Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Edwards, Amelia Ann Blanford
EDWARDS, AMELIA ANN BLANFORD (1831–1892), novelist, journalist, and egyptologist, was born in London on 7 June 1831. Her father was an officer who had served under Wellington through the peninsular war. Retiring from the army through ill-health, he ultimately accepted a post in the London and Westminster Bank, and lived in Pentonville. He was descended from an old stock of East-Anglian farmers, settled at Gosbeck in Suffolk (Miss Matilda Betham-Edwards—with whom Amelia was often confused—is the daughter of his brother). Her mother was the daughter of Robert Walpole, an Irish barrister, connected with the Norfolk family of that name. Both parents died within a week of each other in 1860.
Miss Edwards was educated at home, chiefly by her mother. As a child her strongest bent was towards art. From the time she could hold a pencil she was always drawing illustrations of books and passing events. In writing she was no less precocious. One of her earliest recollections was of composing a story in capital letters, before she had properly learnt to write. A poem, called 'The Knights of Old,' which she wrote at the age of seven, was sent by her mother to a penny weekly and duly printed. 'The Story of a Clock,' written at the age of twelve, was republished in the 'New England Magazine' for January 1893. Another early taste was for music, which for some years quite superseded books. When about fifteen she apprenticed herself for seven years to Mrs. Mounsey Bartholomew, from whom she learnt not only singing, the pianoforte, and the organ, but also harmony and counterpoint. Yet another passion was for amateur acting; and she always remained fond of the play, though she ceased to care for music.
Straitened means compelled her to look about for a means of livelihood, which— such was her versatility—she might have achieved by her pen, her pencil, or her voice. Accident decided her in favour of literature. She sent a story to 'Chambers's Journal' and received a cheque in return. Forthwith she forsook the drudgery of music, and the rest of her life was one prolonged round of literary toil. At this time she did a good deal of work for 'Household Words' and 'All the Year Round,' usually providing the ghost story for Dickens's Christmas numbers. She also served on the staff of the 'Saturday Review' and the 'Morning Post,' contributing occasional leading articles, as well as musical, dramatic, and art criticism. The total of her novels is only eight, each of which she used to say took her two years' work. The first, 'My Brother's Wife,' was published in 1855. Then followed 'The Ladder of Life' in 1857 and 'Hand and Glove' in 1859. Her earliest success was with 'Barbara's History' (1864), which passed through three editions, besides reproductions by Harper (in America) and Tauchnitz (in Germany), as well as translations into German, Italian, and French. Upon 'Debenham's Vow'(1870), which contains a description of blockade-running in Charleston harbour, she bestowed infinite pains to be accurate in local detail. So again with her last and most popular novel, 'Lord Brackenbury' (1880), she made a special journey to Cheshire to study from life the scene of the story. The ruined manor house and the new one in the Italian style are both the property of Mr. Balman; Langtry Grange is a glorious old place called 'Old Morton.' This tale originally came out in the 'Graphic,' with illustrations by Mr. Luke Fildes, some of which were based upon the author's sketches in water-colour. It passed through no less than fifteen editions; but by this time Miss Edwards had become so absorbed in egyptology that she never followed it up with another novel.
Among her miscellaneous writings may be mentioned: 'A Summary of English History' (1856) ; 'The History of France' (1858); the letterpress for Colnaghi's 'Photographic Historical Portrait Gallery' (1860), comprising about three hundred short biographies ; a volume of 'Ballads' (1865) ; and two anthologies, 'A Poetry Book of Elder Poets' and 'A Poetry Book of Modern Poets ' (both 1879). She was always fond of travel. As early as 1862 she published 'Sights and Stories : being some Account of a Holiday Tour through the North of Belgium.' In the summer of 1872 she made a tour in the Dolomite Mountains, which was described in 'Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys' (1873), with illustrations from her own sketches.
