Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Borderline CitizensWomen, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867$

Kathryn Gleadle

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780197264492

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264492.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Women and the 1832 Reform Act

Women and the 1832 Reform Act

(p.158) (p.159) 5 Women and the 1832 Reform Act
Borderline Citizens

Kathryn Gleadle

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The Reform Act of 1832 stands as one of the defining moments in the political history of Britain, yet its implications for women and their involvement in its passage remain underexplored. The reform bill pertaining to Scotland did not specify that the parliamentary voter should be male. It presumably did not occur to those drafting the Scottish legislation that such clarification was necessary; whereas the gender-specific wording of the statutes covering England, Wales, and Ireland suggests an awareness that there was a theoretical possibility that it might be otherwise open to challenge. These differences are indicative of the subtle fissures in seemingly dominant assumptions concerning female citizenship. This chapter examines how, within the interstices of parliamentary legislation, there were many such moments of telling indeterminacy in the collective understanding of women as political subjects. It also explores the notion of women as ‘borderline citizens’, women in parliament and their political rights from 1830 to 1832, women's involvement in the campaign for reform, and the impact of the reform crisis on female subjectivities.

Keywords:   Reform Act of 1832, Britain, female citizenship, borderline citizens, parliament, political rights, reform crisis, female subjectivities


The Reform Act of 1832 stands as one of the defining moments in British political history. Historians such as Frank O’Gorman and Norman Gash have cautioned us not to overexaggerate its significance, pointing to the many continuities in political practice.1 Nonetheless, the introduction of a uniform £10 borough franchise, the abolition of fifty-six ‘rotten’ boroughs, and the redistribution of seats, including the creation of seats in industrializing cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Sheffield, was clearly of seminal significance to the polity. Despite this, the Act’s implications for women and their involvement in its passage remain underexplored. Analyses to date have considered the ways in which it appeared to epitomize a broader cultural move towards tighter gender prescription, emphasizing the Act’s stipulation that future voters should be ‘male’. For James Vernon, ‘The significance of this can not be over played.’2

It will be argued here that such an approach, which is implicitly situated within the ‘watershed’ narrative that long dominated discussion of the Act’s consequences, is too stark an analytical tool with which to understand its complicated implications for women.3 For a start, the reform bill pertaining to Scotland did not specify that the parliamentary voter should be male.4 It (p.160) presumably did not occur to those drafting the Scottish legislation that such clarification was necessary; whereas the gender-specific wording of the statutes covering England, Wales, and Ireland suggests an awareness that there was a theoretical possibility that it might be otherwise open to challenge. These differences are indicative of the subtle fissures in seemingly dominant assumptions concerning female citizenship. This chapter will explore how, within the interstices of parliamentary legislation, there were many such moments of telling indeterminacy in the collective understanding of women as political subjects. That the same parliament passed the Vestries Act (1831) allowing women to continue to vote in vestry contests further underlines the point. This enables us to explore further the notion of women as ‘borderline citizens’.

To date, scholars who have analysed the gendered contours of the reform debate have tended to concentrate on those political discourses which dwelt on the notion of ‘manly independence’. As Earl Grey claimed of the £10 householder, they were men ‘who have given a pledge to the community for their good conduct—and who for the most part are married men and the fathers of families’.5 Certainly politicians and commentators on both sides of the debate frequently, if casually, implied that women were passive and apolitical.6 However, the formulation of women as political dependants was but one of many, wide-ranging articulations on female political rights and privileges. These utterances illuminate a diversity of views but also the fragility of women’s political claims.

In Chapter 1 some consideration was given to the vexed location of women as parliamentary constituents, and this is explored further here. The recurring disjuncture between the experiences and assumptions of women’s public roles in their local communities, and the representations that were likely to be successful at Westminster, provides a telling frame of analysis for the Reform Act. This, combined with an analysis of women’s varied positioning in the reform agitation and celebrations, provides the opportunity to explore in greater depth the distinctions between the ‘parochial realm’ and the classic ‘public sphere’ as outlined in Chapters 2 and 4. As authoritative community figures, female responses to the reform (p.161) crisis often had the effect of reaffirming their sense of superior intellectual and political acumen. Women also made critical contributions to reform debates as newspaper editors, authors of electoral ephemera, and through the exertion of their economic influence. However, there was an increasing tendency to view women’s activity as part of a female collective. This usually emphasized women’s political engagement in relation to their familial roles, particularly as wives who might exert their ‘influence’ over their husbands. In the medium term this indicated an awareness that women as well as men were implicated in the broader enfranchisement of the middle classes. Nonetheless, a consideration of women’s varying experiences of ‘spectatorship’, including their occupation of the ventilator space, will demonstrate that dominant cultural codes of this nature impinged upon women’s own articulations of the reform crisis. As we saw in Chapter 3, the family was a critical if problematic source of political identity. Here, it will be suggested that the politicization evoked by the reform debates was often intertwined with collective familial identities or anxieties concerning one’s feminine profile. Although exceptional literary women were able to gain an audience as commentators on the reform issue, more generally the involvement of women throws into sharp relief the many ambiguities and tensions in their political status.

Women, parliament, and political rights, 1830–1832

Public pronouncements concerning the manly independence of the political subject were rhetorical constructs which bore little resemblance to the day-to-day political experiences of the elite. Members of Grey’s cabinet such as Lords Melbourne, Holland, and Palmerston were fully accustomed to drawing upon the politicking skills of aristocratic women like Lady Holland; and the private records of Whig ministers reveal the weight they placed upon the political views of the women in their networks during the reform crisis.7 The bill itself was the product of family collaborative practices. According to some reports, it was Lord Durham’s daughter who made the copies of the scheme of the bill, the subcommittee meeting at their (p.162) house in Cleveland Row.8 Shortly after the passage of the bill Durham (Earl Grey’s son-in-law) was to seek out what proved to be a long-standing friendship with the country’s most famous supporter of women’s rights, Harriet Martineau.9 In the following decade Lord John Russell, who steered the reform bill through parliament, grudgingly conceded the political skills of women such as Martineau in parliamentary speeches.10 The diversity of elite Whigs on the woman question is further revealed through the profile of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Henry Brougham. An early advocate of female anti-slavery petitions, in 1835 he published an anonymous pamphlet Thoughts on the Ladies of the Aristocracy which articulated radical views on women’s position.11 The Act’s identification of the electorate as male should not therefore be interpreted as a simple reflection of a homogeneous or static Whig attitude.

Equally the reform debates themselves did not operate within an exclusively masculine space. Once Lord Brougham had given his permission for high-ranking women to attend the Lords’ debates on reform they came to form a visible constituency in the galleries. Charles Greville recorded that, on one occasion, ‘the House of Lords was so full of ladies that the Peers could not find places’. That the animated Lady Jersey took to sitting amongst the journalists no doubt encouraged the reporting of their presence.12 The Times gave an intriguing hint as to women’s dynamic vocal contribution to debates. Observing their ‘enthusiastic ardour’ for particular political positions, it was noted that, ‘whilst almost all the ancient ladies are loud in their approbation of the anti-reform speeches, the young and beautiful are, without exception for the bill, and nothing but the bill’.13 Individual politicians would also have been cognizant of the fact that their female relatives were often listening to their speeches from the ventilator space.14 The structures of elite political culture were clearly masculine-dominated, but women comprised a significant, if marginal strand of that sphere.

(p.163) A comparable complexity is discernible in the ideological debates on reform during which considerations of female citizenship emerged sporadically from the mid-1820s. Utilitarians and radical unitarians alike raised the issue in specialist journals such as the Westminster Review and the Monthly Repository; and republicans Richard Carlile and Eliza Sharples also protested against the bill’s masculine basis.15 Alexander Campbell, who moved in the emergent circles of co-operative politics, could be found agitating on the question in Scotland.16 Although these examples come from the fringes of radical political culture, those advocating women’s rights were not necessarily viewed as eccentric visionaries. When a Mrs Emery delivered a lecture to the Brighton Political Union on women’s political rights in October 1832, journalists reported the event courteously: ‘The effect of her speech was somewhat impaired by her delivering it from written notes, but she commanded much attention from the auditory.’17 Feminist discourses were not hermetically sealed within radical coteries but could impinge upon electoral and parliamentary politics too. As we saw in Chapter 1, that Matthew Davenport Hill endorsed female suffrage during his election campaign in 1832 appears not to have damaged his reputation.18 The government itself chose the maverick James Silk Buckingham to aid their presentation of the bill in the press. As Buckingham had made clear in his speech to his Nottingham constituents in 1831, he openly defended women’s political rights, later publishing his comments and reiterating his views in parliament in 1834.19 Two months after the passage of the Reform Act, Henry Hunt presented a woman’s suffrage petition to parliament on behalf of Mary Smith from Stanmore in Yorkshire. Whilst Smith’s arguments were met with bawdy humour by many MPs, Hunt took the petition seriously, insisting that it was ‘deserving of consideration’.20

It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that leading politicians could display a shrewd awareness of the contemporary feminist case. A few months after the passage of the Reform Act, Robert Peel conceded

(p.164) There were arguments in favour of extending the franchise to women, to which it was no easy matter to find any logical answer…women were allowed to hold property, to vote on many occasions in right of that property—nay, a woman might inherit the Throne, and perform all the functions of the first office of the State, why should they not vote for a Member of Parliament?21

Peel’s brother Jonathan, we might note, voted in favour of female suffrage in 1867.22 It is supposed that Peel’s purpose here was rhetorical— to illustrate the many appeals to which parliament might be subject were they to concede the secret ballot (the subject of the debate on this occasion). However, that he employed the very arguments used by contemporary feminist campaigners indicates that radical claims for female citizenship formed part of the discursive political landscape of ‘mainstream’ figures.

