English, Department of



Sybil Oldfield

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 39 (2008) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (39)


Sybil Oldfield is well-known for her work on humanitarian women, creative philanthropists and pacifists, and her new book is an important contribution to Victorian studies, a life-story told with admiration, sympathy and style, as cram-full of character and emotion as a novel, and of great interest to George Eliot scholars.

The neglect of Jeanie Senior, called Jeanie, pronounced Janie - her enthusiastic biographer puts 'sic' after deviations, eccentrically rather than pedantically since Jeanie was christened Jane Elizabeth and named Jane on her tomb and even in this book's index - is at first sight puzzling, because her ideals and zeal as radical reformer were comparable to those of Octavia Hill and Florence Nightingale, who knew and admired her. The explanation, explicit and implicit in this biography, is the practical failure of her life-work, the reform of women's education and welfare in and after the workhouse, cruelly cut short by death. Her dream was no pedagogic revision but a revolution in the care of neglected girls: she argued that children should be fostered not institutionalized, that the 'Olive Twists' as Oldfield calls them, who escaped the reforming attention of Dickens, be constantly monitored. Her proposals for scrupulous social welfare are very relevant today, but they died with her and she died young at the age of forty-nine, of a uterine cancer from which she suffered agony and fatigue, with some remissions, even before she began work for the newly founded Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War and then took on her commissioned reform and research of workhouse care for women.

Her career was a reform in itself, since she was appointed to a paid Civil Service post in 1870, the first woman in such a post and the last for three-quarters of a century, because up to the second World War women civil servants had to be unmarried and resign on marriage. Hereby hangs another Victorian tale, that of the courageous feminist and workhouse reformer James Stansfield, President of Gladstone's Local Government Board, who appointed her. After her amazingly hard and enterprising work, the ignorant scurrilous male opposition to her brilliant final Report, by C. F. Tufnell, a prejudiced and incompetent Inspector of workhouse administration, and her own swiftly marshalled and skillfully researched defence, form an eloquently uneven dialogue in the long struggle between social reform and sexist conservatism. Her social services could have survived the grossly unfair male opposition, but her work was virtually a one-woman enterprise, and when her resignation on grounds of health was followed by the fall of the Whig government and the return of the Tories, Stansfield and the reformist project fell too.