Lydia Helen Burton (1823-1877)

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An introduction to the Curate’s wife

The Covid-19 lockdown has meant the Society being unable to go ahead with many of its planned talks and events for 2020. One of these was to have been a Q&A session in which Diane Duffy intended to interview Matthew Wells about his new edition of Bertha Darley, a long forgotten Victorian classic by Manchester-born author Lydia Helen Burton. Here, Matthew gives some background to Lydia and explores how her experience of writing compares with that of some of her better known peers, including Elizabeth Gaskell.

Lydia Helen Burton never sought complete anonymity as an author but it seems she might as well have done, bearing in mind that she had long since joined the list of forgotten 19th century authors, until rediscovered quite by chance during my family history researches. Lydia’s son, Charles Tertius, married a distant aunt of mine, Rebecca Wells, in 1888. Further research led to the discovery that a ‘Mrs Charles Henry Burton’ had published a novel, Abbots Thorpe; or the Two Wills, in 1864, and that this lady was also the author of Bertha Darley; or, Life in Her Husband’s Curacies, which was published in 1858.

Lydia’s parents were Richard Rothwell, a Manchester mill owner, and his wife Lydia Nicholson, who married on 15th July 1819 at Manchester Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral). Both were 34 years old and they already had one child, Anne, probably born in 1818 (when Anne died in February 1859, her age was given as 41). They would go on to have another four children by the end of 1824 and all five, including Lydia (aged 1 year), were baptised at the Collegiate Church on 22 January 1825.[1] That they did not arrange for each of their children to be baptised immediately after they born, would seem to indicate that Lydia’s parents took a relaxed attitude towards religion.

The importance and influence of religion on the lives of many of the most influential 19th century women writers, however, cannot be underestimated. Writers such as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were the daughters of ‘men of the cloth.’ Two of Jane Austen’s brothers were reverend gentlemen. Harriet Martineau’s father was a deacon of the Unitarian Octagon Chapel in Norwich, whilst Martineau herself wrote articles for the Unitarian Church periodical Monthly Report. Elizabeth Gaskell, of course, was married to William Gaskell, Minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester from 1828 to his death in 1884. Although George Eliot did not claim to have any familial links to the church, she was brought up as strictly Anglican and during her early years was sent by her father to schools with strong religious philosophies.

Lydia Rothwell, as she was then, is assumed to have regularly attended All Saints Church on Oxford Road in Manchester during her formative years. It was there that she will have met her future husband, Charles Henry Burton, whose father, Rev Dr Charles Burton, was Rector of the church. In 1839, aged 22, Charles Henry gained a BA at Cambridge University and was ordained into the Church of England in 1840. Charles and Lydia married in December 1841, when Lydia was just 18 years old. After marriage, and following Charles’ various appointments as a Curate, the newly married couple lived in Bradford and Leeds before moving to Liverpool in 1846, when Charles was installed as incumbent at St Philips Church in Hardman Road. Thus did Lydia gain her experience and influence of the Church and religious philosophy.

What the motivation was behind Lydia putting pen to paper and drafting Bertha Darley is uncertain. Her sixth child, Elizabeth Adelaide sadly died aged ten months in November 1855 and it is possible that her husband offered advice similar to that offered by William Gaskell to his wife Elizabeth. When her only son, William, died at the age of nine months in 1846, William Gaskell suggested that, to overcome her grief, Elizabeth might embark on writing her first full length novel. Mary Barton was the result, published in October 1848.

If Lydia began writing her novel shortly after her daughter’s death, it would have been written during a period when she gave birth to no less than three children: Ernest in March 1856, Hilda in February 1857, and Basil in May 1858 – the last, just a month before Bertha Darley was published. It is hard to put into words what a remarkable achievement it would have been, to combine such an intense period of motherhood with writing her first novel. Having upto four servants in the household, including a cook and a nursemaid, would have helped no doubt, but Lydia certainly gave the lie to Robert Southey’s advice to Charlotte Brontë, that a woman could not pursue a literary career because of her anticipated responsibilities as a wife and a mother!

Whatever her motivation, Lydia did what many aspiring authors are advised to do when writing their first novel and that is to write about what they know.  In Lydia’s case it was her life as a Curate’s wife. By setting her novel in the 1840s, a decade of particular social and political strife, Lydia allowed herself room to include a graphic depiction of a Chartist riot and used her experiences of living in Liverpool and the Yorkshire towns (as they were then) of Bradford and Leeds, to include her thoughts on numerous domestic topics including, marriage, relationships, home life, parish visits, religion and infidelity.