Indeed, during the reform debates there were a number of instances when parliament considered female citizenship. Tellingly the clause requiring that future voters be ‘male persons’ was not discussed (although later judges used it to rule against women who sought to vote in the boroughs).23 The practice of women voting in their own right was so rare that this in itself did not register as important. Of far greater consequence was the ending of freewomen’s privileges. It was around this issue that a surprisingly wide spectrum of politicians found common ground. It provided a conduit for those sympathetic to women’s political rights to make their voice heard in parliament, as well as providing a rallying-point for those who were opposed to the bill and/or who wished to be associated with protecting ancient electoral privileges.

The power of freemen’s daughters to confer the vote upon their husbands in the ninety-two freemen boroughs was incompatible with the Whig ambition to standardize franchise entitlement. The privilege was therefore attacked under wider proposals to curtail customary freemen rights. To date our understanding of this issue is limited to Catherine Hall’s discussion of a Commons debate of 7 February 1832. This concerned a submission that freemen’s daughters be permitted to retain their rights. Hall dwells upon the ‘hilarity’ and ‘ridicule’ with which this suggestion was met. According to Hall, the ribald humour exhibited by politicians, with their (p.165) references to the ‘personal charms’ and ‘renowned beauty’ of the women concerned, revealed their latent fears of women’s political agency.24

Hall’s analysis centres on a particular response in a single debate. In fact the matter had a more complicated history. In the summer of 1831 the Commons considered a petition presented on behalf of the metropolitan reformer, Charles Pearson. This asked the house to ‘protect the right of the widows and daughters of freemen’. Pearson’s argument was that the right to confer the vote was ‘much valued’ by the women concerned.25 Pearson’s intervention indicates the existence of a more capacious view of female citizenship than that intimated in Hall’s analysis. At this time Pearson was chair of the City Board of Health which, under his chairmanship, had an active, if short-lived, ladies’ committee attached to it.26 This unusual initiative suggests that Pearson was associated with policies that sought to encourage women in public life. The politician he chose to present his petition, John Wilks, had a reputation for sponsoring independent causes in parliament, such as Dissenters’ rights and anti-coercion in Ireland. Despite his reputation as a financial adventurer, he successfully mobilized popular sentiment during his election campaign in Boston, a freeman borough, making much of the support he enjoyed from his female constituents.27

During the debate Wilks eschewed Pearson’s reference to women’s political rights, tactfully employing instead a chivalric trope of protecting women’s interests. The language was carefully chosen: he asserted that he had ‘communicated with Government on the subject’ who had shown a ‘liberal disposition to meet the wishes of those who appealed at once to their gallantry and justice’. No one in the House denied that such an exchange had occurred, perhaps indicating that the government was indeed prepared to be flexible on the issue.

Two of the bill’s most inveterate opponents, Sir Edward Sugden and Sir Charles Wetherell, also purported to endorse the petition. Sugden distanced his remarks from women’s electoral activities, arguing that ‘the right in question operated as a marriage portion, [and] he was sure the House would not be so uncourteous as to deprive the ladies of it’. On the other (p.166) hand, Wetherell, the recorder of Bristol, felt happy to pose, albeit fleetingly, as the defender of women’s constitutional rights. He situated this within his broader aim of maintaining ‘the rights and privileges’ of Bristolians where ‘the ladies now had the privilege in question’. Edward Protheroe, the ardent reform member for Bristol, was furious at Wetherell’s implication that the people of Bristol opposed the bill because of its threat to traditional privileges, and he insisted that they were fully behind the cause. Nonetheless, Wetherell and Sugden’s cynical tactic compelled Protheroe to acknowledge the claims of the women whose city he represented. He admitted that the ‘female constituency’ were ‘in favour of retaining the rights of widows and daughters of freemen, and granting those rights to their husbands’.28 Whilst conservative politicians were evidently supporting women’s claims for strategic reasons, that such a stance was seen as credible in itself is noteworthy. Protheroe may not have felt compelled to endorse the wishes of his female constituents, but he did feel constrained to demonstrate a respectful recognition of them. Women’s ‘borderline’ status as citizens meant that they could be strategically evoked as respectable members of the polity and this could subtly alter the gendered dynamics of the debate.

Two days later Tory MP Edward Peel proposed an amendment to secure the rights of those freemen who derived their status from ‘birth and servitude and marriage’.29 The reform bill’s proposals threatened to disenfranchise nearly a third of his constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme and it had therefore been a central issue in the election of 1831. When local freemen laid their concerns before the borough’s reforming candidate Josiah Wedgwood, he had been able to give only a lame assurance that he would bring their concerns to the attention of the House.30 In contrast, Peel (another brother of Robert), who had lost a small fortune when he failed to win this borough in 1830, had joined forces with the elusive figure of the sitting MP, William Henry Miller.31 Together they successfully (p.167) presented themselves as champions for the rights of freemen and their children. In electoral ephemera Peel emphasized his desire to protect ‘your children’s rights’, and Miller was praised as the defender of ‘the Rights of our Sons and our Daughters’.32 Peel’s proposal was therefore important to his local political position. Surprisingly, when his amendment was discussed in parliament a small number of pro-reform Whigs also championed the cause: this was not an issue which divided MPs simply along pro- or anti-reform lines. Captain Berkeley, the Whig member for Gloucester, was supported by fellow MP Lewis Buck, when he mounted a spirited defence of the traditional privileges of his female constituents. He observed that ‘amongst the free women there was a very strong feeling against this clause of the bill’, and argued that fears that they would no longer be able to take advantage of charities for the widows and children of freemen were ‘well grounded’. Berkeley clearly thought it important that he should be seen to represent the interests of his female constituents, even though this conflicted with his wider pro-reform position.33

When Peel’s amendment was lost by seventy-nine votes, Wilks immediately proposed a fresh amendment. Perhaps because of a prior commitment to Charles Pearson, he brought the question back to one of political equity, reminding the House that the effect of the existing clause would be to deprive ‘females’ of a long–held electoral right. Other than a feeble joke on the part of the Attorney General, the amendment prevailed with virtually no debate. This was doubtless because, despite Wilks’s rhetoric of women’s rights, his amendment sought only to maintain the rights of those who had married a freewoman’s daughter before the passage of the Act. It did nothing to ensure the continued political influence of freewomen.34 Therefore, during the passage of the third reform bill, the liberal reformer Thomas Barrett-Lennard (who had supported Wilks’s proposal) attempted to secure these rights further. Like Pearson, Barrett-Lennard sought explicitly to protect the electoral rights of women:

in some few boroughs, a right existed, by which the daughters of freemen conveyed the right of voting to their husbands. This privilege they would (p.168) lose by the Bill as it now stood, and it was the object of his Amendment to preserve these rights. He knew they were considered as valuable, and the right of the daughter to confer the privilege on her husband ought to be as sacred as the right of the master to confer freedom on his apprentice.

The motion was seconded by Barrett-Lennard’s fellow member for Maldon, a conservative, Quintin Dick who defended its support of ‘hereditary rights’. This unlikely alliance suggests that the defence of freewomen’s rights was a significant matter in their constituency. However, the tone of Barrett-Lennard’s comments indicates that his position was not merely political opportunism. He carefully responded to opposing arguments, noting for example that the bill’s provisions concerning the registration of voters would serve to minimize marriages conducted fraudulently for political gain, and he insisted that the House divide on the matter. His amendment was lost by fifty votes, but in the process interesting positions emerged. Sir George Clerk praised the strength of Barrett-Lennard’s case, agreeing it was ‘invidious to make a distinction between the sons and daughters of freemen’. Robert Gordon warned that, given the Lords’ hostility to the amendment, there was little point in pursuing it further. Nonetheless he endorsed both the chivalric argument that the right was a ‘kind of dowry to the ladies’ which it would be ungallant to discontinue, as well as making the case for political equity, professing he did not understand ‘upon which principle the right was to be continued to the sons and denied to the daughters’.35

A final attempt to amend the proposed legislation came in May 1832 when the House of Lords received a petition from freemen’s wives and daughters in Great Grimsby who requested that ‘their Rights and those of their children and future Husbands, be preserved to them’.36 This too was unsuccessful. Therefore in the final Reform Act, the rights of men already enfranchised by dint of their wives’ status were upheld; and women continued to be able to endow their husbands with freemen status in some boroughs; but the voting rights of those made ‘freemen by marriage’ after 1 March 1831 were abolished.37

The passage of the bill through parliament indicates that in a number of boroughs—including Grimsby, Maldon, Bristol, and Boston—the (p.169) ending of freewomen’s electoral rights was viewed as a significant measure by local women. In their responses, politicians in affected boroughs showed a desire to pose as representatives of their female as well as their male constituents; and there was a minority strand of opinion prepared to support the notion of female electoral rights as a matter of principle. Yet women were ‘borderline citizens’. Whilst the issue raised transitory concern, women’s rights were dropped, seemingly without debate, once a compromise had been secured over the broader issue of the freemen’s position. Despite the explicit wish to protect the rights of both ‘sons and daughters’ in Newcastle-under-Lyme when, in February 1832, the Commons agreed to the clause granting rights in perpetuity to those whose status derived from birth or apprenticeship (but not marriage) Peel and his constituents represented this as a victory 38 Moreover, knowledge of the rights and privileges which freemen’s daughters had possessed in particular boroughs failed to impinge dramatically upon the national political community. When parliament debated the implications of the Municipal Corporations bill for freemen in 1835 one member seemed completely unaware of women’s ability to confer the position of freemen on their husbands, protesting ‘I have yet to learn that women have any rights such as the Honourable and Learned Gentleman alludes to.’39 Older, local cultures which afforded women conduits to political status in the parochial realm were rapidly dying out in the centralized political system which emerged in the post-1832 nation.

