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Press release

  • 29 January 2008

New biography reveals the inspiration for Middlemarch

One of the greatest unsung social reformers of the 19th century - and the likely inspiration for George Eliot's Middlemarch - is the subject of a new biography by a University of Sussex researcher.

Jeanie Senior (1828-1877) was the first woman civil servant in Britain. Her report as a Government Inspector highlighted the appalling conditions of workhouse schools and the vulnerability to prostitution of the maids-of-all-work who had been 'educated' there.

Her ground-breaking appointment, according to Sybil Oldfield, Research Reader in English at Sussex and author of Jeanie, an 'Army of One', was not popular among the male Old Guard, who were enraged by her condemnation of the huge "Barrack Schools" and opposed her advocacy of the fostering and adoption of all orphaned or abandoned pauper children. But her female supporters included Florence Nightingale, who saluted her as "a noble army of one".

Through her work, which also included pioneering social work and housing reform with Octavia Hill and co-founding the British Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian war, Jeanie Senior had become an icon for the late 19th century British movement.

It was the revelation of her friendship with George Eliot, however, that bought Jeanie back into the limelight this century. In December 2000 the Nassau Senior family papers became accessible and 25 letters sent by George Eliot to Jeanie Senior came up for auction. The letters were deemed important enough to be placed under an export ban and bought for the nation by the British Library.

In researching material for her book, Sybil Oldfield paid close textual analysis to the thousands of letters written by Jeanie Senior to her son. "I found astonishing correspondences with the speech of the equally frustrated, idealistic Dorothea Brooke, the central character of Middlemarch," she says. "George Eliot had first known Jeanie Senior before she managed to enter public life and the novelist used the same key words, 'ardent' and 'diffusive' to describe both her friend and her later heroine."

Notes for editors

  • There will be a special launch for Jeanie, an Army of One - Mrs Nassau Senior 1828-1877, the First Woman in Whitehall (Sussex Academic Press) at the Picture Gallery of the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, on 4 February, 3.00-6.00pm.
  • Sybil Oldfield is author of Spinsters of this Parish, Women against the Iron Fist, Woman Humanitarians 1900-1950 - Doers of the Word, and Afterwords, Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (ed)
University of Sussex press office contacts: Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune, 01273 678888,

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