A Page in the Life of Betty Fothergill: Marriage and Liberty in the Diary of Teenage Girl

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Dr Esther Sahle (@EstherSahle) of the University of Bremen offers us a glimpse of the diary of a young Quaker girl in eighteenth-century London, a manuscript which has been almost entirely neglected by historians.]

On October 19th, 1769, ‘at 6 o’clock in the morning’, and with ‘unspeakable regret’, seventeen-year old Betty Fothergill of Warrington climbed into a carriage bound for London.[1] Contrary to expectation, she ended up having a fantastic time. Spending the winter months visiting relatives in the capital, she recorded her adventures and reflections in a diary. This tells of countless social engagements with cousins and friends. Their main topic of conversation appears to have been their peers’ marriages and marriage prospects. With biting irony Betty dissected the motives – romantic, financial, incomprehensible – behind her friends’ matches. Her commentary on love and marriage at times is reminiscent of Jane Austen.

Yet, in spite of its literary merit, this unusual document has been all but ignored by scholarship. The only publication that draws on it, uses it merely as a source of information on her uncle – the better-known Dr John Fothergill.[2] On the page I have chosen for this post the eminent doctor also makes an appearance. Of interest here, however, is not him, but the young people’s reaction to a suggestion he makes. Betty wrote: ‘My Uncle […] drew us forth into a dispute upon the prerogative of husbands and wives. He insisted upon blind obedience of the latter to the former’. His audience was scandalized: ‘we as strenuously opposed him.’

Picture the scene: the uproar, the talking over each other, the indignation. ‘Well-beloved & respected’ Dr Fothergill, proposing something as objectionable as a wife’s submission to her husband. Then, of course, he admits he was only teasing: ‘After he had diverted us a little, he placed the affair upon a proper footing that there should be no obligation on one side more than another but a mutual endeavour to promote each other’s happiness.’

Married women’s liberty – or lack thereof – is a recurring theme in the diary, as can be seen in the other entries on that page of the diary:

A Cordial drop heaven on our cups as thrown? To make the nauceous draught of life go down.

4th Day.. my Aunt Communicated the intelligence of Cousin Freeman’s going into Yorkshire with a young Man to pay his address to Cos Elsy.. tho he was a person of fortune & Character there is some circumstances that to her Friends will make this union not very desirable_ I had never an opinion of love at first sight which it seems was the case here… as he had never once been in her company or heard her speak… A Capricious prepossession indeed & what I should not chuse much to depend one _ for is not the mind the chief object that constitutes happiness, is into that which gives a pleasing air to the features & manners, & does not it require time to discover these internal beauties… certainly or I have formed a very erroneous opinion of love………… we drank tea at Cos Freemans & went from thence to the young folks quarter meeting_ P.Pitts returnd home with us to stay. Then the next 6th Day… my uncle who delights in making young people chearfull which is the reason he is so generally beloved & respected by them… drew us forth into a dispute upon the prerogative of husbands & wives, he insisted upon blind obedience of the latter to the former, & we as strenously opposed him after he had diverted us a little he placed the affair upon a proper footing, that there should be no obligation on one side more than another, but a mutual endeavour to promote each other happiness. We all concurred in this sentiment, & so the affair was amicably adjusted.

8th Day… soon after breakfast, Prissy Pitts Sis Pristely & myself took a walk into the City… & called at several shops to purchase one odd thing or another… Prissy &…

Betty p20

Under contemporary English law, women, upon marriage, lost the right to own property, enter into contracts, or even make wills. Legal and economic issues were decided by their husbands. As earlier historians put it: ‘Upon marriage, a woman died a kind of civil death.’[3] Betty was herself engaged to become married upon her return to Yorkshire. While she loved her fiancé – ‘that Person who is Dearest to me & in whom all my earthly happiness is centred’ – the loss of independence that would come with marriage looms large in her diary. [4] At a later date, she wrote: ‘…these men! How came I to be entangled with one of them – tho really and impartially my better judgement pleas for a single life […] so this I suppose is the case with other poor women who are cajoled by degrees to lose their liberty and then they have nothing to do but quietly submit.’[5]

