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“during a tempestuous night”
The very finest powers of intellect, and the proudest specimens of mental labour, have frequently appeared in the more contracted circles of provincial society. Bristol and Bath have each sent forth their sons and daughters of genius.
—Mary Robinson, “Present State of the Manners, Society,etc. etc. of the Metropolis of England”
Horace Walpole described the city of Bristol as “the dirtiest great shop I ever saw.” Second only to London in size, it was renowned for the industry and commercial prowess of its people. “The Bristolians,” it was said, “seem to live only to get and save money.”1 The streets and marketplaces were alive with crowds, prosperous gentlemen and ladies perambulated under the lime trees on College Green outside the minster, and seagulls circled in the air. A river cut through the center, carrying the ships that made the city one of the world’s leading centers of trade. Sugar was the chief import, but it was not unusual to find articles in the Bristol Journal announcing the arrival of slave ships en route from Africa to the New World. Sometimes slaves would be kept for domestic service: in the parish register of the church of Saint Augustine the Less one finds the baptism of a Negro named “Bristol.” Over the page is another entry: Polly—a variant of Mary—daughter of Nicholas and Hester Darby, baptized July 19, 1758.2
Nicholas Darby was a prominent member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, based at the Merchants’ Hall in King Street, an association of overseas traders that was at the heart of Bristol’s commercial life. The merchant community supported a vibrant culture: a major theater, concerts, assembly rooms, coffee houses, bookshops, and publishers. Bristol’s most famous literary son was born just five years before Mary. Thomas Chatterton, Wordsworth’s “marvellous Boy,” was the wunderkind of English poetry. His verse became a posthumous sensation in the years following his suicide (or accidental self-poisoning) at the age of 17. For Keats and Shelley, he was a hero; Mary Robinson and Samuel Taylor
Coleridge both wrote odes in his memory.
Coleridge himself also developed Bristol connections. His friend and fellow poet Robert Southey, the son of a failed linen merchant, came from the city. The two young poets married the Bristolian Fricker sisters, and it was on College Green, a stone’s throw from the house where Mary was born, that they hatched their “pantisocratic” plan to establish a commune on the banks of the Susquehanna River.
Mary described her place of birth at the beginning of her Memoirs. She conjured up a hillside in Bristol, where a monastery belonging to the order of Saint Augustine had once stood beside the minster:
On this spot was built a private house, partly of simple and partly of modern architecture. The front faced a small garden, the gates of which opened to the Minster-Green (now called the College-Green): the west side was bounded by the Cathedral, and the back was supported by the antient cloisters of St. Augustine’s monastery. A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful meditation can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.
She was born in a room that had been part of the original monastery. It was immediately over the cloisters, dark and Gothic with “casement windows that shed a dim mid-day gloom.” The chamber was reached “by a narrow winding staircase, at the foot of which an iron-spiked door led to the long gloomy path of cloistered solitude.” What better origin could there have been for a woman who grew up to write best-selling Gothic novels? If the Memoirs is to be believed, even the weather contributed to the atmosphere of foreboding on the night of her birth. “I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered. The wind whistled round the dark pinnacles of the minster tower, and the rain beat in torrents against the casements of her chamber.” “Through life,” Mary continued, “the tempest has followed my footsteps.”3
The Minster House was destroyed when the nave of Bristol Minster was enlarged in the Victorian era, but it is still possible to stand in the courtyard in front of the Minster School and see the cloister that supported the house in which Mary was born. And next door, in what is now the public library, one can look at an old engraving which reveals that the house was indeed tucked beneath the great Gothic windows and the mighty tower of the cathedral itself.
The family had Irish roots. Mary’s great-grandfather changed his name from MacDermott to Darby in order to inherit an Irish estate. Nicholas Darby was born in America and claimed kinship with Benjamin Franklin.4 As a young man he was engaged in the Newfoundland fishing trade in St. John’s. His daughter described him as having a “strong mind, high spirit, and great personal intrepidity,” traits that could equally apply to herself.5
Mary was always touchy about issues of rank and gentility. In her Memoirs she took pains to emphasize the respectability of the merchant classes. Her father had some success in cultivating the acquaintance of the aristocracy: in an unpublished handwritten note, Mary remarked with pride that “Lord Northington the Chancellor was my Godfather” and that at her christening “the Hon Bertie Henley stood for him as proxy.”6
Mary’s mother, Hester, née Vanacott, made a romantic match with Nicholas Darby when she married him on July 4, 1749 in the small Somerset village of Donyatt. Hester was a descendant of a well-to-do family, the Seys of Boverton Castle in Glamorganshire, and a distant relation (by marriage) of the philosopher John Locke. Vivacious and popular, she had many suitors, and her parents would have expected her to marry into a landed family. They did not approve of her union with Darby.
