There are some women who live in the memory in an intangible but persistent manner. We cannot say, "She did so-and-so" or "She said such-and-such"; and yet oblivion cannot swallow up their names, and these last long after all personal friends are gone.
One cannot read memoirs of the early and mid-victorian days without coming upon Lady Eastlake's name. She was very beautiful, very charming, a clever painter and writer, and extremely popular with a great circle of acquaintances. Yet it is very difficult to piece together a picture of her as she appeared to her friends. No one seems to have fixed her portrait for us. We have her letters,, diaries, and other writings, but these give us nothing of the woman herself. She was too little interested in Lady Eastlake, too much interested in other people and things, for her diaries to be "human documents."
Elizabeth Rigby was the fourth daughter in a family of fourteen children, of whom four were born at once. Her father was a doctor in Norwich; a man highly respected, who was successively alderman, sheriff, and mayor of Norwich. It was he who introduced the flying shuttle to the Norfolk manufacturers, and first brought vaccination to the city. So he made his mark in more ways than one. Elizabeth was born in 1809. She had a very happy childhood. Her parents were devoted to their enormous family. Her mother was a Palgrave, of the very ancient family of that name. She was a bright-natured woman, talented, and full of energy; and she ruled her household with a rod of love, which, when all is said and done, is considerably stronger than a rod of iron, wears better, and deals no bruises. She had a sense of humour, too; as a woman with two step-daughters and twelve children needs to have.
At eight years of age Elizabeth began to show a taste for art; and thereafter she drew and sketched on every possible occasion for seventy years or so. She liked sewing-oh, happy child ! - and helped her sisters to make all their dolls' clothing, even to their bed-furniture. In the summer the family moved to Framlingham, where the sketching went on apace; but the winters were spent in Norwich. At Framlingham their father insisted on their being out of doors all day, climbing trees, having picnics, and only coming in to eat, sleep, and have dancing lessons. In the winter Dr. Rigby encouraged them to read. He had many notable visitors, scientific, literary, agricultural, and so on, and the children always shared these visits. Elizabeth was full of fun, and her "odd ideas" amused these distinguished men.
When she was eleven her father died, and from that time she in a great measure educated herself. When she was seventeen, however, she fell ill with typhoid; and her recovery was so slow that she and her sisters were sent abroad to Heidelberg for a long stay. Here she took up her drawing again, made hosts of friends - (the same story always, wherever she went friends sprang up about her) - mastered German, and generally brightened the sword of her intellect. Her first appearance as an author was on her return, when she translated a German work on art and wrote a story which appeared in" Fraser's Magazine."
She was no ordinary woman for her time. In 1832 she began a year's study of literature at the British Museum, and of art at the National Gallery. She was an accomplished musician, and read everything she could lay hands on. In addition she was very beautiful, very witty, very affectionate and charming, and had attained the age of twenty-three without either marrying, wanting to marry, or becoming an old maid. And this in 1832
When she was thirty-three she went to Edinburgh with her mother and sisters. A wonderful society gathered there then, as brilliant as any in London, and more compact. Elizabeth was a very great acquisition. No one had a word to say against her, in spite of all the strange, independent things she had dared to do - even in spite of the fact that she was five-feet-eleven, when no self-respecting woman of her time dared to be more than five-feet-five.
In Edinburgh she began her journal, and we have delightful descriptions of people - sometimes very amusing, more often tender and affectionate. We read of a Miss X., who had "a mincing little face and a mouth which unravelled to all eternity"; and a Miss B., who rejoiced in "an immense voice, warranted three hundred yards, like a reel of thread, but just as thin and wiry."
From Edinburgh she made visits abroad and to London. John Murray was a friend of hers, and in the famous house in Albemarle Street she met many very distinguished men, among others Charles Eastlake, the secretary of the Royal Commission on the Arts. He was a very popular painter, a personal friend of the Prince Consort, and a man of very sterling and endearing qualities. He was no longer a young man, but a woman of Elizabeth's calibre was not to be caught by a boy. When Eastlake came to Edinburgh, and asked her to marry him, she accepted him, and wrote to an old friend : "He has always been the object of my particular admiration for his gentle, refined manner and cultivated conversation. I believe him to be the right man for me, and am more and more happy in the thought of spending my life with him."
They were married in 1849, after a two months' engagement, and then settled down in Fitzroy Square. For more than sixteen years she wrote three times a week to her mother and sister, always apologising if her letter were shorter than at least six pages. Letter-writing was more in fashion then than now.
They entertained a great deal, both being very popular. Her journal and letters are full of vivid touches, describing people and places and events. Her husband was very busy painting, and with the multifarious duties comprised in his successive appointments as President of the Royal Academy and Keeper of the National Gallery. She was delighted with all the honours that befell him; never was a happier, more generous-hearted woman. She went abroad with him when he went to Italy to buy pictures for the National Gallery, and wherever they went they were the centre of a brilliant, interesting little circle. But they thoroughly enjoyed being alone together.