The Wilberforce family and Fanny Burney

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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. Continue reading

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How Tory was Wilberforce?

The House of Commons in Wilberforce's day, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

The House of Commons in Wilberforce’s day, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson


Note: unless otherwise indicated, page numbers cited are from my book. For copyright reasons I am unable to quote directly from the Wilberforce MS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, but the quotations are to be found in the book, fully referenced.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne is the latest Conservative to claim the credit of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery for his party. This is repeated so often than it is almost becoming an established ‘fact’. The reality is that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by a  coalition government, and slavery itself was abolished in 1833 by a Whig administration. Alongside this false claim goes the assumption that William Wilberforce was a Tory.  I am going to suggest here that this is a problematic identification that risks misunderstanding both the man and the politics of his age.

For most of the eighteenth century the Tory label had disreputable overtones because of its association with Stuart absolutism and treasonable Jacobitism, and as a result, by 1800, all but ‘a very few self-conscious Neanderthals…thought of themselves as Whigs’. (Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1867, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 195). This was the position when Wilberforce entered parliament as member for Hull in 1780 and when he was elected MP for Yorkshire in 1784. As a young member, he was determined, as he later told his sons, to attach himself to no party, but to be independent. This meant that, though he was firmly opposed to the American War, he did not align himself with the radical opposition, who were already appropriating and redefining the name ‘Whig’. However, though he refused to adopt a party label, he was in practice, part of the set of ambitious young men that gathered round William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the end of 1783, and in 1785 he broke off a holiday in order to return to Westminster to vote for Pitt’s modest (and unsuccessful) bill for parliamentary reform. Pitt has been retrospectively seen as a Tory, though he always thought of himself as a Whig: the point being that party labelling was fluid and imprecise in this period. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the naming of children

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Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous portrait of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire and her daughter, another Georgiana, illustrates the eighteenth-century practice of naming children after their parents

There is a strange scene in the William Wilberforce biopic, Amazing Grace, in which Wilberforce, ground down by the apparent hopelessness of his cause, is considering giving up the battle for the abolition of the slave trade. However, he is held to his campaign by the encouragement of his wife who talks him out of his depression, promising that their next child will be a daughter, and that they will call her Emma. This is peculiar in two ways. Firstly, to the best of our knowledge, Barbara Wilberforce was no particular enthusiast for abolition; she had married the man, not his cause and would probably not have been sorry if he had retreated into private life. Secondly, the Wilberforces were very conventional in the naming of their children. ‘Emma’ was not a family name and it is most unlikely that they would have given it to one of their daughters.

These are the children of William and Barbara Ann Wilberforce:

William (named after his father)
Barbara (named after her mother)
Elizabeth (named after her paternal grandmother)
Robert Isaac (named after his two grandfathers, Robert Wilberforce and Isaac Spooner)
Samuel (the future ‘Soapy Sam’, bishop of Oxford; named after Samuel Thornton, the banker and Member of Parliament and Wilberforce’s second cousin)
Henry (named after Henry Thornton, Samuel Thornton’s younger brother)

If they had had another daughter, it is a reasonable guess that they would have followed convention and named her Sarah, after Wilberforce’s beloved sister. If another daughter had followed, she would have probably been named Ann; it was Barbara’s second name, as well as being the name of her sister, and of a little sister of Wilberforce’s, who had died in childhood and to whom he had been deeply attached. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the language of race: some thoughts

The Daily Telegraph of 2 June 2014 has a timely article by the conservative journalist and politician, Daniel Hannan, which argues that racial insults are unacceptable, not because of the dictates of political correctness but because of simple good manners and respect for fellow human beings. This is a point that would have been self-evident to the members of the Clapham Sect, who were careful not only to avoid racial insults but to counter the prejudice that lay behind them.

In the writings of Hannah More, we can observe a process of self-correction over racial language. Here she is at the end of 1792 when her counter-revolutionary tract, Village Politics, went to the press:

We follow the French! Why they only begun all this mischief at first, in order to be just what we are already. Why I’d sooner go to the Negers to get learning, or to the Turks to get religion, than to the French for freedom and happiness.

When she came to revise Village Politics in 1801 she altered the n-word to the then less offensive ‘negroes’. Someone must have told her that the term was unacceptable. Of course she was still disparaging African culture, but this disparagement represented her view of the current state of Africa rather than an essentialist view of African nature. Writing about the mental capacities of women in her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1798), (vol. ii, pp. 30-1) she argued that

…the question must always remain as undecided as to the degree of difference between the masculine and feminine understandings, as the question between the understanding of blacks and whites; for until Africans and Europeans are put more nearly on a par in the cultivation of their minds, the shades of difference, if any there be, between their native powers can never be fairly ascertained.

Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and the middle classes: the case study of Hannah More

photoI posted recently on how a study of the social backgrounds of the various members of the Clapham Sect shows the complexity of the concept of the middle class in the late Georgian period. I now want to look more closely at how the writings of Hannah More give an insight into the way the language of class was evolving and changing in the period – which is another way of warning against simplistic terminology.

The full (and very cumbersome!) title of Wilberforce’s celebrated book, published in the spring of 1797 is A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System or Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country contrasted with Real Christianity. A year later Hannah More published her most influential conduct book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune. Unlike Wilberforce, she seemed to be neglecting the middle classes, a fact which puzzled the reviewer of the ultra-conservative periodical, The Anti-Jacobin Review (vol. 4, September-November 1799, pp. 198-9). The reviewer defined this group as gentry, merchants, officers and clergymen, thus illustrating the contemporary confusion of class: the lower ranks of the landed classes were placed in the same category as men in receipt of salaries or (in the case of the clergy) tithes. Continue reading

The Clapham Sect and class

The Summer Newsletter of the Kent Branch of the Jane Austen Society contains a summary of a talk given on by Professor Alan Downie on 20 March 2014 on the subject of ‘Jane Austen’s Property Plots’. In the talk Professor Downie rightly notes the error of describing Elizabeth Bennet as ‘middle class’ and in doing so highlights the common confusion on the subject of class in the late-Georgian period. The landed gentry and the upper middle classes often mixed socially and they frequently intermarried: Mr Bennet, a landowner, marries the daughter of an attorney. However, they did not belong to the same social grouping and their sources of income were different. Elizabeth Bennet’s modest fortune is derived from the rent from her father’s tenant farmers. Her uncle Gardiner (her mother’s brother) derives his from trade.

With this distinction in mind, most members of  the Clapham Sect have to be seen as firmly middle class, the exceptions being the Midlands landowners, Thomas Gisborne and Thomas Babington. On his father’s side,  William Wilberforce was the heir to a mercantile dynasty, while his mother Elizabeth (née Bird) was the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. His birthplace in Hull testifies to his status. The Dutch-style house was large and comfortable and following young William’s birth, his father, Robert, put in a marble floor and a Venetian window. However, the counting house was next to the grand entrance and the back garden, which led to the waterfront, housed bulky hoists and wooden-framed cranes. Wilberforce was born above the shop, and he professed to be proud of his mercantile background. The income from trade enabled him to study at Cambridge and to stand for Parliament, first for Hull, where every vote was reputed to cost two guineas, and then for Yorkshire, where he took on the aristocratic landed interests and became the first merchant’s son to represent the county, the largest constituency in the country. Continue reading

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?’

IMG_1654Below 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

James, Baron Gambier, friend of Wilberforce and patron of Francis and Charles Austen (from Wikimedia Commons)

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. Continue reading