Elizabeth [Eliza] Lynn was born on 10 February 1822 at Crosthwaite vicarage in Keswick, the twelfth and last child of the vicar, and granddaughter of Samuel Goodenough, Bishop of Carlisle. Eliza’s mother died shortly after her birth, and she was brought up by her strict father, who had little sympathy for his wayward daughter. The unhappiness of her childhood made Eliza determined to succeed on her own merits.
After the publication of two poems in Ainsworth’s Magazine, a 23-year-old Eliza Lynn moved to London to embark upon a full-time writing career. Her first two novels, Azeth, The Egyptian (1847) and Amyone: A Romance in the Days of Pericles (1848) were well-reviewed but have not stood the test of time. In 1848, Eliza joined the staff of The Morning Chronicle, thereby becoming the first woman journalist in England to draw a salary.
Her third novel, Realities (1851), was a radical critique of Victorian society, arguing passionately for better treatment of the poor and challenging the inferior status of women. The book was considered shocking by both readers and critics, and Eliza became notorious for immorality. It was another fourteen years before she felt brave enough to write another novel. Instead, she focused on journalism, earning praise from Charles Dickens for her industriousness on Household Words.
In 1858 Eliza married William James Linton (1812-1897), an engraver and radical republican. Linton was a widower with seven young children, and Eliza was motivated by a desire to help him. She came to regret her altruism, and their marriage was not harmonious. An increasingly conservative Eliza frequently clash with her radical husband, and she also found herself working to support the entire family. When Linton took the children to the Lake District in 1864, Eliza was able to concentrate once more on her writing, penning three novels in quick succession: Grasp Your Nettle (1865), Lizzie Lorton of Greyrigg (1866) and Sowing the Wind (1867). This separation was formalised in 1867 when Linton and his children moved to the US, and they never saw each other again.
It is for her Saturday Review articles that Eliza Lynn Linton is best known. During the 1860s and 70s she declared war on the “shrieking sisterhood” who had the temerity to demand equal rights. Although initially a proto-feminist Eliza became a staunch opponent of female suffrage and just about everything else. Her most controversial essay was ‘The Girl of the Period’, described as “the most sensational middle article the Saturday Review ever published”. She attacked young women for the twin evils of flirting and wearing makeup, behaviour that was having a deleterious effect on society. Eliza became infamous for her reactionary views and occasionally went too far, even for the right-wingers. The Anti-Suffrage League refused her offer of support, believing her to have become a figure of ridicule.
Equally controversial was her 1872 novel The True History of Joshua Davidson, Christian and Communist, in which she criticised the Church of England, accusing it of hypocrisy and abuse. It became her biggest seller, and was followed by more successes. One of Eliza’s rare flops during this period was The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland (1885) in which she told her life story in the persona of a man. Critics were perplexed by this feat of literary transvestism and readers also found it confusing. Although unsuccessful as a work of fiction, the novel has come to be accepted as Eliza’s autobiography, as it follows so closely the events of her own life.
Eliza’s well-established reputation as an anti-feminist was compounded during the 1890s with articles such as ‘The Judicial Shock to Marriage’, which lamented a change in law making it illegal for husbands to imprison their wives: “Marriage, as hitherto understood in England, was suddenly abolished one fine morning last month!” ‘The Wild Women as Social Insurgents’ attacked various types of modern woman, provoking a spirited response from Mona Caird in The Nineteenth Century. Her later fiction was no less combative. In Haste and at Leisure (1895) ridiculed women’s clubs and the suffrage movement, and The One Too Many (1894) was scathing of Girton-educated girls.
In 1897 Eliza contributed a chapter on George Eliot to Margaret Oliphant’s Women Novelists of Victoria’s Reign. Eliza is highly disparaging, making repeated moral judgements on Eliot’s private life. This attack is continued in her unfinished autobiography, My Literary Life, and extended to cover other contemporary figures. Her close friend Beatrice Harraden wrote in a preface to a posthumously-published edition: “It is to be regretted … that she is not here to tone down some of her more pungent remarks and criticisms …” concluding: “Mrs Linton’s pen was ever harsher than her speech”.
Eliza moved to Malvern in 1895 and it was during a visit to London in 1898 that she died of pneumonia. She was staying in Queen Anne’s Mansions, the building described in Notable Women Authors of the Day. Her considerable estate of £16,754 attests to her extraordinary industry, but it is for her reactionary journalism that she will be best remembered.
Recent critical attention has gone some way towards re-establishing Linton’s reputation as a varied and engaging novelist. There are scholarly editions of three of her pre-1890s novels, and a full-length biography. Although Eliza Lynn Linton is a woman of sometimes frustrating contradictions, she never fails to generate interest.
Victorian Secrets will publishes The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland.
Eliza Lynn Linton is one of the interviewees in Notable Women Authors of the Day.