Jennings, Judith. Gender, Religion, and Radicalism in the Long Eighteenth Century: The 'Ingenious Quaker' and Her Connections

Mary Morris Knowles, embroidery Portrait of George III (after a painting by Zoffany)

This review appeared in The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer, N.S. 22:3 (September 2008): 21-25.

Jennings, Judith. Gender, Religion, and Radicalism in the Long Eighteenth Century: The 'Ingenious Quaker' and Her Connections. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Press, 2006. Pp. 196. ISBN 13:978-0-7546-5500. $99.95.

In Gender, Religion, and Radicalism in the Long Eighteenth Century, Judith Jennings offers an account of the life of Mary Morris Knowles (1733-1807). Jennings's aim is to persuade the reader that Knowles was a highly-respected, influential, and likable woman whose choices in life and friendships reveal her to have been an original thinker who was at once radical in her impulses (if not her acts), and someone who was successful in mixing socially with people powerful by virtue of their rank, wealth, intellect, and social or cultural connections. To be so successful, Knowles had of course to compromise. Jennings' book is valuable as an exploration of how Knowles's gender, her supposed subversive religious affiliation, Quakerism, radical impulses, and her desire to influence others came into conflict with her equally strong drive publicly to support Quakerism as a respected Quaker and be honored and network with people from the King and Queen of England on down to the people in the counting house and on Lombard Street where, to begin her 17-year old son in a money-making career, she placed him and where she lived for a time.

In the first two chapters of Jennings's book, she builds on the work of Amanda Vickery, John Brewer, and Margaret J. M. Ezell, who demonstrated that in the eighteenth century private and public spheres are utterly intertwined, "political participation includes 'developing political attitudes, engaging in political argument, and giving forceful expression to political views" (3), and, given the economic and political realities of print publication and the taboo against women and upper class people publishing, especially in the case of women, much influential and significant political and religious polemic circulated in manuscript. Before Mary Morris married Knowles, she wrote a satirical autobiography (16-23); before and after her marriage, she wrote daringly about her Quaker belief and Quaker norms. When young, she answered "Clericus," a man who was not a Quaker, and whose offer of marriage (although she was "approaching 30 and still unmarried"), she had refused in obedience to the Quaker demand that no Quaker marry outside the group (12-15). While awaiting the birth of her first child, she wrote poetry which shows her coping with a justifiable dread of the coming ordeal (31-32): parturition did go on for a long time of wracking pain; the baby appears to have gone into breach position and was stillborn (32-33). These works typify Knowles's writing and later religious writings and debates (53, 127, 156) in that they either remained wholly unpublished, were published long afterwards (the debate with "Clericus" came sooner than many, 1771) or were copied out into various Quaker manuscript compendiums (38, 156). In addition, while she writes about general religious and political principles, she also writes in reaction to events in her life at the time of writing.

Knowles's best-known debate and writing, upon which Jennings spends Chapters Three and Five (49-68, 99-117), one-half of Chapter Four (82-83, 87-95), parts of Six and Seven (132-35, 139-40, 155-56) and most of her "Conclusion" (166-68, 170-72), also arose from and remained rooted in events affecting Knowles's life. In this famous case, Knowles was partly responsible for the conversion of a young black American woman, Jane Harry (c. 1756-1784), to Quakerism, and Knowles took the young woman into her and her husband's house when her guardian threw her out. Jane Harry was one of two daughters of Thomas Hibbert, an English plantation owner living in Jamaica, by a Jamaican black woman whose name and status remain unknown. Jane and her sister, Margaret, were baptized Anglican, and sent to England to be educated; while at boarding school, Margaret died. Mary Knowles had met Jane at the home of her guardian, Nathanial Sprigg, and consoled the girl and a close relationship sprang up. Probably partly the effect of the girl's whole life experience, but clearly also in response to the immediate loss and her new older, kind and powerfully intelligent woman friend, Jane Harry converted to Quakerism and was then ejected from Sprigg's home. After Jane Harry went to live with Knowles, Knowles helped her find employment as a governess. Jane's father, Hibbert, was outraged and disinherited his daughter; her reaction was to plan to go to Jamaica to persuade her mother to free some slaves her father left her mother; she did not go. Not long afterwards she married a Quaker man, but, alas, by the end of two years she was dead in childbirth.

The debate is famous because it occurred between Knowles and Samuel Johnson, and in front of James Boswell and a group of well-connected writing people, including a publisher, a clergyman, and Knowles' friend, poet and letter-writer, Anna Seward. It was also published in three accounts: first by Knowles in a separate publication before Boswell's Life and repeatedly after each new edition of the Life; by Boswell in his widely-read Life of Johnson, where Boswell also included a footnote implying Knowles's account is full of recently invented details; and by Anna Seward in a letter she first sent to Boswell, which was destroyed by him, but copies of which circulated in manuscript. Seward's letter was published after her death. Jennings goes carefully over Knowles and Seward's accounts; these two agree in revealing that Boswell misrepresented, generalized, and abridged what was said in order to erase the specific ugly demeaning terms and venomous tone with which Johnson passionately denounced Jane Harry. Johnson said he "hated" Jane Harry, and called her "an odious wench" and "a slut" (62, 64, 67). Knowles presents the exchange as arising from and continuing to be a debate on womens' capacity for using their liberty intelligently, and thus their right to decide what religion they will profess. Knowles has it she defended women's right (in effect) to chose a life and meaning for themselves and the religious principles of Quakerism so well that she succeeded in making Johnson look ridiculous. Jane Harry is merely the example they are using. In Knowles's account her ability to remain self-possessed and appear "mild" drives Johnson into bullying denunciations of quakerism, mockery of the idea Jane Harry could have understood what she was doing, and adament assertions that it was the duty of a woman to remain in the church in which she had been born (61-67).

