Recent Reading: Women and The People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England by Helen Rogers

You meet some fascinating women in the pages of Helen Roger’s Women and the People. The whole theoretical discussion left me a bit cold – not really my period or area, but I really enjoyed the characters,

There’s Miss Mary Anne Tocker, who in August 1818 successfully defended herself against a charge of libel brought by a lawyer who she had accused, writing under the name “An Enemy of Corruption”, of electoral malpractice in the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser.(p12)

Then there’s Eliza Sharples – suspect I might not have liked her had I met her, but she in January 1832 arrived in London seeking, with remarkable sang froid, to be a “general” of the reform movement. In that year she became the “editress” of the Isis, the first radical journal run by a woman and a celebrated lecturer, and formed a “moral marriage” with Richard Carlisle, a leader of the campaign for a free press – quite a place for a 28-year-old daughter of a Wesleyan counterpane manufacturer from Bolton. (p48)

It isn’t a story that ends well – by 1849, a widow, she was appealing to a leading Chartist for help for her three children, saying that both she and the eldest, Hypatia, aged 13, “were employed in needlework, the girl earning only two shillings a week”. She wanted to pay for a few months apprenticeship to a milliner so Hypatia could get better paid work. The girl was “trading in the steps of womanhood to the same extent of helplessness in which we are all placed.” (p.161)

More cheerfully, we learn about the author of the posthumously published The Autobiography of Mary Smith: Schoolmistress and Nonconformist. Born into a rural family of small but insecure means, from an early age she managed the family grocery in Oxfordshire, but it was in part a move as a companion to the wife of a minister in Westmorland that enabled her to by step her meagre schooling and become a governess and schoolmistress – setting up the first school for girls in the area, although the villagers, who worked mostly in agriculture,could afford only scant fees.

What see wanted was to be a poet, but by age 40 she conceded that she did not have the means to pursue a literary career, and would have to “follow patiently the harder and narrower fortunes of meaner women”. But Shea also became highly active in politics – in temperance, suffrage and liberal causes, entrusted to be editor of the Liberal Club Circular in Carlisle before the first election I which many working men could vote. (p241-282)


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