The Clapham Sect and the Brontës: some links

The recent commemorations of the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth have led me to read Claire Harman’s excellent biography. There is a good review here. However, though Harman’s book opens up many new insights into Charlotte Brontë, her treatment of religion is sketchy and sometimes a little misleading. This has drawn me back to Juliet Barker’s magisterial The Brontës, to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ground-breaking Life of Charlotte Brontë (Penguin edition 1975), and to my own researches on the Clapham Sect.

In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë  memorably satirises the dark side of Evangelicalism – the Revd. Mr Brocklehurst’s hypocritical tyranny and the ghoulish religious tracts designed to terrify children into submission to a baleful and vindictive god. Her portrayal of another Evangelical clergyman, St John Rivers, is more nuanced – unlike Brocklehurst he is a good man – but we are left in no doubt that Jane was right to reject his harsh Calvinism and his cold determination to mould her into his own creature.

I here trace three connections between the Brontë family and the Clapham Sect. Continue reading

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‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs Man’ (updated)

Mrs William Wilberforce, née Mary Owen (John Linnell, 1824)

An article by the Cambridge historian, Amy Erickson [‘Mistress and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal (September 2014)] casts interesting light on the evolution of the  terms ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, both of them derived from ‘Mistress’. Dr Erickson points out that until the eighteenth century neither term was an indication of marital status. ‘Miss’ was only applied to girls, never to adult women, and upon adulthood a ‘Miss’ became a ‘Mrs’ regardless of her marital status. A ‘Mrs’ was a woman of some status who possessed capital, whether economic or social. However, during the nineteenth century the term ‘Mrs’ became (with a few exceptions) one that solely designated a married woman. Thus the unmarried bluestocking Elizabeth Carter was invariably known as ‘Mrs’ whereas her younger (also unmarried) contemporary Hannah More was described as ‘Miss’. Within a generation the usage had changed.

Erickson goes on to argue that at the end of the eighteenth century a married woman lost her identity and was only known by her husband’s name,a designation that has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ style. The earliest example she has found is the dreadful Mrs John Dashwood (née Fanny Ferrars) in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen fans will also be aware of a slightly later example: that of Emma Woodhouse’s sister, Isabella, who has married George Knightley’s brother and has thus become ‘Mrs John Knightley’.

A study of the usage of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ among the women of the Clapham Sect does not invalidate Erickson’s argument, but it slightly challenges the chronology. In March 1796 the Yorkshire merchant’s daughter, Marianne Sykes, married the Claphamite Henry Thornton, Wilberforce’s second cousin. A year later, when she was due to give birth, Hannah More wrote to Wilberforce that she was ‘anxiously watching every post in hopes it will bring me word that Mrs H. Thornton’s trial is safely over’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Oxford, 2012, p. 86) This suggests that the ‘Mrs Man’ designation was in force as early as 1797 and was common enough to be used without comment. Continue reading

Beside the seaside: the Clapham Sect on holiday

Brighton in the early 19th century: where Barbara Wilberforce gave birth to Henry in 1807 and Marianne Sykes Thornton died in 1815.

Brighton in the early 19th century: where Barbara Wilberforce gave birth to Henry in 1807 and Marianne Sykes Thornton died in 1815.

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

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 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