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Linton, Elizabeth [Eliza] Lynn (1822–1898), writer, was born on 10 February 1822 at Crosthwaite vicarage in Keswick, Cumberland, the twelfth and youngest child of the Revd James Lynn (1776–1855), vicar of Crosthwaite, and his first wife, Charlotte Alicia (1782/3–1822), daughter of the , bishop of Carlisle. Eliza Lynn's mother died shortly after her birth. Raised in the Lake District and in Kent, she received no formal schooling but pursued a course of rigorous self-education. She later recounted the unhappiness of her motherless childhood, accentuated by her conflicts with her tory clergyman father over her radical political views and loss of faith in Christianity. Eager for attention and approval, she determined early in her youth to achieve fame as an author.

At the age of twenty-three, encouraged by the publication of two of her poems in Ainsworth's Magazine, Eliza Lynn left her family home in Keswick and went to London to make her way as a writer. Describing herself as ‘one of the vanguard of independent women’ (Linton, Christopher Kirkland, 1.253), she succeeded in publishing two well-reviewed historical novels, Azeth, the Egyptian (1847) and Amymone: A Romance in the Days of Pericles (1848), the latter a passionate appeal for women's rights. She also joined the staff of the whig newspaper the Morning Chronicle in 1848, becoming the first woman journalist in England to draw a fixed salary.

Seeking fame, Eliza Lynn instead achieved notoriety with the publication in 1851 of her third novel, Realities, which was a fiery attack on Victorian respectability. Even with the expurgation of certain sexually suggestive passages the novel received damning reviews, and it established the young Eliza Lynn's reputation as a person of questionable moral character. Also in 1851 she argued with John Douglas Cook, her employer on the Morning Chronicle, and for three years (1851–4) worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris. She did not publish another novel for fourteen years after Realities, concentrating instead on contributions to such respectable periodicals as Charles Dickens's Household Words. Dickens valued her work and considered her ‘good for anything, and thoroughly reliable’, though he did caution his sub-editor that she ‘gets so near the sexual side of things as to be a little dangerous to us at times’ (Anderson, 66).

On 24 March 1858 the 36-year-old Eliza Lynn married the engraver and radical republican , a widower with seven young children. Described by a colleague as ‘a tall, stately, handsome young woman’ (Layard, 91), always wearing spectacles because of her severe near-sightedness, she attributed her decision to marry Linton to her desire to help his motherless children. A union of two discordant personalities, the marriage was a disaster. The increasingly conservative Eliza, hoping to make their London home a social and literary centre, was frustrated by her husband's lack of personal ambition and his preoccupation with continental revolutionary causes. She also had the responsibility of supporting the family with her writings. Styling herself E. Lynn Linton, thereby keeping her birth-name in equal prominence with her married name as a means, she said, of maintaining ‘cherished individualism’ (Anderson, 86), she published mainly potboiler articles in popular periodicals such as the Literary Gazette and the National Magazine, as well as continuing her contributions to Household Words and its successor, All the Year Round.

In 1864, recognizing that the marriage was a failure, William James Linton moved with his children back to Brantwood, his house in the Lake District. Although spending the summers at Brantwood, Eliza Lynn Linton lived the rest of the year in London, concentrating, as she told the publisher John Blackwood, on fulfilling her ambition to ‘get out of periodical literature and to succeed as a writer of good novels’ (Anderson, 99). Ever one to achieve her goals, she did publish during that time three reasonably successful novels, Grasp your Nettle (1865), Lizzie Lorton of Greyrigg (1866), and Sowing the Wind (1867). The marriage reached a final end in 1867 when William moved to the United States, where he was joined by his children. Although he returned several times to England, they did not see each other again. They never divorced, perhaps because there were no legal grounds.

Despite her concern to succeed as a novelist, it was Linton's sensational articles in the conservative and prestigious Saturday Review in the late 1860s and the 1870s that made her reputation in Victorian England. Taking on the role of critic of women, the once-impassioned defender of women's rights became its most ardent opponent. She damned the ‘shrieking sisterhood’ (Saturday Review, 12 May 1870) who sought the right to vote, even as she criticized the ‘modern mother’ (Saturday Review, 29 Feb 1868) whose aspirations for ladyhood caused her to neglect her maternal duties. Her most controversial article was ‘The girl of the period’, published on 14 March 1868, in which Linton shockingly accused young women who flirted and wore make-up of envying and imitating the demi-monde. Called ‘perhaps the most sensational middle article the Saturday Review ever published’ (Bevington, 110), this anonymous essay was soon identified as authored by Linton, and thereafter she was usually described with reference to it. In 1883 her articles in the Saturday Review were collected and published in two volumes as ‘The Girl of the Period’ and other Social Essays.

