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

The story of Dido Belle

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 dido and eliza 3the 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.

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

Painting: The Wimbledon Wilberforces: their Portrait and their House

In Chapter 1, ‘The Merchants’ Children’, I describe how important emotionally Uncle William (1721-77) and Aunt Hannah (née Thornton; d. 1788) Wilberforce – the Wimbledon Wilberforces – were for the young Wilberforce. A fine portrait in oils of William and Hannah, c. 1750, by Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) may be seen at the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull, and can be viewed online as part of the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’ Project. When taken out of their care, the distraught 12-year old boy wrote in a letter that he would give anything in the world to be with them again.  [Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce, c. 51, of. 100]

The Wimbledon Guardian has a very interesting article on the elder Wilberforces’ house, known to them as Laurel Grove but subsequently named Lauriston House off Wimbledon Common, Southside. Here is an extract from the article:

‘When [the house] was demolished in 1957, a priceless ceiling painted by the famous Swiss Neoclassical artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)) was lost forever.

The house had also been the home of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.

Originally known as Laurel Grove, Lauriston House was built in 1724 for William Jackson.

It was set in three acres and next to four cottages pre-dating 1684 which became the stable block. Jackson’s widow sold the house in 1752 to Wilberforce’s uncle. He commissioned Kauffman to paint magnificent murals for the main stairwell and in 1782 his famous nephew moved in to enjoy them.

Wilberforce’s friend, William Pitt the Younger, was then Chancellor of the Exchequer and about to become Prime Minister. He became a regular visitor…

Wilberforce left the house in 1786 and launched his long anti-slavery campaign the next year but Pitt continued to visit Wimbledon regularly as his Cabinet colleagues Richard Grenville and Henry Dundas also lived nearby, respectively in Eagle House and what later became Cannizaro House.’

Wilberforce left the house following his evangelical conversion. He wanted to move nearer to the House of Commons in order to be a more effective MP. For his country retreat, he now used the Clapham home of the wealthy merchant, John Thornton. Its demolition is a typical example of post-war vandalism.

Wilberforce: The Russell Portrait in Oils

I have been privileged to be able to use for my book, both on the cover and in the text (pp. 108 – 109), the companion portraits in pastel (each 61 x 44.5 cm) of William and Barbara (née Spooner) Wilberforce by John Russell (1745-1806). William’s portrait is dated 1801. Russell was one of the great pastellists of the age, and he completed few commissions in oils. Interestingly, however, there is a Russell version in oils of the Wilberforce portrait, larger in size and with a somewhat grander background. This is an oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm, and it is in the collection of the Leeds Museums and Galleries. The portrait may be viewed online as part of the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’ Project [for further details, see: Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, Part II: Named Sitters L-Z]. Jeffares also records, sadly as ‘lost’, a pastel of Mrs Wilberforce of Wimbledon [née Hannah Thornton], the beloved aunt of the young William Wilberforce.

Pictures: The Younger Marianne

Unfortunately, pictures of the younger Marianne Thornton (1797-1887) – such an important family chronicler and commentator on Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect – are not easy to find. Two at least, however, are known. The first of these is a pencil and watercolour bust portrait (29 x 23 cm) dating from around 1830 by George Richmond (1809-1896). This was presented in 1947 by E. M. Forster (Marianne was his  paternal great aunt) through The Art Fund to Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The second is a drawing mounted on card of Marianne as an old woman, dated 18 July, 1876, also seemingly by Richmond, which was printed in E. M. Forster’s Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography (London: Edward Arnold, 1956) [see: The Papers of Edward Morgan Forster].