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

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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

Review in the ‘Journal of Ecclesiastical History’

The distinguished church historian, G. M. Ditchfield, has published a review of my book in the current issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2013), 64, pp. 652-654. He kindly describes it as an ‘excellent’ example of how family connections can illuminate the broader intellectual and political currents of an age. He has read the book very carefully (and picked up one mistake for which I’ve been kicking myself for a year – it will be corrected in the paperback!). He makes the interesting point that there is no mention of animals. The reason is that I didn’t find any cases of the Clapham children having pets, but it would be fascinating to learn more about their relationships, if any, with cats, dogs, rabbits and caged birds.

Ditchfield suggests that I might have exaggerated the gap between the lively, cheerful and cultivated Claphamites and their narrow-minded, exclusive and anti-Catholic successors. I have a feeling he may be right. The topic needs further exploration

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’.