Wilberforce: Family and Friends
This is very much a domestic biography of William Wilberforce, which focuses on his private life, rather than his public career as evangelical politician and abolitionist. We learn a good deal from it about his poor state of health, the result of chronic irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis (for which he regularly took opium) and a progressive curvature of the spine, and also about his psychological failings of crippling self-doubt and indecision.
This emphasis on the personal details of his life does not diminish Wilberforce’s greatness. He emerges from Anne Stott’s meticulously researched and finely written study as a man of exceptional drive, ability and charm, albeit with more flaws than are revealed in other more conventional biographies. Her approach provides new insights into his conversion to the ‘vital religion’ of evangelical Christianity, which he saw as the defining event of his life. It is shown to be a more protracted, painful and nuanced process than is often suggested in the hagiographical hero worship that so often surrounds him and one which led him on a ‘middle-class, domesticated version of the Grand Tour’ and intensified his love of romantic scenery. Stott convincingly argues that ‘Wilberforce’s spirituality was both distinctively evangelical and part of the same late-Enlightenment culture of sensibility that created Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther.
It is indeed a softer and more sensitive Wilberforce that is portrayed in these pages compared with the narrow judgemental figure of the stereotypical Clapham Saint. Although he characteristically fretted about his incompetence as a parent, he was a warm and loving father who happily got down on the floor to play with young children. Maybe this was in part compensation for his own unhappy childhood. His father died when he was nine and he was sent off to live with his strictly Calvinistic aunt and uncle, whom he adored but from whom he was taken away by his mother, who felt he was being subjected to too much narrow religion and sought, in his words, ‘to implant and cultivate the love of pleasure and vanity and the love of glory in the opening bud of youth’.
For a time this maternal attempt at promoting worldliness worked. At Cambridge Wilberforce was known for his conviviality and good table, where the hungry visitor could always be sure of finding ‘the great Yorkshire pie or the jar of pickled Puffins’. Later, of course, he did return to the fervent evangelicalism to which he had been exposed as a boy, but it was tempered by a warmth and generosity of spirit.
Anne Stott writes in detail about the family life and affections not just of the Wilberforces but of other members of the Clapham Sect, notably the Thorntons and Macaulays. Inevitably her book contains many accounts of difficult pregnancies, trying illnesses and harrowing death-bed scenes, but there are also numerous descriptions of happier and lighter moments. She reflects towards the end that her study shows that ‘these cheerful and cultured families had nothing in common with the literary stereotypes of gloomy and repressive evangelicalism’. She also rightly observes that Wilberforce’s death in 1833 marked the passing of a way of life. Henceforth evangelicalism would become harsher and narrower, caught up in millenarian fervour and intolerant of pleasures like novel-reading that several of the Claphamites had enjoyed without guilt. Her book beautifully and sensitively captures their particular legacy of high-minded evangelical fervour and crusading zeal tempered by strong family attachments, deep friendships, intellectual curiosity and spontaneous enjoyment of innocent pleasures, a combination which was perhaps never quite replicated in the Victorian era.
Ian Bradley is Reader in Church History at the University of St Andrews. His books include The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians (Lion, 2006).