The debates on freewomen’s privileges revealed the difficulties in asserting women’s local experience of political agency at the parliamentary level. This applied equally to the treatment of female-signed petitions. The Earl of Mansfield confirmed that both men and women had signed an anti-reform petition which came from Perthshire.40 But whilst local communities might feel it appropriate for women to act as petitioners, in matters of such constitutional importance parliament was likely to call into question the validity of petitions which were not exclusively male. When the Duke of Northumberland circulated an anti-reform petition amongst his tenants he clearly felt it acceptable that women as well as men might add their names. Indeed, one MP explained that, ‘wives and daughters signed for husbands and fathers’. This particular petition was given little weight because of the assumption that the tenants had been pressured by the duke, (p.170) but the existence of women’s signatures served to complete an image of its political irregularity in the eyes of parliament.41 Local assumptions and customs as to female involvement in politics could be starkly at odds with those articulated in Westminster.

These are intricacies which were embedded in the passage of the Select Vestries Act in 1831. This legislation endorsed female voting yet this was not debated in parliament—hence Vernon’s conclusion that it was an almost accidental move in a parliament preoccupied by the reform crisis.42 However, the measure’s architect, John Cam Hobhouse, was a metropolitan radical with a Unitarian background. Whilst his views on political women could be ambivalent (he scoffed at a proposal to formalize aristocratic women’s access to parliamentary debates, for example) he explicitly intimated that women should play an equal role in vestry politics. In a debate on parochial politics in Marylebone he insisted that ‘as householders and payers of rates’ women had ‘an unquestionable right to join in such a demonstration of public opinion’.43 Hobhouse at least appears to have been clear in his views that women should have a formal voice in the local political sphere, thus problematizing Vernon’s assumption.

The parliamentary debates on the reform bill were extraordinarily extensive and prolonged. Those which touched upon its implications for women formed only a minute proportion of the whole. Nonetheless, these interchanges belie the seeming simplicity and finality of the erasure of women from the national franchise and point to intriguing fault-lines within the polity. A male parliamentary electorate may have been the assumed norm, yet it could not be taken for granted. Eighteen years later the Attorney General had to intervene to quash fears that Brougham’s Abbreviation Act (1850), which established that legislation using masculine pronouns should be taken to include women, had legalized female suffrage.44 The reform crisis thus stands as a testament to the multiplicity of ways in which contemporaries might envisage, conceptualize, and experience female political agency. The myriad forms of female engagement in (p.171) the reform question beyond the Palace of Westminster reinforces such an argument.

Women and the campaign for reform

According to scholars such as John Phillips, the two years of agitation which preceded the bill (combined with the stimulus the legislation itself gave to partisan politics) ‘reshaped the political process’ in constituencies across the country 45 It is an argument which has been more forcefully restated by Philip Salmon.46 But how were women implicated in this process? Sarah Richardson and Kim Reynolds have noted the vigorous intervention of the likes of Lady Sandwich and Elizabeth Lawrence in the elections of 1831–2; and, exceptionally, Catherine Hall has considered the involvement of middle-class women in the campaign, coming to the conclusion that women were ‘spectators and supporters rather than being active in their own right and on their own behalf’.47 Nancy LoPatin-Lummis has indicated that, despite the existence of a handful of women’s reform organizations, women did not play a prominent role in the reform struggle. Otherwise the issue of women’s role in the agitation remains underexplored. Yet as LoPatin-Lummis’s own sources suggest, some contemporaries entertained a strikingly different impression. Joseph Parkes, a leading figure in the Birmingham reform movement, reported to the metropolitan radical George Grote that ‘our women [were] heroines’, claiming the ‘petticoats put up at Birmingham’. Here, over half the audience at one meeting of the Birmingham Political Union were reported to be women.48 At the celebrations to mark Thomas Attwood’s contribution to the movement, women were recorded as loud and enthusiastic members of the crowds and elaborate arrangements were made to accommodate them at civic celebrations.49

The situation in Birmingham, I suggest, was part of a broader process of female engagement in reform. An acknowledgement of female participation comprised a marginal yet persistent strand of contemporary discourse, (p.172) undermining assumptions that 1832 signalled the triumph of a hegemonic concept of male citizenship. One means through which women contributed to the reform debate was through the medium of print culture. Cecilia Mary Cadell’s decision to entitle her 1832 novel, The Reformer capitalized upon the public thirst for all matters connected to the reform crisis. Set in the aftermath of the British response to the French Revolution, the novel expatiated on the dangers of raising children upon democratic principles.50 Astute publishers realized that the reading public did not consider female authorship to be incompatible with political controversy and a small handful of women positioned themselves as authoritative commentators.

The most striking example of this phenomenon was Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans. Trollope (mother of Anthony, the future novelist) had travelled to America with three of her children to escape financial problems and a difficult marriage in England, but soon became politicized by her experiences there. In the account of her travels, Domestic Manners, she asserted that her observation of American political culture had led to her reject her erstwhile Whiggism. Disgusted by the overfamiliarity and ‘vulgarity’ of those with whom she conversed, Trollope claimed that democratic principles resulted in a distasteful, disorderly society:

the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whiskey.51

Trollope and her publisher, Whittaker, seized upon the opportunity of the reform debates to ensure maximum publicity. After an initial postponement, the book was published on 19 March 1832 just before the final reading of the reform bill. Trollope’s work included a conventional disclaimer as to her ability, as a woman, to provide an adequate political analysis, but in a new preface Trollope explicitly framed the text as a contribution to the public debate on reform. She claimed that her ‘chief object’, was ‘to encourage her countrymen to hold fast by a constitution that (p.173) ensures all the blessings which flow from established habits and solid principles’. In addition, Whittaker coordinated its release with a forty-page appraisal in the Quarterly Review by Basil Hall, whose own work on America had been warmly received.52

The tactics worked: it was an immediate bestseller.53 It was also received as a direct intervention in the reform debate. An extended analysis in the Whig Edinburgh Review noted that the revised preface amounted to ‘an express advertisement against the Reform Bill’. It continued, ‘Four–and–thirty chapters of American scandal are dished up with the immediate purpose of contrasting the graceful virtues of a boroughmonger with the profligate vulgarity of a ten pound franchise.’ Criticizing Trollope for misleading reporting, fallacious logic, and weak intellectual skills, the reviewer’s distaste for Trollope’s politics led him to exploit her gender as a further source of attack. A savage assessment of her supposed lack of refinement was allied to her ‘blue–stocking contempt for household cares’.54 The Gentleman’s Magazine, which was equally hostile to the work, also attempted to cast a slur on Trollope’s femininity, casting her as vulgar and ill-bred.55 Yet reviewers’ treatment of Trollope’s gender was dependent upon their political stance. The Quarterly Review claimed that as a woman she was particularly well-suited to the minute social observations which characterized the work. In a discussion of the book’s political themes Hall went on to praise Trollope for her original and incisive treatment of the implications of democratic principles.56

Gendered discourses on the female politician could, therefore, be highly strategic. Jane Alice Sargant was a prolific contemporary pamphleteer who produced two works on the reform crisis.57 An Address to the Females of Great Britain was intended to dissuade working-class women from participating in the agitation, claiming that ‘With the merits or demerits of the (p.174) Bill…we have little to do’. Sargant, like Trollope, rehearsed hackneyed pronouncements as to the limitations of female political aptitude, but she was quite prepared to expatiate herself on the constitutional implications of the bill. She emphasized the great dangers she believed the measure to represent and underlined the importance of women’s political efforts within their own families where they might shield children from ‘evil journals’ and ‘virulent discussions’.58 In An Honest Appeal to All Englishmen Sargant depended upon highly stylized notions of plebeian masculinity to persuade working-class men to abandon the reforming cause.59

Radical women similarly employed gendered arguments strategically. Eliza Sharples hailed from a well-to-do Methodist family in Bolton. In 1832 she turned her back on her family to join Richard Carlile’s radical political movement in London.60 In her publication, The Isis Sharples adopted the persona of a ‘leader of the people’ who, in a series of letters, posed as a political tutor to Queen Adelaide. In her desire to project an image as a reliable and considered commentator Sharples also reaffirmed more restrictive modes of feminine politics. Whilst she lambasted the Queen for influencing her husband against reform, Sharples praised Adelaide for her dutiful fulfilment of the roles of wife and mother. On one occasion she insisted that politics should be severed from family concerns, yet in another issue she argued that women’s greater family responsibilities meant they were more implicated than men in the public reformation which the reform bill represented.61

Sharples’s volatile rhetoric is illustrative of the tensions inherent in projecting oneself as a radical female politician at this time. In some ways it was easier for anti-reforming women such as Trollope and Sargant to act as public spokespersons on the issue. Their political stance drew upon the maintenance of traditional social hierarchies which could diffuse anxieties as to female public activity. With the exception of Sharples, even women at the heart of radical feminist networks intervened but cautiously. Harriet Martineau and Eliza Flower chose to support the movement through the composition of reform songs. Selections of these were published in the (p.175) Monthly Repository, and, according to Martineau’s brother, one became very popular, being ‘sung by all the political unions’.62

