Like so many other propertied people in late Georgian Britain, the members of the Clapham Sect made seaside holidays a high priority. Where George III set the fashion, with his annual holidays at Weymouth, polite society followed suit. The medical authorities, still in the grip of the ancient miasma theory (as they would be until far into the nineteenth century) extolled the blessings of sea air and sea bathing. That is why Thomas Babington took his wife, Jean, to the pretty Devon resort of Sidmouth in 1796. She had been ill and it was thought that the mild, relaxing air would improve her health. His brother-in-law, Zachary Macaulay, came to prefer the more bracing air of Broadstairs in Kent. William Wilberforce was such a strong believer in the health-giving benefits of fresh air that in September 1807 he arranged for his wife, Barbara, to go to Brighton for her confinement, and he was convinced that the sea breezes eased her childbirth and speeded her recovery. (Normally he held this louche resort, popularised by the Prince of Wales and his set, in deep suspicion.) Continue reading
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 London Times of Saturday 7 July has a two-page spread inspired by the story of Dido Belle the mixed-race niece of the eminent judge, Lord Mansfield, portrayed here next to her cousin, Elizabeth. The piece is by Paula Byrne, whose book, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle, forms the basis of the rather pedestrian and frequently inaccurate film based on her life. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Byrne’s book, but it is clear that she has told an important and hitherto little-known story and is to be congratulated for bringing it to life.
There are a couple of small inaccuracies in the Times piece. Wilberforce’s friend, Lady Middleton, who is said to have been one of those who inspired him to take up the cause of abolition, is wrongly described as Lady Margaret Middleton. That would make her the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl, rather than the wife of a knight (her husband was the MP, Sir Charles Middleton), and would make her rather grander socially than she actually was. These distinctions are important for understanding late-eighteenth-century society. Without grasping them we cannot, for example, understand the nuances of Jane Austen’s novels.
The second concerns Wilberforce directly. As I report in my book (pp. 199-201) on 2 April 1792 he spoke in Parliament about the plight on a slave ship of
a young girl of fifteen, of extreme modesty, who finding herself in a situation incident to her sex, was extremely anxious to conceal it.
But the ship’s captain, courageously named by Wilberforce as John Kimber, beat her, tied her up by the legs, then beat her again. The tortures continued until she died. This shocking narrative inspired Isaac Cruikshank to produce a grotesque and semi-pornographic caricature, ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade’. For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce it here, but it can easily be found through a google search.
Byrne describes this unnamed young woman as pregnant, and writes that it was her courageous refusal to dance that cost her her life. Yet a careful look at Wilberforce’s exact words suggests that she was menstruating and embarrassed about her condition. He would not have balked at the word’ pregnant’ but would have felt very constrained in talking about menstruation to an all-male House of Commons. The point of the story is, of course, its savage cruelty and its poignancy lies in the fact that this young girl remains nameless, so perhaps the exact nature of her condition doesn’t matter. On the other hand, we owe it to her to be as accurate as possible. Deprived of dignity on that terrible ship, she deserves an account of her death that is as truthful as possible.
There is an interesting take on the film here. The article notes a couple of distortions in the film and pays proper tribute to the veteran abolitionist, Granville Sharp, a man Wilberforce revered greatly.
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.
I 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 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
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).
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