Researching Unitarian Women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Unitarian Network

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The Rev Dr Ann Peart gave this talk to the Gaskell Society on 6 October 2020.

It is now almost exactly 25 years since I came back to live and Manchester after a gap of over 30 years, and exchanged full-time ministry for a part-time situation, with the intention of doing some research into Unitarian women in the remaining time. When I mentioned this plan, I often got one of two reactions to the research project:

  1. You’ll be studying Mrs Gaskell, then.
  2. Well, that won’t take long.

To the first I replied, “No, Elizabeth Gaskell already has enough attention – it’s other women I want to seek out”. As for the second, this was the sort of response that showed that the work was needed.

I’m not a natural writer, being far too lazy. One wise woman, who eventually became my research supervisor, asked me if I was the sort of writer who went away and just got on with research and writing on my own, or if I needed a framework and deadlines. By this stage I knew that I never did anything unless I had a deadline, so she advised me to enrol to do a PhD and use the framework to produce the research that I wanted to do. This started a ten-year journey, from the department of Theology in Manchester University, to the women’s Studies department in Sociology, and then following my supervisor to Newcastle University for my final writing-up year – but this is another story, and not for today.

But back to the response showing the invisibility of Unitarian women historically: this was easily documented by a survey of books on Unitarian history, where women were rarely mentioned. They gave the impression that it was a movement consisting only of men, and mainly ministers at that. Our history books have concentrated on the history of our beliefs, which have, of course, been developed by theologically trained men. I came to realise that this is a very narrow way of telling our history, and we need to widen the view of what is considered “Unitarian History” to include more stories of our congregations, the people in them, and their presence in the wider world. For my thesis I eventually settled on doing case studies of three women, to show how Unitarianism played out in their lives, and how they saw themselves as Unitarian women. Each of these three women has a connection to Elizabeth Gaskell, so I’ll talk about these before going on to look at the links between Elizabeth and the women featured in my book – Unitarian Women, A Legacy of Dissent, which came out last year.

Elizabeth certainly read works by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825). In the last part of the 18th century Anna (nee Aikin) was reputedly “the most eminent living poet, male or female in Britain”, and she went on to write educational works, essays including theology, and literary criticism. She was the daughter of a senior tutor at the Warrington academy, and went on to marry one of the students who set up a school in East Anglia in addition to his ministry there. Having made her name as a poet, Anna developed her educational materials to enable her to teach the younger children in the school, and after their move to London became involved with the literary scene, contributing many essays and literary criticism,

She was an acquaintance of Elizabeth’s relations, the Hollands, and Mary Robberds, the wife of the Cross Street Chapel’s minister had been taken in her youth to meet her in London. Elizabeth used Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children, first published in 1781 and reprinted regularly up to the twentieth century. These were pieces to be memorised and recited by children, and designed to inculcate the idea of a benevolent god associated with all familiar situations. They were used in many Unitarian middle-class homes and most Unitarian Sunday schools. In a letter to Amelia James in 1851, Elizabeth slightly misquoted a line when she wrote that the news of Mrs James’s young daughter toddling on the grass reminded her of “Mrs Barbauld’s “If you fall, little lamb, you will not be hurt. God has spread under you a carpet of soft grass” and went on, “Perhaps these prose poems are rather a dissenting book, and may never have fallen in your way; and I don’t like all of them, but my eldest girl used to quote the hymn to her second sister when she could just walk, so I think the pleasant remembrance of those days has fixed it in my mind.

Barbauld’s other works, including her essays on educational, and religious matters, would have been in the Newcastle Libraries, to which Elizabeth would have access when she stayed with William Turner. The two volumes of her collected works (published in 1825) are also in the Portico Library in Manchester, from where she could have borrowed them through her husband William (though I have not checked this). Many of Elizabeth’s religious beliefs and attitudes coincide with those advocated by Anna Barbauld.