Women tended not to articulate a distinctly female position on this constitutional issue as was the case with movements which could be construed as humanitarian or philanthropic. Yet contemporaries were highly aware of women’s contribution, particularly at the parochial and constituency level, and tended to express this through the rhetoric of ‘female influence’. Some reference has been made by historians to reformers’ evocation of female influence as a malign phenomenon. This included the invidious sway Queen Adelaide and her sisters-in-law were thought to exercise over the King; the sinister female cabal with whom the Duke of Wellington was thought to be intimate; and the evocation of aristocratic women as part of a corrupt elite, profiting from iniquitous sinecures, offices, and pensions.63 However this formed part of a broader discourse lambasting the evils of elite rule: reformers were not opposed to female influence per se. On the contrary. The Alderman of the Common Council wished to include women in a reform festival because, as he put it, ‘the ladies, by the influence they exercised over their husbands and children, had contributed to the success of reform’.64 Contemporaries often articulated a perception that women had an effect upon the casting of votes on this issue. One reformer claimed excitedly that at Newark (where tensions ran high due to the belligerent anti-reformism of the Duke of Newcastle) ‘wives [had] implored their husbands to vote for the great and glorious cause’.65 The failure of the Tory candidate in Maidstone in 1832 was attributed to the town’s ‘blue devils’—reforming women who persuaded their conservative husbands not to support Wyndham Lewis.66

At public meetings it was a device which could be knowingly articulated to acknowledge politely the presence of women in the audience. A speaker at a Berkshire county meeting in 1831 estimated that the bill would enfranchise half a million men: ‘He hoped that some of these half million were married. He hoped that their ladies would have over them that (p.176) influence which ladies generally exercised over their lords; and sure he was, that if ladies had been sent to Parliament for the last 40 years, the country would not have been in the state in which it was at present.’ Observing that the measure would also draw the sons and daughters of the newly enfranchised into the political nation he continued, ‘When such increased influence was given to the middle classes, the House of Commons would exhibit the collective wisdom and the collective integrity of the nation.’67 Rhetoric emphasizing the political significance of women could be viewed as an acceptable—indeed courteous—formula.

During the reform elections of 1830–2, the evocation of female influence sometimes formed a leitmotif in electoral ephemera, as already seen in the tactics employed by Wilks and Buckingham.68 One election pamphlet from Northumberland appealed directly to the ‘Ladies of the county’, urging them to ‘shew a good Example to your Sons’ and support the bill which ‘will benefit your Families, and the People at large’.69 A Warwick election squib, ‘An Address to the Ladies of Warwick from the Borough-Mongering Candidate’ mocked the tendency to appeal to female constituents as a desperate last resort, joking that the hapless local politician had promised to bring in a bill for ‘Ladies to have Votes at Elections’ on his successful return to parliament.70 That such efforts could form the subject of satire is a testament to their widespread currency. Anti-reformers adopted similar tactics. Tories in Norwich referred to a long tradition of female patriotism imploring local women to ‘exert your persuasive influence on the minds of a father, brother, husband, or lover’.71 A conservative ballad distributed in Halesworth during the 1832 election used the trope of the elegantly supportive female:

  • The Ladies of your Country,
  • The fairest in the world,
  • Have smil’d upon your banner,
  • Whenever ‘twas unfurl’d.72

(p.177) However, the gracious but passive image of female support portrayed here is complicated by the fact that it has been attributed to the historian Agnes Strickland. She was one of a number of women who contributed to the cut and thrust of local electioneering in this way This was a trend which continued in the post-1832 years. In 1835 Mary Cockle apparently issued an anti-reform broadside ‘The Banners of Blue’. Also in that year Elizabeth Adams published her Hurrah for the Hearts of True Blue— a Tory election song composed with William Neale which evoked local ladies as ‘Angels’ supporting the Tory cause.73

Acknowledgements of female contributions to the reform debate were thus widespread but highly formulaic. Women’s participation in the controversy was recognized in a stylized manner which intimated a passive, feminized mode of political interaction. This did not map neatly onto contemporaries’ experiences of actual female involvement in the parochial realm. As parliamentary constituents, parishioners, and economic agents women were often highly organized and dynamic on the issue. A proposal mooted in Chelmsford, that women should test the law by attempting to exercise the vote, appears to have been exceptional.74 However, the ritual of gift-giving to pro-reform MPs provided a common avenue for women to position themselves as interested constituency members. In Hertford 800 local ladies honoured the unseated reformer Thomas Slingsby Duncombe with an inscribed piece of silver.75 The ladies of Hull provided Matthew Davenport Hill with a similar tribute to his ‘incorruptible patriotism’ in 1832.76 In Wakefield a number of ladies led by Mrs Marriott identified themselves as ‘friendly to the Reform Act’ when they made a presentation to Daniel Gaskell MP.77

Women could also establish their political allegiances through facilitating other kinds of meetings. During the election of 1830 in North Shields, handbills detailing a political meeting held at the Northumberland Arms drew attention to the fact that this was the house of a Mrs Sears. This is suggestive of the active service she was thought to lend to the (p.178) meeting.78 Women often drew upon their local economic authority rather than their gender when acting as political agents in the parochial realm. A ‘spirited landlady’ in Hertford threatened to evict a tenant in 1832 if he voted against her wishes and hired ‘a gang of election bullies’ to pull down the election colours of her late husband.79 Women might also make their views plain through exerting pressure upon local figures of authority. The Reverend Brontë (father of the novelists) had to defend his political position to one of his female parishioners. Admitting that he was an ‘advocate for the Bill’, he was careful to describe himself as a staunch supporter of ‘Church and state’.80

Women could therefore feel fully implicated in the consequences of the reform bill. Accordingly they celebrated its passage in a variety of ways. When an elderly Scottish lady, M. M. Inglis, was unable to participate in the great Edinburgh festival in honour of Earl Grey on 15 September 1834 she penned him an enthusiastic letter of welcome and a poetic tribute instead.81 In contrast, small-scale parochial events could provide considerable scope for women to involve themselves in reform festivities, and were perhaps more conducive to the attendance of the elderly. In one Staffordshire parish a female-only celebration was held to mark the election of their first constituency MP following reform. The occasion, aimed at older women, was overseen by women of the Wedgwood family at a venue provided by a Mrs Hardings, who lent her ‘cheese room’ for the occasion.82 Such incidents are telling as to the investment women might feel in reform and their desire to mark its significance in their own way.

Parochial events of this nature were unlikely to make it into the pages of local newspapers. In contrast women’s presence was frequently recorded during the larger public occasions, although more conventional gender practices applied. Public reform dinners, for example, tended to be masculine affairs, although women commonly attended the speeches given at the end of the meal.83 This does not mean that we should dismiss women’s (p.179) presence at reform events as merely ‘spectators’, as Catherine Hall has suggested.84 For a start, the act of spectatorship was complex. It was not considered to be a uniquely female practice and it could indicate varying levels of engagement. Frances Kemble described her family’s observation of the reform illuminations as ‘sight-seeing’.85 Similarly, when Wakefield hosted its first election contest after the passage of the Act, Clarkson and her mother, both suffering with heavy colds, preferred to position themselves as onlookers and not participants: ‘There were hustings erected but we stood with several other ladies in the Court Yard, a little aside.’86

As Clarkson’s comments suggests, there were different gradations of spectatorship. Clarkson’s account indicates a curiosity to witness a local occasion. Those who placed themselves in the thick of the crowd, or who chose to sit on the hustings, might experience a far more active sense of participation. This was a phenomenon recognized by pro-reform journalists who had a political motive for wishing to ascribe to women an active form of spectatorship (as indicated in Chapter 2). In a typical example, at a county reform meeting held in Derby, it was noted that the ‘elegantly dressed females…evinced the greatest interest in the absorbing topic of the day’.87 Whilst references to ‘fashionable ladies’ at the windows during reform processions were commonplace, many journalists attempted to imply that this represented a deliberate engagement with the political meanings of the occasion. During the reform procession in Elgin it was noted that ‘all the windows, fronting the part of the street it passed, were filled with ladies, who, if there be truth in Lavater’s system of physiognomy, cordially partook of the general joy’.88 Here, the journalist used the contemporary interest in physiognomy (the practice of using facial expression to decipher character) as a device to signify the powerful political sentiments that might be attributed to spectating women. Some correspondents discreetly alluded to women’s noisy support for reform. In Newport reports referred to the ‘hearty salutations’ of the ladies during a reform procession.89 As engaged audience members, women were dynamically involved in the construction and meanings of an event. In subsequent reports an imagined social order was projected which incorporated women (p.180) within images of fashionable propriety so that the respectability of the cause of reform was assured and a sense of communal unity upheld.

The complex constitution of these tropes may be illustrated by considering a lengthier example from Canterbury where a sumptuous celebration was organized on the passing of the Act.90 The occasion was recorded in some detail in a pamphlet produced by the proprietor and editor of the Kent Herald. It described the extensive decoration of the city, the lavish procession, and the gun salute. Despite the rousing radicalism of the toasts which championed ‘The People, the source of all legitimate power’, the text highlighted the respectability and refinement of the occasion. It celebrated the ‘mixture of classes’ as key to the trouble-free day, praising the ‘kindness and consideration’ which had been shown to the labouring classes, ensuring their ‘good conduct’ and ‘gratitude’.91 Allusions to the gracious probity of the city’s ladies played an important element in this construction, with references to the ‘innumerable well-dressed females [who] promenaded the field, and were highly amused and delighted with the animated spectacle around them’. The evocation of upright females traversing the festival’s terrain thus contributed to a particular imagining of cohesive, traditional social relations in the post-reform community.