In 1752, three years after their marriage, Nicholas and Hester had a son, whom they named John.7 A daughter called Elizabeth followed in January 1755. She died of smallpox before she was 2 and was buried in October 1756. It was a great comfort to Nicholas and Hester when Mary was born just over a year later, on November 27, 1757.*
In the days before vaccination, smallpox was a lethal threat to children. The disease took not only the infant Elizabeth, but probably also a younger brother, William, when he was 6. Another younger brother for Mary, named George, fared better: he and John both grew up to become “respectable” merchants, trading at Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy.
Hester soon found that she had entered into an unhappy union. Nicholas spent much of his time in Newfoundland on business. By 1758, he was putting down roots there, joining with other merchants in an enterprise to build a new church. He returned to Bristol for the winter months, but he can only have been a shadowy presence in his daughter’s early life.
The Darby boys were extremely handsome, with auburn hair and blue eyes. Mary took after her father; she described her own childhood looks as “swarthy,” with enormous eyes set in a small, delicate face. She was a dreamy, melancholy, and pensive child who reveled in the gloominess of her surroundings in the minster. The children’s nursery was so close to the great aisle that the peal of the organ could be heard at morning and evening service. Mary would creep out of her nursery on her own and perch on the winding staircase to listen to the music: “I can at this moment recall to memory the sensations I then experienced, the tones that seemed to thrill through my heart, the longing which I felt to unite my feeble voice to the full anthem, and the awful though sublime impression which the church service never failed to make upon my feelings.” Rather than playing on College Green with her brothers she would creep into the minster to sit beneath the lectern in the form of a great eagle that held up the huge Bible. The only person who could keep her away from her self-imposed exile there was the stern sexton and bell-ringer she named Black John, “from the colour of his beard and complexion.”8
As soon as she learned to read, she recited the epitaphs and inscriptions on the tombstones and monuments. Before she was 7 years old, she had memorized several elegiac poems that were typical of the verse of the eighteenth century. Her taste in music was as mournful as her taste in poetry.
Mary confessed that the events of her life had been “more or less marked by the progressive evils of a too acute sensibility.” One thinks here of Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, with its satirical portrait of the ultra-sensitive Marianne Dashwood: she bears more than a passing resemblance to the melancholy young Mary Darby, quoting morbid poetry and thoroughly enjoying the misery of playing somber music and being left in solitary contemplation. As a writer, Mary was always acutely aware of her audience: her image of herself in the Memoirs as a child of sensibility was designed to appeal to the numerous readers of Gothic novels and sentimental fiction. At the same time, her self-image appealed to the romantic myth of the writer as a natural genius who begins as a precociously talented but lonely child escaping into the world of imagination.
Though Mary presented herself as a “natural” genius, she was the beneficiary of improvements in education and the growth of printed literature aimed at a young audience. This was a period when private schools for girls of middling rank sprang up all over England. Bristol was the home of Hannah More, playwright, novelist, Evangelical reformer, and political writer. Though Hannah became famous for rectitude and Mary for scandal, their lives were curiously parallel: born and bred in Bristol, each of them had a theatrical career that began under the patronage of David Garrick, and each then turned to the art of the novel. In the 1790s they both became associated with contentious debates about women’s education.