The second of the three case studies was a woman who was brought up in Manchester, a member of Cross Street Chapel, but who moved away to London in 1828 and certainly knew Elizabeth. Her maiden name was Helen Bourn (1795-1871); her first husband was Thomas Martineau, (elder brother of James and Harriet) who died after only two years of marriage, (1822-4). Her second was Edward Tagart, who became secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association before his death in 1858. When I was working on the manuscript archives of Unitarian College, which had been deposited at John Rylands Library, I came across a brown paper parcel of nearly two hundred letters which had never been listed, just labelled as from ‘Taggarts (miss-spelled) Robberds etc’. I then found further letters in Dr Williams’s Library, London; many more in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California and a few (mainly copied in an obscure shorthand) at Harris Manchester College Oxford. These formed the material for my study.

As Helen was what you might call a typical middle-class Unitarian woman, who did not publish anything (but was rather well-off financially), she does not figure in my book, which was about women who had a significant public presence, but she and her daughters do figure as friends of Elizabeth. The families visited each other in their homes, on numerous occasions, and Helen introduced Elizabeth to Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke at a lunch at her Bayswater home in 1851. That year, the Tagarts moved out to a large house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and family visits continued, with Marianne visiting the Tagarts when she was at boarding school in Hampstead: Meta also saw them when she was in London. It seems that Elizabeth was rather ambivalent about the Tagarts, however; in one letter she advised Marianne not to visit as she did not like their “rude quarrelsome tone”, explaining that Mrs Tagart and her two daughters, Helen and Emily, “are all very kind separately, but as a family there is something so decidedly wrong that I should be grieved if you fell into their mode of thinking and speaking”. However, two years later she wrote asking Marianne to visit, as she and Meta had treated them shabbily the previous year, and they were “really kind”. I suspect that Elizabeth did not really like them – and certainly disliked their choice of bonnets!

The third case study in my thesis is Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), a formidable Unitarian pioneer. I have found no evidence that she and Elizabeth Gaskell met, though Cobbe was in London from 1863, and they had many acquaintances in common. Elizabeth did have a significant influence on Cobbe however, who, as a solitary bookish girl in an Irish Anglican evangelical household had taken to reading and later writing philosophy. She came to Unitarianism after reading the American transcendentalist Theodore Parker, whom she eventually met in Rome. But she recorded in her autobiography that in 1854 she read a “pretty little story by Mrs Gaskell,” and wrote, “Suddenly it came to me that Love is greater than knowledge – that it is more beautiful to serve our brothers freely and tenderly, than to hive up learning with each studious year”. It is possible that the story was Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras, according to Brenda Colloms in the Gaskell Society Christmas news sheet of 1991. Most of Cobbe’s success as a journalist and author, working for both women’s and animal rights, came after Elizabeth’s death. She was reputed to be the first women to have a desk in a London newspaper office, (she went into the offices of the Echo to write leading articles) and also to be one of the few people who really understood James Martineau’s sermons! In some of her essays, she suggests that women would make good ministers, and that God could have feminine attributes, making her a forerunner of twentieth century feminist theology. She herself conducted worship in Unitarian churches, without seeking recognition as a minister.

I cannot claim that the book I edited and mostly wrote was based on primary research. Apart from Anna Barbauld and Frances Power Cobbe, and a local woman called Annie Beard Woodhouse, very little of the work was from unpublished sources. The book was designed to give an introduction to Unitarian women who made a difference to their world; women who had pushed boundaries, and achieved some success in the public domain This means that it omits two sorts of women who were part of Elizabeth’s networks. It misses out those like Helen Martineau/Tagart, who did not go beyond what was expected of them in middle-class society, so women like Mary Green, wife of the Unitarian minister at Knutsford, do not appear. Others such as Elizabeth’s great friend Eliza,” Tottie” Fox and also Florence Nightingale are also missing because, although they made a significant contribution to public life, they did not maintain their Unitarian affiliation.

