Persuasions #15, 1993                                                                                                                                                                Pages 252-259



Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin:

Edward Cooper and His Circle



Lichfield, Staffordshire, UK


Five years elapsed before Mrs. Austen and her daughters found themselves inclined, and able, to take advantage of an invitation to visit the Revd. Edward Cooper at Hamstall Ridware. (L23)  Jane Austen could well have had in mind at that time the advice of her (and Mrs. Piozzi’s) ‘dear Dr. Johnson’: to “write daily … pointing out the topics which would most interest and delight future publications,”1 for she was to find more material on her own northern tour than she could ever have anticipated.  But while Baretti, for whom Johnson’s advice was intended, determined to write in such a way that his readers would “see what I saw, hear what I heard, feel what I felt, and even think and fancy whatsoever I thought and fancied myself,”2 this was far from Jane Austen’s style and would never have been her intention.  As far as we know she kept no journal, but there can be little doubt that her writing desk was carefully packed into the box on the coach.  However it was to be another five years before the public had a glimpse of the first of her novels that would include information gleaned in “far off Staffordshire” where she had found herself observing a new set of people in an environment previously unknown to her.

It had long been customary for travellers to keep journals.  Travelling was considered an education, young men coming down from Oxford and Cambridge being sent to Europe on the Grand Tour, usually in the company of a tutor.  Journal entries were sometimes copies of letters sent to friends or family at home.  This was so in the case of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys.  As a girl she had been encouraged by her father to write a journal that would inform him of a tour on the first occasion that he was unable to accompany her.3  This journalising became a life-long habit, and since she visited many of the great houses of England over the years, faithfully recording all she found of interest, her journals have provided art and architectural historians with a valuable source of information on the construction, alterations, and contents of those houses she mentions.

The same journals have, more latterly, been useful to biographers of Jane Austen, whose cousin Edward Cooper married the only daughter of Mrs. Lybbe Powys.  Those written between 1800 and 1808 assist in a study of the social milieu of the Revd. Edward Cooper, rector of Hamstall Ridware, round about the time of Jane Austen’s visit.  This is useful, for, to paraphrase Howard Erskine Hill in his book on The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope (1975), to explore satisfactorily the objects of Austen’s concern we need to follow evidence beyond her reading and immediate environment to that of the people with whom she was intimate, and even those with whom she was relatively familiar.  A scrutiny of the Powys journals covering her tours in the Midlands, and reading more widely about the people she mentions meeting there at that time, encourages reflection on some of Austen’s fictional characters.  In this paper I shall consider particularly those in Mansfield Park.

For all Jane Austen’s apparent dislike of her cousin, Edward Cooper seems to have made many good friends at Hamstall.  Even before he and his wife had moved up from Harpsden he had befriended Edward Riley who was to be his new neighbour.  By the summer of 1800, when his parents-in-law paid their first visit to Staffordshire, Cooper’s acquaintance had swelled to include the inhabitants of most of the great houses in the vicinity, as well as the clergymen of the many surrounding villages and several from the cathedral town of Lichfield, just eight miles distant.  Besides the fact that he was a well-educated man, Edward Cooper was very wealthy, having inherited the fortune of his grandfather, the goldsmith and banker, Gislingham Cooper; thus he would have been quite at home among the local gentry.  He appears to have chosen his friends from among those of evangelical persuasion, some of whom had also met or were deeply interested in the life and work of Samuel Johnson.  These points are of special interest for readers of Mansfield Park.

