views on feminism, and became a popular writer of 'New Woman' novels. This literary style promoted daring new ideals for women, as independent and intelligent creatures, on an equal footing with men and capable of breaking away from traditional gender roles. Brooke's most famous novel was A Superfluous Woman, published in 1894. The plot follows a heroine who gives birth to a deformed child as a result of her marriage to a syphilitic old roué (ONDB, 2004) - clearly underlining Brooke's view that marriage was a negative experience for many women. Although the book received great critical acclaim, it was also condemned as an 'immoral tale' in the Pall Mall Gazette by W.T. Stead (ONDB, 2004). Since the resurgence of interest in 'New Woman' novels, Brooke's work has been looked on more favourably, with A Superfluous Woman recognised as 'strongly feminine and didactic' by Virginia Blain (A Feminist Companion to Literature in English, 142).

Brooke's other novels include A Fair Country Maid (1883), Life the Accuser (1896), The Engrafted Rose (1900) and Sir Elyot of the Woods (1907). The first two of these were published under the pseudonymous identity of 'E. Fairfax Byrrne'. Brooke's unusual choice of moniker (especially the double 'r') remains illusive, although one explanation is that its initials still allowed her to be identified.

No doubt inspired by her time at LSE, Brooke published (under her own name) A Tabulation of Factory Laws of European Countries: in so far as they relate to the hours of labour, and to the special legislation for women, young persons and children (1898). The introduction to this admits that it 'aspires to nothing higher than to be a compilation of facts' but nevertheless it conveys her keen interest in socialist politics and her desire to give feminism statistical support, rather than solely making points through her fictitious characters.

Despite studying at both Cambridge and LSE, Beatrice Webb commented that Brooke was not 'over burdened with intelligence' (Feminist Companion to Literature in English, 142). Yet she was ambitious in her speeches and her words suggest high intelligence and forward thinking. She campaigned for women's rights and believed that there were five conditions that would significantly enhance their position in society: prostitution must become illegal and completely socially unacceptable; the education system must be transformed; all children should be entitled to state education; women should have the freedom to dissolve their marriage; and lastly there should be sexual equality in social status and the law. These ideals exemplify her socialist attitude and Brooke did indeed make an impact on the Fabian Society. Fabian Women formed their own group in 1908 and Brooke chaired their hearing on the 'Three Years Work', which reflected on the success, failure and future aims of the movement between 1908 and 1911.

Writing in a journal at the end of the 19th century, Brooke did feel that some progress had been made in female education and that women had 'raised the standard of what is expected of them in affairs of the world'. She also added that women had gained newfound independence through the pursuit of previously male-only activities and sports - 'There is no saying how much women owe to the bicycle!' (The Ludgate, 1898).

Sources

  • Alexander, S., Women's Fabian Tracts Alexander, (Routledge, 1988).
  • Black, A. and C., 'Brooke, Emma Frances', Who Was Who 1920-2008, online edition, (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Blain, Grundy and Clements, Feminist Companion to Literature in English (Batsford, 1990).
  • Brooke, E. F., A Tabulation of Factory Laws of European Countries, (Grant Richards, 1898).
  • Brooke, E. F., Iota, S. Grand, and G. Egerton, 'Women in the Queen's reign: some notable opinions, illustrated with photographs', The Ludgate, 1898, 213-17.
  • Fabian Society Website, www.fabians.org.uk (accessed 16/02/2010).
  • Daniels, K., 'Emma Brooke: Fabian, Feminist and Writer', Women's History Review, Volume 12, Number 2, (2003).
  • Newnham College, Cambridge, Matriculation Registers.
  • Richardson, A. and C. Wills, New Woman in Fiction and in Fact - fin-de-siècle feminisms, (Palgrave, 2001).
  • Richardson, A., 'Brooke, Emma Frances (1844-1926)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • Top
  • Privacy and cookies