Another review forthcoming

OK, Dr Linda Wilson of the University of Gloucestershire is my pal, but she knows a great deal about the history of Evangelicalism, especially its relationship to women, so I was very pleased that she has reviewed my book for a forthcoming edition of the Evangelical Quarterly. She has many kind comments, which for copyright reasons I can’t reproduce here. What I especially liked was the way she felt she could imagine herself in the company of the men and women of the Clapham Sect.

Linda says that she wishes I could have conveyed a little more understanding of the emotional impact and deep stability that a faith can provide. On reflection, I think I did fall short a little there. This is partly because the surviving religious journals convey more of a sense of anguished struggle than of joy and perhaps I should have stressed more strongly that this is the nature of the genre. One shouldn’t take these  journals too much at face value – especially not Wilberforce’s! Who could guess his lively and ebullient personality from the self-flagellating journals and diaries he wrote so obsessively?

Hague Biography of Wilberforce revisited

Going through my cuttings, I came across my print-out of Jane Stevenson’s review of William Hague’s William Wilberforce: the Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (HarperPress 2007). It is a very fair treatment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Hague ‘is predictably good at the mechanisms of politics’ and ‘neatly conveys the career politician’s sense of debate as performance’. But she also notes that he does not handle ‘the complexities of 18th-century religion’ with ‘sympathy or insight’ and that he ‘does not attempt to grapple with the private man’.

‘What did his father’s death do to him? Or the vehement opposition of his mother to his adored aunt and uncle? Come to that, what was his mother like? Or his sister? …Neither woman’s personality is granted so much as a sentence-worth of consideration.’

I could also add that his treatment of Wilberforce’s marriage is perfunctory. Like many previous biographers, he gets Barbara Spooner’s age wrong. She was twenty-five when she married the thirty-seven-year old Wilberforce, not twenty. A small point perhaps, but these things mattered at the time.

There does not seem to be a surviving parish record for Barbara’s birth, but in a letter to his son, Samuel, dated 27 December 1827, Wilberforce reports her as having recently celebrated

her fifty-sixth birthday (Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce, c. 1, fo. 198b). Her death certificate of 1847 records her age as seventy-five; she would have been seventy-six on 26 December. She died at East Farleigh in Kent on 21 April and the dates of her birth and death are given clearly on the family tombstone, put up by her son, Robert.

Wilberforce graves, East Farleigh, Kent

Wilberforce graves, East Farleigh, Kent

This doesn’t detract from the things Hague does well. But his lack of interest in the personal is intriguing. Perhaps I err in the opposite direction?!

Review in Contemporary Review

I’ve come across a nice review of the book in the September issue of Contemporary Review. The author, James Munson writes

‘this is an excellent and much-needed corrective that does much to explain the ethos of the “Victorian era” and to show that Evangelicals were not the caricatured kill-joys but one of this country’s greatest achievements. The scholarship is exact, balanced and illuminating.’

Review in History Today

I was delighted to get a very favourable review in the November issue of History Today.  See here. The reviewer, Dr Ian Bradley, is a noted expert on the Clapham Sect so his positive comments are extremely welcome.  i’m delighted to say that he agrees with my argument that ‘Wilberforce’s spirituality was both distinctively evangelical and part of the same late-Enlightenment culture that created Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther’. It is equally gratifying when he writes that the book captures the Clapham legacy ‘beautifully and sensitively’.

Another review – a nice one this time!

Canon David Isherwood, the rector of Holy Trinity Clapham, and therefore the successor of John Venn and William Dealtry, has published a review of my book  in the Clapham Society’s newsletter. David has many kind comments to make, but what I especially like is the way he clearly understands what I was trying to say. I’m pleased he enjoyed it.

As it isn’t easy to access online I’m reproducing his review here:

Wilberforce, Family and Friends by Anne Stott
In 2004 Anne Stott’s biography of the evangelical philanthropist Hannah More, was published to critical acclaim, winning the Rose Mary Crawshay prize for literary biography. And hard on its heels (in literary terms anyway) comes another fascinating book on the life of Wilberforce, Family and Friends. Both books are published by Oxford University Press and were launched at Holy Trinity Clapham, the spiritual home of the Clapham Sect.

Anne has published widely on women and evangelicalism, which makes her latest book all the more fascinating because most of the books on my bookshelves about the slave trade and its abolition have been written by men. By contrast, Dr Stott’s biographical insights bring to the foreground the women who managed themselves, and the families of high profile public figureheads in the 18th and 19th centuries and draws extensively on diarised records of what makes families tick in any generation – incidental and sometimes consequential asides, preoccupations and relationships which add a rich texture to otherwise complicated but significant public figures. Relationships between spouses, the joys and anxieties of child rearing, domestic ideology, women and gender, sexuality and intimacy are explored with great insight and sensitivity over 16 chapters covering the abolitionists; love, marriage and their consequences; family life in Clapham and the sometimes difficult and strained relationships between a father and his progeny.

Anne’s thoroughly well researched references and notes make this account of Clapham’s most significant resident and the network of domestic relationship which earthed his pursuit of great causes, a thoroughly good read, casting light on the crucial significance of Wilberforce’s closest friends and acquaintances. In the end, I was left with a more sympathetic impression of those who for too long have lurked in the shadows of this famous man. Summer’s coming and time, like my forebears here, to pour something like a decent cup of tea (no sugar) and settle down to an entertaining and edifying read.

Canon David Isherwood


A not so rave review

Steve Tomkins’ review of my book in the Church Times is behind a paywall. He is himself an historian of the Clapham Sect and clearly thinks I’ve written the wrong type of history. ‘These personal stories’, he writes, ‘are not hugely eventful. The births, romances, marriages, illnesses, and deaths of which they consist are not terribly interesting on their own compared with the drama of the heroic fight against slavery and the calamitous affair of Sierra Leone.’ That has to come down to a difference of opinion!  I am struck with his observation that ‘those who are generally interested in the private lives of the wealthy 18th-century English middle classes also sound like a restricted readership.’ Where has he been these past twenty years? Having written this, I will now maintain a dignified silence!

First Review Published

With commendable speed, Susan Elkin has published the first review, even before publication, of Wilberforce: Family and Friends in the Independent on Sunday of 4 March:

Biography: Wilberforce: Family and Friends, By Anne Stott
The greatest of his generation

Here is a quote from the review: ‘The network around Wilberforce was complex, and Stott, who is strong on the dynamics of the Evangelical, closely bonded Clapham Sect (most of whom didn’t live in Clapham, but the shorthand title has stuck) helpfully maps the relationships in three family trees at the outset. She tells her compelling story with great sympathy, and has a gift for insightful comparisons…’