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. Continue reading

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