[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel. Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect. However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]
(noms de plume: Erskine Moir and Francis Scougal)
Born 23 May 1821 (Aix-en-Provence, France) – Died 6 October 1899 (Oxford, England)
From a twenty-first-century perspective, Felicia Skene defies categories. The blue plaque on what had been her home in Oxford (34 St. Michael’s Street) identifies her as a “Prison Reformer and Friend of the Poor.” Similarly, the WomenofOxford blog (and the podcast on that site) focuses on her as “one of Oxford’s great social reformers.” She can also be identified as a writer, since, in addition to publishing works that furthered her causes (such as prison reform), she published poetry, fiction, and accounts of her travels (her family lived in Greece from 1838 to 1845 for her mother’s health).
Even by the standards of her own time, Skene eluded the usual categories. Victorian England benefited from the works of charity and social reforms by many women who were educated and had financial means. This was especially true in Oxford. But Skene was unusual in that her philanthropy was independent of groups, societies, and the like. This independence might also have been a factor in Skene’s not joining the revival of consecrated religious life in the Church of England—an option open to her since she identified with the Tractarians and was a friend of Mother Marian Hughes, who had established an Anglican religious order in Oxford in 1849.
But an additional ministry of Skene’s—particularly as the author of The Ministry of Consolation: A Guide to Confession for the Use of Members of the Church of England (London: Masters, 1854) and The Shadow of the Holy Week (London: Masters 1883) and in the advice and spiritual direction she gave to people of all walks of life—was in the area of what today we might call pastoral theology. It is easy to skim over the subtitle of her 1854 volume. But the very idea of the sacrament of reconciliation in the Church of England in those days was already a shock, not to mention writing a how-to manual on confession.
Today, we automatically add that it would also have been a shock for a woman (who cannot have had the necessary academic credentials in theology) to have written such a volume as The Ministry of Consolation. Taking nothing away from the fact that women of Skene’s era accomplished great things in spite of restrictions that were not imposed on men, pointing to Skene is nonetheless to point to a woman (a spinster all her life) who had the respect, admiration, and friendship of a number of eminent men, including Sir John Franklin, E. B. Pusey, Walter Savage Landor, William Edmondstoune Aytoun, and Sir Henry Acland.
And Skene corresponded with another eminent woman of that era, Florence Nightingale. Some of the nurses Skene trained during the cholera outbreak of 1854 in Oxford subsequently worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.
Class no doubt played a role in Skene’s apparent imperturbability. Her mother was the daughter of a Scottish baronet (Sir William Forbes, 6th Baronet of Pitsligo), and her family connections were of the sort that would have helped get things done. Her father was a friend of Sir Walter Scott, for example, and the Skene children played with the children of Charles X of France when la famille royale was in exile at Holyrood Palace.
The Skene family also had financial means. However, according to Edith Rickards, Skene’s biographer, Skene never spent “on herself what she gained from her writings, partly from her natural love of giving, partly from an old-fashioned idea that it was an undignified thing for a lady to earn money for her own personal advantage.” (Felicia Skene of Oxford: A Memoir [London: J. Murray, 1902]). Instead, what she earned from her work as an author supported her considerable charitable work. That was where the financial support came from. The source of her moral and spiritual support, of course, was evident to the many in Oxford, rich and poor alike, who called her a saint.
Works by Felicia Mary Frances Skene
The Isles of Greece; and Other Poems. London: Longman, 1843.
Wayfaring Sketches among the Greeks and Turks. London: Chapman and Hall, 1847.
The Inheritance of Evil; Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister. London: Joseph Masters, 1849.
Use and Abuse: A Tale. London: Rivington, 1849.
The Tutor’s Ward: A Novel. London: Colburn, 1851.
The Divine Master. London: Masters, 1852.
S. Alban’s, or The Prisoners of Hope. London: Masters, 1853.
Penitentiaries and Reformatories Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1865.
Hidden Depths. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1866.
A Memoir of Alexander, Bishop of Brechin: With a Brief Notice of His Brother the Rev. George Hay. London: Joseph Masters, 1876.
The Life of Alexander Lycurgus, Archbishop of the Cyclades. London: Rivingtons, 1877.
The Shadow of the Holy Week London: J. Masters, 1883.
A Strange Inheritance. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1886.
Dewdrops. London: A.R. Mowbray, 1888.
Scenes from a Silent World: Or, Prisons and Their Inmates. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1889.