During the eighteenth century, celibacy rates among English women dropped. While in the late sixteen-hundreds, almost a quarter of English women never married, a hundred years later only six per cent of them remained single.[6] Interestingly, Quaker women like Betty did the opposite.[7] They married ever less frequently. At the same time, Quaker communities grew increasingly wealthy.[8] Earlier researchers have insisted that if early modern women remained single, this had to be due to a lack of men (sic!). Betty’s concerns, however, suggest otherwise: the reasons may in fact have lain with the women themselves. Comfortably-off (Quaker) girls may have preferred staying on their own. Not wanting to risk their financial independence, they preferred the liberty of singledom to the ‘quiet submission’ marriage would have required.

[1] Library of the Society of Friends, London (Euston), Betty Fothergill, “Diary,” (LSF, 1769-70), p. 1.

[2] Elkinton, J. Russell. “Betty Fothergill and Her Uncle Doctor: An Intimate Glimpse of Dr. John Fothergill.” Annals of internal medicine 85.5 (1976): 637-640.

[3][3] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes : Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (London: Hutchinson, 1987), p.200.

[4] Fothergill, Diary, p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 36.

[6] E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (London: Edward Arnold, 1981). pp. 99, 100.

[7] Richard T. Vann and David Eversley, Friends in Life and Death: The British and Irish Quakers in the Demographic Transition, 1650-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.104; Jeremy Boulton, ‘London Widowhood Revisited: The Decline of Female Remarriage in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,’ Continuity and Change 5, no. 3 (1990).

[8] Esther Sahle, “A Faith of Merchants : Quakers and Institutional Change in the Early Modern Atlantic, C.1660-1800” (Thesis (Ph.D.), London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), 2016, p. 24; Jacob M. Price. ‘The Great Quaker Business Families of Eighteenth-century London: The Rise and Fall of a Sectarian Patriciate”, in The World of William Penn, eds. Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn. Philadelphia: Penn Press, 1986, pp.363-399, p. 384.


9 thoughts on “A Page in the Life of Betty Fothergill: Marriage and Liberty in the Diary of Teenage Girl

  1. Thank you for this.
    I love the quotation ‘ A cordial drop….’!
    One small issue, which I may be wrong about. I think Warrington is in Cheshire, unless there is a small settlement in Yorkshire of the same name.

    • Thanks: We’ve removed the mention of Yorkshire. It was probably the Warrington then in Lancashire but there is some ambiguity, so it seemed best to not claim anything definitely until Esther has had a chance to do further research on the diarist.

  2. Pingback: A Page in the Life | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 49) | www.weyerman.nl

  4. Really interesting and yes it’s funny that scholars assume a woman remains single because ‘she can’t find a man’ … Thoughnone question – really Warrington in Yorkshire? I know there is one in cheshire (used to be Lancashire). Where is it near today?

  5. Amy Froide, Never Married … (Oxford, 2005).
    Bennett and Froide, Singlewomen in the European Past (Chicago, 1998).

    Perhaps not apposite, here, but anyway: reflections on narrative.

    ‘Against narrative’

    Although hyperbole, the quotation from Galen Strawson is intended to advance caution in the presentation of selfhood in narrative form. I suspect that the same circumspection should be adopted in historical writing. The reasons are multiple, but inter-related.

    1 Narrative structure involves excessive coherence. It is informed by hindsight, which promotes a teleological perspective.
    2 As Strawson professes, some people construct their lives through storytelling, but others experience life ‘episodically’: they do not associated one part of their life as being instrumental for the next phase.
    3 Like the narrator in modernist novels, the historical novelist assumes an omniscient position, knowing everything.
    4 The subjective mode allows empathy, but inhibits distance.

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