However women also played a far more dynamic role in Canterbury’s public sphere than this suggests. The pamphlet itself was authored by a local woman, Elizabeth Wood, who, since the death of her husband George in 1829, had assumed sole proprietorship of the Kent Herald. She also ran a circulating library in the city and specialized in the production of tracts on liberal political causes such as the protest against tithes and accounts of local elections.92 Her list of the festival’s subscribers revealed a significant level of female contribution, and she herself clearly had privileged knowledge of the day’s planning, referring, for example, to decisions taken by its committees. The evocation of smiling, benign women in her description of the celebration was a discursive ritual. It smoothed their inclusion as political subjects whilst also contributing to the broader affirmation of a harmonious community structure.

(p.181) The narrow cultural formulas deemed acceptable for the representation of women’s public presence could create tensions when women wished to express their own engagement. One angry woman wrote to The Times to protest at the decision of the London Guildhall to exclude women from its reform festivity. Her outrage suggests that she took participation in public events of this kind for granted. In making her case she asserted that ‘the cause of Reform has derived great support from the Ladies’, yet she also appealed to a vision of home-bound domesticity in her claim that women deserved attention as the cause had ‘taken their husbands so many days and hours from their homes and families’. Further tensions in the text derived from the fact that women’s exclusion was due to accusations of their improper behaviour on a former occasion organized by the Guildhall. Although the letter’s author stoutly denied the allegation she felt constrained to make but a modest request for women’s inclusion, asking only that they be permitted entrance as spectators, emphasizing that they had ‘no wish to participate in the less refined part of the entertainment’.93 Whilst this intervention was successful, the letter exemplifies the fragility of women’s position within the reform agitation. It provides a rare acknowledgement that women’s public behaviour could sometimes be deemed raucous and unrestrained, and the consequent importance of ensuring that a female presence could be construed as both docile and marginal. Women commonly supposed that their involvement in reform was a given, but there was ambivalence as to how this might best be conveyed.

The reform crisis and female subjectivities

The reform debate was a crisis of immense proportions. The rejection of the first two reform bills led to mass political mobilization and crisis in government. This had an intensely politicizing effect across the political nation. Contemporaries frequently wrote of their overwhelming preoccupation with the measure. As Mary Shelley declared in October 1831,’the Reform Bill swallows up every other thought’.94 The drama and excitement it generated could revive interest even in those who felt disengaged from the political process. As Charlotte Brontë enthused to her brother, ‘the (p.182) extreme pleasure I felt at the news of the Reform-bill’s being thrown out “by” the House of Lords and of the expulsion or resignation of Earl Grey, &c. &c. convinced me that I have not as yet lost all my penchant for politics’.95 However, the ambivalence of women’s status as political subjects meant that it was a process which could have uneven outcomes. Thus, whilst the Act had the potential to open up new questions concerning female rights, identities rooted in social or economic status often proved more enduring. The Yorkshire landowner, Anne Lister, was piqued that women of property and education were denied political rights in the bill, but ultimately appears to have embraced the fresh opportunities for political influence which aspects of the legislation seemed to facilitate.96

One of the most common reactions to the reform agitation amongst women of the middling and gentry classes was that it reaffirmed a sense of their superior political acumen to that of the local populace. The working classes were repeatedly portrayed as child-like and naïve for their visionary hopes for the measure. Emily Shore, a Bedfordshire gentlewoman, wrote that, despite the raucous celebrations of the local ‘mob’ on the Act’s passage, ‘I do not suppose that any of them understood what they were so noisy about.’97 Mrs Bulwer wrote to her friend Miss Greene that the ‘common people’ appeared to view the reform bill ‘as a sort of patent steam-engine miracle-worker’.98 The commonplace book of Susannah Watts of Leicester contains an extraordinary manuscript, ‘The Assembly of Reformers’ which elaborated such sentiments at length. It depicted the misguided reaction of farmyard animals to the bill’s passage. They believe it will grant them liberty to feed in the richest pastures without fear of trespass. Their utopian dreams are soon dashed as they are captured on their first incursion into the squire’s land. The bullock and the ass are then lectured by the plough boy,’Why the D—l should you meddle, till you’ve reformed yourself?’99 When discussing the political sensibilities of lower-class celebrants, a consciousness of their higher social status provided the most salient matrix of identity for middling and gentry women.

However, this does not mean to say that the reform crisis straightforwardly crystallized women’s sense of their own political identity. It may (p.183) have kindled or vivified a sometimes quiescent political consciousness but this could be difficult to reconcile with self-images of appropriate female behaviour and abilities. This applied even to those women with privileged access to parliamentary politics. As we have seen, the ventilator space in the House of Commons provided a curious site where well-connected women might listen to parliamentary debates and participate in a kind of spectatorship.100 As Elizabeth Galton later recalled, ‘In March the Reform Bill came on again. We went one evening to the Ventilator in the House of Commons to hear the members speak. It was not a pleasant place, being just over the large chandelier, a sort of chimney to it, but it was the only place where ladies could go in the old House of Commons.’101 Remembering the practice decades later Galton situated the experience within a pessimistic narrative of women’s political exclusion. Contemporary accounts of the ventilator suggest more complex experiences.

For some, attending the reform debate may have been viewed as a leisure activity which had little enduring impact. Charlotte Upcher noted: ‘I was present at the passing of the Bill, but do not remember about it [sic].’102 But for others it was clearly an extraordinary experience. Frances Mackintosh, the daughter of MP Sir James Mackintosh, wrote a letter to Sarah Wedgwood from the ventilator during a critical debate. She painted a vivid description of the turbulent scenes in Palace Yard, where angry crowds were gathering. Mackintosh noted mischievously of herself and her companions, ‘since we have been here we hear shouts & noise but nothing very alarming—though we all affect to be in a great fright’.103 The drama of being cooped together within the cramped and dark confines lent an almost gothic air to the scenario and in the thrill of the hour contributed to the playful adoption of the characteristics of feminine alarm. Participants themselves might be aware that this was a strategically adopted position— but it enabled them to feel fully involved in the excitement of the reform agitation. Yet Mackintosh’s letter also revealed more empowering aspects of what she referred to evocatively as ‘bustling Ventilator politics’. Attendance at the debates could reinforce a woman’s sense of her own political acumen. Mackintosh was highly discriminating in her attitudes towards the behaviour (p.184) of the MPs, praising the dramatic speech of the veteran Whig Lord Ebrington.104 She provided her correspondent with details of the speeches and resolutions in favour of reform, and her predictions for the course of the discussion. Observing the debate was not a passive experience but had a marked influence on Mackintosh’s own politics: ‘I am turned into a much warmer reformer by this large majority.’105 Nonetheless, women were acutely aware of their alienation from the ribald culture of the house. Mackintosh was scathing of the schoolboy humour she witnessed. Hearing a ‘violent laugh’, she explains: ‘Mr Somebody fell what a set of idiots they are’. Posing as upright, superior observers was a common stance for women to adopt in the ventilator. As Emma Wedgwood joked in 1832 of her acquaintance, Miss Cardale, she ‘would have been very likely to put her head through & reprove the house of commons’.106

Privileged access to this space enabled Mackintosh to feel closely implicated in the drama of the occasion and to develop her own views on the issues. Her experience affirmed that she was not innately inferior to the professional politicians deliberating the matter—yet the circumstances of their attendance led Mackintosh and her associates to perform a feminine sensibility that underlined their secondary status as political subjects.

The tensions created within individual subjectivities as a result of the sudden politicization wrought by the reform struggle also emerge clearly in the correspondence of the young actress, Frances Kemble. Kemble was from a famous acting dynasty, and during the time of the reform agitation she was an up-and-coming star of the London theatre. Her correspondence paints a vivid portrait of the deep divisions the bill was causing amongst social networks, ‘old friendships are broken up and old intimacies cease; formal cordial acquaintances refuse to meet each other, houses are divided, and the dearest relations disturbed, if not destroyed. Society is become a sort of battle-field, for every man (and woman too) is nothing if not political.’107 Such statements, whilst a dramatization, express a desire to amplify the ways in which national politics were impacting upon individual, affective experiences and convey a wish to write personal and family experiences into (p.185) the narrative of the reform crisis. Kemble’s parenthetic inclusion of women in the last sentence is revealing as to an emergent consciousness of the politicization of women within the drama. However, this had the potential to create conflicts within an individual’s self-narrative. The projection of a particular feminine image was often central to the identity of contemporary women and this might include maintaining an image of detachment from political affairs. Cultivating a normative mode of femininity was likely to be particularly important to Kemble, a budding actress. The result was an intensified assertion of a conservative female identity. Therefore, although her interest in reform progressively increased, she remained diffident as to her ability to express her views. ‘You know I am no politician’, she wrote to one correspondent, ‘and my shallow causality and want of adequate information alike unfit me from understanding, much less discussing, public questions of great importance; but the present crisis has aroused me to intense interest and anxiety about the course events are taking.’108 When writing to the feminist woman of letters, Anna Jameson, Kemble projected a more explicitly political character, explaining ‘I write with rather a sympathetic leaning towards the Tory side of this Reform question’.109 Yet with other correspondents she sought to forestall any impression that she might be knowledgeable or wish to discuss political affairs. ‘I have other things that I care more to write to you about than politics’, she protested to her favourite correspondent, despite giving a detailed and thoughtful account of the existing state of the crisis.110 Despite her apparent disinterest in witnessing a reform procession in March 1831 (and her fear that the reading of the second bill might reduce the audience at her play), Kemble observed the extent to which political events intruded even on the supposedly reluctant, noting the ‘engrossing’ interest the subject had for ‘almost every thinking person throughout the country’.111 A desire to feel involved in an event of such overwhelming national importance could complicate women’s self-identities and result in the articulation of fractured personas. For many women the unstable political subjectivities evoked by the reform crisis were expressed in uneasy shifts between individual and (p.186) collective identities. The pressure to declare allegiance for or against the bill could crystallize family political identities and intensify individuals’ investment in such positions. Many households, particularly in Birmingham and London, turned their homes into a public statement of their politics by placarding notices on their walls proclaiming that they would pay no taxes until the reform bill had been passed.112 The home of Samuel Blackwell, a sugar refiner in Bristol, functioned as a nexus for local campaigning and it was consciously fashioned to advertise the family’s reforming credentials. A huge poster hung in the parlour urging: ‘A long pull! And a strong pull! AND A PULL ALL TOGETHER!’113 For others a commitment to a particular family identity during the crisis was rooted within older models of kinship interest. Edward Bulwer Lytton had to obtain the permission of his mother before standing as a reform candidate.114 Wider family networks were also important. As Davies Gilbert explained to his daughter Kitty of a family friend in 1832, Bella North’s visit would be short as her sister-in-law wished to rally as much support as possible ‘at the ensuing contest’.115 Women were closely identified with the political profile of their male relatives. Thus at an event to mark the ‘glorious cause of reform’ at the Berkshire election, the sight of Mrs Throckmorton, who was from a long-established family in the community, apparently evoked ‘loud and enthusiastic cheering and waving of hats from all parts of the hall’.116

