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I am glad you recommended ‘Gisborne’, for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it.

(See : Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 30th August 1805)

It seems that Jane Austen had a somewhat jaundiced view of Evangelical Anglicans. Cassandra Austen appears to have been more “enthusiastic” or supportive of the movement, but Jane Austen always seems to provide grudging praise or acceptance. As she evinces above where Cassandra has recommended her to read Thomas Gisborne’s book An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex.

This is the title page from the 1813 edition-it was originally printed in 1797.

As a conduct book, Gisborne’s is less censorious than many: he and Jane Austen would appear to have agree on quite a few subjects- for example, gaming in a small way in the country as a pastime  to keep from being bored was considered allowable -just think of the card games we encounter in Mansfield Park.  The superbly stupid game of Speculation (I know,I’ve played it!) being the only one suitable for Lady Bertram’s limited mental cpacity:

What shall I do, Sir Thomas? Whist and speculation; which will amuse me most?”

Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended speculation. He was a whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner.

“Very well,” was her ladyship’s contented answer; “then speculation, if you please, Mrs. Grant. I know nothing about it, but Fanny must teach me.”

Chapter 25

Gaming for great ruinous sums was not. Gamesters like Wickham were beyond the pale.However, I can’t help but think she would not have agreed with his pronoucements on the theatre in general but perhaps she would have been in agreement with his views on private theatricals, given the evidence of the private theatricals in Mansfield Park :

For some years past the custom of acting plays in private theatres fitted up by individuals of fortune has occasionally prevailed. It is a custom liable to prove in its effects, particularly injurious to the female performers. Let it be admitted that theatres of this description no longer present the fragrant impropriety of ladies bearing a part in drama in conjunction with professional players. Let it be admitted that the drama selected will be in its language and conduct and always irrepressible. Let it even be admitted that eminent  theatrical talents will not hereafter gain admission upon a stage for men of ambiguous or worse than ambiguous character. Take the benefit of all these favourable circumstances: yet, what is even then the tendency of such amusements?To encourage vanity; to excite a thirst for applause and admiration on account of attainments which, if they are not thus to be exhibited, it would have been commonly far better for the individual not to posses; to destroy diffidence by the unrestrained familiarity with persons of the other sex, which inevitably results form being joined with them in the drama;to create a general fondness for the perusal of plays of which many are improper to be read; and for attending dramatic representations of which so many are unfit to be witnessed…..

(See Chapter VIII: On Amusements in General pages 95-6)

I thought it might be useful for you to have some details of Gisborne’s life, for he led an interesting one .

Here is Joseph Wright of Derby’s double portrait of Thomas Gisborne and his wife which was painted in 1786, and is now owned by the Yale Centre for British Art.

Thomas Gisborne was born on 31 October 1758, and was the eldest son of John Gisborne and his wife Anne Bateman .The Gisborne family was rather well-to-do. The children were chiefly brought up at Yoxall Lodge in Needwood Forest, some ten miles south of Derby, in Leicestershire, a house which had been a hunting-lodge but which John Gisborne had rebuilt as a comfortable Georgian country house.Though one visitor, Josiah Wedgwood didn’t wholly approve of it:

“it pleases me much but not entirely”

he wrote.

(see See Benedict Nicholson, Thomas Gisborne and Wright of Derby, The Burlington Magazine 1965, pp58-62)

Here is a section from my copy of John Cary’s map of Staffordshire circa 1800, showing the position of Yoxall Lodge in the forest:

Thomas Gisborne’s early career was somewhat outstanding. As a boy he was tutored for six years by Rev. John Pickering, then went to Harrow. In 1776 he entered St John’s College, Cambridge where his lifelong friendship with William Wilberforce began.

Gisborne later recalled :

‘My rooms and his were back to back, and often when I was raking out my fire at ten o’clock, I heard his melodious voice calling aloud to me to come and sit with him before I went to bed’

(See R. & S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce Vol, I, (1838), pp.10-11).

Gisborne left Cambridge as “sixth wrangler” in the Mathematical Tripos, also winning the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for Classics and Sir William Browne’s Gold Medal for a Latin ode. A brilliant career was predicted for Gisborne, and a parliamentary seat was offered to him him. He turned it down, preferring instead to take Holy Orders.

In 1783, the year he was ordained as a priest, Gisborne was presented to the perpetual curacy of the parish of St James, Barton-under-Needwood. The next year he married Mary, daughter of Thomas Babington of Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, and sister of Thomas Babington who had been at St John’s with Gisborne and Wilberforce (Babington was to marry Zachary Macaulay’s sister, and to become the uncle of the yet unborn historian Thomas Babington Macaulay).

Thomas Gisborne settled down with his wife at Yoxall Lodge, inherited from his father a few years earlier, together with a considerable amount of money.

Wright of Derby’s ‘s double portrait of the couple(see above), dated 1786, was painted two years after the Gisborne’s marriage, when Thomas Gisborne was twenty-eight and Mary Gisborne ( who was born in 1760) was twenty-six.

Gisborne was an influential writer on many subjects, some of which were dear to Jane Austen’s heart. In his essay on The Clapham Sect, that band of philanthropists, evangelicals and staunch campaigners for the abolition of slavery, Sir James Stephen included Gisborne (whom he knew) along with Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay and others as members (see Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, (1849)Volume II, pp. 299-307).