Linton became an even more controversial figure when she, a self-styled agnostic, published in 1872 the novel The True History of Joshua Davidson, Christian and Communist, in which she severely criticized the Church of England for what she saw as its hypocrisies and abuses. Creating the fantasy of Jesus (Joshua Davidson) returning to Victorian England, she argued that he would be a communist who would advocate the sharing of wealth and the end of class inequalities. The novel ends with Joshua Davidson kicked to death by the leaders of the Church of England. An immediate best-seller, Joshua Davidson was Linton's most widely sold book.

Hard-working and rigorously self-disciplined, Linton enjoyed a profitable, even though controversial, literary career. Continuing the success of her Saturday Review articles, she wrote primarily on women's role in society, with her arguments becoming increasingly strident as women gained more rights and freedoms in late Victorian England. Although criticized for what many saw as her exaggerated and hysterical views, she found a forum in a wide range of respected Victorian periodicals, including the National Review, Belgravia, the New Review, Temple Bar, and The Queen. Her many novels published in the 1870s and 1880s were generally successful. Her later novels, however, most notably The One too Many (1894) and In Haste and at Leisure (1895), which were harsh though ambiguous denunciations of the ‘new woman’, received bad reviews and had poor sales. In 1885 she published her psychologically revealing but financially unsuccessful fictionalized autobiography, The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, in which she wrote of herself in the persona of a male.

Ridiculed by many, Eliza Lynn Linton remained a respected woman of letters who counted among her friends and admirers such diverse persons as Walter Savage Landor, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Herbert Spencer, and Thomas Hardy. She detailed many of these friendships in My Literary Life, published posthumously in 1899. In her older years a stout, bespectacled woman with grey hair, usually photographed wearing a severe black gown and a white lace cap, she was fierce to her enemies and loving to her friends. She was especially supportive of aspiring young authors, including, anomalously, the progressive author Beatrice Harraden. Linton also travelled a great deal, particularly between 1876 and 1884, when she often visited Italy. She moved to Malvern in 1895, and it was during a London visit to a friend that she died at her former residence, Queen Anne's Mansions, Westminster, London, of bronchial pneumonia on 14 July 1898, aged seventy-six. She was cremated, and her ashes were buried on 30 September in the cemetery of Crosthwaite church in Cumberland. She left to her relatives and friends an estate of £16,574, which was the fruit of her labour and a testament to her hard-won success.

Nancy Fix Anderson

Sources  

G. S. Layard, Mrs Lynn Linton: her life, letters and opinions (1901) · N. F. Anderson, Woman against women in Victorian England: a life of Eliza Lynn Linton (1987) · E. L. Linton, The autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, 3 vols. (1885) · E. L. Linton, My literary life (1899) · M. M. Bevington, The Saturday Review, 1855–1868: representative educated opinion in Victorian England (1941) · E. L. Linton, ‘A retrospect’, Fortnightly Review, 44 (1885), 614–29 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1898) · F. B. Smith, Radical artisan: William James Linton, 1812–1897 (1973)

Archives  

Fitzpark Museum, Keswick, Cumbria, small collection of youthful writings · Hunt. L., letters |  Duke U., letters to Sir Thomas Wardle · NL Scot., Blackwood MSS · University of Illinois Library, Urbana, Illinois, Bentley Collection · Yale U., Beinecke L.


Likenesses  

S. Lawrence, oils?, c.1840, repro. in Layard, Mrs Lynn Linton, 31 · photograph, 1858, repro. in Layard, Mrs Lynn Linton, 98 · W. & D. Downey, woodburytype, 1880–89, NPG; repro. in Layard, Mrs Lynn Linton, frontispiece · Elliott & Fry, photograph, c.1880–1889, repro. in Layard, Mrs Lynn Linton, 320 · photograph, c.1880–1889, Hult. Arch. · C. O'Neill, photograph, c.1890–1899, repro. in Women at Home, 5 (Dec 1897), 181 · J. Collier, oils, 1900–04, Fitzpark Museum and Art Gallery, Keswick, Cumbria · Barraud, photograph, NPG; repro. in Men and Women of the Day, 8 (1890)

Wealth at death  

£16,574 4s. 0d.: probate, 13 Aug 1898, CGPLA Eng. & Wales