As these varying modes of family political identification remind us, the family (as argued in Chapter 3) was a significant if problematic locus for the articulation of political commitment in our period. This was also reflected in the fact that in their responses to the reform crisis women employed a variety of discursive strategies which transgressed notions of individual subjectivity—often through the construction of what we might term ‘we’ identities. When the pottery magnate, Josiah Wedgwood II, anticipated standing for election in a constituency that was to be newly created by the Act, his wife Elizabeth pronounced, ‘I fully expect that we shall be Members for Stoke upon Trent’.117 On his success she conveyed her elation in the same emphatic terms to her sister, Jessie Sismondi, ‘You will have heard that (p.187) we are come into Parliament for Stoke upon Trent.’118 Wedgwood’s striking sense of her connection with her husband’s political fortunes gives weight to M. J. Peterson’s insight that upper-middle-class women took seriously their role as ‘help-meet’ to their husbands.119 But Wedgwood’s fervour was further stimulated by the long intensity of the reform crisis which galvanized political passions and focused attention on the parliamentary process as never before. ‘We are all agog’, she wrote to her sister of her household’s response to the change in the ministry in 1830; ‘Our spirits are beginning to rise after the shock of the reform bill’, she explained following the bill’s defeat in the House of Lords in October 1831; ‘We are all very much cast down’, she lamented at the fall of the Grey administration in May 1832.

The expression of this collective political voice was facilitated by family rituals—in particular the daily, communal reading of the newspapers which validated their common responses to ongoing political issues. ‘We are all interested exceedingly in public affairs just now’, wrote Wedgwood, ‘and the Newspapers are read with great avidity’. Within such families political identity was frequently conceived not as a question of individual sentiments or activities, but as a corporate phenomenon. As Wedgwood wrote to her sister, Emma Allen: ‘I thank you very much my dear Sister for the warmth with which you have taken up our cause. I am not less warm on yours and if you had come in at Pembroke I should have been consoled for being thrown out at Newcastle’.120

Such positionings do not necessarily reflect fixed or permanent identities. Wedgwood sometimes wished to present more independent political thoughts, particularly in correspondence to her forthright sister, Jessie Sismondi. At the beginning of March 1831 she offered her an analysis as to whether the Lords would be ‘virtuous enough to give up their close Boroughs upon public motives’. Three months later she purchased a ‘frightful little bust’ of Brougham ‘out of my great love and admiration for him’. But Wedgwood was not a sophisticated political thinker, and the incessant debate on the reform bill could sometimes pall. She admitted to Jessie that she was wearied by the reform debates yet was anxious that the bill should succeed, ‘as I suppose Jos will get a seat in Parliament if it passes’. (p.188) She affirmed these sentiments on Josiah’s election, admitting she was ‘not only gratified at seeing that Jo’s character is rated as it ought by his constituents but I cannot help thinking that it will give our children a lift in point of station’.121 Wedgwood’s commitment to the national dimension of the subject may have waned, but she remained closely interested in its implications. Politics could provide the forum for women to further their family interests, as well as pursuing ideological goals.

In families who were not ‘professionally’ involved in politics, women’s identification with the political identities of male family members could be more fragile. Dorothy Wordsworth, younger sister of the poet, William, could confidently write to their friend, one of the Unitarian literati, Henry Crabb Robinson, of ‘the madness of the deluded people’, but listen to the rest of her assessment:

If it were not for the newspapers, we should know nothing of the turbulence of our great Towns and Cities. Yet my poor Brother is often heartsick and almost desponding—and no wonder—for until this point at which we are arrived he has been a true prophet as to the course of events…It remains now for us to hope that Parliament may meet in a different Temper from that in which they parted—and that the late dreadful events may make each man seek only to promote the peace and prosperity of the country.122

Her frequent shifts in pronouns, and the elision between her brother’s sensibilities and those of her own are revealing as to the problems Wordsworth appeared to face in articulating a position as an individual political agent. Despite her evident interest and concern in the unfolding political drama she assumed that the crisis more fundamentally affected men than women, and concluded with upholding the masculine political subject.123

(p.189) Conclusion

The supposition that the Reform Act signified political closure for women long dominated historical scholarship. Whilst references to women in reforming discourse were often fleeting, their continual recurrence is telling. The persistent, yet peripheral, acknowledgement of women as political subjects was symptomatic of their ‘borderline’ status.

Landmark events such as the Reform Act, the Queen Caroline affair, or the French Revolution were intensely politicizing experiences. During such periods individuals might feel themselves to be particularly interested or involved in politics in a manner which did not reflect their engagement in current events during less urgent times. The reform crisis does not provide a ‘snapshot’ of women’s political engagement, for it was an exceptional moment. Rather, it provides insights both into the possible means whereby women might identify with the political process and into the strategic interpellation of women as political subjects.

Nonetheless, there were longer term implications. Judith Lewis has argued that female electoral influence was in marked decline by 1832, but contemporary perceptions were often rather different.124 Indeed, the abolition of most rotten boroughs and the widening of the electorate meant a need for parliamentary candidates to woo a greater proportion of the local population. As noted in Chapter 1, it was from the 1830s that politicians’ appeals and allusions to their female constituents became a common phenomenon. This would accord with recent suggestions that the widening of formal electoral participation enhanced opportunities for women to engage in the political process.125 This was a phenomenon expressed in many female-authored fictional works of the immediate post-reform period. The continuing strength of female electoral influence was delineated, for example, by novelists such as Catherine Gore and Charlotte Bury, whose works continued to engage with the issues the Reform Act raised.126 (p.190) Harriet Martin’s Canvassing, which Maria Edgeworth claimed offered a good account of Irish elections, portrayed women as forming an intricate, if sometimes comical, part of elections—as canvassers, supporters, and spectators.127 A Year at Hartlebury, or the Election published by Benjamin Disraeli and his sister, Sarah in 1834, had references to women’s electoral efforts, including a chapter entitled ‘The Ladies Canvass’.128 George Eliot’s Felix Holt similarly referenced, if ambiguously, the possibility for female interest in the electoral process;129 whilst Elizabeth Sewell’s Katharine Ashton alluded to the community balls organized by local political grandees in the post-reform period. As Sewell explained in her autobiography, such events often had a ‘political purpose which naturally followed upon the extinction of close boroughs and the efforts of parliamentary candidates to become popular’.130

Even so, as we have seen, the Reform Act had uneven implications for women, and its legacy was too complicated for it to be accommodated into narratives of it as a ‘watershed’. The tendency to satirize or make light of women’s electoral efforts in the novels noted above betrays a continuing unease with female public activity. Meanwhile, other genres, such as electoral ephemera, increasingly referred to women as a gendered collective. This was a discursive process which had the effect of reinscribing sensitivities concerning portrayals of female public activity. The intense politicization of the reform crisis galvanized women as it did men and also provided a fresh stimulus for feminist debate; but for those who lacked self-confidence, the cachet of local authority, or close family involvement, the impact of the reform crisis could be particularly ambiguous. Women might feel the need to reassert their political ineptitude, even as their own commentaries undermined such a stance. The fractured subjectivities articulated by the likes of Elizabeth Wedgwood, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Frances Kemble suggest that women often found it hard to sustain coherent political identities in the (p.191) face of these cultural pressures. Moreover, for many contemporaries politics continued to be viewed as a matter of familial, rather than individual concern. The Reform Act may have enshrined the principles of political independence but a study of women’s responses to it suggests a more complex legacy.


(1) Frank O’ Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties (Oxford, 1989); Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel.

(2) Vernon, Politics and the People, 39. See also Catherine Hall, ‘The Rule of Difference: Gender, Class and Empire in the Making of the 1832 Reform Act’, in Ida Blom and Karen Hagemann (eds), Gendered Nations: Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2000), 127. This was a view shared by later suffrage campaigners: Jane Marcus (ed.), Suffrage and the Pankhursts (London, 1987), 132.

(3) For a recent treatment of the ‘watershed’ theme in relation to the Act more widely see John A. Phillips and Charles Wetherell, ‘The Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Political Modernization of England’, American Historical Review, 100 (1995), 411–36, esp. 411–13.

(4) My thanks to Gordon Pentland for drawing this to my attention. In contrast, in some colonial territories, women’s right to vote was explicitly banned, as in Quebec in 1849. Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto, 1950), 216.

