Wilberforce and Jane Austen: some possible connections

My other half, aka Professor Philip Stott, has been diligently researching any possible links between Wilberforce and Jane Austen and his research has now been published by ‘Austentations’, the periodical of the Kent branch of the Jane Austen Society under the title ‘Did Jane Austen meet William Wilberforce?’

Below is a summary of his findings to date, with the addition of some of my own researches. Unless otherwise stated, the page references given are from my book. The references to Jane Austen’s letters are from Deidre Le Faye (ed.) Jane Austen’s Letters. New Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).


James, Baron Gambier, friend of Wilberforce and patron Francis and Charles Austen

Jane Austen would certainly have known about Wilberforce. In Emma and Mansfield Park she made references to the slave trade, which was of course a hotly disputed topic in her lifetime. There is an indirect connection through the Admiralty. Wilberforce’s friend, Admiral James (Baron) Gambier (1756-1833) described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as ‘naval officer and evangelical activist, was a patron of Jane Austen’s naval brothers, Francis and Charles. On December 18, 1798, she wrote to Cassandra (Letter 14),

‘I am sorry that our dear Charles begins to feel the Dignity if Ill-usage. – My father will write to Admiral Gambier. – He must already have received so much satisfaction from his acquaintance with & Patronage of Frank, that he will be delighted I dare say to have another of the family introduced to him.’

This could have been Fanny Price writing about her beloved brother, William. Judging from a subsequent, and very exultant letter to Cassandra (Letter 16, 28 December 1798) the application worked.

As will be shown, Wilberforce might well have known Jane Austen slightly at the time that this letter was written. What is certain is that he knew about her later in life. An inveterate novel reader, he devoured (sometimes a little guiltily) the novels of Sir Walter Scott as they came out, but he also read Jane Austen. At the end of 1832 his clergyman son, Robert, reported that while his parents were staying with him in Kent, his mother read Mansfield Park to his father, in which he took ‘great interest’ (quoted p. 258).

These are indirect links. Are there more direct connections?

The Bath connection

On Tuesday, 30 May, 1797, at the age of thirty-seven, after an embarrassingly  precipitous courtship of only six weeks, Wilberforce married Barbara Ann Spooner (1771-1847), the daughter of the Midlands industrialist, Isaac Spooner. Like so many before them, their growing affection had been publicly displayed in the Pump Room at Bath, so that though he at first wanted to keep the engagement a secret, his friend Hannah More told him that ‘all Bath talk of an attachment between Miss S and Mr W’ (p. 107). The couple were married in the elegant St Swithin’s Church, Walcot, just outside Bath, the church where Jane Austen’s mother and father had been married on 26 April, 1764, and where her father, the Rev. George Austen, would be buried in 1805.

Wilberforce wrote about his wedding day, telling us that Barbara had been attended by two bridesmaids – Miss Anne Chapman and Miss Lillingstone (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Wilberforce c. 34, fo.139).  Miss Chapman and Miss Lillingstone – more usually Lillingston – were friends of Barbara, but Miss Lillingston is especially intriguing, because she was the only daughter and heiress of the widow of Luke Lillingston, Willielma-Joanna Dottin (1741-1806), the Mrs Lillingston(e) mentioned a number of times by Jane Austen in her letters to her sister, Cassandra.

Miss Lillingston’s full name was Elizabeth Mary Agnes Lillingston (1771-1830), and she too was about to marry, none other than Barbara’s elder brother, Abraham Spooner (1770-1834), who, following their marriage on 19 June, adopted the long-standing Lillingston tradition of adding this surname to his own, becoming Abraham Spooner-Lillingston.  In 1816, he and Elizabeth inherited the family seat of Elmdon Hall in Warwickshire, where they lived and died, Abraham being killed on the estate by a falling tree.

Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs Lillingston(e), appears at least four times in Jane Austen’s extant correspondence to Cassandra (Letters 25, 26, 37, and 38), written in 1801 from 1 Paragon, Bath, the rented house of the Leigh-Perrots – ‘Old Mrs Lillingston of Walcot’ was one of aunt Leigh-Perrot’s close friends. The first reference occurs in a postscript to her letter dated ‘Tuesday May 5th’: ‘We have had Mrs Lillingstone & the Chamberlaynes to call on us.’ In a second letter of Tuesday, May 12th’, Jane Austen has clearly visited Mrs Lillingston(e): ‘We met not a creature at Mrs. Lillingstone’s, & yet were not so very stupid, as I expected, which I attribute to my wearing my new bonnet & being in good looks.’ She then pops up again in the letter of ‘Thursday May 21st’:

‘We are to have a tiny party here tonight; I hate tiny parties – they force one into constant exertion. – Miss Edwards & her father, Mrs Busby & her nephew Mr Maitland, & Mrs Lillingstone are to be the whole; – and I am prevented from setting my black cap at Mr Maitland by his having a wife and ten Children.’

