The Enigmatic Eliza Lynn Linton: Loves, Lies and Literature

Keswick Museum has just opened an exhibition about a famous woman, born and raised in Keswick: Eliza Lynn Linton. She was born, in 1822, at Crosthwaite Vicarage, the twelfth daughter and final child of the Vicar of Crosthwaite. She had an unhappy childhood, her mother died when she was born, she was raised by an unsympathetic father and had little formal education. Instead she taught herself from the Vicarage library.

The exhibition was small, but really interesting, following Eliza's career from joining the staff of the Morning Chronicle in 1848, through her unhappy marriage, to her career as a successful novelist.

In her first post at the Morning Chronicle she was the first woman journalist in England to draw a salary. Eliza wrote many novels, some better critically received than others. 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. Charles Dickens praised her work and her journalism for Household Words.

It seems strange that after her marriage to the radical republican, William Linton, Eliza's position changed and she became increasingly reactionary. She became very well known for her many articles in the Saturday Review. 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. The Anti-Suffrage League refused her offer of support, believing her to have become a figure of ridicule.

During the happier years of their marriage William and Eliza Linton lived at Brantwood, on Coniston, and it was here that she wrote The Lake Counties as well as a number of other novels. Lizzie Lorton of Greyrigg is set locally.

Eliza Lynn Linton is a fascinating woman and the exhibition succeeded in demonstrating the many conflicting aspects of her character. I wish that there had been more of the exhibition, maybe more about the novels and the life of this perplexing and complex woman.