Wilberforce: Family and Friends. By Anne Stott . Oxford University Press. 2012. xvi + 338pp. £35.00.


If sex, opium, tuberculosis, broken engagements and pining sweethearts seem to smack more of Byron and Shelley than of censorious evangelicals, Wilberforce: Family and Friends suggests that we need to think again. It would be easy to assume that there is nothing left to say about the ‘Clapham Sect’: that cosy philanthropic coterie has never been short of admirers. But although Anne Stott tells a tale whose contours are mostly familiar, her meticulous reconstruction of the private lives of Wilberforce and the ‘Saints’ opens up unexpected and compelling new perspectives on it. As in Stott's previous book, Hannah More: The First Victorian (2003), the formula is deceptively simple, but it is also highly effective. By using unpublished diaries and personal correspondence to strip back layers of moralizing Victorian whitewash, she exposes a world in which politicians and celebrities jostle with petulant children, moody teenagers, needy friends, amorous spouses, hypochondriacs and workaholics. Stott is no debunker, but in letting the protagonists speak for themselves she allows them to undermine the subtle and not-so-subtle reverence of many existing accounts. Wilberforce's terse note on his sleepless night before a big anti-slavery debate (‘flea-bitten and full of ambition’), for example, captures nicely the realities behind the speechifying (p. 64). The chapter dealing with his abortive hunt for a wife in his mid-thirties, in particular, is priceless: instead of the polished orator we hear the authentic voice of a sexually frustrated bachelor whose flirtatious indecision almost landed him in a legal suit for breach of promise. ‘Miss Marriott, pretty Girl – my Imagination loose and wandering’, he confides, elsewhere his mind ‘running on Miss H the whole time’ during a meeting with Pitt when he should have been thinking about poor relief (pp. 67, 70).

The book is divided into four sections. The first deals with Wilberforce's childhood, his conversion in the mid-1780s and the formation of the ‘Clapham system’ when his friend Henry Thornton bought Battersea Rise in 1792; the second looks at the love affairs, courtships and marriages of Wilberforce, Thornton and Zachary Macaulay; the third and the fourth at their domestic lives. Many of Stott's spiciest revelations and juiciest quotations are drawn from private religious journals. These are a notoriously difficult source, combining minuscule handwriting and idiosyncratic shorthand, but if the task of deciphering them has been a painstaking one, the benefits are manifest. Whereas reverential nineteenth-century filial biographers played up the political exploits of their eminent parents, they also presented the rosiest of domestic idylls. The mythologizing was understandable: if second- and third-generation Claphamites drifted gradually away from their parents’ mode of piety, they continued to share their high regard for domesticity. This book is important, then, because it shows that even in the mansions around ‘the best of all possible commons’ life could be gritty, gossipy and gory. Not for Stott the coy Victorian euphemism: we are told that Wilberforce wore a steel frame not just to cope with curvature of the spine – this much is familiar – but also to support a rectal prolapse (pp. 206, 258–9). He and his friends fret ceaselessly about masturbation, moving house and family finances; they obsess about childbirth, breastfeeding and matters of the heart; they complain, commiserate and exchange bitchy notes. Stott also uncovers some of the hitherto underplayed tensions between political celebrity and private happiness. One of the most poignant episodes revolves around Lizzy Wilberforce's broken engagement with Charles Pinney, a Bristol merchant, whose West Indian business interests would have seriously compromised her father's anti-slavery stance (pp. 232–40).

Most vividly of all, Stott underlines how seriously evangelical men and women took their parental responsibilities. Contemporary educational theory followed Locke in seeing the infant mind as a malleable tabula rasa, an idea that placed immense responsibility on parents, whether pious or not, and among evangelicals this was compounded by a keen awareness of original sin and their own temptations, often sexual ones (p. 155). No surprise, then, that correspondence with their progeny was so edgy. Girls caused less anxiety because they could be educated in ‘the controlled environment of the home’, but as the boys reached adolescence and went to university they received screeds of advice on the right things to read, wear, eat and drink, not to mention being constantly scrutinized for tokens of conversion (pp. 207–20). The Wilberforce sons learned to dread their mother's platitudinous effusions (pp. 209, 214–16, 263, 269), while Zachary Macaulay's ‘admonitory and rather severe’ letters were so emotionally stunted that his son later threw them away (p. 208). Yet given that death was ever-present – even in bourgeois Clapham – cloying concern and stern moralizing seem understandable. (The gruesome details of misplaced treatment – mercury chloride for digestive problems, long confinements during pregnancy, ‘pale diets’ of milk and chicken to counter TB-induced anaemia – emphasize that expensive medical attention could in fact be distinctly unhelpful.) Here too Stott reminds us of the gap between pious conventions and the cold, hard realities of the deathbed. It was difficult to die in the approved manner while coughing up diseased lungs. Nor did onlookers always react as they should have: instead of parroting pieties when confronted with her friend's coffin, the young Lucy Thornton declares unapologetically that she ‘should be very sorry to die just now’ (p. 160).

The strength of this book is that it tries to tell things as they really were. It will be of interest to a range of readers, touching on philosophy, medical practice and gender ideology as well as religion and political culture. Women are more to the fore than in some accounts, although readers hoping for revelations about their impact on political affairs may be disappointed. This is a domestic story. Nevertheless, there are some important variations on received orthodoxies: the Thorntons emerge as surprisingly open-minded parents, encouraging their daughters to take an interest in history and politics as well as the usual female accomplishments. Sometimes Stott's psychological speculations seem tenuous – did Wilberforce really crave ‘unstinting love’ because of his childhood experiences? – and her comparisons can grate a little. It is surely stretching things to liken the agonies of conversion to television makeovers (p. 29). There is also a sense that in focusing on the family Stott tiptoes around negative judgements. No doubt Macaulay was aware of his personal failings, but this did not make him a good governor of Sierra Leone; and his trading concern there represented rather more than a ‘potential’ conflict of interest (p. 249). Likewise Wilberforce's support for the prosecution of Richard Carlile is behaviour ‘that in another man would be deemed vindictive’ (p. 196). And must we assume that Pinney's faith was merely ‘apparent’ just because he was implicated in slave-holding (p. 235)? John Bird Sumner, like many Etonian contemporaries, attended King's College, Cambridge, not Trinity, as suggested here (p. 211). These are minor criticisms, however. That Stott can be sympathetic without being uncritical makes the ‘Saints’ seem both more human and more believable, and it is this above all that makes her book such a good read.