Most of the women included were allotted short chapters of only 3,000 words, and Elizabeth Gaskell got this ration, no more and no less. Some got only a share of a chapter. One of the difficulties was deciding which women to include. The Lindsey Press functions mainly on volunteer labour to provide books for the Unitarian movement and insists that, in order to be accessible, no book should cost more the ten pounds, which gave me a strict word limit. This meant that quite a few eligible women, such as Elizabeth’s friend Anna Jameson were omitted. A trickier problem was deciding which women would qualify as “Unitarian”. Of course Elizabeth herself and most of the women in the book clearly qualified, but we had several discussions over others, especially as the copy editor and the person responsible for the final production decided at a late stage to print all the Unitarians in bold type. We took some time over Florence Nightingale, for example. Her parents were clearly Unitarian in their early lives, and Florence was brought up with some Unitarian contact and with Unitarian values. But in order to enjoy the status which came with their inherited wealth, the family became Anglicans. The copy editor wanted to put her in bold, and I did not – you will have to get the book to see who won!

There are at least two main ways of defining who is Unitarian. The usual way, historically, has been concerned with doctrine and belief. Strictly speaking, theologically, a Unitarian is someone who considers God as unity rather than trinity. They also believe that Jesus is entirely human – no different in essence from other humans – but may have revealed more of divinity that most others and was called by God for a special mission. But more importantly, Unitarians believe in the duty of the individual to think for themselves and trust their own conscience and personal experience, rather than be bound by any creedal statement, leading to respect for the inherent worth over every human being. The other way of defining Unitarian is based on community, and belonging to a Unitarian congregation (or other Unitarian group). I chose the latter course, and went with belonging to a Unitarian congregation as the most important criterion. But the picture is far from clear-cut. Never in their history have British Unitarian congregations consisted only of people with strictly Unitarian beliefs. Conversely, there have been many people with Unitarian beliefs who did not join a Unitarian congregation. Cross Street Chapel in the nineteenth century (and after) always included people with a broad range of beliefs.

Elizabeth Gaskell herself was not a Unitarian in the strictest form. She once wrote “I am not a humanitarian”, meaning that she did not believe that Jesus was entirely human, but on the other hand, also wrote that she would not address prayers to Jesus, as he was not God. This half-way house, of thinking of Jesus as more that human but not equal to God the father, was a common stance in Unitarian circles of the nineteenth century, and often described as Arian.

One of the hallmarks of Unitarian upbringing was that it laid great stress on education, for girls as well as boys. However, another characteristic that bore heavily on the middle-class women “ladies” of the denomination was the emphasis on respectability. The importance of education is a constant from the eighteenth century onwards, while the need for respectability grew during the nineteenth century as Unitarians strove to prove their worth and stake their claim in respectable (what the Portico Library call “polite”) society. Unitarianism as a doctrine became legal with the repeal of the Trinity Act in 1813, but it was still treated with suspicion by more mainstream Christians, both Anglican and non-conformist. The fierce Manchester Socinian Controversy, raging for about twenty years in the 1810s and 1820s with rancorous disputes about the nature of Christ, was one such local instance of antagonism. The attempts of the Trinitarian nonconformists to deprive Unitarians of their chapels and trust funds also created a hostile atmosphere. Yet during this time, and for most of the rest of the nineteenth century, Unitarians struggled to achieve their civil rights, such as the right to be married in their own chapels, and the right to be members of Oxford and Cambridge universities (though this only applied to men of course). One example of this assertion of their “respectability” and status may be seen in the fact that in 1839 when the Mosley Street Unitarian congregation moved out of the centre of Manchester to a site on Upper Brook Street. The new building was designed by Charles Barry (who went on to design the Houses of Parliament) in the new gothic style. This was the first nonconformist chapel in the neo-gothic style, and was the forerunner of much Unitarian rebuilding later in the century.

In their attempts to show that they had properly arrived in polite society, Unitarians were keen that their ladies observed the social niceties. This, coupled with the emphasis on education, meant that often middle-class Unitarian women were well educated, but had no sphere in which to develop their intellect or use their learning. Women like Anna Barbauld, and later Harriet Martineau, pushed at the boundaries and managed to develop a public voice using genres such as poetry and styles which appeared to conform to societal expectations, but actually went beyond it. It was said that Anna Barbauld did more for women’s rights than her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, precisely because she kept her middle-class audience, reaching a wider group of people. I think this can also be said of Elizabeth Gaskell. Other women just left the movement in frustration.

