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.

***POSTPONED***: WSG Annual Workshop For Love or Money?: Women, Amateurs and Professionals with Professor Judith Hawley

We are sorry to announce that due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Women’s Studies Group have had to postpone the workshop due to take place on the 2nd May at the Foundling Museum. Attendees who had registered online have been issued a refund. We hope to be able to reschedule the day in due course. Please bear with us during this time and when the day is rescheduled, we will announce on the website, social media and through our members’ list.

 

Reminder: WSG seminar March 2020

***EDIT: Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, we have cancelled this event.***

The third seminar of the year takes place on Saturday 21 March. Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including those for the visually impaired.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Saturday 21 March, 2020. Chairs Carolyn D. Williams and Angela Escott
Lindy Moore: The Scottish Schoolmistress in the Eighteenth Century
Alexis Wolf: Women and Mentoring in the Late Eighteenth Century: Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret King and Mary Shelley
Rachel Eckersley: Female benefactors to dissenting academies in England
Catriona Wilson: “Some attention to those female members”: Feminised monarchy in the first exhibition of Kensington Palace’s State Apartments, 1899

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

REMINDER Call for Papers: Adventurous Wives in the Long Eighteenth Century, University of Southampton

On Friday 19th June 2020, Southampton Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies (SCECS) will host a one-day conference on the theme of Adventurous Wives in the Long Eighteenth Century. The conference will examine the role(s) of the wife as seen through the fields of literature, social and economic history, law, art history and material culture.

Papers are invited on the following topics:

• The economic and financial autonomy of women following marriage

• Feme sole traders

• The visibility of single versus married women in the literature of the period

• Wives’ involvement in politics and public life

• Working wives

• Women and the divorce process

• Inheritance and the transmission of property through the female line

• Trusts, property ownership and separate estate

• Wives as educators

• Conduct literature and wives

• The married woman as literary heroine

• Quasi-marriages and kept Mistresses

• The married female body

• Material culture, fashion and taste

• Housewifery

• Wives as guardians of morality and social order

• The historiography of the wife: change or continuity?

Please submit abstracts of up to 500 words with a short bio to the conference organisers Kim Simpson (K.Simpson@soton. ac.uk) and Alison Daniell (A.H.Daniell@soton.ac.uk) by 1 MARCH 2020.

WSG visit, Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media

WSG visit to the Foundling Museum exhibition, 15th February 2020

Tour and talk by curator Karen Hearn

Report by Miriam Al Jamil

Curator Karen Hearn treated a group of WSG members to a tour of her stunning exhibition at the Foundling Museum. Her interest in the subject of ‘pregnancy portraits’ began twenty years ago when she curated a small display at Tate Britain on the painter Marcus Gheeraerts II which included his Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1595, a recent acquisition by the Tate depicting a woman who was clearly pregnant. But it is now, Karen suggested, that the subject has really ‘found its moment’ and the current exhibition is generating a huge amount of interest. Though Karen’s area of research centres on the Early Modern, the exhibition explores portraits from the Tudor period through to current social media images. Led by the availability of material and the strict parameters she set herself, Karen has assembled a range of portraits which can reasonably be read as showing an expectant woman, whether coinciding with a portrait commission, the reason for the commission itself or a fact cleverly concealed from the viewer. We saw examples of all these; stories told through paintings, drawings, prints, books and photographs as well as through fascinating objects, dress, needlework and sculpture. The sheer range of media on show and the interaction between objects, each with an important narrative to contribute albeit within the modest space available is a triumph of skill and professional expertise.

We began our tour on the ground floor of the museum, with William Hogarth’s 1750 painting The March of the Guards to Finchley, in which a ballad-seller clings to her soldier lover, her hand on her ‘bump’, the prominent ‘rising of her apron’ as evidence of her condition. Fear and dismay often attended the unwanted pregnancies which prompted the Foundling’s original mission, but Portraying Pregnancy is concerned with depictions of the inevitable and frequently dangerous condition which defined usually married women’s lives until relatively recently and the genuine fear of death which haunted the anticipated birth. So-called ‘Mother’s Legacy’ texts were poignant letters to an unborn child in case of such an outcome, and the slim manuscript and subsequently published version written by Elizabeth Jocscelin (1622) is on show. Sadly, she did not survive, as was the case for several other women who Karen introduced to us.

Beginning with representations of The Visitation from New Testament sources, we notice again the hand on the bump, a gesture which becomes a sign in many of the oil paintings, for example in the magnificent Unknown Lady in Red (Marcus Gheeraeets II, 1620) and Lady Verney (Anthony van Dyck, late 1630’s). The delicate drawing of Cecily Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein II (c.1527) details the knotted ties which join her expanded stays. Cecily appears again in a reproduction of the sketch used by Holbein for a large family portrait which shows her delicate hand on her bump.

Self-portraits by women artists are an important feature of the exhibition. WSG members may remember seeing and discussing Mary Beale’s Self-portrait with Husband and Eldest Son (1659-60) at our visit to the Geffrye Museum a few years ago. The artist sits on the left, traditionally associated with the male side of a husband and wife portrait, and holds a mantle up to her chest. This may conceal her pregnancy, since her second son was born in 1660. Karen has included the pregnancy stays and matching stomacher, probably made for the daughter-in-law of lady Verney and displayed close to her portrait. We noticed it was well worn. How many of her pregnancies had happy outcomes? Plate one of William Hunter’s grim and familiar print, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774) is nearby to remind us of one sadly anonymous woman’s fate – anatomised along with her unborn child. Among the final exhibits is the front cover of Vanity Fair (August 2017) featuring a heavily pregnant Serena Williams. Karen pointed out that the complications Serena suffered after the birth of her daughter would probably have led to her death in a previous century and this highlights the ever-present hazards of pregnancy and serves to connect the variety of images in the exhibition which this brief report has only touched upon.

A beautiful catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It includes extra examples and discussion, Karen’s work on the subject which has been twenty years in the making!

The Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media will run until 26th April 2020.

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Karen is involved in other events associated with the exhibition which members might find of interest:

She is giving a lecture on Elizabethan-period pregnancy portraits, especially that of Mildred Cecil, c.1563, at the National Portrait Gallery at lunchtime on 16 April: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/event-root/april/lunchtime-lecture-16042020

She is also speaking about portraits of Mildred Cecil at the conference on 21 April, to be held at The Garden Museum in London, to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of her husband William Cecil, Lord Burghley: https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/events/burghley-500-symposium/

Finally, on 22 April, The Foundling Museum is holding a study day relating to the Portraying Pregnancy show. The speakers will predominantly be covering Early Modern subject matter: https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/study-day-pp/

Featured images:

WSG visit to Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media (15th February 2020).
Alongside it is an Ivory anatomical model of a pregnant female with removable internal organs, on a cloth-covered wooden couch with ivory pillow, available from: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ehms3mj9