Wilberforce by John Pollock

D and I finished reading Wilberforce by John Pollock with only a couple of hours to go before the book group meeting last Thursday. As D said it was like climbing a mountain, ‘a hard slog at first and when you get half way you wonder why you are reading it and whether you should give up but as you’ve got so far decide to carry on. When you reach the top you see that it was all worthwhile.’

It’s an achievement and also somewhat of a relief to complete the book. We both found it hard to get into and probably wouldn’t have read it if it wasn’t for the book group. Part of the difficulty is that there are so many references to the people of the time, both in politics and society in general, that without some background in the period you begin to flounder and the eyes glaze over. Other members of the group had found the same. But if you like reading historical and biographical books don’t let this put you off. There are fascinating insights into family life in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, references to the French Revolution and its effect in England, visits to Yorkshire, the Lake District, Buxton (to take the water and endure the ‘horrible treatment of Skin Rotations‘ – a massage bath lying on a flat dish of copper), and to Bath, to mention but a few.

The main cause and aim of Wilberforce’s life was the abolition of the slave trade and the end of slavery itself. He also wanted to remake England by reforming the morals, attitudes and fashions of the nation. The majority of the book is made up of the account of the twenty years struggle to end the slave trade through legislation, culminating in the passing of the Act of Abolition in March 1807. This made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. In America also an Act of Congress outlawed the slave trade.

Wilberforce’s character gradually reveals itself throughout the book in extracts from his letters, diary entries, and contemporary accounts of him by friends, supporters and opponents. I particularly liked Marianne Thornton’s memory of him:

He was as restless and volatile as a child himself and during the long and grave discussions that went on between him and my father and others, he was most thankful to refresh himself by throwing a ball or a bunch of flowers at me, or opening the glass door and going off with me for a race on the lawn ‘˜to warm his feet’. I knew one of my first lessons was that I must never disturb Papa when he was talking or reading, but no such prohibition existed with Mr Wilberforce. His love for, and enjoyment in, all children was remarkable.

The Wilberforce household at Broomfield in Clapham was ‘a rather eccentric home‘, with its unkempt shrubberies and domestic servants who ‘were deserving rather than efficient, nor would he cast off the useless or infirm until they found suitable berths.‘ The servants adored Wilberforce. Guests had to fend for themselves in ‘Yorkshire‘ way at dinner -Barbara (Wilberforce’s wife) would

see that Wilberforce’s plate had plenty and he was too short-sighted to notice the others; then Dean Milner’s stentorian voice (so Marianne Thornton recalls) would be heard roaring ‘There was nothing on earth to eat‘; and desiring the servants to bring some bread and butter, he would add ‘and bring plenty without limit’, while Mr W would join in with ‘Thank you, thank you kindly, Milner, for seeing to these things. Mrs Wilberforce is not strong enough to meddle much in domestic matters.’

Wilberforce was an excellent orator, good company, and irresistibly happy according to his friends’ accounts. He was involved in so many other causes, including agricultural improvements, medical aid for the poor, education in charity and Sunday Schools, improving living conditions for the poor, campaigning against the use of boys as chimney sweeps, distributing Bibles through the British and Foreign Bible Society, improving conditions for prisoners, education for the deaf and training for young men who would make good clergymen, etc, etc. As Pollock says ‘Good causes attached themselves to Wilberforce like pins to a magnet.’

Wilberforce was converted to Christianity in 1785. At first he felt he was not ‘in the true sense of the word a Christian‘, because he was still behaving as a man of the world. Pollack writes that Wilberforce ‘began to sicken of the profligacy and selfish luxury of the rich, of the hours they wasted in eating.’ He thought he must withdraw from the world, but after correspondence and talks with Pitt and later with John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace‘ and many other hymns) he remained in politics. He introduced family prayers in his household, and took ‘the Sacrament regularly. On Sundays he went to church twice, and would neither travel nor discuss politics except in gravest emergency.’ He tried to introduce a new spirit of tolerance ‘ it was his ‘endeavour to promote the essentials of Christianity, softening prejudices, healing divisions, and striving to substitute a rational and honest zeal for fundamentals, in place of a hot party spirit.’

He was buried on 3 August 1833 in Westminster Abbey. Thousands of Londoners mourned.

Two royal dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and four peers supported the Pall. Members of both Houses walked in the procession.

‘The attendance was very great’, recorded a Member in his diary that night. ‘The funeral itself with the exception of the Choir of the Abbey perfectly plain. The noblest and most fitting testimony to the estimation of the man.

Writing et al

One of the promises I made to myself when I left work was that I wouldn’t be doing any housework at the weekend. What have I done today? After a leisurely start with coffee whilst reading The Poe Shadow in bed, then a quick look (well not very quick) at blogs, I started to write about Wilberforce, when I was overcome with the need to tidy the house. Old habits do die hard and I spent the rest of the morning until now tidying up, dusting and vacuuming – still got upstairs to do. Then I remembered my promise and slowed down.

Litlove recently wrote a Writing Meme . The idea is to write seven random points about writing and then tag someone else. If you fancy doing this consider yourself tagged.