Gisborne published his influential pamphlet Remarks on the Decision of the House of Commons on 2 April 1792, respecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, shortly after that debate. His other publications (as listed in the Directory of National Biography) include An Inquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher Ranks and Middle Classes,( 1794 )and Cassandra’s recommendation, An Inquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex,( 1797). He was a learned and eloquent preacher; several volumes of his sermons were published.

Yoxall Lodge, in the heart of Needwood Forest,  with no close neighbours except passing deer, gave the Gisborne family quietness and peace of mind. Gisborne celebrated the beauties of Needwood in his Walks in a Forest, a slim volume of blank verse published in 1795, describing forest scenery at different times of the day and in different seasons. He became deeply interested in natural history and ornithology. Sir James Stephen described Gisborne’s study as:

…a chamber which it might seem no dealer in household furniture has ever been permitted to enter, but where books and manuscripts, plants and pallets, tools and philosophical instruments, birds perched on the shoulder, or nestling in the bosom of the student, or birds curiously stuffed by his own hands, usurped the places usually assigned to the works of the upholsterer (As above page 305)

William Wilberforce became a regular visitor to Yoxall Lodge from about 1794 and he made it his summer residence, arriving with vast amounts of papers, knowing that this was the one place in England where he could digest them in perfect peace (See R.I. & S. Wilberforce ,as above p.278).

Mary Gisborne appears to have been an equally intelligent woman:

When he sat with the family sipping tea, and the words poured forth as his mind jumped from point to point in that bubbling spontaneous thinking aloud which captivated his hearers, she would seize a pad and afterwards present him with her notes See John Pollack, Wilberforce,( 1977)p.145.

Gisborne was himself an amateur artist, as the portfolio he holds in the portrait by Wright , above, suggests; there are examples of his work in the British Museum. He actually became a friend of the Rev. William Gilpin, high priest of the Picturesque and one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers. Gilpin gave ,in my humble opinion, a perceptive account of Gisborne in a letter of 17 September 1792:

. . . You can enter his mind without lock or key. He is a man of considerable fortune; but went into orders, not with any view of preferment but merely, as it appears to me, to have a better pretence to be serious ...

(See Benedict Nicholson, Thomas Gisborne and Wright of Derby, The Burlington Magazine 1965, pp58-62)

A tantalising  aspect of Gisborne’s life in association with Jane Austen, was that he was a close friend  and neighbour of her cousin, the Reverend Edward Cooper.

If you look at this section from  Cary’s map of Staffordshire, you  will note that  Hamstall Ridware ,the living that Edward Cooper held is distant only a few miles form Yoxall Lodge ,and it is perhaps less well known that  Edward Cooper also held a second family living- in 1809 the Leigh family presented him with the living of St Peter’s in the village of Yoxall itself.

Irene Collins in an article on Edward Cooper contained in the Jane Austen Society’s Report for 2008 makes this interesting comment:

At what point Edward Cooper was converted to the cause( of Anglican Evangelicalism -JFW) is not clear. According to his sermons he did not believe that conversion had of necessity to be a sudden  shattering moment of comprehension like St Paul’s on the way to Damascus,and if his own  experience was more reasoned, his arrival at Hamstall Ridware towards the end of 1799 could well have been the key event. Like all movements of thought Evangelicalism took off more readily in some areas than in others and in Staffordshire the climate seems to have been exceptionally favourable. The bishop of Litchfield and Coventry had been one fo Wilberforce’s earliest recruits.The Earl of Harrowby the largest landowner in the county was also on board. Around Hamstall itself there was a nest of Evangelical clergy and above all there was the Reverend thoasm Gisborne living at nearby Yoxall hall, his family home. …He was an important figure in the Evangelical movement  not least because he was a personal friend of Wilberforce who was in the habit of spending  several weeks at Yoxall Lodge during the  parliamentary vactions.Edward Cooper was soon a frequent visitor to the lodge also and by 1802 was on close enough terms with Gisbourne to name his newborn son after him. In 1809 he was to dedicate what became his most successful collection of sermons to theReverend Thomas Gisborne.

Jane Austen and her mother and sister Cassandra famously visited the Coopers in the summer of 1806 after they had visited  Adelstrop in Gloucestershire and Stoneleigh in Warwickshire. Is it too much to speculate that Jane Austen might have met Thomas Gisborne while staying there? Certainly Edward Cooper’s mother in law, Mrs Lybbe Powys appears to have met all the neighbouring clergy and families on her  trips to Staffordshire as recorded in her diaries. I wonder what would have been the result, given that Jane Austen  seems to have agreed with him on some subjects? What a fascinating prospect this is and what a pity Jane and Cassandra were together during that trip for no letters between them therefore were written during this period. The Cooper children became ill during this visit-and that might have restricted Jane Austen’s social visits…..but such a tantalising  prospect!

However, I’m not ultimately surprised that Jane Austen eventually  approved of Thomas Gisborne’s book :he sounds just like her ideal of a clergyman, considering his  preferences for country life rather than town,and a modest way of living. What would have been wonderful to know was if they ever did meet and what she actually thought of him as a person …

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