Review of A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte William Biggs, by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2017) ISBN: 9781473863460 £19.99

On a Friday in 1987, the antiquarian book dealer John Byrne was making his way home from work when he was mugged in a street in Pimlico. The thief made off with his briefcase, a loss made all the more pertinent thanks to a rare eighteenth-century manuscript, lent to Byrne by his colleague Marius Kociejowski. A week later, the police contacted the pair to say the discarded case had been recovered and that the contents were, unfortunately, torn to shreds. When the fragments were returned, however, the manuscript was miraculously intact, possessed of a potency that had ensured its survival across time:

It was wet but in a single piece, and such was the quality of the handmade paper and the iron-based ink that once the sheets were dried out there was hardly any damage at all. (p. xxii)

The manuscript had been discovered in a cupboard by Kociejowski in a moment of serendipity, the extraordinary significance of which would later reveal itself. It was ‘stitched together to make a small booklet of twenty-eight quarto pages (three of them blank) and a covering letter of sixteen octavo pages, dated 26 February 1821, and signed “Charlotte B —”’ (p. xx). This was, it transpired, an autobiographical memoir written by Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, known as Charlotte and, at the time of composition, an elderly woman recalling her first love who, decades earlier, had abandoned her in search of riches in India. The intended recipient of the letter was none other than Sir David Ochterlony (1758–1825), who rose to the role of British Resident to the Moghul court in Delhi at the end of the Georgian period. More remarkable than this was that Kociejowski was a direct descendent of Ochterlony. In his preface to A Georgian Heroine, Kociejowski recalls how ‘the effect it made on me was absolutely electrifying […] it was as if the post had arrived over a century and a half late’ (p. xxi). What follows is a lively and richly detailed account of Charlotte’s life, drawn from her surviving writing by biographers and genealogists Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. Major and Murden are regular co-authors and as well as several published biographies maintain the wonderfully vivid and panoramic blog All Things Georgian. Here, through impressive archival work, they have pieced together the previously unknown life of an extraordinary Georgian woman.

Charlotte’s story begins on the shores of the Thames in 1770s Lambeth where she was courted by Ochterlony as a young girl. In the first in a series of calamitous twists, Ochterlony set out for India to earn his fortune only to find himself unable to return to England and instead forced to join the East India Company’s army. With Ochterlony in no position to support her, Charlotte was left alone in London and it is here that her account, transformed into lively prose by Major and Murden, takes off. Enter the villainous Richard Heaviside (a name ‘worthy of a Restoration comedy’) as an obsessive and dangerous young man whose crimes Major and Murden go on to document. Heaviside was the illegitimate son of a timber merchant, whose business and fortune he inherited in 1775. A regular visitor to Covent Garden, he soon became acquainted with all that neighbourhood had to offer. He nursed a growing obsession with Charlotte (whose family he knew well), ‘one that would lead to her downfall and destroy all her youthful hopes’ (p. 4).

Major and Murden’s presentation of Charlotte in this period as a passive, naive young woman who would eventually become a victim of abduction and rape at the hands of Heaviside (‘Charlotte’s unobtainability only heightened her desirability and Heaviside’s need to possess her’ p. 5) makes for difficult reading by a modern audience versed in the necessity and resonances of the #MeToo movement. There is no warning ahead of a chapter describing the rape itself, followed somewhat incongruously by a chapter not on Charlotte but on the early life of her rapist. Charlotte’s biographers do, however, offer early glimpses into the ingenuity and self-reliance that would perhaps characterise and preserve her in the years following her imprisonment at the hands of her tormentor. Requesting books, needle and thread from her captor in a bid to appear compliant, Charlotte used the tools to stitch together a secret message which, delivered to a neighbour by a visiting apothecary, secured her eventual rescue by a peripheral character in her story, Benjamin Hunt Briggs.

Charlotte fled to France with Briggs, to whom she may have been married, only to find herself once again imprisoned in the French Revolution. Eventually returning to England, Charlotte had become politicised enough to write a pamphlet A Maximum; or, the Rise and Progress of Famine, addressed to the British People, which William Wilberforce cited in parliament, crediting it to ‘a gentleman.’ She would go on to rise in Georgian society, organise the jubilee celebrations for George III and return to continental Europe, possibly as a spy, raising interesting questions about the agency and opportunities open to a woman subjected to such brutality.

Comparisons between the early events of Charlotte’s life, drawn directly from her unpublished manuscript, and the novels of Samuel Richardson are inevitable. Her writing, Major and Murden tell us, is peppered with references to her favourite poets and novelists, suggesting a self-conscious mode of composition that leads them to question the validity of the events she describes. This brings its own complications for modern readers, particularly considering the centring of sexually violent content alongside contemporary, vital calls to believe women. Repeated references made by Kociejowski as well as Major and Murden to Ochterlony having ‘gone native’ in Nepal as well as the frequent usage of ‘whore’ to signify sex workers invite further scrutiny, particular in the context of a narrative shaped by systemic injustice and disempowerment.

Although A Georgian Heroine might have benefitted from deeper engagement with Charlotte’s own words, the result is an account of the suffering and triumphs of a life lived during a turbulent period of British history in which it was supremely difficult, and regularly dangerous, to be a thinking and writing woman. Major and Murden form a compelling portrait of the previously elusive Charlotte, offering up a meaningful contribution to the ongoing feminist project of recovery. Interestingly, no visual portrait of Charlotte survives and indeed in his introduction, Kociejowski wishes that one might be found in the aftermath of the book’s publication. Certainly, Charlotte commissioned at least one miniature portrait during her lifetime, which she enclosed in an earlier letter to Ochterlony, writing with it:

it will therefore … be very pleasing to me to know you possess an object which may remind you of me when I am not more, and if as Gray says “even in our Ashes live their wonted fires” my spirit will be soothed should it be conscious that I am not entirely forgotten (p. xxv).

But, as A Georgian Heroine testifies, it was her words, committed to an explosive manuscript, that would outlive Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs and ensure the survival of her legacy. In their hands, the emotive and affective power of her manuscript is revealed by Major and Murden, who demonstrate the myriad ways women’s life writing can offer new perspectives on the past.

Madeleine Pelling
University of Manchester

Madeleine is a postdoctoral fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on material and visual culture in the eighteenth century, and appears in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Women’s History Review and Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She is currently writing a monograph on the Duchess of Portland’s museum.

*Disclosure: Sarah Murden is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558–1837.

This book is available from Pen and Sword.

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