Among the early callers during the Lybbe Powys’s first visit was the Revd. Humphrey Price5 whom George Hodson, the evangelical tutor of Samuel Wilberforce, described as the “romantic … Evangelical and radical”6 curate to the Revd. Thomas Gisborne of Yoxall Lodge.  Edward Cooper was soon taking his guests to meet Thomas Gisborne at his home. “Everyone must have heard of Gisborne,” wrote Lybbe Powys, “his legendary talents are so generally known and admired ….”7  Indeed, Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846) had shown himself to be a considerable scholar when at Cambridge, but it was for his poetry and other writing that he was becoming so well-known, despite his retired life in the seclusion of Needwood Forest.  His interests went further than writing.  When his friend, the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, came to stay the two would go off into the forest with their drawing materials of a morning and then play the flute together in the evening.8  Another of his friends was the elderly William Gilpin, who, though he professed to prefer his own company, found “Mr. Gisborne exactly to [his] taste” even though he was “continually stepping in.”  Like Gilpin, Gisborne was a drawing master (as was Henry Austen too, at one time), and the two men carried on an interesting correspondence about the details of techniques in drawing and painting and the art of the picturesque.9  Mrs. Lybbe Powys, who had quite a reputation as an artist herself, noted that “Mr. Gisborne’s drawings far exceed anything I ever saw.”  Jane Austen could well have heard of Gisborne’s artistic skill, and his association with Wright and Gilpin, from her brother.  Henry Austen and Gisborne were godfathers to Edward Cooper’s son Henry Gisborne Cooper.

William Gilpin was as pleased with Mrs. Gisborne, finding her “a sensible, unaffected, pleasant woman.”  And Mrs. Lybbe Powys thought that Mrs. Gisborne bore “a character as amiable” as that of her husband, adding intriguingly, “Mrs. Gisborne, though, tis published under her husband’s name, is supposed to have wrote ‘An Inquiry into ye Duties of ye Female Sex’.”10  This bit of gossip could well have stemmed from the sometimes caustic pen of Anna Seward.  Known as “the Swan of Lichfield” Anna lived in the Bishop’s Palace in the Cathedral Close, and was a poet very popular in her own time.  She was a prolific letter-writer whose correspondents included people of interest to Jane Austen, such as Walter Scott, Charlotte Smith’s friend William Hayley, and the landscape designer Humphry (sic) Repton.

Although Seward did “not question Gisborne’s power in conversation, to please, to interest, [and] to instruct,” used to applause as she was she felt some bitterness towards him, finding that “he sought me not.”  She attributed this neglect to the fact that “he [could] not pardon the sin of avowed authorism in [a] woman, especially where her subjects are not solely religious.”  “I should have regretted his neglect more,” she wrote, “but for that …  narrow spirit of Calvinism which tinctures his writings.”11

Some of Seward’s criticism was certainly quite sound and reflects what could have been Austen’s response to Gisborne’s Duties of the Female Sex.  This, together with Gisborne’s Duties of Man, Seward acknowledged to be “books of high reputation, and certainly [to] contain many excellent things,” but, “Admirable receipt books [as they are] … to make human angels,” she found “both [to be] … too strict,” and thought that they “might have been more generally useful upon a less rigid plan of admonition, especially the volume dedicated to females.  Ill could the volatile and joyous spirit of my youth have borne curbs so continual, and such Argus-eyed watchfulness,” she wrote.  “Remembering those trusted pleasures, which Mr. Gisborne’s system would restrain as dangerous, he cannot convince me to consider such restraints necessary where the young heart is pure, or capable of improving it where it is otherwise.”12

It was possibly her anticipation of the unnaturally strict nature of Gisborne’s admonitions that made Jane Austen quite determined not to read his Duties of the Female Sex.  However, once having begun she declared herself “pleased with it.” (L47)  Perhaps she was already devising ways in which she could use it.  In the notes to one of his two chapters on the “amusements” he considered appropriate for young ladies Gisborne quotes Dr. Blair (in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres), saying that it is in English comedy that “the youth of both sexes familiarise themselves with vice, which is never represented there as vice, but as mere gaiety.”13  Gisborne, like Johnson,14 thought that the virtuous should be represented as such, and the wicked as quite evil, if the stage were “to recommend itself as the muse of virtue.”  “He knows little of human nature, who thinks that the youthful mind will be secured from the infecting influence of a vicious character, adorned with polished manners, wit, fortitude, and generosity, by a frigid moral, delivered at the conclusion, or to be deduced from the events of the drama.”15  He had not come across Fanny Price.  But Austen does show clearly how susceptible even an honourable Edmund Bertram can be to the attractions of a sophisticated and unprincipled, though charming, Mary Crawford.

