Lady Florence Dixie: a woman who had it all?

On October 29th 1880, Lady Florence Dixie wrote a letter to Charles Darwin from her home in the Scottish Borders; “Whilst reading the other day your very interesting account of A Naturalist’s Voyage round the world,” she said, “I came across a passage…of the subterranean habits of the tucutuco”. The Tuco Tuco was, according to Darwin, a “curious, small” mole-like creature which “never comes to the surface of the ground“. Florence Dixie, however, disagreed; “I am sure it will be interesting to you to know,” she said, “that tho’ this may be the usual habits of the tucutuco that there are exceptions”.

 

The previous year Lady Florence Dixie had spent six months travelling around Patagonia where she had experienced first hand not just the Tuco Tuco but a great variety of exotic species, as detailed in her book Across Patagonia (1880). Perhaps most famously, Dixie encountered a family of jaguars which, she explained to Darwin, “attacked me & followed me up a tree”. “In self-defence,” she said, “I was obliged to shoot [the mother] but saved one of the cubs from the gauchos”.  Dixie was so taken with the jaguar cub that she took him home to London with her. Affums, as she called him, lived happily with the Dixie family until he attacked several deer in Windsor Great Park and, as a result, was sent to London Zoo.

 

Lady Florence Dixie actively rejected a life of maternal domesticity; “It is all very well to declare that it is a woman’s business to bear children, to bring them up, to attend to household matters and leave the rest to men”, but some women, she argued, sought a different sort of life. [1] So, having fulfilled her duty to marry and bear children [2], Dixie left England to travel around south America, indulging her passion for adventure (specifically, her love of hunting and eating wild game!).

 

On her return from South America, Dixie was the first woman ever appointed as a field correspondent for the Morning Post (later the Daily Telegraph). She reported on the first Boer War and, later, moved with her family to Cape Town in order to investigate the aftermath of the Anglo-Zulu war.

 

As well as a traveller, hunter, writer and journalist, Dixie was also a keen political activist. She was a vociferous promoter of Irish home rule and women’s rights, endorsing votes for women and equality in marriage and divorce.  Like many of her feminist contemporaries, Dixie was also an active member of the Rational Dress movement, which promoted practical and comfortable clothing for men and women alike (most famously the unisex ‘Bloomer Suit’, pictured). She also played an instrumental part in establishing women’s football and, in 1895, was elected president of the British Ladies’ Football Club.

 

In 1890, Dixie published perhaps her most well-known work, Gloriana. A utopian feminist novel, Gloriana invoked a fantasy world in which men and women lived as equals. For Dixie, women’s lack of access to education, their lack of political power and the expectation that they dedicate their lives exclusively to child-rearing and house-keeping was, “arbitrary and cruel, and false to Nature”.

 

On International Women’s Day, it’s interesting to reflect on how much women’s lives have changed over the past 120 years.  It is perhaps striking that even today Dixie’s life remains remarkable for its peculiarity and variety. Educated, politically informed and backed by supportive familial and institutional structures, Dixie was able successfully to balance her multiple responsibilities as a wife, mother, writer, poet, journalist, traveller, political activist and amateur Naturalist. Whether we’ve come any closer to achieving Dixie’s sexually-equal utopia and whether women of the twenty-first century have the choices, opportunities and aspirations that were available to Victorian women like Lady Florence Dixie is open to debate.

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman

 

[1] F. Dixie cited in M. Anderson, Women and the Politics of Travel (FDU Press, 2006), pp. 122 – 123.

[2] Dixie married Sir Alexander Beaumont Churchill Dixie in 1875 had two sons, George and Albert, born in 1876 and 1878 respectively.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>