Ministers’ Wives, a doitering rumination

In the shower this morning I found myself contemplating my obsession with the wives of ministers. This continued a line of thought which I had been exploring, aided by my iPad, before deciding to toss back the covers and broach the day. The ministers’ wives I had been thinking about became published writers in the early years of the 19th century: Anne Grant of Laggan, Mary Brunton (both well known in their life times and making a modest comeback today), and, Beatrice Grant, little known then, almost forgotten now but into whose life I have been poking for some years.

However my sensitivity towards ministers’ wives goes way back beyond my acquaintance with these ladies. At one point I even aspired to be a minister’s wife. I was not an especially religious child despite having a fine collection of those bible-related scraps which were awarded for attendance at Sunday school. And despite having spent a year at Esdaile, an Edinburgh school established to provide education for the daughters of ministers and missionaries. My father was not a minister but the small local rural school had a teacher deemed unsatisfactory by my parents. Schooling in Edinburgh meant that I could be close to my mother’s father and sisters. And the school curriculum included cookery…

I wanted to be a minister’s wife so that I could run sales of work…

43ba73b2adebacbd1b8aa9b2eb80dbb2     My mother, ignoring my greater preference for reading and history, unfortunately latched on to my ability to knit, crochet and embroider lazy daisy petals onto dressing-table mats (alternative pass-times for a nine-year-old were few up a highland glen). She later suggested I consider the domestic science college in Edinburgh as an appropriate future destination. I suspect it was at this point, as I entered my teenage years, that I abandoned the ‘managing sales of work’ notion. Or it may have been that I realised that being a minister’s wife carried with it the drawback of a minister. A baby-sitting engagement had revealed that our local one forbad his wife to take in women’s magazines, so no Woman’s Own romances or problem pages to lighten the evening in the pre-television era. I suspected also that there might be a requirement To Set an Example, a burden of which I was all too aware as an eldest daughter.

However, sensitivity to the plight of such women, socially constrained even more than most females, by the bonds of matrimony has remained with me. I notice them when they come to my attention. I am haunted by them as well as by how lives were lived in the past. In the 18th and 19th centuries they existed in the fluid middle ground between, when those things mattered, the gentry and trade, with the lower orders beneath. In my mental landscape stands sensible Charlotte Lucas who opted for a home of her own to run; and the sad figures of Mrs Bates and Mrs Norris, cast into limbo, neither fish nor fowl, following the deaths of their husbands.

The family connection

One of my ancestors was a minister (from you surmise correctly that one was a minister’s wife). On the evidence of a small diary this man cannot have been a joy to live with. At the time of the diary he was a minister in Dalkeith, and a worrier. He agonised about money, about how badly his brother-in-law treated him, about his spiritual health and about his physical health to the extent that he stayed home rather than go visiting the sick lest he catch an infection (would Marmee and Beth Marsh had done). What would then happen to his wife and children? The ministerial strand in that branch of my family tree ceased with his death in April 1779, all but one of his children turning to trade as an occupation for themselves or for a spouse.

One other Scottish minister, or rather his wife, played a key part in my genesis. The Reverend Colin Bogle married in 1831 Ann Wyse, a young lady from just outside Glasgow, and took her north to his very rural parish in Shetland. Just after Christmas 1832 she gave birth to twin daughters in the manse at Walls. Two weeks into January her husband died. How on earth did she manage travelling back south with two infants? Not easy even today. But she did. And a year later both babies died. And some years after that Ann Wyse, then Bogle, married Robert Chisholm, goldsmith and jeweler in Edinburgh, and they begat… who begat… etc.

But back to those early 19th century writing wives

Anne Grant, nee MacVicar, Beatrice Grant, nee Campbell and Mary Brunton, nee Balfour. The university system in Scotland was geared to the production of ministers to such an extent that there were at times gluts of them. Stickit ministers, they were called, men who might fill in the waiting time as a tutor or a parochial schoolmaster. Mary Balfour eloped from Orkney, it is said, choosing, despite maternal disapproval, the man who had been her brother’s tutor. Marrying a minister in the late 18th/ early 19th century might well have appealed to clever, not especially well-off Scottish women who did not fancy becoming merely a childbearing social adjunct. As educated men, minister husbands might provide congenial companionship. The Reverend Brunton, who encouraged his wife in her studies and writing, seems to have lived up to that ideal.

A generation earlier, Anne MacVicar and Beatrice Campbell had also married ministers. They owed their husbands to the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rising. Each, blessed with military fathers, had had unsettled early years. They met each other, and their husbands to be, at Fort Augustus, one of a trio of forts established to provide a base for government forces should there be another rising. Beatrice Campbell’s aunt, to whom she was close, married the governor of Fort Augustus. Beatrice and her husband, formerly a missionary at Fort William, were married in Fort Augustus in 1784. Anne MacVicar’s father was barrack-master at Fort Augustus. Her husband was the chaplain there.

  Did these marriages prove meetings of minds? Who knows – but Anne Grant, at least, provided her husband with a fulsome headstone.

Anne and Beatrice were clever, feisty young women, Anne probably the better educated and was certainly the more stylish writer. Throughout her childhood wandering years (Glasgow – America – Glasgow again) Anne had acquired friends whom she entertained with letters and poems. These, and her early experiences in ‘exotic’ America and the only slightly less exotic Highlands of Scotland, stood her in good stead when she needed income after her husband’s death. She took to publication with relish and success, at first anonymously.

Beatrice’s confidence probably came from a strong personality backed by the experience and status of being the eldest of four sisters, orphaned at age 8. At 11 she found herself with a stepmother barely ten years older who immediately started having babies. Ten years or so into marriage, according to her own account, she regarded herself as well equipped to provide advice to inexperienced mothers and submitted articles to a magazine. Rejected at the time, she revised them to form the basis of her first book, published three years after her husband’s death. No anonymity for her, on the title-page she proclaimed herself to be ‘Mrs Grant, late of Duthel’.

Both were successful ministers’ wives, or rather widows… Neither lady was so lacking in proper behaviour as to write directly about her marriage but Anne Grant did address being a minister’s wife. She wrote, addressing herself to the other Mrs Grant, and her voice ripples…

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.10.25

Beatrice Grant’s many, and rather more sober, publications in newspapers, magazines and books are providing me with a fascinating paper trail, new places to explore and new contacts. Who could have guessed that a childhood fancy would develop into something so rewarding.


1 Comment

Filed under family, family history, History, long 18th century, Scottish Highlands

One response to “Ministers’ Wives, a doitering rumination

  1. Caroline

    This is very revealing, about the narrowness of choices for women (and men too) and the tedium if the tasks once imprisoned in the role. I love Anne’s poem. She’s driven to refreshing honesty. You can feel her terrible frustration. She’s not the least sanctimonious. These stickit ministers (lovely term) must have been extremely useful in their day, in providing education at a time of lack of schools. Probably they educated a few girls who would not otherwise have had an education too. The Church as industry.

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