Gisborne was also concerned with the “flagrant impropriety” of young ladies of delicacy participating in the “unrestrained familiarity with persons of the opposite sex”16 which participation in theatricals, however private, would effect.  Lovers’ Vows was being advertised in the Staffordshire Advertiser when Jane Austen was staying with her cousin in the neighbourhood of Yoxall Lodge.  It was Gisborne’s censure of theatricals, and the acting of this particular play, that Austen was to put to such good purpose in Mansfield Park.  She was careful to reveal that the behaviour of each of the young people merely reflected their varied personalities and brought to the surface existing undercurrents that were threatening relationships in the house.  This is closer to Anna Seward’s understanding of human nature, according to her comments on Gisborne’s work.

Although Gisborne disapproved of circulating libraries he might have acknowledged Fanny Price’s sensible choice of biographies and poetry as improving literature for Susan’s pleasure and edification.

Anna Seward was more favourably impressed by “pretty Mrs. John Gisborne … with her boyish-looking but highly intelligent husband.”  She thought he had “the kind of disposition, the species of talents which [she] could most desire in the person [she] wish[ed] to call friend.”17  The fair Millicent she thought had been very fortunate.  John and Millicent Gisborne were close friends of Edward Cooper.  They lived at Holly Bush, a beautiful and commodious house at Newborough in Needwood Forest, just two miles from Hamstall and a mile from Yoxall Lodge, the home of John’s older brother.  A deeply religious man, John Gisborne shared with Edward Cooper more than their evangelical persuasion.  They read the same books, Edward Cooper sometimes guiding his friend in the choice of reading matter and discussing it with him during long walks in the forest.  The younger Gisborne had inherited from his mother a keen interest in botany, which he pursued with unabated vigour all his life, corresponding with most of the leading botanists of the day.  He married the step-daughter of Erasmus Darwin.18  (Scientist, inventor, poet, and physician at Lichfield, Darwin was co-founder of the Lunar Society in Birmingham.  The experiments, discoveries and inventions of this group of men did much to advance the industrial revolution in England.)  Darwin’s own interest in botany, and the many thoughts his own experiments and discoveries gave rise to, he put into verse in his much-celebrated, sometimes controversial Botanic Garden, which Mrs. Lybbe Powys mentions in her journal.  Darwin’s son-in-law, John Gisborne, wrote two poems which won him some acclaim.  They are partly a celebration of Nature, but, as in the poetry of his brother, of Erasmus Darwin, and of William Cowper, the poet so much loved by the Evangelicals, he reveals the extent to which his peaceful contemplation in the wild led to reflection on greater issues.  Among those that are mentioned in John Gisborne’s Vales of Weaver is the subject of Catherine the Great, whose wickedness included the enslavement of the Poles.  Gisborne contrasts the Empress of Russia with “immortal Washington … Saviour of his Country, the Supporter of Freedom, and the Benefactor of Mankind.”19

Slavery was almost an obsession with Edward Cooper’s friends at that time, and small wonder, for William Wilberforce had spent many an autumn with the Gisbornes at Yoxall Lodge engaged in abolition work.  He and Gisborne had been at Cambridge together and had shared much companionable conversation late into the night.  However they had parted company after graduation and only resumed contact when Gisborne heard that Wilberforce had taken up the issue of the slave trade in the House of Commons.  He promptly wrote to Wilberforce: “I have been as busy in town as a member of Parliament preparing himself to maintain the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and no doubt much more usefully employed.  I shall expect to read in the newspapers of your being carbonaded by West Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains; but do not be daunted for – I will write your epitaph.”  And Wilberforce was soon taking advantage of Gisborne’s quiet haven in the forest where he and Mrs. Gisborne’s brother worked on the vast quantity of evidence on the slave trade so as to become fully conversant with it and thereby strengthen their arguments.  For much of the day they would work uninterrupted in an upper room, eating little, only coming down to walk in the forest for a half hour before dinner.  There Gisborne would hear his friend’s melodious voice far away among the trees.20

On one such visit Wilberforce did take time off to accompany Gisborne to Etruria to call on Josiah Wedgwood who had manufactured a jasper-ware cameo depicting a slave in chains and the words: “Am I not a man and a brother.”21  Had they not the anti-slavery interest in common Gisborne would have met Wedgwood through his sister-in-law. Millicent Gisborne’s step-father, Erasmus Darwin was family doctor and friend to Wedgwood, another member of the Lunar Society.

