Excellence in Scholarship and Learning


Jeanie, an ‘Army of One’

Mrs Nassau Senior, 1828-1877, the First Woman in Whitehall

Sybil Oldfield is Research Reader in English, University of Sussex. Her books include Spinsters of this Parish – F. M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks (1984); Women Against the Iron Fist – Anti-militarist thinking 1900–1989 (1989); Doers of the Word: British Women Humanitarians, 1900–1950: a Biographical Dictionary (2001 and 2007); and, with Gwenyth Shaw, ed., The Old Familiar Faces, Poems on the Experience of Ageing (2007).

The rediscovery of a Victorian heroine – ‘the missing link’ between Josephine Butler and Octavia Hill

A significant addition to Victorian socio-cultural history and to Women’s Studies

This first full biography of Mrs. Nassau Senior, 1822–1877, tells how an extraordinary woman escaped from the constraints of Victorian domesticity to become the first woman in Whitehall and one of Britain’s great social reformers. An ardent Christian Socialist radical, like her brother Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays), Jeanie Senior pioneered social work with Octavia Hill, co-founded the British Red Cross in the Franco-Prussian war and battled as ‘Government Inspector’ on behalf of exploited Workhouse girls. She was ferociously attacked for advocating the fostering of all pauper orphans rather than their incarceration and for indicting Workhouse ‘Barrack’ schools for producing prostitution fodder. Her fight to defend her findings against male hostility politicized her and she became an icon for the late 19th century women’s movement.

Jeanie Senior was also a significant figure in the worlds of art, music and literature, even being, it is argued here, the vital inspiration for her friend George Eliot in creating Dorothea, heroine of Middlemarch. Her life was a great ‘human story’ as she struggled in the teeth of multiple bereavement, an unhappy marriage and cancer in order to rescue others more desperate and vulnerable still. Florence Nightingale told her she had been ‘a noble Army of one’ and later grieved that her ‘premature death was a national and irreparable loss’.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-253-2
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $79.50
Release Date: December 2007
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-254-9
Paperback Price: £17.95 / $35.00
Release Date: December 2007
Page Extent / Format: 360 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations
Foreword by Graham Senior-Milne


CHAPTER ONE Tom Brown’s Sister – Jeanie Hughes
CHAPTER TWO Being ‘Mrs. Nassau Senior’, 1848–1853
CHAPTER THREE Enter Watts and Mérimée, 1852–1856
CHAPTER FOUR Surviving Four Hard Years, 1856–1860
CHAPTER FIVE Life at Elm House, 1861–1864 – ‘Come to us!’
CHAPTER SIX Father and Son
CHAPTER SEVEN Politics and Society in the Late 1860s
CHAPTER EIGHT Interlude: Music and Friendships
CHAPTER NINE George Eliot’s Dorothea?
CHAPTER TEN War on Two Fronts
CHAPTER ELEVEN The First Woman Civil Servant
CHAPTER TWELVE The Government Inspector Goes on a Girl Hunt
CHAPTER THIRTEEN Mrs. Senior’s Report
CHAPTER FOURTEEN Reception of the Report
CHAPTER FIFTEEN Birth of a New Woman, 1875–1876


APPENDIX I: What Happened to the Others in the Story?
APPENDIX II: Checklist of Reviews and Notices of Mrs. Senior’s Report, 1874
APPENDIX III: The Times Obituary, 29 March 1877
APPENDIX IV: References to ‘Mrs. Nassau Senior’, 1877–2007

