Barbara Bodichon’s Bildung
: Education, Feminism and Agency in Epistolary Narratives

  • Meritxell Simon-Martin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) was a mid-Victorian English feminist, philanthropist and artist. She is mostly known among women’s and gender historians as the charismatic leader of the Langham Place Circle and as an accomplished watercolourist long resident in Algeria. Through analysis of her personal correspondence, this thesis investigates the significance of letters in the development of Bodichon’s education – studied here in the sense of Bildung (self-cultivation). Reading letter-writing as a performative autobiographical act of self-formation, it argues that Bodichon developed her self-cultivation during her lifetime by innumerable daily habits and life choices – a phenomenon not directly accessible to historians. Simultaneously, she projected an epistolary articulation of her Bildung through the signifying practice of self-narrating by means of her epistolary “I” – within norms of cultural intelligibility and determined by the features of the epistolary genre. The analysis of Bodichon’s epistolary dialogues suggests that letters acted as educational instruments – as sources of Bildung. They functioned as forums where she acquired knowledge and exercised her critical thinking; she carved out her identity at the intersection of her feminist, philanthropic and artistic endeavours; and negotiated her autonomy – here understood as her capacity to act in accordance with her evolving self-conception. As such, this thesis claims letters as sources of agency. By reading Bodichon’s personal correspondence through the lens of Bildung, this study seeks to provide a nuanced portrait of this thoroughly studied historical figure and thus to contribute to Bodichon studies. It proposes a critical examination of the limits of her feminist outlook. In terms of the history of women’s education, the use of Bildung as a thinking tool enables light to be thrown on informal sources of education especially for women in the context of nineteenth-century Britain. In studying letter-writing as a performative autobiographical act, this thesis also seeks to problematise the use of letters in historical investigation and thus to contribute to epistemological debates about the production of historical knowledge.

Date of Award12 Nov 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Winchester
SupervisorStephanie Spencer (Supervisor) & Joyce Goodman (Supervisor)

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