The Wilberforce family and Fanny Burney


Fanny Burney in 1782 Public Domain

In a previous post I wrote about the links between the Clapham sect and the Brontës, partly inspired by my reading of Claire Harman’s biography. Her earlier biography of Fanny Burney opens up a new connection.

In the summer of 1812 Fanny Burney, or Madame d’Arblay as she was known following her marriage in 1793 to a French émigré, was back in England, having been immured in France since the resumption of hostilities in the spring of 1803. She had made the journey furtively with her son Alex, leaving her husband behind, and she was exhausted and disorientated. In the previous year she had undergone a gruesome mastectomy, and she was still recovering from the trauma of the lengthy and probing operation she had endured, of course without anaesthetics. After an absence of ten years, she found England a strange country – even the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar had come as a shock. She needed a holiday, and she went to stay with her brother Charles at Sandgate in Kent. It was there that she met Wilberforce.

As I detail in my book (pp. 165ff), the summer of 1812 saw the Wilberforce family’s first visit to this attractive resort. It boasted all the amenities a well-to-do family had come to expect from the seaside – hot and cold baths, a library and billiard room, donkey rides on the beach – with the added frisson of the sight of France on clear days. The presence of six Martello towers and the Royal Military Canal nearby were a constant reminder that the  country was at war and that the south coast was not a completely safe place.

Wilberforce was preoccupied with a number of matters on this holiday. He was deeply distressed at the war with the United States that had been declared some weeks earlier; he was about to take the momentous step of standing down from his demanding constituency of Yorkshire, and accepting instead a pocket borough that he would not even have to visit; above all, he was distressed at the bad behaviour of his eldest son, William (see here). Weighed down with these concerns, he was unable to enjoy his holiday.

But he was always able to put on a good face in company, and none of his distress was apparent to Madame d’Arblay when they met. The introduction could not have been difficult. Back in the 1770s Fanny had met Wilberforce’s friend, Hannah More, when they were both part of the literary circles around Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Elizabeth Montagu, and Hester Thrale. They hadn’t necessarily liked one another very much, but they knew the same people. There was also a closer connection as Fanny’s niece, Marianne Francis was the great-niece of Wilberforce’s friend, the agricultural writer, Arthur Young. The two would therefore have found plenty to talk about.

Like almost everyone who met him, Fanny was charmed with Wilberforce and later wrote about ‘4 Hours of the best conversation I have, nearly, ever enjoyed’.

‘He was anxious for a full & true account of Paris, & particularly of Religion & infidelity, & of Buonaparte & the Wars & of all & every Thing that had occurred during my Ten years seclusion in France; & I had so much to communicate, & his drawing out, & comments & Episodes, were all so judicious, so spirited, so full of information, yet so benignly unassuming, that my shyness all flew away, & I felt to be his confidential Friend, opening to him upon every occurrence, & every sentiment, with the frankness that is usually won by years of intercourse.’ Quoted Harman, p. 314

While Wilberforce and Fanny were simply passing acquaintances, her niece Marianne was a close family friend. She was a pious, serious young woman, but there was more to her than that. Marianne’s mother, Charlotte Francis, thought that if she were a boy, she would have made ‘a most capital fellow of a College’ (quoted Joyce Hemlow, The History of Fanny Burney, Oxford, 1958, p. 327). According to Fanny, ‘All agree that she is a prodige [sic], though some with praise, some with censure, & all with wonder’ (ibid). She was studying Hebrew and Arabic, understood geometry and algebra, and had the more feminine accomplishment of being a skilled piano player.

The Wilberforce manuscripts in the Bodleian Library contain two letters from Marianne, written to Barbara, Wilberforce’s elder daughter (though they are wrongly catalogued as coming from another family friend, Marianne Thornton). The two girls evidently had a close relationship, with Marianne acting as something of a mentor to Barbara who was eight years her junior and far less talented.

In October 1813 Marianne sent the fifteen-year-old Barbara a transcript of Bishop Heber’s hymn, ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’.(Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce c.51, fos 60-1)  Her accompanying letter contains friendly queries about the Wilberforce family.

Another surviving letter is dated 17 October 1817. It was written from Bradfield Hall in Suffolk where Marianne was acting as secretary to her uncle, who was now blind. It is in part a reply to a letter from Barbara’s mother (the elder Barbara Wilberforce) on the death of her (Barbara’s) sister, Eliza Spooner, a death that had hit her very hard. Marianne was obviously a sympathetic correspondent. The rest of the letter is a reply to the younger Barbara’s query about whether she should give up the piano. On balance, Marianne thought she should persevere.

‘You will never apply enough, I dare say, to be a good Musician. Still, you may, by practising an hour a day be able to manage a hymn & any simple melodies which it always pleasant both for you and others to be able to accomplish.’ Bodleian, c.51, fos 62-3, quoted Stott, p. 158

As both young women would have known, this modest suggestion fell far short of what Marianne herself had achieved.

The friendship was not destined to be long-lasting. Barbara died of tuberculosis in January 1822, aged twenty-three. Marianne’s religious zeal continued unabated and took her in a direction Wilberforce would not have approved of, when she became a disciple of the charismatic preacher, Edward Irving. She died in 1832, aged forty-two, at her house in Kingston-upon-Thames, where she had assembled her many books and her musical instruments, and established infant schools. She never married. Perhaps the men were scared of her! Her aunt Fanny did not die until 1840, seven years after Wilberforce.

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