Eliza Gould and Benjamin Flower had much in common, especially politics and religion, as Eliza’s letters reveal. Though raised a Particular Baptist, she had already adopted Arian beliefs. She writes to Feltham in August 1795:
Your Ideas and mine respecting the Trinity are strictly coincident—the blind zeal of those who stile themselves Orthodox writers & preachers, have ever been inimical to the promulgation of religious knowledge & I might add I think (without any breach of charity) of truth likewise—the tenor of the Athanasian Creed is altogether such a complex medley of rash inconsistencies, and in every respect so very incomprehensible, that I wonder our right reverend fathers in God have never attempted its abolition.
Eliza, like Flower, believed that “Religion is a personal thing, & in my opinion the first leading principle of Christianity is that of doing good—herein we honor God, & render unto him an acceptable Service” (letter 5). One of the distinctive features of Dissenting culture was the role it granted women in claiming spiritual and intellectual (and, at times, familial) equality with men. The education she received at Bampton (much like Flower’s at Northampton) was designed to prepare pupils to make independent decisions about questions of morality and, as she demonstrates above, theology as well. Like Flower, Eliza Gould was a committed Dissenter, regarding “the Scriptures,” not established creeds, as her “general rule of faith and practice.” “Religion is as you very justly remark’d,” she tells Feltham, “plain & simple.” She believed wholeheartedly that “It is the actions of a man that denominates him a Christian, it is that his life & conversation be correspondent with the Gospel—it is not ‘those that say Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven,’ but whoso doeth the will of God.”
In her first letter to Feltham, Eliza expressed considerable enthusiasm about the prospects of her school but little optimism about her social and intellectual life in South Molton. “Southmolton is a neat healthy town,” she writes, “tho I am sorry to add inhabited for the most part by a set of narrow-minded, illiberal beings as ever existed.” Previously, Eliza had complained to Feltham that, due to her isolation in South Molton, she had become “ignorant ... in regard to public affairs … seldom seeing a newspaper.” To ease her boredom, she turned to Benjamin Flower and his paper, the Cambridge Intelligencer, to which she had previously subscribed during her time in Tiverton. Determined now to raise the banner of political reform in Devon, Eliza commenced a correspondence with Flower that resulted in her becoming the local distributor for the Intelligencer—a decision that brought severe social and economic consequences upon her. Eliza’s efforts to promote the paper did not go unnoticed. According to the Town Clerk of Tiverton, the Intelligencer was the most popular radical paper in that region of Devon, adding, “the industry used to procure the Jacobin papers is remarkable.” Eliza’s letters to Flower reveal the extent of the commotion his paper was creating in South Molton, as well as the greater political unrest prevalent throughout the West Country. Eliza understood first-hand the powerful emotions engendered by the ideals of political reform, boldly declaring to Flower on 5 April 1795, “I firmly believe that Revolution is as much begun in England as ever it was in France. I wish great success to a cause in which is involved immediately the death of Tyranny & the life of Liberty.” She may even have contributed to the Intelligencer at this time—at least this seemed plausible to some of her friends. She confides to Feltham in one letter that a friend, observing her as she is writing it, has mistakenly assumed that she is “writing for the press, & seem’d pretty confident it is for Mr Flower.”
Eliza’s radical political opinions, whether they appeared in a newspaper or a private letter, were viewed by many in England as dangerous during the aftermath of the French Revolution. The war with France, which began on 1 February 1793, was beginning to strain the English economy and the people’s morale. Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror,” from April 1793 to July 1794, did much to weaken the position of the reformers in England. Various associations were formed to promote loyalty to the Established Church and the King among the poor and the working classes. In order to silence the voices of opposition to the war and the government, the King and his ministers issued two proclamations against seditious publications (21 May and 1 December 1792). Other actions aimed at curbing the influence of political reformers included the formation of John Reeves’s Loyalist Associations (November 1792); the trials of Tom Paine (in absentia) and the London bookseller Daniel Isaac Eaton, both for seditious libel (December 1792 and May 1793); the trials and convictions (August 1793-January 1794) of James Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, and Maurice Margarot for sedition arising from their involvement in the British Convention in Edinburgh in October 1793; and the arrests in May 1794 of Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Jeremiah Joyce, and eight other reformers for their activities in association