(5) Quoted in Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester, 2005), 197. For the later period consult Keith McClelland, ‘England’s Greatness, the Working Man’, in Hall et al., Defining the Victorian Nation, 71–118. A notable recent exception to this trend is Morgan, Victorian Woman’s Place, 127–36.

(6) e.g. Sir Vyvyan’s speech concerning reform focused on the need for MPs to consider the safety of ‘their wives, of their children, of their property’: The Times (23 Apr. 1831). For further examples see Westminster Review, 17 (1832), 255; Hansard, 7 (19 Sept. 1831), col. 206.

(7) J. R. M. Butler, The Passing of the Great Reform Bill (London, 1914), 142; Roger Fulford (ed.), The Greville Memoirs (London, 1964), 79; Abraham D. Kriegel (ed.), The Holland House Diaries, 1831–40:The Diary of Henry Richard Vassall Fox (London, 1977), 38, 82, 103, 143, 179; Guy Le Strange (ed. and tr.), Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey, ii. 1830–4 (London, 1890), chs 4–6; Alice Acland, Caroline Norton (London, 1948), 59.

(8) Denis Le Marchant, Memoir of John Charles Viscount Althorp, Third Earl Spencer (London, 1876), 295–6.

(9) Stuart J. Reid, Life and Letters of the First Earl of Durham, 1792–1840 (London, 1906, 2 vols), i. 257, 343–4.

(10) See above p. 32.

(11) Henry Brougham (Lydia Tomkins), Thoughts on the Ladies of the Aristocracy (London, 1835). Brougham was to be closely connected with the movement to reform the laws relating to women’s property rights: Holcombe, Wives and Property, 62–4, 90–1, 123–4.

(12) E. A. Smith, Reform or Revolution? A Diary of Reform in England, 1830–32 (Stroud, 1992), 75, 90; The Times (19 Dec. 1831 and 10 Apr. 1832).

(13) The Times (6 Oct. 1831).

(14) See below pp. 56–9.

(15) e.g. Monthly Repository, 6 (1832), 637–42; Westminster Review, 21 (July 1829), 266; The Prompter (9 Apr. 1831); Isis (1832), passim.

(16) W. H. Marwick, The Life of Alexander Campbell (Glasgow, 1964), 9.

(17) Morning Chronicle (22 Oct. 1832).

(18) Hill and Hill, Recorder of Birmingham, 115.

(19) Buckingham, Qualifications and Duties, 12; Ralph E. Turner, James Silk Buckingham, 1786–1855: A Social Biography (London, 1934), 329; Butler, Passing of the Great Reform Bill, 151–2. Buckingham was not successful in his role for the government.

(20) Hansard, 14 (3 Aug. 1832), col. 1086.

(21) Hansard, 17 (25 Apr. 1833), col. 666.

(22) Rendall, ‘John Stuart Mill’, 178.

(23) Technically speaking, without this clause it would have been possible for those women who held the requisite property before 1832 to continue to exert electoral influence in burgage boroughs: The Times (10 Nov. 1868). Elizabeth Lawrence’s use of ‘pocket votes’ in the burgage borough of Ripon was challenged in 1833: Leeds Mercury (28 Sept. 1833).

(24) Hall, ‘Rule of Difference’, 125.

(25) Hansard, 6 (27 Aug. 1831), cols 698–9. See also The Times (29 Aug. 1831). Charles Pearson (1793–1862), a lawyer and tireless reformer, was at this time a common councilman for Bishopsgate Ward. He was to play a leading role in the development of the underground railway. ODNB.

(26) The Times (21 Dec. 1831 and 8 Feb. 1832).

(27) A Sketch of the Boston Election, 1830 (Boston, 1830), pp. xv, xix, xx. The ODNB gives Wilks’s career as a ‘swindler’.

(28) Hansard, 6 (27 Aug. 1831), cols 698–9. Sugden (1781–1875), later Lord Chancellor, was a fierce opponent of the Infants’ Custody Act (1839) which gave greater rights to mothers: The Times (13 June 1839). For the implications of reform in Bristol see Jeremy Caple, The Bristol Riots of 1831 and Social Reform in Britain (Lewiston, NY, 1990).

(29) Hansard, 6 (30 Aug. 1831), cols 881–3.

(30) Keele University Library (hereafter ‘Keele’) election broadsides (1831), E4 2984.

(31) Extraordinarily, there were rumours that Miller, who had an awkward public manner and a reputation for eccentricity, was a woman. His family connections to the Christie hat manufacturers presumably helped to seal his success in the borough, many of whose inhabitants depended upon the trade. Sir Daniel Wilson, Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time (Edinburgh, 1892, 2 vols), ii. 122; Hannah Barker and David Vincent (eds), Language, Print and Electoral Politics, 1790–1832 : Newcastle-under-Lyme Broadsides (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY, 2001), p. xxv.

(32) Keele, E4 2969 and 2968.

(33) Hansard, 6 (30 Aug. 1831), cols 885–6. For the wider context of Berkeley’s political position see Adrian Courtenay, ‘Cheltenham Spa and the Berkeleys, 1832–48: Pocket Borough and Patron?’ Midland History, 17 (1992), 93–108.

(34) Hansard, 6 (30 Aug. 1831), col. 910.

(35) Hansard, 10 (7 Feb. 1832), cols 61–3. It is this debate which Catherine Hall discusses. See above pp. 164–5.

(36) Hansard, 12 (7 May 1832), col. 669.

(37) Lord William Russell, A Treatise on the Reform Act (London, 1832), 42–3; Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work, 203; Charles Seymour, Electoral Reform in England and Wales:The Development of the Parliamentary Franchise 1832–85 (Newton Abbot, 1970; originally publ. 1915), 28.

(38) Barker and Vincent, Language, Print and Electoral Politics, 327–8.

(39) Mirror of Parliament (24 June 1835).

(40) Hansard, 9 (26 Jan. 1832), col. 830.

(41) The Times (21 Apr. 1831).

(42) Vernon, Politics and the People, 20. Women were not mentioned in the many debates, see e.g. Hansard, 7 (30 Sept. 1831), cols 879–91; 8 (5 Oct. 1831), cols 56–7; 8 (11 Oct. 1831), cols 486–8; 8 (13 Oct. 1831), cols 697–725; 8 (15 Oct. 1831), cols 807–10.

(43) The Times (7 June 1828). See Robert E. Zegger, John Cam Hobhouse: A Political Life, 1819–1852 (Columbia, Mo., 1973), ch. 6, for full details of the bill.

(44) Hansard, 117 (16 June 1851), cols 843–5; Sandra Petersson, ‘Gender Neutral Drafting: Historical Perspective’, Statute Law Review, 19 (1998), 106–8.

(45) John A. Phillips, The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs: English Electoral Behaviour, 1818–41 (Oxford, 1992), here at 11.

(46) Salmon, Electoral Reform, passim.

(47) Reynolds, Aristocratic Women, 135; Richardson, ‘Role of Women’, 133–51; Hall, ‘Private Persons’, 161.

(48) Nancy LoPatin-Lummis, Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke, 1999), 213n., 168.

(49) C. M. Wakefield, Life of Thomas Attwood (London, 1885), 230–3, 236, 239, 277.

(50) Cecilia Mary Cadell, The Reformer (London, 1832). Cadell, a Roman Catholic, was reasonably prolific in her own day, publishing over ten works in a variety of genres: see e.g. A History of the Missions in Japan and Paraguay (London, 1856) and Summer Talks about Lourdes (London, 1874).

(51) Frances Trollope, The Domestic Manners of the Americans (London, 1832, 2nd edn, 2 vols), i. 172–3.

(52) Ibid., p. vi; Pamela Neville-Sington, Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman (London, 1997), 168–9; Quarterly Review, 47 (1832), 39–80.

(53) Neville-Sington, Fanny Trollope, 170–7, for the book’s reception.

(54) Edinburgh Review (July 1832), 479–526, here at 496, 521.

(55) Gentleman’s Magazine (Apr. 1832), 346.

(56) Quarterly Review, 47 (1832), 39–80. See esp. 39–40, 67–8, 72.

(57) Jane Alice Sargant (1789–1869) wrote numerous publications for the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and her works enjoyed an international audience. In addition to religious tracts, at critical political junctures such as the Queen Caroline affair, the anti-slavery agitation, and proposed reform of the marriage laws, she published grandiloquent pamphlets often under the pseudonym ‘Sinceritas’. Little is known about her life, although her brother, Harry Smith, wrote a popular autobiography: G. C. M. Smith (ed.), The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith (London, 1901).

(58) Sargant, Address to the Females, 4–6, 13.

(59) J. A. Sargant, An Honest Appeal to all Englishmen (London, 1832).

(60) For Sharples’s broader career see Helen Rogers ‘“The Prayer, the Passion and the Reason” of Eliza Sharples: Freethought, Women’s Rights and Republicanism, 1832–52’, in Yeo, Radical Femininity, 52–78.

(61) Isis (3 and 24 Mar., 7 Apr., 19 May 1832).

(62) Martineau, Transcribed letters, HMCO (6 June 1832); see e.g. Monthly Repository, 6 (1832), 371.

(63) A. W. Purdue, ‘Queen Adelaide: Malign Influence or Consort Maligned?’, in Clarissa Campbell Orr (ed.), Queenship in Britain, 1660–1837: Royal Patronage, Court Culture and Dynastic Politics (Manchester, 2002), 267–87; Smith, Reform or Revolution, 85, 88. For further examples see The Times (12, 13,18 April and 22 May 1832); Hansard, 8 (1831), col. 916.

(64) The Times (16 July 1832). His proposal was deemed too expensive.

