Saturday, 24 October 2009
HISTORY’S NEGLECTED WOMEN
Apart from the pleasure of happening upon new knowledge, researching for a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, springs memorable surprises. Currently I’ve been reading up on 19th century radical editors and journalists for a five-part play for voices, Out Damned Spot! Such radical wordsmiths as William Cobbett, Richard Carlile, Henry Hetherington, Bronterre O’Brien, John Cleave, James Watson (no relation, alas) and George Julian Harney were men of unbounded resolution facing, throughout their professional lives, the most brutal censorship.
They faced prison sentences, bankrupting fines, the seizure of their presses, type-founts and stocks of paper. Not only were the producers of the radical press persecuted by successive Tory and Whig governments for evading Stamp Duty, those who sold their papers – the hawkers – also faced imprisonment or transportation to Botany Bay.
Women in the thick of it
What has tended to be overlooked is the role and contribution of women in the so-termed War of the Unstamped and in the Chartist campaign for the reform of the British Parliament. Notable among these stalwarts of liberty were Jane Carlile, first wife of Richard Carlile, and his sister Mary-Anne.
When Richard was thrown into jail for publishing the works of Thomas Paine – the Rights of Man and The Age of Reason – Jane and her sister-in-law took on the editorial, management and distribution responsibilities of the Republican.
In 1921 Jane in her turn was charged and sentenced. She ended up joining her husband in Dorchester Jail. Mary-Anne carried on the family business – campaigning against monarchy, the established church and demanding parliamentary reform.
Among Richard Carlile’s shopmen and women and the hawkers of his publications, was another remarkable woman – Susannah Wright. The wife of a Nottingham bookseller, she was one among scores of volunteers who rallied round the radical editors and defied the government spies who were as numerous as modern-day CCTV cameras.
Susannah was subjected to a charge of blasphemy in 1821. Such were the passion and articulacy demonstrated in her first court appearance that on her return to court she was greeted by cheering crowds. Leaving her baby in safe hands, Susannah challenged the validity of both the charges against her and the status of the court which dared obstruct an Englishwoman’s right to freedom of speech.
‘I should enjoy even a dungeon,’ she declared, ‘in advocating such a cause as that in which I am engaged…I am bold to tell these persecutors, they never can, they never will, put down these publications.’
Love at first sight
If Susannah Wright became a celebrity, Eliza Sharples was to become a star. On Carlile’s release from jail, he toured the country condemning the imprisonment of his friend, the Reverend Robert Taylor, nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’. In the audience for Carlile’s visit to Bolton in Lancashire was a highly intelligent, highly impressionable and strikingly beautiful young woman, Elizabeth Sharples.
Privately educated, the daughter of a counterpane manufacturer, and the issue of a strict Methodist family, Eliza listened, took note – and fell passionately in love with Carlile. After corresponding with him, she headed for London, bewildering this middle-aged man with an ardour he could scarcely comprehend in a woman 14 years his junior.
Soon they were lovers. By this time the marriage of Jane and Richard had cooled, in part due to the stressful experience of sharing prison quarters at Dorchester. Though displaced, Jane never relented in her support for Carlile and the cause to which they had dedicated their lives. As for Eliza, she became Carlile’s pen and his voice during his next term of imprisonment, and self-confessedly his ‘disciple’.
The Lady of the Rotunda
Carlile and Taylor had together established at the Rotunda in London’s Blackfriars Road a centre for meetings and debate. Carlile’s current publication, the Prompter (renamed after being called the Lion), had given rousing support to protests about pay and working conditions by agricultural workers. This provoked the wrath of the Whig government. Carlile was swiftly back in jail, at the Giltspur Street Compter.
Eliza became her lover’s conduit to the free world. At first, the speeches she delivered at the Rotunda were composed by Carlile, but soon she stepped out of his shadow: her beauty, elegance, passion and radicalism, especially her advocacy of equality for women, drew the crowds.
She was no longer Eliza but Isis, after the Egyptian goddess of fertility and wisdom. She was also referred to as Eve, as Liberty and, less optimistically, as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher and martyr raped and murdered by the Romans.
Till superstition is extinct
At the Rotunda Eliza dispensed the poetical as well as the political, standing on a floor of white thorn and laurel. In her first address, she urged the women present to ‘seek that equality in human society which nature has qualified us for, but which tyranny, the tyranny of our lords and masters, hath suppressed’.
The Prompter became Isis. The May 1834 folio volume of the periodical Eliza dedicated ‘To the Young Women of England for Generations to come, or until superstition is extinct’. She declared that human society would not improve ‘until women participate in an equality of knowledge’. She signed off with the designation EDITRESS.
A grateful Carlile said of her, ‘Such a lady shall be my daughter, my sister, my friend, my companion, my wife, my sweetheart, my everything’. Eliza worked closely with the Female Society, also known as the Friends of the Oppressed, established in 1932. She saw women’s oppression at the hands of husbands as a parallel to the working class’s oppression by a government unrepresentative of British society: ‘If we cannot be your rational companions, we will not be your slaves’.
Eliza bore three children to Carlile, and it was one of her two daughters, Theophilia, who eventually wrote her father’s biography. Crippled by debts and increasing poor health, Richard Carlile died in 1843.The Lady of the Rotunda was no more, faced as she was by unremitting poverty: Isis had become Hypathia.
Yet Eliza Sharples Carlile was to continue serving the cause of humanity, giving the young radical Charles Bradlaugh a home after his family had disowned him. Bradlaugh described Eliza as ‘quiet and reserved…who had her ardour and enthusiasm cooled by suffering and poverty’.
I’d like to think that the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square might one day feature and celebrate the radical women that history has tended to forget; but I hear the whispers – ‘Some hopes!’
Eliza Sharples features in a play for voices, Out Damned Spot!
by James Watson. The five parts are: Peterloo, The War of the Unstamped, Knowledge is Power, The Lady of the Rotunda and Kennington Heath.
Martin Priestman, Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Radical Femininity Women’s Self-representation in the Public Sphere (UK: Manchester University Press, 1998), edited by Eileen Janes Yeo. See Chapter 2, Helen Rogers’ ‘The prayer, the passion and the reason’ of Eliza Sharples: freethought, women’s rights and republicanism, 1832-52.
Contacts welcome - back soon, Jim.