Eminent Victorians: Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Full-length photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta taken in 1862.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy, 1862, via Wikipedia.

People call her Queen Victoria’s black daughter, but Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story is more complex than that. Was she, as Wikipedia would have it, a West African princess, Omoba Aina? And did Queen Victoria really adopt her?

Unfortunately, we may never know the truth about Forbes Bonetta’s origins. She was silent on that subject in her letters and never referred to any royal lineage. And, in the circles in which she sometimes moved, it would probably have rated a mention. Captain Frederick E. Forbes, the man who brought her to England when she was seven, and after whom she’s named (Bonetta was for his ship,) suspected she was from a good family. But she herself had only confused recollections of her past.

Sally (Sarah) Forbes Bonetta, aged about 13.

The Captain was visiting King Ghezo of Dahomey as part of an anti-slavery mission on behalf of the British Empire. Personally, I have my doubts as to how successful the meeting was, with regard to its stated aim, since Sarah was given to Forbes as a gift to Queen Victoria or, as Walter Dean Myers put it, “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” Charming!

To be fair to the Captain (not to mention Queen Victoria,) Forbes Bonetta would have been put to death if the “gift” had been refused. Still, it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call this process an adoption. On a happier note, Victoria paid for Sarah’s education (the Captain called his young charge “a perfect genius”) and took a warm interest in her well-being. After an unsuccessful stint in a school in Sierra Leone, Sarah was sent to Kent where she lived with the middle-class Schoen family. It was Mrs. Schoen, not Victoria, whom Sarah addressed as “Mama” in her letters.

Having been brought up as a proper English lady, Sarah was expected to marry like one. Though initially unenthusiastic about the match, she obeyed Victoria’s wish that she marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a British naval officer originally from Sierra Leone.

A portrait of James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sara Forbes Bonetta, 1862, by Camille Silvy .

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the marriage seems to have been happy. Together they had three children, one of whom, Victoria, was named for the queen and became her goddaughter. Sadly, Sarah died of tuberculosis when she was only 37. The queen settled an annuity on her small namesake.

As for Davies, he erected a monument “IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS SARAH FORBES BONETTA.”


Eminent Victorians: Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870

It’s always been tough to make it as an artist. Now imagine trying to make it as a black woman in the Civil War era USA. That’s what Edmonia Lewis did, despite being accused (and later acquitted) of poisoning two friends, and later accused (and again acquitted) of stealing art supplies from her college. Not only did she succeed at her chosen career despite the persecution she faced; she became the first African American woman to achieve international fame as a sculptor.

Born free in 1844, she was of mixed Afro-Haitian, Afro-American, and Mississauga Ojibwe descent and grew up using her native American name, Wildfire. When she moved to Boston after college, several sculptors refused to teach her. She moved in abolitionist circles and achieved early fame with a bust of Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. On the proceeds of the copies she made and sold, she was able to move to Rome, where she adopted the neoclassical style, while continuing to choose subjects and themes from Afro-American and Native-American culture. It was in Rome that she became a sensation.

Here are some of my favorite examples of her work:

Going clockwise from the largest image: Hiawatha, 1868; Minnehaha, 1868; Detail from The Death of Cleopatra, 1876.

Eminent Victorians: How I fell a little in love with La Goulue.

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Lautrec’s posters and paintings were my first introduction to can-can dancer Louise Weber, otherwise known as La Goulue (The Glutton). A quick google will tell you she got her nickname because she would down the drinks of Moulin Rouge patrons as she danced past. Lautrec was a genius but I’ve never heard anyone say he flattered his subjects. The first thing that struck me about this poster is how worn and ragged she looks, dancing her heart out for a faceless and, to me, somewhat sinister-seeming crowd of spectators.

Weber doesn’t fit in with today’s beauty standards where we assign women (and sometimes men) attractiveness points based on increasingly narrow parameters. But, as her popularity attests, she definitely had something. Photographs do her more justice:

Louise Weber, 1892. Via Pinterest.

This lady was flexible.

Louise Weber, 1895. Unknown photographer. Perhaps Achille Delmaet?

And not shy.

She was, for a few short years, the highest paid entertainer in Paris. The undisputed Queen of Montmatre. But in 1895, she decided to leave the Moulin Rouge and strike out on her own, literally taking her show on the road. Unfortunately, the crowds didn’t follow, and Louise Weber’s star faded along with her fortune.

But none of this is why I love her.

In the 1920s, Louise Weber was travelling in a caravan. She stepped out, saw a man holding a camera, and this was her response:

Louise Weber “La Goulue” in the 1920s. Source: Youtube (Untefinu balaninu)

Her glory days may be behind her but she’s still dancing, still graceful, and still fierce.


Eminent Victorians: Valerie, Lady Meux.

Harmony in Pink and Grey or Portrait of Lady Meux, 1881, by Whistler. Source: Wikipedia

I first came across Lady Meux when writing my first manuscript (now languishing on my hard drive). I think I was trying to gain a more accurate idea of what ladies wore in the 1880s when Harmony in Pink and Grey popped up in my Pinterest search results. I’d never seen it before and I fell in love once I learned a bit more about the subject. Valerie, Lady Meux, despite her aristocratic demeanor, was a woman with a past. She didn’t begin life as a lady and was never accepted in the highest social circles.

When she married Sir Henry Bruce Meux, 3rd Baronet, it was said she’d once been an actress, but, while she does seem to have spent a single season on the stage, it’s thought she was actually a barmaid, banjo-player, and prostitute when she met her future husband. For some reason, it’s the banjo playing that sticks with me:

Sir Henry Meux, Lady Valerie and banjo.

Like I said, she was never fully accepted by society (or her husband’s family) but instead of sitting at home and sinking into a decline as sinful women mostly did in Victorian novels (see Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, and about a bajillion others,) she threw lavish parties attended by the future Edward VII among others, drove around London in a high phaeton (the old timey equivalent of a sports car) drawn by zebras, and was painted by Whistler three times.

Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux by Whistler.

Sadly Whistler burnt the third painting (Lady Meux in Furs) after Lady Meux said something that pissed him off during a sitting.

So there you go: Lady Meux, Victorian sex-worker made good, artist’s muse, socialite, and banjo-player.