Lastly, she is found once more in the letter dated ‘Tuesday May 26th’:

‘My evening visit was by no means disagreable (sic). Mrs Lillingston came to engage Mrs Holder’s conversation, & Miss Holder & I adjourned after tea to look over Prints and talk pathetically.’

Although all these references relate to the year 1801, their wider importance has been well assessed in a fascinating article ‘The Real Lady Russell’ posted on the ‘Austenonly’ website.  When Jane Austen was writing the letters, Mrs Lillingston was already sixty years old and a widow living at 10 Rivers Street, in the fashionable upper town, Bath, where she lived alone except for her little dog, Malore, and her staff – she was attended by a faithful maid, Molly Stowe, and a man servant, Francis Varley, plus a seemingly endless succession of cooks.

For two clear reasons, it appears that she most probably knew both Cassandra and Jane from before 1801. First, it is significant that Jane Austen does not bother to provide for her sister any characterisation or description of Mrs Lillingston, from which we can infer that Cassandra had already encountered the old lady. Secondly, and even more tellingly, as the ‘Austenonly’ article points out, ‘she must have taken a shine to Jane and Cassandra, for in her will she left them the then rather large sum of £50 each’.  It appears that this legacy enabled Jane Austen to hire a PianoForte in 1807 at a cost of £2 13 shillings and 6 pence.

Mrs Lillingston thus knew both Jane Austen and William Wilberforce, and she might well have attended Wilberforce’s wedding, her daughter being one of the two bridesmaids. Throughout their lives, both William and Barbara. Wilberforce were themselves frequently in Bath, and, with its inexorable round of sociability, it is not at all inconceivable that, through Mrs Lillingston, they encountered Jane Austen. We further know from four early surviving letters that Jane Austen herself was in Bath during the summer of 1799, and, moreover, from one of these (Letter 19, ‘Friday, May 17th’) that she was also in Bath the ‘last November twelvemonth’, that is in 1797 (Letters 19-22).

It is perhaps somewhat ironic, though not surprising to historians of abolition, that Mrs Lillingston, as Willielma-Joanna Dottin, was born in 1741 at Granada Hall, Barbados, of a long-standing slave-owning and slave-trading family dating back to the early seventeenth Century. One of her ancestors, William Dottin, was registered in June 1680 as ‘holding three manservants and 60 Negroes’, while the family vessel, the Dottin Galley, made many ‘double voyages’ to the Guinea Coast with rum, to return with slaves. Mrs Lillingston died in Bath on 30 January, 1806, and was buried at Charlcombe, a small village just north of the town, which, in Jane Austen’s own words, ‘is sweetly situated in a little green Valley, as a Village with such a name ought to be’. (Letter 20)

The Lyme connection

Although we shall probably never find out whether Jane Austen met Wilberforce in Bath, there was a second possibility of a meeting, this time in the autumn of 1804 at Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast.


St Michael’s Church, Lyme Regis

Jane Austen was at Lyme from early September, 1804, until she returned to Bath on 25 October.  Her little party is reputed to have stayed for some of the time at Pyne House in Broad Street. She sampled sea-bathing – ‘the Bathing was so delightful this morning’ – , attended balls at the local assembly rooms, and enjoyed walks following the high cliffs to Charmouth, or along the ancient Cobb of Persuasion fame (Letter 39).

Likewise, William Wilberforce also found himself on holiday in Lyme that September, where typically he was ‘irresistibly summoned to a contest of marbles, and in these days of the rights of man, as I would not furnish any valid grounds for rebellion and remembered I was at Lyme, I obeyed the call’ (p. 271). While it is most unlikely that he would have participated in the Assembly Room balls, he and Jane Austen would have attended services at the parish church of St. Michael the Archangel on Church Street above Church Cliff, from where the church dominates the old town. Did they recognise each other or engage in conversation?


The evidence of a connection between Jane Austen and William Wilberforce is inevitably patchy and inconclusive. Cassandra Austen’s destruction of so many of her sister’s letters means that there are always going to be gaps in any attempt to reconstruct her life. However, they had at least one friend in common and were in the same place on at least one occasion. Georgian sociability being what it was, it is at least highly possible that they were nodding acquaintances and that like Mr Suckling in Emma (though with more sincerity) Jane Austen was ‘quite a friend to the abolition’.



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