THE WOMAN WHO GAVE HER NAME to the

Victorian era was neither constitutionally nor by habit or temper subject to the reigning female disease of her time--delicacy. Never before had so many women fainted, faded away, been overcome by the vapors and taken to their beds in droves. Even the spirited and inexorable reformer Florence Nightingale found she could not dispense with at least the appearance of debility: at the age of 37 she slipped under the covers of her "deathbed" and remained there for the next 53 years, conducting the prodigious business of her reform without interruption and graciously receiving the visits of high government officials who came (by appointment) to ask her advice.

Elizabeth Longford, in Eminent Victorian Women, describes the underpinnings of delicacy in the elaborate set of strictures and beliefs that governed women's lives. It was the specter of "indelicacy," she reminds us, in partnership with the cult of domesticity, that served to limit ambition to the narrow sphere thought proper to "the Sex." "We women can't go in search of adventures; to find out the North-west Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East," says George Eliot's Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. "We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining."

Unlike Lytton Strachey, whose Victorians are eminent because exemplary, Lady Longford has chosen her picture-gallery of women because they were exceptions to the rule. The 11 women whose distilled biographies make up this collection are eminent because they achieved: in one way or another, all refused to take up residence in the ordinary "province of Woman" and chose instead a calling or profession which brought them prominence, if not always preeminence. Elizabeth Longford's lively narrative traces the well-known literary careers of the sisters Bronte, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the theatrical history of actress Ellen Terry, and the monumentally productive life of the one woman Lytton Strachey included in his work--Florence Nightingale. Other heroines are social reformers like Josephine Butler, who championed the rights of prostitutes, and Annie Besant, whose list of causes included atheism, feminism, socialism and theosophy.

Finally, we are reintroduced to two Victorians whose renown has considerably dimmed since the end of the last century: the first is Dr. James Barry, who disguised herself as a boy in order to go to medical school and eventually became one of the most recognized (in all but one particular) doctors in the British Army Medical Department. The second, Mary Kingsley, contributed a fund of valuable information for botanists, medical researchers and ethnologists in the accounts of her forays into the wilds of West Africa. After the death of both her parents, she set out alone (at the age of 30) to complete a research project her father had left unfinished, and found the compulsion to explore irresistible. In one of her most impressive journeys, she penetrated deep into territory inhabited by the cannibal Fan tribe, bargaining along the way for three Fan carriers to join her party--only three, she cautiously stipulated, because if Fans outnumbered the other members of the expedition, the cannibals would neatly cut up and eat their fellow travelers, smoking the surplus meat. As she later recorded, Mary was determined not to arrive at her destination smoked, "even if my fragments be neat." She survived to write the story.

The path to eminence was, of course, littered with casualties, humiliations, sacrifice. The litany of obstacles that crowds nearly every biography here is familiar: what the compendium offers is an opportunity to compare the ways in which different women assumed the roles to which birthright had emphatically not entitled them. Many insisted on preserving a "ladylike" demeanor even in the most ordinary circumstances. Mary Kingsley, arriving blood-splattered and muddy at a remote mountain station, was offered a hot bath and indignantly reproved the offense to her "delicacy," objecting that the window-shutters of the bath-house were not sufficently opaque. Kingsley always wore the heavy feminine apparatus of skirts and crinoline (though advised that wearing trousers was better for tramping through swamp) and refused to carry a gun because; "I do not think it is ladylike to go shooting things." When approached by a crocodile, she batted it on the snout with her umbrella.

Many of these eminent Victorian women chose to dissociate themselves from the more general battle for women's rights. The most influential of all, Queen Victorian, actively opposed it, publicly urging "everyone to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of Women's Rights, with all its attendant horrors. . . . Woman would become the most hateful, heartless and disgusting of human beings were she allowed to unsex herself." George Eliot seconded her, declaring that "it (the women's rights movement) seems to me to overhang the abysses of which even prostitution is not the worst." This, from the woman who could also write: "You may try, but you can never imagine what it is to have the force of a man's genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl."

Elizabeth Longford's retailing of the peculiar ironies that strategies of defense could create is only one of the accomplishments of this book. Eminent Victorian Women also treats us to highly entertaining reading and beautifully illustrated pages that together form the portrait of an age.