with the London Corresponding Society. As a result of these actions, by the spring of 1795, the Pitt administration was bringing considerable legal and social pressure to bear upon the advocates of political reform, as well as coordinating a wave of anti-reform propaganda designed to cast reformers as “Jacobins” and, hence, disloyal to the King and Constitution. Eliza felt the full effects of these efforts during her year in South Molton. Her refusal to observe the Fast Day in February 1795 outraged the conservative townspeople, causing many to pull their children from her school. Eliza had now become “a dangerous member of Society, a broacher of Sedition, & one that in defiance of the whole corporation had taken in a Seditious newspaper.” Labeled a Jacobin and Democrat, she came under intense scrutiny by the Loyalists of South Molton, so much, in fact, that her letters to and from Flower had to be secretly marked with an “X” and routed through a third party to avoid interception by the authorities. At a time when women who engaged in political debate were criticized for forsaking their private feminine duties for the more public “masculine” world of politics (cf. Richard Polwhele’s The unsex’d females ),
Eliza’s connection with the Intelligencer not only ostracized her from the community but also severely damaged her economically. Robert Aspland, Unitarian minister and close friend of the Flowers during their years in Cambridge and Harlow, writes of this difficult period in Eliza’s life:
In the suspicious times of the hateful war against republican France, such a circumstance [Eliza’s distribution of the Intelligencer] could not long remain unknown in a country town; she was marked and stigmatized by those senseless epithets which, at that period, were applied to all the enlightened friends of their country and mankind; and insult and persecution met her in various forms. Neither her sex nor her character secured her from the personal hostility, not merely of the vulgar, but of those whose rank and fortune might have been expected to bespeak courtesy. (Robert Aspland, “Mrs. Flower,” Monthly Repository 1810, p. 204)
The scandal surrounding Eliza reached all the way to Baron Fortescue of nearby Castle Hill, who, after criticizing her, received a sharply worded response from Eliza that Aspland believed “if it should ever see the light,” would “justify the highest eulogiums which her most partial friends have passed, or are passing, upon the qualities of her head and heart” (“Mrs. Flower” 204). “The alternative was placed before her,” Aspland continues,
of giving up the publication in question, or of forfeiting the support on which her school had mainly rested; she did not hesitate which to adopt; she scorned to seem to surrender a great principle; she knew that one concession on the score of principle would only prepare the way for the demand of other concessions; and she considered that by yielding to the present clamours, she should lose in real respectability even in the eyes of such as had raised them. (“Mrs. Flower” 204)
Despite the furor raised by her distribution of the Intelligencer, Eliza never questioned the appropriateness of her actions, even though many considered her guilty of violating the norms of femininity. She would later explain to Flower, “The small degree of persecution I have had the honor to experience, is doubly made up to me, & respecting the affair I am now perfectly at ease—confident that I acted from principles nor would I relinquish the satisfaction I feel, even for any advantage I might have derived, by yielding to the arbitrary injunctions of those Enemies of Truth ...” She also remained steadfast in her appreciation of Flower, whose “Friendship,” she adds, she would “always esteem,” a comment he never forgot.
Eliza had little choice but to close her school at the end of summer term, 1795. For a while, she and her family entertained thoughts of emigrating to Ireland, but, as she writes to Flower in February 1796, “the very unfavorable aspect of public affairs in Ireland, at the crisis when we held ourselves in readiness to depart, & the uncertainty which appear’d in regard to its termination, caused us to relinquish our plan.” Instead, Eliza spent the majority of the next six months (August 1795 through February or March 1796) living with her elderly friends, the Quartleys, at their country home, Stallenge Thorn, on the edge of the Devon border with Somerset. Before she settled at Stallenge Thorn, however, she spent some time in Bampton attempting to satisfy her father’s creditors in order “to secure to him his Liberty” and reunite her parents once again, traveling on “Horseback in the course of a fortnight, between 2 & 3 hundred miles” and severely damaging her health in the process. By the spring of 1796, Eliza had largely accomplished her mission, at the same time procuring employment for her two brothers and one of her sisters. Later that year, her parents would move south to Dodbrook, near Kingsbridge, Devon, where they would remain the rest of their lives. Though successful in her efforts to relieve the economic distress of her family, she nevertheless failed in her attempts to procure a new situation for herself, either as a governess or schoolmistress, for “disappointment succeeded disappointment.”