 When Bertha Darley; or, Life in Her Husband’s Curacies was published in June 1858 (by James Blackwood of Paternoster Row, London), the author was shown simply as ‘LHB’.  There was no hint as to the author’s actual identity. Why Lydia should have sought to hide her name in this way remains a mystery. There can have been little doubt that the book had been written by a woman – the clue was in the sub-title!  The reason may have been Lydia’s sensitivity to being openly known as the author, because many of the characters described in the book may have been based on people she had known and met. However, by using the initials ‘LHB’ to describe the author, surely it would not have been difficult for those who knew her to guess that she was the author? The reasons for such coyness might instead have been a desire not to seek any fame for her work, or possibly just to make it less obvious who she was, as in wider circles, it might have been considered ‘unseemly’ for a Curate’s wife to write a book in which she reveals her ‘private life’ to a wider world.

Famously, Jane Austen did not publish any of her books under her own name during her lifetime. Her novels were simply described as by ‘A lady’. As she was writing around the end of the 18th century, Jane would have been only too well aware of the prejudice that existed at the time against women who adopted ‘the pen’ for their profession. It is very easy to look back in history and to say that this or that behaviour was unacceptable but, before rushing to conclusions that might apply in our own time, it is important to consider what was and what was not acceptable at the time these mores were in vogue. Most women writers will have come from what must be described as ‘respectable middle class’ backgrounds and many would have had their ‘reputation’ to consider. A contemporary of Jane Austen’s, Mary Brunton (1778-1818), explained that she would never allow her name to be known as, to be a literary woman was to be ‘noticed and commented on’, ‘to be shunned.’ She said she would sooner exhibit herself as a ‘rope dancer’ than be known as an author.[2]

The Brontë sisters famously published their first works under the names of Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. In the Biographical Note that she wrote for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte Brontë explained that the sisters were ‘averse to personal publicity’ and had decided to keep their names unknown, because they considered that ‘authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’ Charlotte added that any adverse criticism of their work could have been dictated by the fact that they were women. Conversely, any praise or flattery given, might only be given because they were women. Such bases of assessment, Charlotte added, would not be a fair reflection of their work’s worth.[3]

Elizabeth Gaskell also insisted on publishing her first novel anonymously. Her reasons were similar to those offered by Charlotte Brontë; she would not be comfortable with the attention that might be drawn to her. Elizabeth’s publisher (and close friend), William Howitt, had suggested that the book (Mary Barton) should at least be shown to have been written by ‘a Lady,’ as that would likely increase its popularity amongst potential readers. But Elizabeth insisted she was not interested in ‘popularity’, but rather that the book had ‘authority’, something she felt would be better achieved if it was not obviously shown to have been written by a woman.[4]

For her second novel, Abbots Thorpe, published in 1864, Lydia Burton did not shy away from the fact that the book was by a female author or even that she had written it. But why she should describe the book as by ‘Mrs Charles Henry Burton.’ rather than under her own name is not known. Abbots Thorpe is quite different from Bertha Darley. Whereas Bertha Darley was most likely based on Lydia’s life experience, Abbots Thorpe was a more traditional two-volume Victorian novel, concerning a duplicitous butler who hides the latest Will of his late employer in favour of an earlier one that favours himself. All comes right in the end as, after various twists and turns, the correct Will is found and the rightful heir inherits his grandfather’s estate.

The author of Abbots Thorpe was described on the title page as the ‘author of Bertha Darley etc.’ This additional information proved very helpful 150 years later, when I was seeking confirmation that Lydia Burton had authored both books. Clearly Lydia was not concerned that her gender was identifiable, nor does she shy away from being confirmed as the author of Bertha Darley. Close friends and relatives would have known who ‘Mrs Charles Henry Burton’ was. Others not so familiar might not have known exactly who the author was, yet, if anyone had enquired about Charles Henry Burton, they would most likely have found out quite easily that he was the incumbent of St Philips Church in Liverpool.  It would seem that using what might be described as her ‘formal’ address, Lydia was not trying to hide anything about who she was, but just using what she perceived as the correct etiquette of the time. A footnote about this form of address is that, for the 21st century cover of Abbots Thorpe that was prepared for the British Library, the author was shown on the front cover as just ‘Charles Henry Burton.’ Perhaps whoever designed the cover could not quite believe the old fashioned form of address for a married woman!

Over the intervening century and a half since they were first published, both of Lydia Burton’s works have been almost completely forgotten. A chance discovery has enabled a new edition of Bertha Darley, to be published. Hopefully it will find a new audience, if only for its interest in providing a glimpse into the life of a Curate’s wife in the mid 19th century.

If you would like a copy of the new edition of Bertha Darley, please email us and we’ll put you in touch with Matthew, who has a limited number of the new edition available at the special price of £5.00 (plus £2.50 postage), with the proceeds going to the Gaskell Society.

[1] Source: Familysearch.org

[2] Holly Ivins – The Jane Austen Pocket Bible (2010)

[3] Source: The Brontës Treasury by Jane O’Neill (1997, 2018)

[4] Source: Elizabeth Gaskell – A Habit of Stories by Jenny Uglow (1993)