Bibliography and Further Reading

This absorbing book is the first full-length biography of Mrs. Nassau Senior, as she was commonly known, the first woman to be appointed a civil servant in Britain. Her name is rarely remembered these days, often merely footnoted in biographies of Victorian male contemporaries, including her famous brother Thomas Hughes, the author of the popular novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). But drawing upon previously untapped sources – especially letters written between Jeanie Nassau Senior and her only child Walter, and a network of friends, including George Eliot, Octavia Hill, Jenny Lind, Julia Margaret Cameron, and George Frederick Watts – Sybil Oldfield presents a poignant picture of the private and public struggles of a woman deserving attention.
... Through her friendship with Octavia Hill, she became involved in housing reform for the working classes, as well as interested in the schooling of poor girls. But philanthropy did not pay the bills, and Jeanie supplemented her small income by becoming a professional voice teacher. Her extensive circle of musical and literary friends included Eliot who, Oldfield claims, based the character of Dorothea in Middlemarch (1871–72) on Jeanie. But unlike Dorothea, Jeanie became the first woman civil servant in Britain when, in 1872, she was offered the post of Poor Law Inspector, with responsibility to investigate the ins and out of the fostering (“boarding out”) of pauper girls.
... The story is sympathetically told, with a wealth of fascinating historical detail. It adds considerably to our knowledge about the struggles that women faced in the past, not only when entering the public sphere of employment but also when trapped in unhappy marriages.
Victorian Studies

The fascinating biography of a Victorian who should never have been forgotten. Both the poignant private life and the heroic public life of ‘Mrs Nassau Senior’ here find an ebullient, witty and passionate chronicler.
Barbara Hardy, Professor Emeritus, University of London, author of Forms of Feeling in Victorian Fiction and George Eliot, A Critic’s Biography

This wise, tender and engaging portrait of Jeanie Senior, champion of the workhouse girl, reveals not just that she was admired by the great and good of Victorian Britain, but that now we must count her as one of them. A wonderful book.
Seth Koven, Rutgers University, author of Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London

The best outcome of gender studies has been the uncovering of neglected woman pioneers of the past ... [In] this meticulously researched and beautifully written book, Oldfield has brought one of these stalwarts back to life ... Anyone interested in the Victorian period will find this account of Jeanie Senior’s struggles informative, absorbing - and intensely moving.
Jacqueline Bannerjee, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web

Biographies post-Lytton Strachey that continue to insist on the essential goodness of their Victorian main subject are hard to find.... [Hence] to read about someone so intelligently humane who was also possessed with an unstoppable drive to do the right thing, even when she was dying, is like taking a mental holiday.
Nicholas Tucker, The Tablet

An important contribution to Victorian studies, a life style told with admiration, sympathy and style, as cramful of character and emotion as a novel, and of great interest to George Eliot scholars. George Eliot is only one amongst many Victorian characters in an excellent biography of a very different woman, whose family life, love problems, sufferings, creativity, zeal and remarkable social vision have been triumphantly brought to light after a century’s eclipse.
The George Eliot Review

Jeanie Hughes Senior was, until recently, largely forgotten among the number of women in nineteenth-century Britain who blazed the path that the Suffragists would follow a generation later. Despite a sad marriage, the deaths of many people she loved, and the demands for care of others, Senior campaigned for better treatment of the poor and became the first female civil servant in England, in charge of the fate of young girls in workhouses and those who had been put out to domestic service. Her report on the horrible conditions of living for these children caused a furore. Oldfield was approved by the Senior family to have access to Jeanie’s papers, which her son had ordered closed until 2000. Therefore this study provides new information on Senior as well as her many friends: George Eliot, Tennyson, Florence Nightingale and many others. This is a welcome addition to the history of the women’s movement in Britain.
Reference & Research Book News

Books can be ordered by phone or online

Ordering in the UK, Europe, Asia, Australasia, South America and Rest of the World

Gazelle Book Services
Direct sales tel.: +44 (0)1524 528500; email:
Web ordering:

Ordering in the United States and Canada
Independent Publishers Group (IPG)
Direct sales tel.: (800) 888-4741
Web ordering:

Bookseller Ordering
Information is provided under the Resources tab.

eBook Ordering
e-Book type availability can be sourced via by book title. Kindle availability is via Amazon .com and sites.