This emphasis on the importance of respectability shows in some of Elizabeth’s friendship networks, but often inconsistently. Elizabeth was considered “flighty” by some. I was puzzled by Elizabeth’s friendship with Tottie Fox, which came about as a consequence of her desire to get to know Tottie’s father, William Johnson Fox. In his day, Fox was not respectable: in 1834 he had left his wife (who did not die until 1869) and set up house with his ward, Eliza Flower, taking the eleven-year-old Tottie with him. Some Unitarians, such as Harriet Martineau and the London Unitarian ministers’ meeting, ostracised Fox. This does not seem to have bothered Elizabeth when she met him in 1849, but Eliza Flower had died by that time, and Fox was a prominent literary figure. It may be that Elizabeth did not know this background, but it certainly did not prevent her from becoming close friends with Tottie.

In contrast to this, Elizabeth strongly disapproved of Mary Ann Evans living with G. H. Lewes while his wife was still alive. Her admiration for the author George Eliot (Evans’s pen name) meant that in the end, Elizabeth overcame her scruples, writing that she “shut her eyes to the awkward blot on her (Evans’s) life “ because she recognised the quality of the writing. Mary Ann Evans attended the Unitarian chapel in Hampstead, and was accepted into the community, who quietly ignoring the irregularity of their relationship, referring to them simply as Mr and Mrs Lewes. Although Elizabeth and Mary Ann Evans respected each other’s writing, they were not close friends.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1878), the well-known writer and journalist. was also not a close friend, but very much more part of Elizabeth’s Unitarian networks. Elizabeth knew many of the Martineau siblings; Lissey, the oldest married a Newcastle doctor, Thomas Greenhow in 1820. Elizabeth would have met her, and probably other members of the family, when she stayed with the Turner family in the winters of 1829 and 30. Rachel, born in 1800, ran a girls’ school in Liverpool, which Meta attended, and also became a friend, staying with the Gaskells in Manchester. Another son was James, who became a minister and worked closely with William, so he and his family were very much on visiting term. Harriet may have met Elizabeth in Newcastle; she certainly met her in London and in the Lake District. Harriet had visited Manchester several times before Elizabeth moved there, when Helen, her widowed sister-in-law Helen (mentioned above) lived there. She had been unofficially engaged to John Hugh Worthington, a minister at Cross Street Chapel. He died young, after only two years in post, in 1827. William was appointed as his replacement. Harriet’s story is a fascinating one: he turned to writing as money making venture, and became renowned for her stories of political economy, her pioneer sociological observations in America, and her writings, ranging from novels to journalism. She even managed to write several leaders a week for the Daily News from her home in Ambleside in the Lake District, thanks to the good postal service and a train service to Windermere. She would receive news by the 7.30 evening post, and dispatch a responsive article by the following afternoon – the current trend of working from home is nothing new! Although Harriet left the Unitarian movement after developing more rationalist ideas, she maintained her Unitarian networks, and most of her friendships, except for that with her brother James.

There is not time now to do more than mention some other notable women featured who were part of Elizabeth’s networks. They include various members of the Langham Place group centred on Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, who campaigned for women’s rights and Mary Carpenter of Bristol who developed reformatory schools and worked to improve the lot of poor children. I have not yet found a direct link between Elizabeth Jesser Reid, who founded Bedford College for women in London, but I am sure the two women at least knew of each other.

One of the characteristics of the Unitarian movement was that being small in number, and often shunned by more mainstream Christians, its members were thrown upon each other for company, education and marriage. In the age when the new railways made travel easier, there seems to have been a steady movement of middle-class families visiting each other, sending their daughters to stay with other families, and of course a constant stream of letters telling of family news, (not to say gossip) so keeping the denominational networks strong. Elizabeth Gaskell was one of the significant contributors to this.

© Ann Peart 2020

Ann Peart is a  retired Unitarian minister, and former Principal of Unitarian College, Manchester, where she taught most of the ministerial arts, included Unitarian history.  Originally a geographer, she now considers herself a historian, and has written on many Unitarian topics, most notably on women, and also on sexuality.