Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)
I find that objectivity is difficult to achieve when considering a work by or about someone with whom I have a family relationship, however distant. In the case of Octavia Hill, my great-great-aunt, I have been aware of her all my life as a figure revered in the family. Outside the family I have been aware of her work in the field of housing through my involvement with the Housing Association that bears her name, and of her role as one of the three founders of the National Trust.
It is perhaps surprising that there has been no full length biography, since Moberley Bell's some 50 years ago, of one of the truly great Victorian women, whose public stature in her own time can be appreciated in the fact that, as one of the three women who had most influenced the course of Victorian Britain, she was chosen, together with Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler, as the occupant of a seat in Westminster Abbey for the Service of Thanksgiving for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.
Gillian Darley's biography provides what must be the definitive Life, clearly the result of most thorough research and of a wide knowledge of the background to Octavia' s work and of the people with whom she was involved. Particularly interesting to me is the detailed information about Octavia's distinguished grandfather Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, whose work in the field of public hygiene and sanitary reform did not receive the recognition it deserved in his lifetime, and about her mother, Caroline Southwood Hill, whose views on the education of young children are still, in the present educational climate, worth careful consideration.