Since I began this blog, several people have asked why I chose the name ‘The Idle Woman’. They note that I don’t appear to be idle very often; some wonder if it’s tongue-in-cheek. To some extent it is; but the title is in fact a homage to a lady who has been my pet project for a very long time. I’ve just renewed my research into her life and works, so I thought it was time to introduce you to the original Idle Woman: Frances Vickris Dickinson.
I’ve given you her maiden name, because Frances married twice and adopted other names during the course of her life. She is best known as Frances Minto Elliot, the name under which she wrote a series of popular history and travel books during the second half of the 19th century. She adopted the surname ‘Elliot’ on her marriage in December 1863 to Gilbert Elliot, the Dean of Bristol, and the ‘Minto’ was a slightly fanciful addition based on her husband’s family connections with the Dukes of Minto. Her first works were a group of semi-autobiographical articles, written in the late 1840s and early 1850s under the pseudonym Florentia, through which she made a number of distinguished literary friends, including Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.
Foremost among her books are journals of her travels around Europe, written in a rather overblown but lively style, and these are all titled Diary of an Idle Woman in… Her diaries cover Italy, Sicily and Constantinople and offer tantalising glimpses of her network of friends and relations, whose names are often obscured by blanks (the bane of researchers). Among her other works were romantic histories of Renaissance France and Spain (the Old Court Life series) and a book on Ancient Rome (Pictures of Old Rome). You may be thinking, quite correctly, that she was hardly idle either. The same opinion was shared by the critic who reviewed Diary of an Idle Woman in Italy for The Times on Monday 6 November 1871:
On her last page Mrs Elliot modestly pleads that she has not been ‘so very idle after all,’ but the reader, who for two volumes has been wondering when the idleness vaunted on the cover was going to begin, for he has seen none of it, must still think that her truer title would have been ‘the Energetic’, or if the line must be ruled by a letter, ‘the Indefatigable woman in Italy.’
In itself, this would be enough to make a lively story. But Frances had a past that was, in many ways, even more intriguing. Her ancestors had made their fortune as merchants and sugar plantation-owners in Jamaica and her father, who died when she was only seven, left her an heiress: an only child. She grew up among the great and good of Berkshire and yet, at eighteen, chose to marry John Edward Geils, a lieutenant in the Indian army, who was the son of a friend of her mother’s. Geils and his family lived at Dumbuck in Dunbartonshire in Scotland, in a tightly-knit social circle populated mainly by their relations. For their part, the Geils family had a strong connection with India and John Edward’s father, brothers and cousins all served their time in Madras or Bengal.
Frances’s romantic ideas about marriage faded fairly quickly. She had five miscarriages in the first two years of her marriage and, along with her illness, she found that John Edward was easily provoked to a bad temper. For his part, he must have been dismayed to find that his heiress wife had turned into a frail, demanding, argumentative creature. Over the next seven years they would have four children, but the relationship disintegrated into bitter wrangling, further damaged by John Edward’s sporadic adultery and occasional physical violence. Eventually Frances, who had moved to be with her mother in Berkshire, demanded a separation in the English courts, and in October 1845 the Geils vs Geils case began. It was later considered a key case regarding the use of cruelty as a justification for marital separation. At the time, it was reported (sometimes word for word) with prurient interest in The Times and both Frances and John Edward must have been mortified.
The separation was granted and Frances then filed for divorce in the Scottish courts – followed by an appeal to the House of Lords so that she could also be considered divorced in Britain. It was a long and painful process for both of them, worsened for Frances by the fact that her daughters remained with John Edward. After the House of Lords proclaimed her a free woman, she departed for Italy to spend a time away from the glare of publicity, taking at least one of her daughters with her. She already seems to have loved Italy and it seems that, during her stay there, she took a third husband, whose identity I’ve only recently been able to confirm thanks to a commenter here. Details of this period of her life are frustratingly vague. Her three daughters who survived into adulthood married respectively into the English gentry, the Italian nobility (the Chigi Zondadari family of Siena) and Spanish diplomatic circles (the Marquis del Moral).
This was a woman who had remarkable spirit, dynamism and energy. There is much more, but I have given only the bare bones here, and would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows where I might be able to find other information on Frances and her family. I know there has been at least one thesis written in Italian on her travels in Sicily, and would love more details about that; I would also be interested to hear from anyone who’s studied her books (which I know appear on some American university reading lists). I’m looking for every scrap, no matter how small! I’ve already been in touch with a few descendants of her family, but if there is anyone else out there who has a link to this family, I’d be very interested to hear from you. There must be more documents and perhaps even portraits relating to Frances and her husbands and daughters, and I would dearly love to find these.
If you have genealogical links to any of these people then please drop me an email, because we might be able to help each other with our research: the Dickinsons of Farley Hill; the Dickinsons of Kingsweston; the Geils of Dumbuck, Cardross and Ardmore; the Chigi Zondadari family in Siena (between 1850 and 1950); the de Bertano family of the Marquises del Moral (around 1850); and the Pooks of Torquay in Devon (around 1900).
And, finally, what is my connection to Frances? Well, she once owned the Somerset village where I was born. As a teenager, loitering in the church during bell-ringing practice, I saw memorials to her and her daughters on the wall of the vestry, which was once the Dickinsons’ private family chapel. My father is the village historian and was able to fill in some of the answers to my questions. I initially thought of Frances as a terribly romantic figure, but as I’ve grown up I’ve come to see her as a more nuanced and even more intriguing character. Already obsessed by Italy myself, I was thrilled to think that there was a bridge between my quiet country village and all the glamour of Rome and Siena – and Frances, or ‘Mrs Elliot’, as we always called her, was that bridge. She has fascinated me ever since.