Lady Frances Colvin

Lady Frances Colvin (or Fanny as she was known to her close family) was the most famous of Cuthbert the Governor’s five daughters. She has been called “a spirited and intellectual woman”1, “a remarkable personality2, and “a beauty with irradiating charm … the soul of honour, discretion and sympathy … with rare insight into the developments of life’s problems3.

Frances may have been viewed differently however by those of the Victorian era’s puritanical and ‘polite’ society that probably frowned on her having a circle of male friends, and a partner of 35 years whom she did not marry until she was 63. This view may account for the sensationalised description perpetuated in the ‘American Reader’ of Frances as “a scandalous woman of society4.

An inscription in Frances’s copy of Conrad’s ‘Arrow of Gold’ (Courtesy Wes Rogers)

Frances was at the centre of a circle of literary and artistic friends who sought her company, encouragement and mentorship and who all held her in very high esteem. Those in her circle included Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS), Robert Browning, Henry James, George Meredith, Joseph Conrad, the painters Frederick Leighton, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and Charles Baxter, historians Rev. John Green and Cotter Morrison, Lady Carlisle and the Earl of Carlisle, and Edward Elgar the musician3. RLS’s biographer, McLynn, wrote of Frances: “She was … a brunette with small hands and feet, a noted beauty who won the plaudits of discriminating judges as various as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Osbert Sitwell, E.V. Lucas and John Garvin. It is said of her that she had more men in love with her than any other woman living; all unwittingly, she left a trail of broken hearts behind her wherever she went“. 5

Drawing of Frances by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, British Museum

Born Frances Jane Fetherstonhaugh in Ireland in 1839, she was the seventh of nine children (eight would live to adulthood) who all spent their early years growing up at Dardistown House in County Westmeath6. As with all the five sisters, Frances was very well educated, which was uncommon for the time and was no doubt influenced by her mother’s many scholarly accomplishments. In 1843, when she was only four, she moved with her family to Germany for five years, where she is said to have acquired a love of music and German literature. According to her obituary in ‘The Scotsman’ in 19247, she loved in particular the poetry of Heine and Goethe. In 1851 the family returned to Ireland where Frances’s education was continued under governesses and tutors. In 1856 she travelled with her mother, oldest brother and all her sisters to join their father and her other two brothers in Australia6.

Prior to travelling to Australia, when scarcely 16, Frances had become engaged to the Rev’d Albert Hurt Sitwell, who was the 3rd son of Captain William Hurt Sitwell of Barmoor Castle in Northumberland and nephew to Archibald Campbell Tait, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Frances and Sitwell had apparently met in Ireland through their mutual love of music.8 So, after a few years in Australia helping her mother and sisters settle in, she returned to Ireland and married Sitwell in Dublin in 1859 at age 20. However the marriage did not go well. 2,8

Initially, Sitwell took up a chaplaincy in Calcutta, but both contracted cholera and so were forced to return to London where Sitwell first had a parish in the East End and then in Kent. Frances bore him two children, Frederick in 1861 and Bertie in 1862.5 At some stage Sitwell began to drink too much and reputedly became violent. Fanny’s younger sister, Grace, wrote euphemistically “he could not be saved from himself9 while E.V. Lucas described him as a man of “unfortunate temperament and uncongenial habits2.

Frances left Sitwell after more than 10 years of marriage, around the time their oldest son Frederick died in 1873 at the age of 11. To support herself Fanny gained employment as a Secretary for the non-sectarian Working Women’s College (also known as the Men and Women’s College from 1874 when it became the first co-educational institution). Frances also later worked as an essayist, translator, and reviewer.5 One of her translations from the French in 1899 was ‘Venice : its history, art, industries and modern life / by Charles Yriatre’ (above, courtesy Wes Rogers)

In 1874 her separation from Sitwell was formally sanctioned by Sitwell’s uncle, the Archbishop. Frances’s friend Lady Carlisle wrote to Sydney Colvin at this time, saying:

“I know that this [the separation] will involve a most trying storm, and I think as I told her (and I am afraid she [Frances] was vexed at my saying so) that she will have to defy a good many people just at present; but all that will soon blow over and everyone will recognize that she has done the right, the wise thing. . . . I have often been thinking of her since I left England, and wishing with all my heart that her life could be set going on a quiet, if not on a happy basis. But her health requires her to be freed from any more shocks — No more demands must be made on her extraordinary courage. Why should she be allowed to be quite worn out before her youth is over’2

Sir Sydney Colvin c1890 Public domain

Frances appears to have first met Sydney Colvin in the late 1860s before she finally separated from Sitwell, and over time they developed a close relationship. Colvin was six years her junior. Mr Champneys, who shared a house in Hamstead with Colvin, said in 1870, after dining with Colvin, Frances and her husband Sitwell: “In our constant intercourse and ever-ripening friendship I realised how admirably Mrs. Sitwell supplemented Colvin’s natural qualities. Her bright intelligence and instinctive appreciation of excellence of various kinds seemed as it were an efflorescence of the more solid and scholarly judgment of Sidney, while her social tact and ready sympathy supplied whatever might have seemed lacking in him of the higher graces which conduce to enjoyable social intercourse,’2 When Colvin and Frances first met, he was an art critic but soon became, in 1873 at the age of 28, the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge.

Maud Babington
Image from:

After Frances’s son Frederick’s death she took her younger son Bertie, then 10, to stay with her dear friend Maud Babington at Cockfield Rectory in Suffolk. Maud was one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s (RLS) cousins and it was then in July 1873 that, after bitter religious disagreements with his father, RLS also came to stay at the Rectory. Frances was 12 years his senior but she entranced him and its said he fell in love with her, though for Frances’s part their relationship was only one of encouragement, guidance and deep friendship. Her heart lay with Colvin, whom she encouraged to visit at the Rectory so he could meet RLS – a “fine young spirit”.5

Stevenson, aged 30, public domain

RLS was as taken with Colvin as he was with Frances, and together Colvin and Frances played an enormous role in his growth as a poet and a person. In particular Frances’s impact is reflected in The Scotsman after her death in 1924: [Frances’s] death on Friday has diminished the circle of those who can speak with intimate knowledge of Robert Louis Stevenson. To many of the most notable men and women of her day she was a sympathetic and consistent friend, and for 50 years her influence has been an acknowledged force in the world of letters. Her encouragement and wise guidance have been acknowledged in particular by Robert Louis Stevenson, who owned that she knew how to curb, control, and direct his aspirations.7

Frances’s role in RLS’s life is well documented through his many letters to her. In 1883 he wrote to her “I know who made my way for me in life, and I remain with love, your faithful friend, RLS”. Although there must also have been many letters written by Frances throughout her life, I was not able to locate any of these.

Frances Sitwell. Image from “The Colvins and their Friends” p 341

As Frances’s relationship with Colvin cemented, and she continued to spend time with RLS and other friends, Lady Carlisle again wrote to Colvin in 1874: “I daresay I have been lazy about writing owing to the fact that I hear about you from F. S [Fanny]. How very delightful it is to see her so well. It is years since I have seen her anything like what she is now, bright and well and comparatively free from trouble—She laughs so merrily once more and looks as if she could enjoy things3

Tragedy, however struck Frances again in 1881 when her son Bertie, aged 18, died in Switzerland of tuberculosis. RLS wrote a poem for her, “In Memoriam, FAS” [Francis Albert Sitwell]:

“Yet, O stricken heart, remember, O remember
How of human days he lived the better part.
April came to bloom and never dim December
Breathed its killing chills upon the head or heart.”

Sir Sidney Colvin c1920 Public Domain

Fanny and Colvin’s relationship remained strong throughout the years although they did not marry until 1903, around 35 years after they had first met, and not until after her husband Sitwell and Colvin’s mother had died in 1894 and 1902 respectively. At the time of their marriage Fanny was 64 and Colvin nearly 58. Apparently Colvin felt he could not marry Fanny earlier due to his responsibilities to his mother, who had been left destitute by his brother’s gambling. They married in Marylebone Church in a very small ceremony, with only a few of their close friends attending, including Henry James1. By the time they married, Colvin was then Sir Sydney Colvin, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. They then lived as Sir and Lady Colvin at the museum until his retirement in 1912.

Throughout this time and up until France’s death in 1924 she and Sydney remained at the centre of literary and artistic life in London. In particular they had a strong relationship with Edward Edgar, who writes just after the first world war that he wishes to mark their friendship with a dedication on what was one of his most important and final major work (even though he speaks so modestly of it).10

Lady Colvin drawn by her niece’s husband Sir Charles Holroyd

Fanny died in 1924 at the age of 85, leaving Sydney bereft. Joseph Conrad (who died two days after Frances) wrote to Sydney in her dying days:

With all my heart and soul, with all the strength of affection and admiration for her, who is about to leave this hard world, where all the happiness she could find was in your devotion, I am with you every moment of these black hours it is yours to live through ... Pray kiss her hands for me in reverence and love. I hope she will give blessing thoughts to those who are dear to me, my wife and children, to whom she always was the embodiment of all that is kind and gracious and lovable on earth.3

Chapter 14 of E.V. Lucas’s book The Colvins and their Friends3 devotes six pages of tributes to Frances that he calls a testament to “the constant rain of her sweet influence”; so I will finish her story with two of these tributes: first an excerpt from Garvin’s eulogy in the ‘Observer’ and then another from an anonymous writer in ‘English Life’ :

She can no more be forgotten than any of the greater Frenchwomen of the eighteenth century, for she matched the more famous of them all in mind, person, and influence. . . Until lately she kept the quickest, freshest spirit of youth in everything. She encouraged the youngest talent. . . . She knew the latest thing of mark in books and reviews, in novels, poetry, criticism, the drama, music, politics, hers was genius.

No woman was ever quite like her. Her beautiful face, so austere in structure, yet so richly illuminated by her wonderful smile, was a very exact reflection of her tender, profound, and noble character. How impossible it is to tell of her irradiating charm. Everyone in her presence was uplifted and comforted. She was the soul of honour, discretion and sympathy. Though she was the tenderest of beings it was not only upon this quality that people relied when seeking her counsel. They sought her help because of her rare insight into the developments of life’s problems. She never tried to assuage for a passing hour the difficulties which confronted those who sought her advice. On the contrary she endeavoured to strengthen determination, to refresh hope, to enkindle a moral resolution capable of resisting the world’s hardest buffeting.


  1. Lines R. Sydney Colvin: A Norwood Man of Letters. 2008. Accessed June 3, 2023.
  2. The Sydney Morning Herald. Death of Lady Colvin “A remarkable personality”. Sept, 15, 1924. Trove. Accessed August 2, 2023.
  3. Lucas EV. The Colvins and Their Friends. 1928
  4. The American Reader. Robert Louis Stevenson to Fanny Sitwell. This Day in Lettres 28 November (1874). Accessed June 4, 2023.
  5. McLynn F. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. Pimlico; 1994.
  6. Fetherstonhaugh C. After Many Days. E. W. Cole: Book Arcade, Sydney: 2017. Accessed Online Oct 2022
  7. The Scotsman, 4 August 1924 (pg 4). “Death of Lady Colvin. Friend of R.L.S.” Accessed Aug 10,2023 from WikiTree . Site managed and article transcribed by Alison Kilpatrick 2018-08-09.
  8. Stevenson RL. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson: Vol One: 1854-April 1874. BA Booth & E Mehew (Eds.) Yale University Press; 1994.
  9. Harris M, Rogers W. George Meredith, Governesses, Neckties, and Friends: New Meredith Letters. Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. 2020; 24(1). Accessed Oct 2022
  10. Elgar, E. Letters of a Lifetime. JN Moore (Ed.) Oxford University Press; 1991.

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