In 1837, at the age of 23, Angela Burdett-Coutts inherited a vast fortune from her banker grandfather, making her one of the richest and thus potentially powerful women in Victorian England. She moved in the highest social circles: entertaining the rising stars of the political scene, Disraeli and Gladstone; attending scientific lectures with Faraday; pursuing her philanthropic work with Dickens; and falling in love with the aged Duke of Wellington.
Her acts of charity were enormous and wide-ranging-establishing a home for 'fallen women', pioneering model housing, battling for sanitary reform, supporting the NSPCC and the RSPCA, and promoting technical education and domestic science. A devout Anglican, she built churches, founded colonial bishoprics and encouraged the missionary work of Livingstone and others. Despite all this activity, Angela remained throughout her life a shy and supremely private person. The full range of her charity will probably never be known, for she often acted through intermediaries such as Dickens, describing herself only as 'lady unknown'. And a 'lady unknown' she has largely remained, her role in Victorian England strangely overlooked or forgotten. Edna Healey has uncovered much new material, including unpublished correspondence from Dickens, Livingstone, Gladstone, Wellington, Faraday and Henry Irving, to provide a fascinating insight into this most remarkable lady.
Edna May Edmunds was born in the Forest of Dean and educated at Bell's Grammar School, Coleford, Gloucestershire, where she was the first pupil to gain a place at Oxford University. While studying English at St Hugh's College she met Denis Healey, who was studying at Balliol College. She then trained as a teacher and married Healey in 1945 after his military service in World War II. She became Baroness Healey in 1992 when her husband received a life peerage. Though she began her writing career relatively late in life, her books were critically acclaimed and sometimes best-sellers. She wrote non-fiction books, often biographies of successful women in powerful positions. Lady Healey also made two award-winning television documentaries. She was elected in 1993 a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
This is a well written biography of a little known woman. In detailing Miss Coutts' life, Edna Healey inevitably details the conventions which placed limits on what women could do. In almost all of her charitable works, Miss Coutts relied upon or had recourse to men - perhaps if she had been male she would not have remained a shadowy figure in the history of Victorian England. Nonetheless, she was a compassionate and determined women who was a pioneer in concern for the poor and much of her fortune went towards improving their lot in life. Her friendship with Charles Dickens shed new light (for me) on his work for the poor. In some ways Miss Coutts' life was typical of the life of a well-off Victorian woman - at-homes, continental travel, health cures, and this does become slightly monotonous, but there is a parade of famous characters who regularly brighten the scene. If the social round and charitable works see your interest flagging a little, push on because there is quite a surprise toward the end.
I was thoroughly enjoying Anna Bentinck's narration, pleasant voice, pleasant accent, UNTIL, it appears, she read several chapters while suffering a heavy cold. The stuffed-up nasal voice was just horrible, I had to force myself to keep listening. Thankfully she recovered but it did spoil my enjoyment of this book.
Would you listen to Lady Unknown again? Why?
Yes, it is the sort of Audio book you can re-listen to in parts.
What other book might you compare Lady Unknown to, and why?
Victorian London, The Life of a City, 1840-1870. The setting and era are the same.
Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
Her relationship with the Duck of Wellington and the did they? Didn't they?