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working in Egypt for 125 years

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08.03.2014

Amelia Edwards. Writer. Adventurer. Explorer by Fern Riddell

 

Last year the EES ran 'Pith Helmets and Petticoats: Women in 19th Century Egypt' to commemorate International Women's Day. This year we celebrate the role of women in Egyptology by taking a look at the fascinating life of Miss Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards, co-founder of the EES and driving force during its early years. Fern Riddell discusses Amelia's tenacity in the face of social norm and her inspiring work as an author and traveller.
Further information can be found in Brenda Moon's biography of Amelia, 'More Usefully Employed' which can be purchased from the EES online shop for just £5 this week!
Next year the Society hopes to team up with ASTENE to bring another seminar day full of speakers focusing on women working in Egypt and the Near East during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

 

Amelia Edwards: Writer. Adventurer. Explorer.  

The woman who established the EES left behind a long legacy of Egyptology; one embedded with the key idea that the ancient culture and civilization of Egypt needed to be protected for future generations. March 8, 2014, is International Women's Day, and there is no better time to celebrate the extraordinary life of the founder of this fantastic organization.

Born in 1831, just before the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, Amelia's early life was led in the safe seclusion of her family home in London. At a very early age her parents quickly recognized their daughter had an unusual talent and proficiency for writing. She was published in some of the biggest and most popular literary journals of the day, submitting her first poem at the age of seven, and her first story at the age of 12. She was also a talented musician, although she never felt truly confident in her own abilities in this field. It was her writing that gave her international acclaim, and has left us some of the finest records of Victorian exploration and the life of a female adventurer in the 19th century.

Leaving the safety of her family home, Amelia was desperate to experience the sights and sounds of 1800s Europe. It's here that one of her earliest novels, 'Hand and Glove' - a first edition of which has only recently been discovered in the EES Library and Archive - was inspired by the lives of the Bohemian artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris. This is one of the first examples that we have of Amelia challenging the role that society traditionally set out for her. She disguised herself as a man to be able to enter the bathing houses and gambling dens that the artists frequented. She wrote a passionate defence of the young female grisettes, the French prostitutes, that the artists used as their models. Surviving pictures of Amelia at this time show a lively face, with sparkling eyes, full of excitement.

But while her fiction included everything from tales of bigamy to ghost stories and the lives of people surrounding her, this is not what made her name. Her travel writing - from her adventures through the Dolomites, to her tour of Egypt - is what really excited the Victorian world, and its inspiring stories still echo into our own. In 'Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A mid summer ramble in the Dolomites', Amelia truly established her fascinating and engaging writing style. She has a captivating and powerful speaking voice, a voice that paints pictures, that builds images in your mind of the places that she has seen. Not only is this a talent in itself, but for a woman in the 19th century it is almost unheard of that she would journey and explore such places, unaided by a man.

Images. Above: Amelia Edwards; the EES Library copy of 'Hand and Glove'; page 208 of 'A Thousand Miles up the Nile' and Edwards' sketch of Philae. Below: The front cover of the EES Library copy of 'A Thouand Miles up the Nile'.


But it is a journey of the 1870s that remains her greatest legacy. Visiting Egypt by accident, blown there by bad weather in Italy, Amelia rented a dahabiyeh (a small sailing craft), which she packed full of young people, artists and intellectuals, and other writers. The journey they undertook inspired her greatest and most well known work, 'A Thousand Miles up the Nile'. This journey, this exploration that no other 19th century women had ever undertaken, inspired Amelia with a passion for Egypt and its ancient culture, and it is this passion that the EES is founded on. The sights, the sounds, and the smells of Egypt are intrinsically layered into every page of her book. Its sensational publication saw more people than ever flock to Egypt to experience firsthand the fantastic monuments and incredible scenery she had described and sketched. But Amelia's true calling was in the creation of the Egypt Exploration Society, then known as the Egypt Exploration Fund. Her tour of Egypt had proved to her that the foundation of this ancient and great culture was at serious risk of environmental and social damage. It was utterly unprotected, and without help it would be lost for all time. It was Amelia who raised the money to send archeologists, such as Petrie, out to preserve and record the artefacts of Ancient Egypt; and it was Amelia who fought hard to establish relationships with museums that would house the collections that her archeologists uncovered. She is a truly surprising and exceptional Victorian woman, with a legacy that echoes from London to Cairo, and from her time to our own.

Happy International Woman's Day, Amelia Edwards!
 

 

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