As her economic prospects dimmed, so did the romantic hopes she had placed in Feltham. At some point in 1795, most likely while employed in South Molton, Eliza had entered into an engagement with Feltham, who was about to receive a legacy of £500 from his benefactor, Joseph Haskins of Honiton, Devon. Feltham was to use the money to establish himself in some line of business, and hence, become eligible for marriage, a situation he planned to achieve by the spring of 1797. Even before Eliza returned to Bampton from her stay with the Quartleys, Feltham had begun to neglect her. When he visited her in February 1796, apparently stung by her criticism of his treatment of her, he suggested that she remove to London for an extended stay with some friends of his who had ample means to support her. Eliza, however, remained intent on providing for herself, thinking that she need only do this until Feltham established himself in business. In the fall of 1796, however, she acquiesced to his wishes and removed to London to live with the Ortons in Cow Lane, about the same time her parents moved to Dodbrook. Shortly thereafter, Feltham left for an extended walking tour with Haskins. Upon his return, he resided for a time at Salisbury, continuing to ignore Eliza. She was hopeful that he would use a portion of the legacy he had already received from Haskins to purchase a farm near Honiton, a move that would have enabled her to open another school for young girls, possibly in nearby Gittisham. Instead, Feltham, along with Haskins, embarked on yet another walking tour in the spring of 1797, this time encompassing much of the north of England and the Isle of Man, a venture which led to Feltham’s first book, A tour through the Island of Mann (1798). Before he left for his tour, Eliza informed him that she now wished unequivocally to end their relationship, a relationship that many of her friends, including Haskins, had come to view as unacceptable. Although “the Idea ... that a postponement is now thought necessary distresses my feelings to a degree your sensibility will conceive but I cannot describe,” she remained convinced, she tells a friend, that despite facing the poverty and drudgery of life as a governess once again, she possessed an intellectual “competency sufficient to subsist comfortably on independent of the world …” .
During her time with the Ortons, Eliza developed a close and lasting friendship with two other families in London: the Gurneys of Walworth and the Hawes of Spital Square. Rebecca Brodie Gurney (1747-1814), in many ways a surrogate mother to Eliza, was instrumental in founding both a Girls’ Charity School as well as a Maternity Society at Walworth, Southwark, serving as a model for Eliza’s benevolent work in Kempston, Cambridge, and Harlow. Her husband, Joseph (1744-1815), succeeded his father, Thomas Gurney, as shorthand writer for the Old Bailey in 1770 and later for the House of Commons. Joseph also operated a bookshop for many years, first at 39 Bell-yard and later at 54 Holborn, London. When the Gurneys moved from Stamford Hill to Walworth in the mid-1780s, they joined the Particular Baptist church at Maze Pond, Southwark, establishing themselves as one of the church’s leading families over the next three decades. Joseph’s sister, Martha Gurney (1733-1816), was also a bookseller (first at 14 Bell-yard and later at 128 Holborn), a member at Maze Pond, and, like her brother, an active political reformer. Between 1789 and 1802, she printed or sold thirty-three political pamphlets, including fourteen anti-slave trade pamphlets. She also collaborated with her brother in transcribing and printing twenty-five editions of state trials and other court proceedings between 1781 and 1813. Joseph and Rebecca Gurney had three children: John (1768-1845), Elizabeth (1770-1840), and William Brodie (1777-1855). Elizabeth (generally referred to as “Betsey”) never married; she became Eliza’s closest friend and appears frequently in the Flower Correspondence. W. B. Gurney followed in his father’s footsteps, eventually becoming one of the leading shorthand writers for Parliament and the Old Bailey. He also became a well-known Baptist layman, playing a key role in the formation of the Sunday School Union in 1803 as well as serving for many years as a member of the committee of the Religious Tract Society and as treasurer of both Stepney College (1828-44) and the Baptist Missionary Society (1835-55) (Salter, Some Particulars 102-11). The eldest son, John (later Sir John) Gurney, achieved considerable prominence as a defense attorney for several celebrated state trials of the 1790s, including the trials of Daniel Isaac Eaton, Thomas Hardy and John Horne Tooke (1794), as well as the conspiracy trial of the United Irishmen James O’Coigly, Arthur O’Connor, and John Binns (1798). He served for many years as a counselor for the King’s Bench until his appointment in 1832 as Baron of the Exchequer. Gurney would also serve as vice-chairman of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies from 1805 to 1816. During the 1790s, all three of the Gurney children, like Eliza Gould and Benjamin Flower, demonstrated a keen interest in radical politics.
