Felicia Skene (1821-1899) was born on 23 May 1821 at Aix-en-Provence in France. She was the youngest of seven children, which gave her a special position within the family. E.C. Rickards describes the young Skene: “The youngest of a family has, generally speaking, every chance of receiving a double portion of notice, and little Felicia possessed, in addition to the advantage of that position, just the qualities that would make her the pet and darling of them all” (14). Throughout her life Skene would keep this special position within her family. Her parents were James Skene, a lawyer, and Jane Forbes, the daughter of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, sixth baronet (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Much of Skene’s early life was spent in Paris. After several years the family moved to Edinburgh, where her parents were friends with several important people; amongst others the exiled Charles X of France, and Sir Walter Scott, her father’s close friend. From her early childhood Skene was surrounded by famous and important people.

In 1838 the family moved to Athens, were they would live until 1845. There Skene met Greece’s Bavarian King, Otho. After 1845 the Skene family divided their time between Scotland and Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. In this period Skene became acquainted with the religious and intellectual life of Oxford, and in 1849 she convinced her family to move there. Here Felicia Skene’s career took flight. She attracted attention when in 1854, during the cholera epidemic in the city, she organized a group of nurses, who took care of the patients. Skene herself was also actively involved in caring for the ill. It was through this work that she started her friendship with Florence Nightingale, and became involved in recruiting and selecting nurses to work with Nightingale in the Crimean War (Rickards). Skene was also a supporter of the anti-vivisection movement, influenced by her friend Frances Power Cobbe.

Her main social work, however, was focused on rescuing ‘wayward’ girls and visiting the Oxford gaol. Rickards describes Skene’s work in much detail, and describes Skene as a tremendously hard-working woman with a great dedication to her work. Skene spent much of her own money on the people she tried to help, including the money she made with her writing. As Rickards explains, “it was her rule throughout her long life never to spend 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” (96). This writing mainly consisted of descriptions of her experiences working with prostitutes and prisoners, but many of her books were of a religious nature. Skene was a deeply religious woman, which was very important in her social work.

Skene never married. Throughout her life she kept in close contact with her family, at one point taking care of her two nieces. She was also very attached to her parents and took care of them. Her mother died in 1862, her father only two years later. In the last weeks of James Skene’s life he had an experience that would have great influence on Felicia. One afternoon James was convinced he had had a visit from Sir Walter Scott. By that time Scott had been dead for over thirty years. Skene did not merely see this as the hallucinations of an old and ill man, but believed him. As Rickards says Felicia was always inclined to belief in supernatural appearances, which she would later use in her writing. After the death of her father Skene had to move to a little house not far from her parents house. There Skene continued her social work until her death on October 1899.

    • Helen Talbot
    • Pauline Donders
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