“A most un-Victorian Victorian” is Joanna Martin’s wonderfully apt description of Georgina Weldon. Fearless, clever, independent and talented – also eccentric, delusional and highly litigious – Georgina Weldon seemed to live at the centre of a storm, often but not always one of her own making, and was one of the most famous women of her age, a terror to many but a hero to others. Just imagine how she would have thrived in the 21st-century world of instant mass media. Joanna Martin’s biography is the most complete to date and the first to make use of Georgina’s diaries and letters.
To my grandfather and his sister, she was ‘Aunt Georgina’, an almost mythical relative whose behaviour had been so outrageous that her husband had tried to have her locked up in a lunatic asylum. To the generations that followed, her story was intriguing – and much more interesting than the lives of the more conventional, and duller, members of the family.
As a girl, Georgina was painted by the well-known artist G.F. Watts; in later life her face was familiar to the public through numerous cartoons and drawings, a caricature (in legal dress) by ‘Spy’ in Vanity Fair Magazine, and an advertisement for Pears Soap. She was born 1837, just before Queen Victoria came to the throne, and died on the eve of the First World War.
The daughter of a Sussex landowner, Georgina Treherne was beautiful, intelligent, talented, and utterly convinced that she was always in the right. Desperate to escape from a tyrannical father, she eloped with a Hussar, Harry Weldon, and was disinherited. A semi-professional singing career led to friendship with the famous composer Charles Gounod, who lived with Georgina and her husband at Tavistock House in London, the former home of Charles Dickens, for several years. After the acrimonious breakdown of this relationship, the Weldons separated. Harry Weldon’s attempt to have his wife carried off to a lunatic asylum failed, and she subsequently pursued him and the ‘mad-doctors’ through the law courts.
Georgina sang in drawing rooms and concert halls, and on the music hall stage. She trained and conducted choirs, co-wrote and acted in a play, and lectured on women’s rights and law reform. She founded and ran a music school and orphanage, and acted as a concert impresario. One of the first and most notorious female plaintiffs in person, she was active in the law courts throughout the 1880s and advised many of her fellow litigants. Her campaigns brought her notoriety and two gaol sentences, but little in the way of financial reward.
Georgina was born a lady, but she was widely condemned for her failure to conduct herself like one. Her behaviour brought her into contact with people and spheres unknown to her more conventional contemporaries. The diaries that she kept from 1854 to 1913, which form the basis of my book, give us a unique insight into the world of a most un-Victorian Victorian.
The only reliable biography of Georgina, Storm Bird by Edward Grierson, was published in 1959 – over sixty years ago. My book is the first since then to make use of Georgina’s own archive. In addition to the diaries, this includes vast numbers of letters, and printed works by Georgina herself, including her memoirs, published in six volumes (in French) in 1903.
It has taken me fifteen years to write this book. In many ways the delay has been beneficial, as so much more material is now available than was the case ten – or even five – years ago. Sources that used to be inaccessible, or could only be searched with great difficulty, such as contemporary magazines and local newspapers, are now indexed, and can be downloaded or read online in a researcher’s own home. New sources, and new approaches to women’s history, have enabled me, I hope, to build up a much more rounded picture of Georgina and her world than was possible when Storm Bird was published. Getting to know this extraordinary – though often infuriating – woman has been a pleasure, and I hope that readers of my book will share my continuing fascination with her.
This guest post was written by Joanna Martin.