Mary attended a school run by Hannah More and her sisters. An upmarket ladies’ academy, it had opened in 1758 in Trinity Street, behind the minster, just a few hundred yards from Mary’s birthplace. The curriculum concentrated on “French, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Needlework.” A recruitment advertisement added that “A Dancing Master will properly attend.”9 The school was immensely popular and four years later moved to 43 Park Street, halfway up the hill toward the genteel district of Clifton. When Mary Darby attended, the enrollment had risen to sixty pupils. Each of the More sisters took responsibility for a different “department” of the curriculum, with—in Mary’s words—“zeal, good sense and ability.” The earnest and erudite Hannah “divided her hours between the arduous task ‘of teaching the young ideas how to shoot,’ and exemplifying by works of taste and fancy the powers of a mind already so cultivated.”10
In the summer of 1764 Bristol was in the grip of theater mania. The famous London star William Powell played King Lear with a force said to rival that of the great Garrick himself. Within two years Powell was combining management with performance at a new building in the city center. The first theater in England to be built with a semicircular auditorium, it had nine dress boxes and eight upper side boxes, all inscribed with the names of renowned dramatists and literary figures.
The highlight of the first season in this new Theatre Royal was another King Lear, with Powell in the lead once again and his wife, Elizabeth, playing Cordelia. Powell had become very friendly with Hannah More, and she wrote an uplifting prologue for the performance. The whole school turned out for the play. It was the 8-year-old Mary Darby’s first visit to the theater. She vividly remembered the “great actor” of whom Chatterton said, “No single part is thine, thou’rt all in all.”11 She was less taken by the performance of his wife, who played Cordelia without “sufficient éclat to render the profession an object for her future exertions.”12 Among Mary’s school friends were Powell’s two daughters and the future actress Priscilla Hopkins, who would later become the wife of John Kemble and sister-in-law of Sarah Siddons, the most famous actress in Britain. The girls developed a passion for theater together.
Hannah More continued to be fascinated by the theater. She wrote a pastoral verse comedy called The Search after Happiness, which was acted by the schoolgirls. It advocates a doctrine of female modesty and submission that would be echoed in the anti-feminist tracts she wrote in later life. One of the characters is an ambitious girl who longs to “burst those female bonds, which held my sex in awe” in order to pursue fame and fortune: “I sigh’d for fame, I languished for renown, / I would be prais’d, caress’d, admir’d, and known.” It is tempting to see the young Mary Darby playing this part, and hearing her aspirations rebuked by another character: “Would she the privilege of Man invade? . . . / For Woman shines but in her proper sphere.”13
By the end of the century Hannah More had turned herself into one of the most formidable conservative propagandists of the age. She deeply resented her connection with her old pupil, the infamous Perdita. That one of the most reviled women of the era was taught by one of the most revered was an irony not lost on the bluestocking Mrs. Thrale: “Of all Biographical Anecdotes none ever struck me more forcibly than the one saying how Hannah More la Dévote was the person who educated fair Perdita la Pécheresse.”14 Mary, in turn, made it abundantly clear that her literary gifts owed little debt to Hannah and her sisters. She stressed that the education she received from the school was merely in feminine accomplishments of the sort that were required for the marriage market. Women were expected to be ornaments to society and, once married, to be modest and retiring creatures confined to the domestic sphere rather than competing with men in the public domain.
As the daughter of a prosperous merchant, Mary benefited from the privileges that could be bought by new money. The distinguished musician Edmund Broderip taught her music on an expensive Kirkman harpsichord bought by her father. The family moved to a larger, more elegant house as Nicholas Darby, keen to show off the fruits of his upward mobility, insisted upon living like a gentleman, buying expensive plate, sumptuous silk furniture, foreign wine, and luxurious food, displaying “that warm hospitality which is often the characteristic of a British merchant.”15 He ensured that his daughter lived in the best style. Her bed was of the richest crimson damask; her dresses, ordered from London, were of the finest cambric. The family spent the summer months on gentrified Clifton Hill in order to benefit from the clearer air. Darby’s appetite for “the good things of the world” would be inherited by his daughter.
Mrs. Darby, meanwhile, provided emotional security. Unlike many of the other girls at the More sisters’ school, Mary never boarded: she did not “pass a night of separation from the fondest of mothers.” In retrospect, she considered herself overindulged, suggesting that her mother’s only fault was “a too tender care,” a tendency to spoil and flatter her children: “the darlings of her bosom were dressed, waited on, watched, and indulged with a degree of fondness bordering on folly.”16 Given that Nicholas Darby was absent abroad for much of the time, it is not surprising that Hester threw so much into her children. Mary implies that an absent father and an indulgent mother proved a dangerous combination for a headstrong girl like herself.