Another mutual friend who was of interest to Jane Austen was Hannah More.  Although she had shown a similar reluctance to read More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) as she had Gisborne’s Duties ..., Austen acknowledged that: “Of course I shall be delighted, when I read it, like other people, but till I do I dislike it.”  And her reason for this feigned aversion?  “I do not like the Evangelicals.”  But people in thousands read and liked Coelebs.  Thirty thousand copies were sold in America before More’s death in 1833.  It had gone into twelve editions within one year, quickly promising to be as successful as More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), which, among other things, criticised the current encouragement of false sensibility in young women.  Maria Edgeworth suggested that Mr. Harford of Blaise Castle was the model for Coelebs.22  This was quite astute.  John Scandrett Harford (1754-1815) was also a friend of Hannah More and Edward Cooper’s other friends.  He was one of the group of Quakers that rendered great assistance to Wilberforce when he took up the cause for abolition.  Harford was as goodly a soul as ever Hannah More could have wished her hero to be.

As interested as Harford was in this work Wilberforce did not entice him to the evangelical persuasion.  However he did manage without too much difficulty to encourage Hannah More to use her time and energies to provide a modicum of education and employment for the poor in her area, and the power of her pen to attempt to educate the religious and moral sensibilities of the wealthy.

Edward Cooper’s curate at Yoxall, the Revd. John Riland, was also enthusiastic to contribute his own writing skills to the evangelical cause.  His paper entitled Reflections on Recent Occurences at Lichfield; Including an Illustration of the Opinions of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. on Slavery … Addressed to the Rev. Thomas Gisborne, M.A. was published in 1826, illustrating the on-going interest in slavery despite the abolition of the trade in slaves in 1807.  While praising the work of Wilberforce when he was staying with Gisborne at Yoxall Lodge, Riland is anxious to show how many years earlier it was that Johnson had recognised the iniquities of slavery.  He had no need to remind his readers in Lichfield that Samuel Johnson had taken in and educated a freed slave who had remained with him for most of the time until he died, for Francis Barber had come back to Lichfield, the native place of the great lexicographer, soon after Johnson’s death.  Riland does bring in other issues of interest to the evangelicals, including the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, telling of Johnson’s success in winning the argument to have the Scriptures translated into the Gaelic language.  This calls to mind Jane Austen’s comment on her cousin’s sermons, which she did not like, finding them “fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever – with the addition of his zeal for the Bible Society.” (L133)

John Gisborne appears to have had a better appreciation of Edward Cooper’s brand of religious sensibilities.  Where Jane Austen hoped that her cousin would not send “one of his letters of cruel comfort” to her brother in his bereavement, (L58) John Gisborne, watching his son through a fatal illness, found some comfort in his manner of expressing himself in such circumstances.  He wrote to his wife: “My excellent friend Mr. Cooper observes ‘Nature cries out, Let this cup pass from me’ but Faith calls out likewise, ‘Thy will be done’.”23

It need hardly be said that besides wandering through the forest in search of the picturesque, enjoying their natural surroundings, botanizing, landscape gardening, talking of books, playing the flute and singing, these friends shared a serious interest in their religion.  It is from John Gisborne that we learn something of Edward Cooper’s stirring delivery.  In a letter of February 1816 he writes: “On Sunday last, my great friend, Edward Cooper, preached two as awakening sermons as I ever heard from his lips.  The first at Yoxall: ‘Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again’ …  I can truly say that my heart rejoiced, though full of self-condemnation … during this discourse.  The second at Hamstall, … ‘The day of vengeance of our God.’  I never was, I think, more deeply impressed by a sermon …  My friend’s exhortations were so strong and yet so winning, and so scriptural; & his manner so peculiarly energetic, & yet so affectionate, that surely all who heard him must have been in some measure touched to the heart.”24

