Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Brightwen, Eliza

BRIGHTWEN, Mrs. ELIZA (1830–1906), naturalist, born at Banff on 30 Oct. 1830, was fourth child of George and Margaret Elder. On the death of her mother in 1837 she was adopted by her uncle, Alexander Elder, one of the founders of the publishing house of Smith, Elder & Co. He had no children, and Eliza Elder ('Lizzie' as she was called throughout her life) was brought up in his country house, Sparrow Hall, Streatham, and afterwards at Stoke Newington. From infancy she took an absorbing interest in natural history, and read much, but had no regular education. In 1847 Mr. Elder retired from business; in 1855 Miss Elder married George Brightwen (1820–1883), who was then in the banking firm of Messrs. Overend & Gurney, but left it before the smash in 1867, to start for himself in the discount business, where he made a considerable fortune. They settled in Stanmore, where Mrs. Brightwen resided for the remainder of her life. Her health had been always uncertain, and in 1872 her nervous system broke down completely. For ten years she was almost wholly excluded from books, from nature, and from her friends. The death of her husband in 1883 roused her from her lethargy and suffering, and though she was liable to violent attacks of pain until the end of her life, they interfered no longer with her intellectual activity.

She had no children, and was left in sole possession of a very beautiful and secluded estate, The Grove, Stanmore, where the woods and shrubberies, a lake and a large garden offered a field for her zoological observations. It was not, however, until her sixtieth year that she began to be a writer. Her notes on animal life seemed so copious and fresh that she was induced to put them together, and a volume called 'Wild Nature Won by Kindness' (1890) was the result. This enjoyed a very wide and prolonged success, and Mrs. Brightwen became recognised as one of the most popular naturalists of her day. She published 'More about Wild Nature' in 1892; 'Inmates of my House and Garden,' perhaps the best of her books, in 1895; 'Glimpses into Plant Life' in 1898; 'Rambles with Nature Students,' 1899; and 'Quiet Hours with Nature,' 1903. She continued to live at Stanmore, corresponding with a very wide circle of persons interested in natural history, but seldom quitting the bounds of her own estate. She died there on 5 May 1906, and was buried in the church-yard of Stanmore. Mrs. Brightwen was an artless writer; but she had boundless patience, great perseverance and humour, and a sort of natural magic in dealing with wild creatures. Her books are store- houses of personal notes, in which nothing is borrowed from other authors, or accepted on any other authority than that of her own eyes. She enjoyed in later years the friendship of several of the leading men of science of the day, and in particular of Philip Henry Gosse (whose second wife was her husband's sister), of Sir William Flower, of Sir William Hooker, and of Sir James Paget, all of whom encouraged her efforts. After her death were published another volume of essays, 'Last Hours with Nature,' edited by W. H. Chesson (1908), and fragments of an autobiography, with introduction and epilogue by her nephew, Edmund Gosse, entitled 'Eliza Brightwen: the Life and Thoughts of a Naturalist' (1909). She was an evangelical churchwoman and much concerned with philanthropy.

[Personal knowledge ; Eliza Brightwen : the Life and Thoughts of a Naturalist, 1909.]

E. G.