Here are my seven, in no particular order:

  1. I disliked doing ‘Precis’ in English Language lessons at school. The teacher never seemed to give us enough time and it had to be done quickly. Strange that now I find myself doing something similar in writing this blog and I’m enjoying it, but of course it’s my choice and in my own time.
  2. I once set out to write a novel about life at a fairground. I didn’t get very far, knowing next to nothing about fairgrounds. I haven’t tried since.
  3. I ‘m excellent at reading books on how to write, but just can’t bring myself to do the exercises they suggest. It all seems so boring. But last year I did write ‘Morning Pages’, which is one of Julia Cameron’s ideas in her Right to Write. I tried it for a few weeks and did enjoy it. The idea is that first thing in the morning you write and don’t read what you have written. Looking back I see that I wrote about my dreams, words, thoughts on what I’d be doing later on in the day, and my childhood.
  4. After I’d read Wilfred Owen’s war poems I wrote a poem on the horrors of war and submitted it for the school magazine. It must have been awful and it didn’t get in. I still fancy writing poetry.
  5. In my previous job in local government I wrote many reports for the councillors to make decisions on various applications. This involved investgiating the claims, putting all the evidence for and against the proposals with a recommendation. This was satisfying, even if they were not always to everybody’s liking.
  6. I am usually not very satisfied with what I write and constantly revise and cut what I’ve written. This was difficult before the computer made it easy. Previously my drafts were full of crossings out, insertions with asterisks, paragraphs cut and stapled at the right place. Now cutting and pasting is so much easier.
  7. Finally a couple of quotations to add to Litlove’s:

“If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Samuel Johnson

I’ll post my thoughts on Wilberforce will be next, that is after I’ve finished re-writing and cutting it!

The Duke of Marmalade and the Count de Limonade

These names intrigue me and I couldn’t believe they were real when I read about them in Pollock’s Wilberforce. All they meant to me was toast and marmalade and a fizzy drink.

So I looked them up and couldn’t find out much.

Henri Christophe (Wikipedia has an article on him) had seized power in Haiti. He had created a nobility from the former slaves. Their names were derived from the slave holders’ estates and so we have the Duke of Marmalade who was the Commander in Chief and the Comte de Limonade who was the Secretary of State. So, it was oranges and lemons.

I’m always going off on tangents when I’m reading a book – one book always leads to others.

Booking through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday

Do you cheat and peek ahead at the end of your books? Or do you resolutely read in sequence, as the author intended?
And, if you don’t peek, do you ever feel tempted?

I’m always tempted to look at the end of books and sometimes I do if the book is getting boring to see if it picks up. If the book is one that I can’t put down then I try to resist looking ahead – not always successfully though and then I wish I hadn’t!

Wilberforce update

I’m now about half way through Wilberforce and it is growing on me. It’s quite difficult to read because there is a lot of detail about politics in the late 18th century, at the time of William Pitt the younger. It’s a long time since I did this period of British history at school and then I’m sure it wasn’t in so much detail. There are also big chunks quoting from original sources, which is fine for authenticity, but the 18th century style and terminology differs from the 21st century’s. So, concentration is needed for this and also dealing with the number of people connected with Wilberforce. He was most certainly an active person, involved in many areas both in the political and social scene.

I hadn’t realised until reading his book that Wilberforce and Pitt were such friends, nor that Wilberforce was elected to Parliament for Hull in 1780 at the age of 21. Much of the first part of the book is about his campaign against the slave trade and its long and drawn out progress through Parliament and the struggle against the traders, merchants, planters and landed aristocracy whose fortunes derived from sugar and slaves.

To help with my reading I’ve also dipped into a couple of books on my bookshelves – Modern England: from the 18th century to the present by R K Webb and Who’s Who in British History for background information. The book becomes more readable when giving information of the social scene and personal details about Wilberforce himself. More about that when I’ve finished the book and have an overall view of his life.

What I like to get from a biography is a vivid impression of what the person was like, what made him or her tick and after a slow start I’m being to feel as though I’m getting to know Wilberforce as an individual.

Wilberforce and yet more library books

This is my copy of Wilberforce by John Pollack, which I’ve just started to read for the book group meeting next Thursday. It has a most annoying front cover because it curls upwards, as you can see. D and I are both reading this and not finding it too enthralling! I don’t think we’ll finish it before the meeting, but that will be OK and we will still be able to give our views. When we’ve finished it (if we finish it) I’ll jot down some thoughts here.

These books are beckoning me.
They’re all library books I picked up on Friday. As someone else had reserved it I had to return a book to our local branch library. I didn’t intend borrowing anymore books- I’ve plenty to read. BUT, Arlington Park and Digging to America were on display on the returns counter, along with other books on the Orange Prize Shortlist and so I thought, why not borrow them. The winner, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had already gone out, or I’d have borrowed that too.

A quick tour round the library shelves and I also found books by Anita Brookner, Joyce Carol Oates, Reginald Hill and Melvyn Bragg that I hadn’t read. So they all came home with me to add to the To Be Read piles. I really like this little branch library as it always seems to have interesting books, good displays and friendly staff.