Elizabeth Robins Pennell
Elizabeth Robins Pennell
Elizabeth Robins Pennell was an American writer who, for most of her adult life, made her home in London.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell was born in Philadelphia on February 21, 1855, the daughter of Edward Robins, a bank president, and Margaret Holmes Robins , who died while Pennell was quite young. Elizabeth was raised Catholic and attended Sacred Heart convents, primarily Eden Hall in Torresdale, Pennsylvania, although she spent a year at the convent in Conflans, near Paris, when she was six. She and her sister also spent many of their school breaks and holidays at the convent in Torresdale. Not an especially good student and sometimes troublesome, Pennell nevertheless graduated from school in 1872 and then returned to Philadelphia to live with her father and new stepmother. She made her debut into Philadelphia society, but afterwards found the life of a young society woman unsatisfying.

Thus when Pennell's uncle Charles Godfrey Leland, a prominent essayist and humorist, returned from a trip abroad in 1880 and engaged her as his assistant, she welcomed the chance to do something different. Leland was working on a project to integrate the arts into the public school curriculum, and he had hoped to use Pennell's artistic talent, but found that she had very little. Instead, he encouraged her to begin writing, and in 1881 her first article, "Mischief in the Middle Ages," was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Pennell continued to write for the magazine, mostly articles on history and mythology, and, with the help of Leland's influence, also published in Philadelphia newspapers and a weekly magazine, the American. When Leland was asked in 1881 by the editor of Scribner's Magazine to write text to accompany eight etchings by a young Philadelphia artist named Joseph Pennell, he instead proposed Elizabeth for the job. The March 1882 publication of "A Ramble in Old Philadelphia" marked the first collaboration in what would prove to be a long series between Elizabeth and Joseph, who were married in June 1884. In the same year, she published her first book, Life of Mary Wollstonecraft . By then she had also become an art critic for the Philadelphia Press and the American.

After their marriage, the Pennells sailed for Europe, where Joseph created the illustrations for William Dean Howells' Tuscan Cities. The newlyweds took a summer bicycling trip through England, which resulted in their first book together, A Canterbury Pilgrimage (1885). For the next 33 years, they worked in London during the winters and toured Europe, by cycle or sometimes by foot, during the summers. Their tales of these trips were published in many American and English magazines between 1884 and 1898, and also resulted in nine books written by Elizabeth and illustrated by her husband. These included An Italian Pilgrimage (1886), Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1888), Our Journey to the Hebrides (1889), The Stream of Pleasure (1891), To Gipsyland (1893), and Over the Alps on a Bicycle (1898). Their friend Edward Tinker later wrote, "She with her books and he with his drawings have done more than any other two people I know to spread in America a popular knowledge of the art of the old world, of the everyday life of its people, of the beauty of its countryside, and of the architectural loveliness of its cities."

During this time Pennell also filled in for her husband as art critic for the London Star on a regular basis, and eventually took over the column herself. As her prominence as an art critic grew, she was published in other newspapers and journals as well, including the London Chronicle and the New York Nation. For five years, she also wrote a column on cooking for the Pall Mall Gazette. These columns were published in three collections, Feasts of Autolycus, the Diary of a Greedy Woman (1896), Delights of Delicate Eating (1900) and A Guide for the Greedy (1923).

The Pennells had a wide circle of friends in the artistic world, including George Bernard Shaw, Aubrey Beardsley, and Phil May. In 1892, they also began a friendship with James McNeill Whistler and in 1900 agreed to write his biography. Published in 1908, The Life of James McNeill Whistler proved very successful, running to three printings; the texts of the fifth and sixth editions (published in 1911 and 1919, respectively) were completely revised by the Pennells.

In 1906, Elizabeth published a biography of her mentor and uncle, Charles Godfrey Leland, after which she and her husband made a trip to northern France and subsequently collaborated on French Cathedrals, Monasteries, and Abbeys, and Sacred Sites of France (1909). Other writings by Pennell during the early years of the century included Our House and the People In It (1910), Our House and London Out of Our Windows (1912), Our Philadelphia (1914), and Nights: Rome, Venice in the Aesthetic Eighties; London, Paris in the Fighting Nineties (1916). She also wrote a novel, The Lovers (1917). That same year, the outbreak of World War I caused the Pennells to move back to the United States. They lived initially in Philadelphia before settling in Brooklyn, New York, in June 1921. Joseph died in 1926, after which Elizabeth collected his pictures of New York and Philadelphia and oversaw the creation of descriptive lists of his work. She also wrote the two-volume Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell (1929) before her death from chronic myocarditis on February 7, 1936, in New York City.

Much of her work is available digitally at the Library of Congress:  Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room


MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN by Elizabeth Robins Pennell

Table of contents:

  • 00:00:00 00 - Introduction
  • 00:07:51 01 - Childhood and Early Youth. 1759-1778
  • 00:37:25 02 - First Years of Work. 1778-1785
  • 01:28:52 03 - Life as Governess. 1786-1788
  • 02:14:13 04 - Literary Life. 1788-1791
  • 02:51:10 05 - Literary Work. 1788-1791
  • 03:04:09 06 - 'Vindication of the Rights of Women'
  • 03:28:04 07 - Visit to Paris. 1792-1793
  • 04:19:06 08 - Life with Imlay. 1793-1794
  • 04:44:57 09 - Imlay's Desertion. 1794-1795
  • 05:18:50 10 - Literary Work. 1793-1796
  • 05:45:00 11 - Retrospective. 1794-1796
  • 05:55:24 12 - William Godwin
  • 06:30:02 13 - Life with Godwin: Marriage. 1796-1797
  • 06:54:35 14 - Last Months: Death. 1797
Author, educator, musician, dancer and all around creative type. Founder of "The Happy Now" website and the online jewelry store "Silver and Sage".

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