In contrast, in Boswell's version (see James Boswell, Life of Johnson [Unabridged], ed. R. W. Chapman [London: Oxford, 1970]:942-52), although Knowles first brings up the question of women's liberty and defends this against Johnson's strictures, Johnson does not become excited until confronted by Knowles and Seward's serene (and provocatively irritating) acceptance of death, and it is then a quarrel breaks out and the talk leads to Jane Harry as part of an argument about religious beliefs. Johnson is presented as emphasizing the danger and risk of going to hell (for the person's soul) when individuals take it upon themselves to choose their religion, after which he does (unaccountably) "attack the young proselyte [Harry] in the severest terms of reproach, so that both ladies seemed to be much shocked." Seward alone makes Jane Harry herself the center of the argument. She presents Knowles as beginning it by asking Johnson who had apparently been courteous and kind to the girl hitherto, to forgive her and be friendly again; and she has Knowles throughout pleading for the girl so persistently ("Jenny is the most timid creature breathing ... she grieves to have offended her Guardian") that Johnson bursts forth by warning Knowles against "pester[ing] me about the ridiculous wench." Knowles does not desist: "Suppose her ridiculous, she has been religious and sincere," and they exchange retorts over who can get past the gate of Heaven. Seward writes that she omitted "a long theological dispute" in which Knowles distinguished herself, and which occurred after or as a result of the fierce quarrel about Harry (90-93)1.

Jennings is concerned that Boswell's account and particularly his footnote have been terribly damaging to Knowles's subsequent reputation among those who remembered her (166-70). Jennings writes her book as a rescue operation and presents Knowles's account as the accurate one. In the parts of the book not about this matter and its presentation (by yet others), Jennings retells Knowles's life to show her forming important connections (53-54). Knowles is presented as maintaining a wide circle of influential friends (85-86), partly in order to exemplify a lifestyle and way of dress socially appealing to non-Quakers, one which was though barely acceptable to her fellow Quakers (127-30, 173). She wrote defenses of worldly behavior and dress aimed at Quaker and non-Quaker audiences (123-27), and "tested the limits" allowed Quakers in public by, for example, participating in Lady Miller's Batheaston salon and poetry competitions (81-82). Jennings emphasizes how independent (130) Knowles was: Knowles was pro-active on her husband's behalf and financially successful to the point where it may be said she was responsible for her husband's education and success as doctor (41-42). Knowles exercised political influence on behalf of other Quakers and against slavery (105-6) and "negotiated" challenges to Quakerism, like the American revolution (the Quakers were pacifists, 83). She also remained openly sympathetic to the principles of the French revolution (130-31), which (among other things) cost her Anna Seward's friendship (131-32). There is a full account of Knowles's needlework portraiture of King George and herself, the impressive amount of money the king and queen paid her (?800), how she introduced her son to them (73), and Knowles' place in women's art history (34-39, 138). In Jennings's book, Knowles's only flaw is that throughout her life Knowles made it publicly clear she did not extend to Jewish people and Catholics the toleration she wanted for Quakers (66, 84, 116, 125-26).

Jennings's book sometimes loses sight of Knowles's inner life and leans heavily on small incidents to prove that Knowles was influential. She responds to the shallow norms of conventions used to attack Knowles as if these attacks had validity. Jennings takes seriously cliched stereotypical anti-feminist accusations still with us, especially in the case of educated women, e.g., Knowles was untidy, lax in her dress and hairdo (28); Jennings insists Knowles "and her husband enjoyed a comfortable home ... whatever her domestic oddities" (34). Jennings's defensiveness extends to an insistent pious perspective on Knowles as a mother: "while Knowles discussed politics with Seward, she did not neglect the emotional needs of her teenage son" (107). She will discuss as significant evidence of recognition of Knowles as an important writer four verses Knowles wrote and afixed to a tobacco box!(105-6), but Jennings does not show how Knowles's tenacious adherence to Quakerism nor inward conflicts arose from the nightmare injustices in Knowles' family history, surely more important. Since Knowles's great-grandfather and great-grandmother were quakers, they were both thrown into prison and left to die (in 1652, and 1685 respectively). Her grandfather and grandmother were imprisoned for a considerable time, had to live under limited toleration for the rest of their lives, and experienced the difficulty of trying to earn a living while following Quaker practices (7-9). In the early eighteenth century, Knowles's mother and father were able to assimiliate in their communities more and became more prosperous, but had then had to deal with repressive demands and manipulative techniques set up to maintain strict conformity among the Quakers themselves. For example, her father helped a friend defy a demand that the friend state his intention of marrying before an assembled group of Quaker men who disappeared before he could obtain their permission (9-11). I would have liked some exploration of the inward trajectory which shows how radical or Protestant religion can lead to feminism, abolitionism, and progressive ideals and some attempt at presenting these things conflicting within Knowles (such as we find done for Mary Wollstonecraft in Barbara Taylor's Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, which Jennings cites more than once). Then Knowles's behavior in death would have been less a surprize: when Knowles died, she suffered from guilt over her unwillingness after she became a wealthy widow to spend any money in charities, and from intense doubts in which she berated herself for how she had spent her life (158-61).