In the winter of 1873-4 she paid that visit to Egypt which resulted in changing the course of her life. She went up the Nile in a dahabiyah as far as the second cataract. On this occasion she also visited Syria, crossing the two Lebanon ranges to Damascus and Baalbek,and returning through the Levant to Constantinople. Up to this time she had felt no interest in egyptology beyond having been attracted by Sir Gardner Wilkinson's books in her girlhood. It is characteristic of the new spirit which seized her that her book on Egypt occupied two years in writing. She found it incumbent to learn the hieroglyphic characters, to form her own collection of antiquities, and to verify her personal experience from libraries and museums. 'A Thousand Miles up the Nile,' with facsimiles of inscriptions, plans, maps, and upwards of eighty illustrations by the author (1877, 2nd ed. 1889), though superseded as a guide-book, retains its authority as an introduction to the spirit of the ancient civilisation which still dominates the Nile valley.
The wanton destruction of antiquities that she witnessed everywhere in Egypt inspired Miss Edwards with the idea that the only remedy was to be found in scientific excavation. With this object she drew up circulars and issued appeals to the press, which ultimately resulted in the foundation of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Her first ally was Reginald Stuart Poole [q. v.], who brought with him many of the authorities of the British Museum. Sir William James Erasmus Wilson [q. v.] contributed liberally in money. But nothing could be done in Egypt by English enterprise until Maspero succeeded Mariette as director of museums and antiquities in 1881. The Egypt Exploration Fund was formally founded in 1882 with Miss Edwards and Poole as joint honorary secretaries ; and in the following year M. Naville was despatched to excavate the store city of Pithom and determine the route of the exodus. In every winter from that time onwards the society has sent at least one expedition to Egypt, usually under the charge of M. Naville or Professor Flinders Petrie, and has published annually a record of the results. So long as she lived Miss Edwards devoted herself to the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund, abandoning all her other literary interests. As it was tier contagious enthusiasm that originally brought the members together, so it was her genius for organisation that smoothed over difficulties and insured success. With her own hand she wrote innumerable letters, acknowledged the receipt of subscriptions, and labelled the objects presented to museums. During this period she regularly contributed articles on egyptological subjects to the 'Times' and the 'Academy,' is well as to other journals at home and abroad. She also attended the Orientalist Congress at Vienna in 1885, where she read a paper on 'The Dispersion of Antiquities.'
During the winter of 1889-90 Miss Edwards went to the United States on a lecturing tour, which was one long triumphal progress. She visited almost all the New England states, and proceeded as far west as St. Paul and Milwaukee. On the occasion of her last lecture at Boston she was presented with a bracelet 'from grateful and loving friends the women of Boston.' Enjoyable as this tour was, it was unfortunately marred by an accident at Columbus, Ohio, whereby she broke her left arm. Though she managed to see through the press a book consisting mainly of the substance of her American lectures 'Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers' (1891), the title of which was not of her own choosing and even undertook a series of lectures in England, she never recovered her former robust health. Since 186-1, when she left London, her home had been at Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol, where she shared a pretty house, called 'The Larches,' with an aged friend. This friend died in January 1892, and Miss Edwards did not long survive her. At that time she was herself bedridden with influenza ; but she was moved to Weston-super-Mare, and there she died on 15 April 1892. She was buried in the churchyard of Henbury.
Miss Edwards bequeathed her egyptological library and her valuable collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College, London, together with 2,415l. to found a chair of egyptology (the only one in England), for which she destined as the first occupant Professor W. M. Flinders Petrie. The Edwards library and museum have since been largely augmented, and are now maintained from her residuary estate. Most of her other books she left to Somerville Hall, Oxford. Only a few months before her death Mr. A. J. Balfour (through the good offices of Professor George John Romanes) conferred upon her a pension of 75l. on the civil list 'in consideration of her services to literature and archaeology.' From American universities she received three honorary degrees that of LL.D. from Columbia College, New York, on the occasion of its centenary celebration in 1887; that of LL.D. from Smith College, Northampton, Mass.; and that of Ph.D. from the College of the Sisters of Bethany, Topeka, Mass. Her portrait was painted in oils at Rome in 1872, and a marble bust, sculptured by Percival Ball in 1873 also at Rome, was bequeathed by her to the National Portrait Gallery, London. The best likeness of her is a photograph taken at New York, which has frequently been reproduced.
[Autobiographical notes and personal knowledge.]