The evangelicals of this period held great store by interpretation of the scriptures.  Edward Cooper spoke of “the ministers of the gospel [being] the appointed interpreters of the word and providence of God.”  And in his Practical and Familiar Sermons (1809) can be found all the major preoccupations of this group.  It is possible to discern how closely Jane Austen read the sermons, putting some aspects to good purpose.

Cooper preached on Repentance and Forgiveness as well as Regeneration and Conversion, words that would have meant much to Tom Bertram after his illness.  “He had suffered, and … had learned to think,” “to repent and be forgiven.”  “Serious self-examination” was advocated by the minister.  He could have held Fanny Price as an example of how to “be humble, meek, gentle, patient in bearing injuries; ready to forgive offenses; endeavour to overcome evil with good; be self-denying and disinterested.”  Austen allowed Edmund Bertram to be as “universally kind and courteous; slow to anger; unwilling to hear evil of others; forward in defense, advice and assistance …” as ever her cousin would have liked.

Jane Austen once confessed that pictures of perfection made her sick and wicked, yet she would have learned from Johnson that the introduction of a character that “exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue” was not only acceptable but desirable.25  However it was to be “of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach … exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform.”  Here was the perfect recipe for the creation of Fanny Price.  Perhaps in her more realistic portrayal of vice than Johnson would have found desirable Austen made problems for those readers who have so wanted Fanny Price to accept Henry Crawford, and Edmund Bertram to be enlivened by union with Mary Crawford.

Putting the characters and something of the plot of Mansfield Park in the context of the interests of those people that the novelist would have met or heard discussed at Hamstall Ridware, whose books, poetry and sermons she read, gives us a reason to consider this an evangelical novel, and Fanny Price the epitome of the evangelical heroine.  From another viewpoint, not too far removed, it is possible to regard the intense interest in slavery among her cousin’s closest friends concentrated in this small area and wonder whether Austen meant her readers to consider Fanny Price as a kind of slave.  This suggestion is strengthened by the reference Jane Fairfax makes to one form of slave trade, “the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect,” in Austen’s next novel, Emma.





1 Joseph Baretti, Journey from London to Genoa ( 1770), Preface.


2 Ibid.


3 British Library (BL) Add MSS 42160.


4 Op. cit., 11 July 1799.


5 BL Add MSS 42171, Staffordshire Journal, 20 July 1800.


6 David Robinson, ed., George Hodson, Visitation of the Archdeaconry of Stafford 1829-1841, (HMSO 1980).


7 BL Add MSS 42171, op. cit., 25 July 1800.


8 Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby (1968), 130-35.


9 Carl Paul Barbier, William Gilpin, his Drawing, Teaching, and Theory of the Picturesque (Oxford 1963), 149-63.


10 BL Add MSS 42162, 25 April 1802.


11 Letters of Anna Seward, (1811), V, 179.


12 Seward, Letters, op. cit., IV, 350-51.


13 An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1798), 3rd edn., 171.


14 The Rambler, No. 4, 31 March 1750.


15 Duties of the Female Sex, op. cit., 178-79.


16 Ibid., 184.


17 Letters, op. cit., III, 298.


18 Emma Nixon, A Brief Memoir of John Nixon (1852).


19 Vales of Weaver (1797), 28-31.


20 Robert Isaac Wilberforce & Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (London 1838), 5 vols., I.


21 Nicolson, op. cit., 133.


22 Mary Alden Hopkins, Hannah More and Her Circle (1947).


23 Derby Local History Library, Deposit No. 155, (1818).


24 Ibid.


25 The Rambler, No. 4.




This article was originally (in slightly different form) a paper presented at The Santa Monica, 1992 AGM.


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