Eliza Brightwen waited a long time to blossom. Born in 1830 in Banff, Scotland, she only found success as a natural history writer in her sixties. Her first book, Wild Nature Won by Kindness, which Eliza described as a series of “quiet talks with my readers”, appealed to the public for her clear, simple style. The animals around her home in Stanmore, Middlesex are brought to life like characters in a story. Starlings were a favourite, some becoming pets, such as the extravagantly named Richard the Second.
Unlike the more ponderous tone in natural histories of her day, Eliza addresses the reader as a radio presenter might. “Let us start for our walk,” she writes. “Did you see that snake?” she asks, before describing how it kills a frog. Her mission was to teach the young “the habit of careful observation” but the mix of direct commentary and gentle humour – “a starling’s range of ideas may be summed up in the word Grubs” – found her an adult audience, too. Eliza was a more complex character than her books suggest. Orphaned early in life, she was adopted by her uncle Alexander Elder, a publisher. The Elders lived first in Streatham, then in Stamford Hill, both now urban parts of London, but then outlying country areas. In her diaries, Eliza describes Stamford Hill in 1838 as “so thoroughly in the country that partridges were often found in our fields”.
Coming to England, away from her siblings in Scotland, Eliza appears a shy and lonely child, a state not helped by constant criticism from her aunt. Her uncle, however, was a kind teacher. Eliza was devoted to him. He taught her outdoor skills, such as mending fences, and set aside “a portion of ground” for her to make her “own especial garden”.
Here, Eliza writes, were the “excellent opportunities for making my childish researches into Nature”. But, in adolescence, Eliza experienced a series of crises. Her fear of becoming orphaned again and the hostility of her aunt led her to believe she was somehow profoundly sinful. Although she found solace in religion, her anxieties continued, and would do so throughout her life, resulting in bouts of debilitating illness and depression.
In her diaries, Eliza seems constantly caught between society’s expectations and her desire to go her own way. Even her 1855 marriage to George Brightwen occurs because she worries that to turn him down would hurt his feelings.
A revival of spirit
The Brightwens settled in The Grove, a large house on the edge of Stanmore Common. Although early married life followed a comfortable pattern of travel and socialising, Eliza became reclusive, spending time walking on the common and in the woods around her garden. Eventually, her mysterious illnesses got the better of her. When her husband died in 1872, “her death seemed imminent”, writes her nephew Edmund Gosse. But Eliza rallied. She began exploring again and, as her nephew describes, “discovered in herself a remarkable gift of natural magic”. She tamed wildlife, collected and dissected specimens of insects, flowers and fungi, and converted her husband’s billiard room into a museum.
Skilled in painting and drawing, she created beautiful illustrations for her books and encouraged local children to visit her museum and see her living “pets”. Birds flew in and out of her conservatory and she was given a menagerie of animals to look after as her fame spread.
A keen philanthropist and conservationist, Eliza donated money from her writing to help locals, including traveller families who gathered on the common, and gave talks about the harms of egg-collecting and bird-trapping. She campaigned against the use of feathers in fashion, and opposed hunting, helping foxes hide on her land. Eliza had conflicting feelings about her popularity – “defend me from twaddle and chatter” – but her belief in the “safety-valve” of nature was fundamental. Above all, she wanted to create a new generation of “ardent naturalists”. When she died, in May 1906, her funeral was attended by “a vast concourse of persons”, each touched by her “untiring bounty”.