(65) The Times (7 June 1831); Butler, Passing, 298.

(66) Phillips, Great Reform Bill, 58.

(67) The Times (17 Mar. 1831). Wahrman argues that such formulations were a common feature of the post-1832 cultural landscape: Imagining the Middle Class, ch. 9.

(68) See above pp. 163, 165. There were three elections (summer 1830 following the death of George IV; spring 1831 following the dissolution of parliament; and Dec. 1832–Jan. 1833, after the passage of the Act). The question of reform dominated each.

(69) To the Ladies of the County of Northumberland (North Shields, 1831).

(70) ‘An Address to the Ladies of Warwick from the Borough-Mongering Candidate’ (Oct. 1832),Warwickshire County Record Office, CR1097/330/118.

(71) George Jacob Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (London, 1893, 2 vols), i. 29; original emphasis.

(72) [Agnes Strickland], Rally round your Colours (Halesworth, 1832).

(73) [Mary Cockle], The Banners of Blue (Woodbridge, 1835); Elizabeth Adams, Hurrah for the Hearts of True Blue (Exeter, 1835).

(74) Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, 540 n. 13. This may have been instigated by the Quaker feminist Anne Knight, who was then resident in Chelmsford.

(75) T. H. Duncombe, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (London, 1868, 2 vols), i. 129–30.

(76) Hill and Hill, Recorder of Birmingham, 134.

(77) Morgan, Victorian Woman’s Place, 182–3; Jacques, Merrie Wakefield, 103.

(78) Northumberland General Election: At a Numerous and Respectable Meeting of the Freeholders and Friends of the Hon. H. T Liddell (1830).

(79) Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel, 175.

(80) Revd Patrick Brontë to Mrs Franks (28 Apr. 1831), in Margaret Smith (ed.), The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends, i. 1829–1847 (Oxford, 1995), 106.

(81) M. M. Inglis to Earl Grey (13 Sept. 1834), Borthwick Institute, University of York, Hickleton papers, Halifax/A1/4/67/1–2. For details of the event see E. A. Smith, Lord Grey, 1764–1845 (Oxford, 1990), 1–3.

(82) Elizabeth Wedgwood to Emma Allen (21 Dec. 1832),W/M 39.

(83) See e.g. the practice in Kettering: The Times (25 Dec. 1832).

(84) Hall, ‘Private Persons’, 161.

(85) Frances Kemble to ‘Dearest H’ (c.14 May 1831), in Kemble, Record, iii. 13–14.

(86) Jacques, Merrie Wakefield, 42, 49, 98–100.

(87) The Times (10 Oct. 1831).

(88) The Times (25 May 1832). A further example may be found at The Times (23 May 1832).

(89) The Times (4 May 1831).

(90) For the wider political context see Paul Hastings, ‘Radical Movements and Workers’ Protests to c.1850’, in Frederick Lansberry (ed.), Government and Politics in Kent, 1640–1914 (Woodbridge, 2001), 95–138.

(91) E. Wood, A Brief Outline of the Canterbury Reform Festival, September 4 1832 (Canterbury, 1832).

(92) See her No Tithes (Canterbury, 1829) and The Poll of the Electors for Members of Parliament to Represent the City of Canterbury (Canterbury, 1830).

(93) The Times (25 June 1832). A similar claim was made in a widely circulated article, ‘Ladies and the Reform Bill’, The Times (8 June 1831).

(94) Mary Shelley to Edward Trelawny (2 Oct. 1831), in H. Buxton Forman (ed.), Letters of Edward John Trelawny (London, 1910), 173n.

(95) Charlotte Brontë to Branwell Brontë (17 May 1832), in Smith, Letters, 112.

(96) Liddington, Female Fortune, 45, 47–8. The Chandos clause enfranchised £50 tenants in the counties, a move which was seen as shoring up the landed interest.

(97) Joyce Godber, History of Bedfordshire, 1066–1888 (Luton, 1969), 408.

(98) Mrs Bulwer to Miss Greene (26 June 1831), in Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Life, Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton (London, 1883, 2 vols), ii. 309.

(99) Watts, Scrapbook, LRO, 221. For further discussion of Watts see pp. 147–50 above.

(100) See above pp. 56–9.

(101) Moilliet, Elizabeth Anne Galton, 84.

(102) Pigott, Memoir, 194.

(103) Frances Mackintosh to Sarah Wedgwood (c.1830), W/M 167. See also Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896 (London, 1915, 2 vols), i. 234.

(104) This may refer to Ebrington’s celebrated motion for a vote of confidence in the government which would date the letter to 10 Oct. 1831 when the country was reeling from the Lords’ rejection of the second reform bill. This would accord with the fevered atmosphere and outdoor unrest, although Ebrington also made significant speeches on 10 and 14 May 1832: Butler, Passing, 300, 385–6, 401.

(105) Frances Mackintosh to Sarah Wedgwood (c.1830),W/M 167.

(106) Emma Wedgwood to her sister, Sarah Elizabeth (27 Jan. 1832),W/M 168.

(107) Frances Kemble to ‘Dearest H’ (c.29 May 1831), in Kemble, Record, iii. 30–1.

(108) Frances Kemble to ‘Dearest H’ (c.14 May 1831), ibid. iii. 13–14. My reading here is informed by David Snow, ‘Collective Identity and Expressive Forms’ (1 Oct. 2001), Center for the Study of Democracy, paper 01–07, http://repositories.cdlib.org/csd/01–07.

(109) Frances Kemble to Mrs Jameson (23 Dec. 1831), in Kemble, Record, iii. 143.

(110) Frances Kemble to ‘Dearest H’ (c.29 May 1831), ibid. iii. 30–1.

(111) Frances Kemble to ‘Dearest H’ (c. 14 May 1831), in Kemble, Record, iii. 13–14 and (19 Mar. 1831), ii. 289. The family was facing wider financial pressures from poor revenues in the London theatre at this point: ODNB.

(112) Butler, Passing, 381, 384.

(113) Samuel Blackwell was the father of Elizabeth Blackwell, the pioneering female doctor. Wilson, Lone Woman, 32.

(114) Lytton, Life, Letters and Literary Remains, 310–12.

(115) Davies Gilbert to Catherine Gilbert (Feb. 1832), CRO, Enys of Enys papers, EN 1932.

(116) The Times (11 May 1831).

(117) Elizabeth Wedgwood to her sister, Emma Allen (11 May 1831),W/M 39.

(118) Elizabeth Wedgwood to her sister, Jessie Sismondi (11 Dec. 1832), W/M 74.

(119) Peterson, Family, Love and Work, ch. 6. When Earl Grey was successful in his reform policy his wife received a large volume of congratulatory letters. Butler, Passing, 360.

(120) Letters from Elizabeth Wedgwood to Jessie Sismondi (22 Nov. 1830); to Emma Allen (16 Oct. 1831); to Eliza Roscoe (21 May 1832); to Emma Allen (27 Dec. 1830 and 11 May 1831),W/M 39, 74 and Keele, E28–19991; original emphases.

(121) Letters from Elizabeth Wedgwood to Jessie Sismondi (17 Mar. and 7 Oct. 1831, 11 Dec. 1832), to Frances Allen (4 June 1831), to Emma Allen (18 April 1832), W/M 74 and 68. For a comparable fictional allusion see George Eliot, Middlemarch (Harmondsworth, 1994, 1st publ. 1871–2), 813.

(122) Dorothy Wordsworth to Henry Crabb Robinson (1 Dec. [1831]), in Alan G. Hill (ed.), The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, part ii, 1829–1834 (Oxford, 1979), 460; emphasis added.

(123) For further discussion see Jill Ehnnen, ‘Writing against, Writing through: Subjectivity, Vocation and Authorship in the Work of Dorothy Wordsworth’, South Atlantic Review, 64 (1999), 72–90.

(124) Lewis, Sacred to Female Patriotism, esp. 198–200. For a contrary impression see the sentiments expressed at a Reading reform meeting: The Times (1 Feb. 1831).

(125) Morgan, Victorian Woman’s Place, 132–3; Gleadle, ‘Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’. See also Thompson, ‘Women, Work and Politics’, 76.

(126) Gore, Mrs Armytage, passim, e.g. i. 103–18. In the family drama The Hamiltons Gore offered her own narrative of the reform crisis to deliver an elite Whig message of considered franchise reform: The Hamiltons: Or the New Aera (London, 1834, 3 vols), esp. iii. chs 2 and 4. For the centrality of reform politics and debate to Gore’s and Bury’s novels see Edward Copeland, ‘Opera and the Great Reform Act: Silver Fork Fiction, 1822–1842’, Romanticism on the Net, 34–5 (2004).

(127) Harriet Martin’s novel was published in conjunction with one by John Banim under a collaborative pseudonym: ‘The O’Hara Family’, The Mayor of Wind-Gap and Canvassing (London, 1835, 3 vols), iii. 149, 179–80, 235. Maria Edgeworth to Lucy Edgeworth (6 Feb. 1835), Edgeworth, c. 714, fos. 46–9.

(128) Benjamin Disraeli and Sarah Disraeli, A Year at Hartlebury or the Election with Appendixes by Ellen Henderson and John P. Matthews (Toronto, 1983; 1st publ. 1834, 2 vols), i. ch. 5. See also George Brittaine, The Election (Dublin, 1840), esp. 6, 14.

(129) George Eliot, Felix Holt (Harmondsworth, 1997; 1st publ. 1866), e.g. 266, 282, 288.

(130) Elizabeth M. Sewell, Katharine Ashton (London, 1854, 2 vols), i. 58–9; Sewell, Autobiography, 142.