In December 1797, John Gurney married Maria Hawes (1768-1849), daughter of Dr. William Hawes of London, a physician noted primarily for his pioneering work with the resuscitation of drowning victims and other causes of asphyxia—a preoccupation that led in 1774 to the founding of the Humane Society. John Feltham had previously introduced Eliza to the Hawes family through his sister Ann, who married Dr. Hawes’s son, Benjamin (1770-1860), a successful London soapboiler, in 1796. Another daughter, Sophia (1761-1828), married Russell Scott (1760-1834), pastor of the Unitarian meeting at High Street in Portsmouth from 1788 to 1834. The Scotts would later become close friends of the Flowers. Sophia’s sister, Harriet (d. 1822), like Eliza Gurney, never married; she too became a close friend of Eliza Gould. Dr. Hawes apparently remained in the Anglican church (a memorial tablet in his honor can be found in the church at St. Mary’s, Islington), but given the fact that two of his daughters married Dissenters and that he maintained close friendships with the Gurneys and the Flowers, it seems reasonable to assume that he was no stranger to Dissenting churches like Maze Pond or the Gravel Pit (Unitarian) congregation in nearby Hackney, where Richard Price and Joseph Priestley ministered in the late 1780s and early 1790s and where Flower’s friend, Robert Aspland, would later pastor. Though Eliza’s love for Feltham ended during her stay in London, her introduction to the Hawes family provided just compensation, for “it [was] thro the means of those friends,” she tells Feltham, “in the first instance that I am beloved with all but parental affection by one of the worthiest of women [Mrs. Gurney] & by all the family considered as an adopted branch of it.”
Eliza left the Ortons in the fall of 1797 and moved in with the Gurneys, remaining there until the fall of 1798, when she became governess for the Squire family in Kempston, near Bedford. She spent the next ten months teaching the Squire’s six children, establishing the Kempston Sunday school, and performing benevolent work for the poor of Kempston. Despite the Squire’s wealth, Eliza’s experience at Kempston House was anything but pleasant, as her letter to Rebecca Gurney reveals. While here, Eliza finally brought her disappointing relationship with Feltham to an end. Her lengthy letter of March 1799 provides a compelling account of her courtship with him, demonstrating, in the midst of her repeated attempts to achieve a union with Feltham, an even greater desire to protect her own integrity and a willingness, if necessary, to live the rest of her life in a solitary state, providing for her own subsistence, rather than enter into a marriage that would compromise her ideals. As she tells Flower shortly before her marriage, a “connection” with Feltham would have “doomed” her to “certain misery.” At the end of summer term 1799, the Gurneys invited Eliza to live with them once again, relieving her from the hardships she had endured during her year with the Squires. Now twenty-nine, with no prospects of employment or marriage, Eliza’s situation was not at all what she had envisioned when she became engaged to Feltham nearly four years earlier.
Feltham may have momentarily crushed her romantic dreams, but not her religious passion or her political idealism. Discovering that her former correspondent, Benjamin Flower, was in Newgate prison, only a short distance from Walworth, Eliza, at the request of the Gurneys, finally met the man whose newspaper had been the cause of her removal from South Molton and the loss of her livelihood in 1795. Flower’s initial meeting with Eliza resurrected in his mind the passion she had exhibited in her letters of 1795 and 1796, a passion that now found a warm reception in the heart of a lonely forty-four-year-old bachelor whose religious, political, and romantic ideals were so compatible with hers. Flower was completely enthralled with Eliza. A month after their first meeting in Newgate, he wrote to her, “Shall I attempt to describe my sensations? Shall I launch forth on—personal attractions—mental endowments—talents for conversation and epistolary writing—sensibility the most refined and the most useful—Piety the most sincere—Virtues of every class shining most resplendidly.”
During their four-month courtship, which became the “talk” of London (letter 30), they corresponded nearly seventy times, their letters reading much like an epistolary novel. They wrote about their past history, current and former acquaintances, the contemporary political scene, religious controversies, and before long, their deep affection for each other. Just prior to Flower’s release from Newgate in October 1799, Eliza left London for an extended visit with family and friends in Devon; this was partly on her doctor’s advice that country air would be beneficial to her lungs, weakened considerably during her year at Kempston. Though Flower’s letters reveal an overweening concern for Eliza’s health, he had sufficient reason, for the signs of consumption were already apparent by 1799. Having previously given up on finding love, he had no desire to lose what he had once thought he would never possess.
They married on 1 January 1800 and enjoyed a “companionate” marriage, to use Lawrence Stone’s phrase, for the next ten years in Cambridge and Harlow. Eliza assisted Benjamin in the work of the newspaper and in caring for their two daughters, Eliza (1803-46) and Sarah (1805-48), both of whom would have musical and literary careers of their own that received greater acclaim in their lifetimes than recognition granted to either of their parents. For the remainder of the 121 letters that passed between Eliza and Benjamin Flower, see Timothy Whelan, ed., Politics, Religion, and Romance: The Letters of Benjamin Flower and Eliza Gould Flower, 1794-1808 (Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 2008). For more on Benjamin Flower, see Timothy Whelan, “Radical Politics and Unitarian Piety: The Life and Career of Benjamin Flower, 1755-1829,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society 24 (2010): 221-253; see also Whelan, “Politics, Religion, and Romance: The Letters of Eliza Gould (1794-1802).” Wordsworth Circle 36 (2005): 85-109.