Thanks to Cygnata for writing in and suggesting I cover Sarah!
- Her name is often spelled “Biffen” – even on Wikipedia – but she herself spelled it Biffin. I’m unsure as to the reasoning behind the posthumous spelling change. ↩
- This characterization of her parents is based on a short autobiography that she wrote – which unfortunately is not widely available, although parts of it have been reprinted. In it, she states that “at the age of eight years I was very desirous of acquiring the use of my needle; but my Parents discouraged the idea, thinking it wholly impracticable. I was not, however, intimidated, and whenever my father and mother were absent, I was continually practising every invention, till at length I could, with my mouth — thread a needle — tie a knot — do fancy work, — cut out and make my own dresses.” ↩
- Some internet sources include some stuff about her being an unwanted “pixie child” and mistreated by her family. I couldn’t find any source material for that claim, though. ↩
- Her father was a shoemaker (hence him dropping shoes). She had four siblings: John (who likely died as a baby), Richard, Johanna, and Betty. ↩
- From her aforementioned autobiography: “At the age of 12 my desire to work with the needle having worked so far, gave place to my inclination to write: and in a short time I was enabled to correspond with distant friends.” ↩
- Little is known of Dukes outside of his relationship with Biffin. It seems likely that the contract he had her sign was worded (or explained) in such a way as to make her think that she was indebted to him indefinitely – more on that later. Martin Hesp, who’s given talks on Sarah, describes Dukes as “a keen man of business for an artist — and perhaps not altogether the most altruistic of people either.” She lived with him and his wife for the next sixteen years. I’m uncertain how that affected her relationship to her family. ↩
- Initially he just presented her as able to do various household chores – the painting came later. She would also cut out silhouettes of people and sell them. Her painting was primarily landscapes and then miniature portraits on bits of ivory. ↩
- The 1804 on her Artist Alley booth is an indicator on the year that she started doing this. ↩
- It’s hard to translate currency from the past to modern day, but this website estimates that 5 guineas (where 1 guinea = 1.05 pounds) would be around 500 pounds, or 600-ish dollars. ↩
- This is the 16th Earl of Morton, George Douglas. The teacher arranged for her was William Craig, best miniaturist of the day. ↩
- Morton even tried buying out her contract but Dukes wouldn’t go for it. There’s evidence that he tried to get her to leave for quite some time but she thought she was contractually obligated to stay with Dukes in perpetuity. Even late in life, likely fully aware of how badly he’d cheated her, she described Dukes charitably: “During the whole of this time (her years with Dukes -ed.) she resided with Mr. and Mrs. Dukes as one of their family, and was treated by them with uniform kindness.” ↩
- The Ada Lovelace connection is mildly dubious. In searching for Sarah’s art online, I came across this listing of one of her pieces, which says it’s of Ada Lovelace, but I’m unsure if that’s accurate. ↩
- She made her way to Brussels in 1821, where her work was heralded to the king by the Prince of Orange. ↩
- It’s unclear if Dickens ever met with her (if he did, it was likely in 1837, near the end of her life). Dickens mentioned her by name in in Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Little Dorrit. Notably, he declined to help out with her late-life money issues. ↩
- This self-portrait was given to her patron Princess Augusta, but prints were made and sold – the image displayed is one of the prints. Her short autobiography was attached to the prints as a bonus item. ↩
- So her marriage is a bit of a question mark. They separated within a year, and rumors had it that they didn’t even sleep together. It’s uncertain whether he actually did run off with her money (and how much she had at the beginning of the marriage). She defended him to the end, saying he provided for her 40 pounds a year as long as he was able. This is, according to the website listed earlier, about 4,300 pounds ($5,700) in modern currency. For reference, she also got an annual pension of 12 pounds from the Civil List. ↩
- She had a number of hustles, not all of which I enumerate here. One letter of hers describes how she taught classes. Another indicated she was planning a trip to America that never happened. She moved a number of times in her final years, often living in large households with a number of people. In 1841 she moved to Liverpool. ↩
- The patron in question was named Richard Rathbone, who enlisted a number of wealthy patrons as “subscribers” to her in order to create an annuity. This is very similar to how Patreon functions nowadays. ↩
- This whole situation was a tricky thing to address: my supposition, off the little data available, was that Dukes and her husband were basically abusive to her. They took her money and kept her under their thumbs. There’s not enough textual evidence to support that conclusively, but it’s not a stretch. It’s my read that she defended them both way more than they deserved, and that she’d likely internalized a lot of feelings of unworthiness. I didn’t want to dwell on that, nor did I want to omit it. It’s the central paradox of her story, and it’s an uncomfortable one. I presented this to a number of friends with disabilities for comment, and I hope I threaded the needle well enough. ↩
This entry proved hard to write because I kept getting stuck on her characterization. The biggest hints as to her personality come from two things:
- Her short autobiography that describes her as an indomitable force, teaching herself to sew and write;
- Her late-in-life defense of two men who’d done terribly by her.
The contradiction between these two struck me as the paradoxical crux of her character: supremely capable, but feeling beholden to men whom I’d characterize as abusive. It’s such an important part of her story, but it’s also incredibly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to dwell on it, since she very consciously didn’t – but I also couldn’t omit it. I shared in-progress versions of this entry to a number of friends with disabilities, and friends who’d been through abusive relationships, for sensitivity reads. I adjusted accordingly, and hope I threaded the needle well enough.
I’ll be at HeroesCon this weekend, Artist Alley booth AA-1924! Come by and say hi!
If you were a Patreon backer,
you'd be seeing some cool stuff right here.
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
I’m still reading up on the woman I’m thinking to do for the next entry, so if she ends up being a suboptimal subject, this may change, but as it stands, here’s the hint:
When India Called, this groundbreaking lawyer replied — although not all of her views have aged gracefully.