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History's Neglected Women

History's Neglected Women

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Published by James Watson
This article is based on researches James Watson has been conducting in to the lives of 19th century radical editors and journalists such as William Cobbett, Richard Carlile and Henry Hetherington; in preparation for his play for voices, Out Damned Spot!
Only modest attention has been paid to the radical women of the period such Carile's wife Jane and his sister Mary-Anne, or the feisty Susannah Wright who defied the courts when they tried to silence her.
The most famous of the radical women was the beautiful Eliza Sharples. She had fallen in love with Carlile, followed him from her home in Bolton to London and became his spokesperson while he was in jail for the banned content of his publications.
Soon Eliza's speeches on women's rights and the freedom of speech at London's Rotunda made her a star in her own right. She adopted the guise of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, and the crowds flocked to see and hear her.
The bravery and resolution of the radicals, men and women, paved the way for freedom of speech in Britain; though it is a matter of debate whether they would be impressed by the inroads into freedom which have occurred as a result of government legislation during the last decade.
This article is based on researches James Watson has been conducting in to the lives of 19th century radical editors and journalists such as William Cobbett, Richard Carlile and Henry Hetherington; in preparation for his play for voices, Out Damned Spot!
Only modest attention has been paid to the radical women of the period such Carile's wife Jane and his sister Mary-Anne, or the feisty Susannah Wright who defied the courts when they tried to silence her.
The most famous of the radical women was the beautiful Eliza Sharples. She had fallen in love with Carlile, followed him from her home in Bolton to London and became his spokesperson while he was in jail for the banned content of his publications.
Soon Eliza's speeches on women's rights and the freedom of speech at London's Rotunda made her a star in her own right. She adopted the guise of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, and the crowds flocked to see and hear her.
The bravery and resolution of the radicals, men and women, paved the way for freedom of speech in Britain; though it is a matter of debate whether they would be impressed by the inroads into freedom which have occurred as a result of government legislation during the last decade.

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Published by: James Watson on Dec 20, 2009
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WATSONWORKSJames Watson
HISTORY’S NEGLECTEDWOMEN
 Apart from the pleasure of happening upon newknowledge, researching for a book, whether fictionor non-fiction, springs memorable surprises.Currently I’ve been reading up on 19th centuryradical editors and journalists for a five-part play forvoices,Out Damned Spot!Such radical wordsmiths as William Cobbett, RichardCarlile, Henry Hetherington, Bronterre O’Brien, John Cleave, James Watson (norelation, alas) and George Julian Harney were men of unbounded resolutionfacing, throughout their professional lives, the most brutal censorship.They faced prison sentences, bankrupting fines, the seizure of their presses,type-founts and stocks of paper. Not only were the producers of the radicalpress persecuted by successive Tory and Whig governments for evading StampDuty, those who sold their papers – the hawkers – also faced imprisonment ortransportation to Botany Bay.
Women in the thick of it
What has tended to be overlooked is the role and contribution of women in theso-termed War of the Unstamped and in the Chartist campaign for the reformof the British Parliament. Notable among these stalwarts of liberty were JaneCarlile, first wife of Richard Carlile, and his sister Mary-Anne.When Richard was thrown into jail for publishing the works of Thomas Paine –the Rights of Man and The Age of Reason – Jane and her sister-in-law took onthe editorial, management and distribution responsibilities of the Republican.In 1921 Jane in her turn was charged and sentenced. She ended up joining herhusband in Dorchester Jail. Mary-Anne carried on the family business –campaigning against monarchy, the established church and demandingparliamentary reform.
O Susannah!
Among Richard Carlile’s shopmen and women and the hawkers of hispublications, was another remarkable woman – Susannah Wright. The wife of aNottingham bookseller, she was one among scores of volunteers who ralliedround the radical editors and defied the government spies who were asnumerous as modern-day CCTV cameras.
 
