‘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

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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

Profligate Sons: a tale of two Williams

I have just finished reading Nicola Phillips’ brilliant new book, The Profligate Son, a Georgian morality tale about a young man, William Jackson, and his decline into criminality. His extraordinary story includes spells in the notorious Newgate prison, trial for fraud, transportation to Australia, and finally death in his  thirties from alcoholic poisoning.  It is an utterly engrossing but also deeply depressing read. You can read a review here.

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Phillips rightly points out that a profligate son was every Georgian father’s nightmare. This was certainly the case with William Wilberforce, who fretted ceaselessly over his four sons, and in particular his eldest, William junior, born in 1798, making him seven years younger than William Jackson. From quite early on it was clear that the boy lacked the ability to concentrate and survived by his wits and by a certain superficial charm. Wilberforce was full of anxiety about his ‘volatility’, a word he applied to himself as well. His problem was that he recognised in his son what he saw as his own great faults – a tendency to idleness and an inability to concentrate. Because he believed that he had wasted his time at school and university, he was desperate for his son to overcome the character weaknesses he believed they both shared.

The two Williams had similar school experiences. Young Wilberforce was educated at home and then sent away to be educated by clergymen, a common practice at the time, well described by George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss.  In 1808 William Jackson was sent to a school run by the Revd. John Owen in Fulham. Owen was a noted Evangelical, a friend of Wilberforce’s, and the Secretary of the Bible Society that had been founded four years earlier. By an interesting coincidence, his daughter, Mary, was to marry Wilberforce junior in 1820. I have written about Mary here. The young couple had no money and relied on Wilberforce to help them out.

A year earlier Wilberforce had reluctantly withdrawn his son from Trinity College, Cambridge, on the grounds that he was doing no work and had got in with the wrong set. By this time William Jackson was in New South Wales, where he had been transported in 1814. His voyage was terrible but once in Australia he was (in my opinion) luckier than he deserved. The senior chaplain was a Revd. Samuel Marsden, like John Owen, a friend of Wilberforce. It was Wilberforce who had prevailed upon William Pitt the Younger to found a chaplaincy in New South Wales. In 1809 he had met Marsden on one of his visits to England, and he saw him as ‘a special instrument of Providence’. (R. I. and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (1838) iii. 401) Knowing Marsden’s reputation for humanity, William Jackson hoped that the chaplain would be of use to him, but by this time the young man was beyond help. He continued his career of running up debts and swindling, and died in 1828 ‘alone on the street where he fell, a pathetic figure with no friends or family to comfort him or mourn his passing’ (Phillips, 270).

‘I have done with you forever’, an embittered elder Jackson had written to his son in 1813, in the last letter he ever wrote him. William Wilberforce was a much more affectionate father, and his relationship with his son was far less catastrophic, but it was a troubled one, nevertheless. In 1830 William’s dairy business collapsed. The elder Wilberforce had sunk a great deal of money into this unwise venture and his son’s financial failure meant that he and his long-suffering wife had to leave their new home at Highwood Hill in Middlesex. For the last two years he and Barbara had no fixed abode, and were forced to rely on the hospitality of their sons, Robert and Samuel. As for William junior – he and his wife left England for Geneva in order to avoid their creditors, a widely acknowledged, if not honourable practice, which Parliament tacitly condoned (Phillips, 83).

In 1833, shortly before his death, William Wilberforce drew up his will. Like the elder William Jackson, he was a firm believer in primogeniture, and did not disinherit his eldest son. But he was concerned to make special provision for William’s wife, Mary. She was to have an annuity of £500

‘for her own separate and peculiar use and benefit exclusively of my son the said William Wilberforce and without being in anywise subject to his debts, control, interference or engagements’ (Stott, 261).

This was the conventional legal wording, but behind the formulae lay a deep distrust of his son and an anxiety to protect his daughter-in-law from the worst effects of his extravagance.

Wilberforce junior returned to England in 1834, after his father’s death, and settled in Markington, the family’s home in Yorkshire. In the general election of 1841 he unsuccessfully contested first Taunton and then Bradford as a Tory. He continued to be an embarrassment to his brothers, who appealed, without success, to various leading politicians to give him a comfortable post – abroad! (See David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning, London: John Murray, 1966, 247). In 1851 the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay came across him on a walking holiday and found him ‘looking like the prince of all blackguards, as he is’ (quoted Stott, 268).  In 1863 he followed his brothers Robert and Henry in becoming a Roman Catholic.  He survived into a patriarchal old age, dying in 1879, a comfortably off, if not respected, Yorkshire gentleman. The Catholic chapel he had built in the grounds still survives.

If the elder William Wilberforce had known the terrible story of the Jacksons, he might have concluded that his eldest son was not so bad after all. However, it is clear from his diaries and letters that young William was a grievous disappointment to him and his wife. For all the great achievements of his distinguished life, he believed that in this, the most important area of all, he had failed.

William Wilberforce junior

Between 17 July and 4 November 2001 The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, hosted an exhibition devoted to the painter, John Linnell. The exhibition reveals a fascinating link to Wilberforce’s eldest son, William Wilberforce, junior (1798-1879), whose disastrous financial speculations were to force his parents to leave their home in 1831.

In 1824 Linnell painted a portrait for  Wilberforce junior of his wife, Mary (née Owen), whom he had married in 1820. If you scroll down to 53, you will see the following information;

‘A dispute arose on the terms of the commission leading Wilberforce to write to Linnell in a letter dated 22nd July (MS3307-2000) that, “I am not now prepared to pay you for yr. picture & I shall therefore again request you to send for it immediately …” Linnell replied the same day (MS3312-2000) reminding Wilberforce of the terms that had been agreed and adding he considered the contract binding. An entry in Linnell’s journal for 4th August, the date given on the sketch, records a meeting with Wilberforce at which he received payment for the painting. Thus Wilberforce obviously backed down and it seems the sketch must refer to this.’

There is also an amusing sketch by Charles Heathcote Tatham: The Finale of William Wilberforce junr. which depicts the young man being hanged.

The  portrait of ‘Mrs Wilberforce junior’ (watercolour and gouache over graphite on scored Mrs William Wilberforce and child, by John Linnell, 1824gesso ground) is in the Paul Mellon Collection of the Yale Center for British Art, and is in the public domain. (Unfortunately, it is wrongly described as being a portrait of Mary’s mother-in-law, Barbara Ann Wilberforce.) The child is her son, William, born on 6 December 1821. In August 1824 Mary gave birth to another son, Robert, who was to die at the age of sixteen months. The portrait was presumably done in the early stages of her pregnancy or after the birth of her child. The background may represent Hampstead Heath, as both Linnell and the young Wilberforces were living in Hampstead at the time.

In his dispute with the painter, William junior was acting in character. He was  thoroughly untrustworthy and unreliable, inheriting his father’s inability to manage money, but completely lacking his strong moral compass. It is painful to read the elder Wilberforce’s grief-stricken diary entries about his anxieties for his son. After a disastrous venture into dairy-farming, Wilberforce junior ran up debts in excess of £50,000 (over £3 million in modern money). In 1831 he and Mary left for Switzerland, where he remained until his debts were settled.

The Wilberforce family never seem to have thought much of daughter-in-law, Mary. However, Wilberforce was clearly concerned for her welfare. In his will he left her an annuity of £500 ‘for her own separate and peculiar use and benefit exclusively of my son the said William Wilberforce’. This was the legal phraseology that protected married women’s property rights in the days before the Married Woman’s Property Acts. Wilberforce wasn’t a feminist, but he was clearly well aware of the vulnerability of women.