Mary Morris Knowles has apparently hitherto been written into historical records as a learned female Quaker artist who made startling good needlework paintings, and a clubbable conversationalist, who nonetheless until her death inexplicably or out of vanity persistently pressured Boswell and anyone else responsible for printing the Life of Johnson to alter Boswell's account of an intense quarrel she had with Johnson. In Judith Jennings's exemplary life of Mary Morris Knowles, the reader comes into the presence of a complicated and courageous woman whose generous and bold efforts on Jane Harry's behalf seem of a piece with most of her life's decisions and writing.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University

Joshua Reynolds, 1723-95, Theophila Palmer Reading Clarissa 1771 (another young 18th century woman, Reynolds's niece, presumably luckier than Jane Harry)

1In a correspondence I had with the editor of the Intelligencer I wrote as follows:

I am struck by how Johnson left nothing in print about any of this. I looked in an index in an excellent if older edition of letters by Johnson and found only the most neutral description of Knowles by him (to Mrs Thrale, Th, 16 May '76). My edition is an older one (3 volume Chapman, good in its time, very readable but not what I should quote were I to quote the letter in a published review) and I didn't go further; I relied on Jennings and since she had not mentioned anything written by Johnson I assumed there was nothing more by Johnson than this brief 3 sentence description:

"And there was Mrs Knowles the Quaker that works the sutile picures, who is a great admirer of your conversation. She saw you at Mr Shaw's, at the election time. She is a Staffordshire woman, and I am to go and see her. Staffordshire is the nursey of art ..."

Reading this I wondered if Johnson remembered the incident Boswell and others made so much of at all. What if anything had it meant to him? How long had it really gone on for? Here in Jennings are descriptions of 3 different long descriptions of the argument which portray Johnson unflatteringly, but nothing by him to say what was his experience, what he saw and felt, and from his point of view what was said. I don't say these witnesses misrepresent, but I remember (to take a home-ly example) how often when I was in England I'd receive a letter from my father and mother describing the same event, where I could see how she saw so little of what he had and missed so much. To me the incident and write-ups, and "terribly damaging footnote" reinforced my agreement with Donald Greene that we should constantly remember how we are allowing others to speak for Johnson as if we had Johnson himself before us in all these descriptions when we don't. To me Boswell's anecdotes often seem radically de-contextualized; from what Jennings said, Knowles did not give the personal background to the quarrel, just presented it as about high principles.

Jennings is concerned over Knowles's reputation and the power and influence of Boswell's Life of Johnson. I admit to more interest in Johnson, and the effect of biographies on the life as we know it of their subjects. To me Seward's version seems the most accurate one, but of course memory is treacherous and we can remember only what we have observed and that is the function of what we can see and how we see it. So to my mind Jane Harry is at the center of this though no one of the three except Seward and her briefly makes this plain. Johnson was shouting "odious wretch" and (according to Seward, not Boswell or Knowles) Knowles began by trying to get Johnson to be kind and courteous and accept Jane Harry again, and Johnson would not. Really we cannot know what troubled and distressed and angered Johnson so. His pride may have been bothered during the discussion, but what was his original response to this young girl's leaving her relatives for the liberty she gained by living with people not related to her? The norms of family life at the time might have been so assumed that no one broaches the topic explicitly; the sore topic was that this girl had been a slave, owned & subject to control and exploitation in an explicit way a even a biological child at that time could not be.

The editor suggested to me my remarks were worth printing out so I have put them here as a footnote to the review. He also told me that "the index to Bruce Redford's five-volume The Letters of Samuel Johnson shows there is just the one remark by Johnson on Knowles. Redford's note gives a minimal identification of Knowles as wife of Rev. Th K. (1723-1802), Rector of Ickworth, Suffolk, . . . "a highly accomplished needlewoman--so accomplished that Q Charlotte had commissioned from her tapestry portraits of the King and the young princes (Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. Charles Ryskamp and F. A. Pottle, 1963, p. 350)." and then comes a reference to an Idler remark on subtile needlework without ref to Knowles (II [Princeton UP, 1992], 332, n. 8.)

The transcription of the discussion of Knowles is closely similar to that found in Chapman: "And there was Mrs. Knowles the Quaker that works the sutile pictures, who is a great admirer of your conversation.8 She saw you at Mr. Shaw's, at the election time. She is a staffordshire Woman, and I am to go and see her. Staffordshire is the nursery of arts, where the[y] grow up till they are transplanted to London." .

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