Susannah was subjected to a charge of blasphemy in 1821. Such were thepassion and articulacy demonstrated in her first court appearance that on herreturn to court she was greeted by cheering crowds. Leaving her baby in safehands, Susannah challenged the validity of both the charges against her and thestatus of the court which dared obstruct an Englishwoman’s right to freedom of speech.‘I should enjoy even a dungeon,’ she declared, ‘in advocating such a cause asthat in which I am engaged…I am bold to tell these persecutors, they nevercan, they never will, put down these publications.’
Love at first sight
 If Susannah Wright became a celebrity, Eliza Sharples was to become a star. OnCarlile’s release from jail, he toured the country condemning the imprisonmentof his friend, the Reverend Robert Taylor, nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’. Inthe audience for Carlile’s visit to Bolton in Lancashire was a highly intelligent,highly impressionable and strikingly beautiful young woman, ElizabethSharples.Privately educated, the daughter of a counterpane manufacturer, and the issueof a strict Methodist family, Eliza listened, took note – and fell passionately inlove with Carlile. After corresponding with him, she headed for London,bewildering this middle-aged man with an ardour he could scarcelycomprehend in a woman 14 years his junior.Soon they were lovers. By this time the marriage of Jane and Richard hadcooled, in part due to the stressful experience of sharing prison quarters atDorchester. Though displaced, Jane never relented in her support for Carlileand the cause to which they had dedicated their lives. As for Eliza, she becameCarlile’s pen and his voice during his next term of imprisonment, and self-confessedly his ‘disciple’.
The Lady of the Rotunda
Carlile and Taylor had together established at the Rotunda in London’sBlackfriars Road a centre for meetings and debate. Carlile’s currentpublication, the Prompter (renamed after being called the Lion), had givenrousing support to protests about pay and working conditions by agriculturalworkers. This provoked the wrath of the Whig government. Carlile was swiftlyback in jail, at the Giltspur Street Compter.Eliza became her lover’s conduit to the free world. At first, the speeches shedelivered at the Rotunda were composed by Carlile, but soon she stepped outof his shadow: her beauty, elegance, passion and radicalism, especially heradvocacy of equality for women, drew the crowds.She was no longer Eliza but Isis, after the Egyptian goddess of fertility andwisdom. She was also referred to as Eve, as Liberty and, less optimistically, asHypatia, a Greek philosopher and martyr raped and murdered by the Romans.
 
Till superstition is extinct
At the Rotunda Eliza dispensed the poetical as well as the political, standing ona floor of white thorn and laurel. In her first address, she urged the womenpresent to ‘seek that equality in human society which nature has qualified usfor, but which tyranny, the tyranny of our lords and masters, hath suppressed’.The Prompter became Isis. The May 1834 folio volume of the periodical Elizadedicated ‘To the Young Women of England for Generations to come, or untilsuperstition is extinct’. She declared that human society would not improve‘until women participate in an equality of knowledge’. She signed off with thedesignation EDITRESS.A grateful Carlile said of her, ‘Such a lady shall be my daughter, my sister, myfriend, my companion, my wife, my sweetheart, my everything’. Eliza workedclosely with the Female Society, also known as the Friends of the Oppressed,established in 1932. She saw women’s oppression at the hands of husbands as aparallel to the working class’s oppression by a government unrepresentative of British society: ‘If we cannot be your rational companions, we will not be yourslaves’.
Falling star
 Eliza bore three children to Carlile, and it was one of her two daughters,Theophilia, who eventually wrote her father’s biography. Crippled by debts andincreasing poor health, Richard Carlile died in 1843.The Lady of the Rotundawas no more, faced as she was by unremitting poverty: Isis had becomeHypathia.Yet Eliza Sharples Carlile was to continue serving the cause of humanity, givingthe young radical Charles Bradlaugh a home after his family had disowned him.Bradlaugh described Eliza as ‘quiet and reserved…who had her ardour andenthusiasm cooled by suffering and poverty’.I’d like to think that the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square might one dayfeature and celebrate the radical women that history has tended to forget; butI hear the whispers – ‘Some hopes!’*****************************************************************************Eliza Sharples features in a play for voices,
Out Damned Spot!
 by James Watson. The five parts are:
Peterloo
,
The War of the Unstamped
,
Knowledge is
 
Power,
 
The Lady of the Rotunda
and
Kennington Heath
. Part 1,Peterloo, will shortly be posted on Scribd.
Recommended reading
 Martin Priestman,
Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 
(UK:Cambridge University Press, 1999), see illustration; and
Radical Femininity Women’sSelf-representation in the Public
 
Sphere
(UK: Manchester University Press, 1998),edited by Eileen Janes Yeo. See Chapter 2, Helen Rogers’ ‘The prayer, the passion and

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