With exquisite modesty, Amelia Edwards wrote in 1891 in The Arena magazine: ‘I am essentially a worker, and a hard worker, and this I have been since my early girlhood.’ ‘Hard worker’ she indubitably was – in 1882, she contributed more than 100 articles to just The Academy magazine, and in a single year wrote 4,000 archaeological fundraising letters – but with ‘essentially’ we must quibble. This major figure in Egyptian archaeology was also a novelist, journalist, artist, erstwhile musician, and dauntless travel writer.
Born in Islington, north London, she was already published by the age of 14, but pursued a musical career – until a bout of typhus made singing opera difficult. Edwards then made her living as a journalist and writer of fiction, publishing a dozen novels and numerous ghost stories. An adventurous spirit, she explored the largely uncharted Dolomite mountains in the 1870s with her friend Lucy Renshawe, a journey written up as the enduringly popular Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys. Atrocious rain then dissuaded them from making a follow-up journey in France. In search of warmer weather, they decided instead to hire a dahabiyah to sail the Nile, finding an unknown temple in Abu Simbel. Egypt had Edwards hooked.
She poured her energy into research, wrote the bestselling book A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1876), and, heartbroken by the thefts and heedless vandalism she had witnessed, battled to protect Egypt’s extraordinary heritage. The Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) was duly founded in 1882, with the young Flinders Petrie becoming its archaeologist. Edwards went on to fund Britain’s first professorship in Egyptology – carefully fitted up for Petrie, it was endowed at University College London, due to the institution’s progressive attitude to women – as well as a scholarship for Francis Llewellyn Griffith, who decades later became the first Oxford Professor of Egyptology.
“I am essentially a worker, and a hard worker, and this I have been since my early girlhood.”Amelia Edwards, 1891
As a young bohemian, Edwards had dressed in male clothing and, after her ‘unsuitable’ engagement collapsed in 1852, never married. But she had devoted female companions, living with Ellen Braysher for nearly three decades. Braysher predeceased Edwards by a few months, and they are touchingly commemorated – together with Braysher’s daughter from her earlier marriage – on the same gravestone.
Edwards ‘did not love many people for all her seeming geniality’, Griffith’s wife once told the handsome Petrie, but he was among the three people of whom she was most fond. As fond, Edwards responded, as she might be of ‘a young obelisk’. Given the affection she felt for her many artefacts (now in the Petrie Museum), this may be taken as some manner of compliment.
Images: Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo; Flickr/British Library [CC0].