Sister Acts: Background information when reading The House at the End of Hope Street

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The House at the End of Hope Street

by Menna van Praag

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag X
The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2013, 304 pages
    Mar 2014, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Smith

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Beyond the Book:
Sister Acts

Print Review

Photographs of famous historical women – from writers to activists to painters to doctors – cover every inch of wall space at 11 Hope Street, the setting for Menna van Praag's novel, The House at the End of Hope Street. Among them are two sets of famous sisters: Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell; and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Here's a little something about these sisters.

Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf

Vanessa Stephen was the oldest sister in the Stephen family. She was born in Westminster, London in 1879, was home-schooled for many years, and then later attended both Sir Arthur Cope's Art School and the painting school of the Royal Academy in London. In her twenties, she moved with Virginia and two of their brothers to the Bloomsbury district of London, where they spent their time with other artists, writers and intellectuals, who would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa continued to pursue her art, and ultimately became a preeminent 20th century British portrait and landscape painter. She married art critic Clive Bell (who flirted with Virginia openly) and together they had two sons. They had an open marriage, resulting in Vanessa having a third child with artist Duncan Grant. Vanessa named her daughter Angelica, and she and Clive raised her as their own. It wasn't until Angelica was about to be married that she learned who her real father was. Angelica wrote about her experiences in her 1984 memoir, Deceived with Kindness, written under her married name, Angelica Vanessa Garnett.

Vanessa Bell Virginia Woolf Adeline Virginia Stephen was born three years after Vanessa in 1882. She resented that her brothers were able to go to school outside of the home, while they didn't. When her mother, and then two years later her step-sister died, Virginia experienced the first – of what would be many – nervous breakdowns.

Virginia married political theorist, writer and publisher Leonard Woolf in 1912. He was also part of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia began writing professionally in 1904, and was published first in The Guardian. Subsequently she and her husband created their own publishing house, Hogarth Press, which published most of her novels. She is considered a force among the modernist writers and a major twentieth century novelist. She played with language in highly innovative and creative ways and focused on stream-of-consciousness and the psychological and emotional workings of her characters.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was a woman of many firsts – she was the first female British physician and surgeon, co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female to be on a school board and the first woman to be elected as a mayor in England (of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast). Born in 1836, Elizabeth was home-schooled for the first few years of her life, but then went to a private school in London (which was run by the step-aunts of poet Robert Browning) When her schooling was over, Elizabeth went back home and tested the domestic waters, but it was clear that a life at home was not going to be for her. She spent many afternoons reading and her younger sister Millicent remembered her regularly lecturing to her siblings about various political topics.

Elizabeth's medical spark came when she read about another Elizabeth – Elizabeth Blackwell, who had become the first female physician in the United States. By 1860, the spark had turned into a flame. Her path was rocky and blocked at every turn. She was refused admittance into many medical schools and had to obtain her degree by pursuing private tutoring from willing professors through the Society of Apothecaries. After finally being licensed by the Society, she opened her own practice and later her own clinic called St. Mary's Dispensary for Women and Children. Once Elizabeth learned that the University of Sorbonne was accepting female medical students, she studied French, enrolled and finally earned her long-awaited medical degree. Through an act passed in 1876, England finally permitted women to enter the medical professions. In 1883, Anderson was appointed dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, which she had helped to found in 1874. She oversaw its expansion.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Millicent Garrett Fawcett Elizabeth was also part of the women's suffrage movement but not nearly as involved as her sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Interestingly though, it was Elizabeth who first introduced Millicent to the movement. Millicent was twelve when Elizabeth moved to London to begin her medical training, and Millicent visited her regularly. During one such visit in 1865, Elizabeth took Millicent to hear a speech by John Stuart Mill, a social and political theorist and philosopher who believed in women's suffrage. Millicent became an active supporter of Mills and eventually worked with him. Mill introduced Millicent to her future husband, Henry Fawcett, who was a Member of Parliament and a women's rights activist as well. He almost married Elizabeth, but she chose to pursue her medical career over marriage (she did later marry at the age of 35 and had three children).

In 1868, Millicent joined the London Suffrage Committee, and quickly became known for her strong speaking voice and speeches. She spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting in London. She published many essays over her lifetime and eventually became the leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Millicent was a political figure for much of her life, backing campaigns like raising the age of consent to curb child abuse, criminalizing incest, and ending the practice of excluding women from the courtroom during sexual-offense trials.

Picture of Vanessa Bell from
Picture of Virginia Woolf from
Picture of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Garrett Fawcett from

Article by Tamara Smith

This article was originally published in May 2013, and has been updated for the March 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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