The Wilberforce family and Fanny Burney

435px-fanny_burney-in-1782-public-domain

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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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