Catherine Crowe (née Stevens) was born in 1803 in Borough Green, Kent.
We plan to name our Borough Green development after this broad-minded and unconventional local writer.
Who was Catherine Crowe?
Catherine Crowe received her education at home. She married an army officer, Major John Crowe and they had a son together. We know little about Catherine’s marriage and family life. However, we can assume that it was unhappy since she later separated from the Major. After this, she moved to Edinburgh where she began her writing career¹.
Crowe was a contemporary of writers such as Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Dickens and Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray. She was a friend to English wit Rev. Sydney Smith and sociologist and journalist Harriet Martineau¹.
Crowe became “an early advocate of women’s educational rights”.² This may be in part due to her friendship with Martineau. Martineau had been educated in the same way as her brothers. (which was highly unusual for the time). She was financially independent through her writing. Martineau suggested not only that women should have an education. She also that they should put that education to use.
In 1822 she wrote that “unless proper objects are supplied to women to employ their faculties, their energies are exerted improperly. Some aim they must have, and if no good one is presented to them, they must seek for a bad one.”
Like Martineau, Crowe had a good education and as a consequence could support herself as a writer. Similarly, she no doubt saw the sense in enabling other women to do this for themselves.
Novelist, Playwright and Storyteller
Crowe wrote two plays, somewhat reflecting her family difficulties. She also wrote five novels. The most well-known of these is arguably Susan Hopley – The Adventures of a Maidservant). Crowe penned a number of short stories, plus some children’s fiction³.
In addition to these works, Crowe wrote two volumes of supernatural tales. These proved extremely popular with animist* Victorian society. Therefore these were rather profitable for her.
In ‘The Examiner’, Charles Dickens reviewed Crowe’s ‘The Night Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers’. He described it as ‘one of the most extraordinary collections’ of ghost stories ever produced. Dickens proclaimed that Crowe always wrote ‘sensibly and well’³.
Spiritualism, Parapsychology and phrenology
Crowe’s book, The Night Side of Nature was described as an examination of ‘supernatural happenings‘. It was also called ‘groundbreaking‘ for its time. The supernatural fascinated Crowe. In particular, spiritualism and the occult²’. Consequently, Crowe encouraged objective investigation into paranormal activity:
“A great many things have been pronounced untrue and absurd, and even impossible, by the highest authorities in the age in which they lived, which have afterwards, and, indeed, within a very short period, been found to be both possible and true.”
– Catherine Crowe
Crowe dubbed herself a ‘disciple’³ of the Scottish phrenologist George Combe.
The now-debunked theory of phrenology suggests that ‘by examining the shape and unevenness of a head or skull, one could discover the development of the particular cerebral “organs” responsible for different intellectual aptitudes and character traits.’
Phrenology was hugely popular and influential in the Victorian era. Nowadays, however, we consider phrenology a pseudo-science and no longer give it credit or recognition.
Independent and forward-thinking
In conclusion, it’s clear that Catherine Crowe was different from most Victorian women. Her unconventional lifestyle was almost unheard of at the time. As a successful writer, Crowe proved that a woman need not rely on her family or husband to live well. Similarly, her support for women’s education was radical at this time.
Finally, a belief in spiritualism and phrenology may seem foolish to a modern reader. However, Crowe’s early interest in these demonstrate her broad-minded, liberal and curious nature.
Broad-minded, liberal and curious. Whatever our beliefs, surely we can all aspire to these values?
*Animism, according to Merriam-Webster is:
- a belief that the vital principle of organic development is an immaterial spirit
- attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects
- belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies