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  • [BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] Introducing One of My Muses
[BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] Introducing One of My Muses
Written by
Jill Jepson
November 2015
Written by
Jill Jepson
November 2015

A seventeen-year-old girl, corseted, bored, bursting with constrained energy, sits at a dining room table amid the clink of teacups and the sounds of male conversation. The year is 1856. The girl is Sarah Goff,  Lady Sarah Goff, as she is constantly reminded by her uncle Robert, who has raised her.  

Robert is not happy with his ward. Women, he believes, should be beautiful, charming, and gracious. (He means upper class white women, of course, since he seldom thinks about people who are not of his class and race.)

Sarah is none of those things. Her facial features are blunt and ordinary. A childhood disease has left her with a limp and a hump on one shoulder. She doesn’t even try to overcome her “deficiencies” by becoming charming and sociable. When Robert has guests, she jumps into political discussions, boldly stating her scandalous opinions. Worst of all, she has taken to strolling the streets of London, walking among the shops and homes of the working class. “They all look busy,” she writes in her journal. “As if they had something they felt they must do, not like most people in the West End, who look as if they were lounging through their lives.”

What happens to this rebellious young woman, full of yearning, straining against what she calls “the weight of young lady-dom”?

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In 1880, an lone woman travels by horseback across the Transvaal of South Africa, carrying goods farm families need—tea, sugar, sewing supplies, dishes. The life of an itinerant trader is hard and hazardous. She travels long distances across the rugged, lonely countryside. She sleeps on the ground, two revolvers by her side, as growing tensions between the British and the Boers make danger a constant presence. Even when she’s in Johannesburg stocking up on supplies, her life is rugged. She spends her days in a shanty with two rooms, one for herself and one for her horse. Yet, her trading business thrives. She sells her wares to Boer farmers and miners and enters into a successful trade agreement with the Ndebele tribe.

Sarah Goff (she is now Sarah Heckford, having been married and widowed in her twenties), isn’t living this hardscrabble life because she fell on bad times. Back in England, she still has property, a title, and a bank account full of enough money for a lifetime of luxury. She has simply chosen a different path.

In between her suffocating girlhood and the rugged life she lives on the Transvaal, Sarah Goff Heckford scrubbed floors and changed bedpans as a volunteer nurse during London’s last great cholera epidemic.She traveled to India and Italy, learned to paint, wrote a novel, established a hospital for the poor, worked to improve working conditions for nurses, hired herself out as a governess, and tried her hand at farming. When the life of an itinerant trader became too dangerous, she returned to England to speak about women’s rights.

I am always looking for muses to breakfast with. Sarah Goff Heckford is one of my muses. She offers me a host of lessons, and I go to her often for advice. What does she tell me?

Define yourself; do not let others do it for you.

Ignore the call to be proper.

Choose adventure over comfort.

Choose independence over status.

Help others, especially those in need.

Speak out.

Do not fear danger.

Leave domesticity, charm, sweetness, and pleasantry behind. They don’t hold a candle to wildness, courage, freedom, and ferosity.

Live wild. Live big.  

Who are your muses? Who calls to you from across the years to live life on your own terms?

Hi! I'm Jill Jepson, the author of Writing as a Sacred PathYou can get my free ebooklet, Calling Up the Writer Within: A Short Guide to Writing at 50 & Beyond here.





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  • Jill Jepson

    Wonderful muses, Jo Anne. Thank you for sharing them and what they offer.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Loved this story about Sarah Goff Heckford!

    My muses are Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austin, and Isabella Bird Bishop. Tolstoy treats the grand scheme of human history, particularly Russian history, with compelling, beautifully articulated narrative. He explores his characters both lovingly and objectively. Jane Austin writes the world of women--their joys, their sorrows, and their social limitations--with both humor and poignancy. Isabella Bird Bishop was an adventuress of the Victorian era who managed to earn a living as a writer and who traveled throughout the globe, largely on her own.

  • Jill Jepson

    Good ones, Karen!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Annie Oakley, Dorothy Day, and John Muir are three of mine.

  • Jill Jepson

    Thank you for sharing your muses, Haworth. Great choices! I agree: That same self-reliance, adventurous spirit, and willingness to challenge the limitations imposed from society are the same qualities that make Sarah Goff Heckford one of my muses. 

  • Haworth Revising

    Karen Blixen, George Sand, Bathsheba Everdene, and (surprise!) Jim Hawkins are my chief muses.  Each posesses traits I admire: self-reliance, a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to take societal risks. Whether it be stowing away on a ship, packing up one's belongings and moving to an exotic country, sartorially challenging gender lines, or deciding to run a farm one's own, their confidence and courage are truly inspiring to me.